It's thought that the first people to inhabit Mexico arrived 20,000 years before Columbus. Their descendants built a succession of highly developed civilizations that flourished from 1200 BC to 1521 AD. The first ancestral civilization to arise was that of the Olmecs (1200-600 BC), in the humid lowlands of southern Veracruz and Tabasco. By 300 BC they were joined by the Zapotecs of Oaxaca, and the temple center of Izapa (200 BC to 200 AD). By 250 AD the Maya were building stepped temple pyramids in the Yucatán Peninsula. Central Mexico's first great civilization flourished at Teotihuacán between 250 and 600 AD, to be followed by the Toltecs at Xochicalco and Tula. The Aztecs were successors to this string of empires, settling at Tenochtitlán in the early 14th century.
Almost 3000 years of civilization was shattered in just two short years, following the landing by Hernán Cortés near modern-day Veracruz on April 21, 1519. Primary sources suggest that the Aztecs were initially accommodating because, according to their calendar, the year 1519 promised the god Quetzalcóatl's return from the east. The Spaniards met their first allies in towns that resented Aztec domination. With 6000 local recruits, they approached the Aztecs' island capital of Tenochtitlán - a city bigger than any in Spain. King Moctezuma II invited the party into his palace and the Spaniards promptly took him hostage. By August 13, 1521, Aztec resistance had ended. The position of the conquered peoples deteriorated rapidly, not only because of harsh treatment at the hands of the colonists but also due to introduced diseases. The indigenous population fell from an estimated 25 million at the time of conquest to one million by 1605.
From the 16th to 19th centuries, a sort of apartheid system existed in Mexico. Spanish-born colonists were a minuscule part of the population but were considered nobility in New Spain (as Mexico was then called), however humble their prior status in Spain. By the 18th century,
Twenty-two years of chronic instability followed independence: the presidency changed hands 36 times. In 1845, the US congress voted to annex Texas, leading to the Mexican-American War in which US troops captured Mexico City. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), Mexico ceded Texas, California, Utah, Colorado and most of New Mexico and Arizona to the USA. The Maya rose up against their criollo overlords in the late 1840s and almost succeeded in driving them off the Yucatán Peninsula. By 1862, Mexico was heavily in debt to Britain, France and Spain, who sent a joint force to Mexico to collect their debts. France decided to go one step further and colonize Mexico, sparking yet another war. In 1864, France invited the Austrian archduke, Maximilian of Hapsburg, to become emperor of Mexico but his reign was bloodily ended by forces loyal to the country's former president, Benito Juárez, a Zapotec from Oaxaca.
With the slogan 'order and progress,' dictator Porfirio Díaz (ruled 1878-1911) piloted Mexico into the industrial age and steered clear of the warfare that had plagued the country for over 60 years. But peace came at a cost: political opposition, free elections and a free press were banned, and control was maintained by a ruthless army. Widespread dissatisfaction with Díaz's rule led to strikes that prefigured the Mexican Revolution.
The revolution (1910-20) was a 10-year period of shifting allegiances between a spectrum of leaders, in which successive attempts to create stable governments were wrecked by new skirmishes. The basic ideological rift was between liberal reformers and more radical leaders, such as Emiliano Zapata, who were fighting for the transfer of hacienda land to the peasants. The 10 years of violent civil war cost an estimated 1.5 to two million lives - roughly one in eight Mexicans. After the revolution, political will was focused on rebuilding the national infrastructure. Precursors of today's Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI) took power in 1934, introducing a program of reform and land redistribution.
Civil unrest next appeared in 1966, when university students in Mexico City expressed their outrage with the conservative Díaz Ordaz administration. Discontent with single-party rule, restricted freedom of speech and excessive government spending came to a head in 1968 in the run-up to the Mexico City Olympic Games, and protesters were massacred by armed troops.
The oil boom of the late 1970s increased Mexico's oil revenues and financed industrial and agricultural investments, but the oil glut in the mid 1980s deflated petroleum prices and led to Mexico's worst recession in decades. The economic downturn also saw an increase in organized political dissent on both the left and right. The massive earthquake of September 1985 caused more than US$4 billion in damage. At least 10,000 people died, hundreds of buildings in Mexico City were destroyed and thousands of people were made homeless.
President Carlos Salinas de Gortari began his term in 1988 after very controversial elections. He gained popular support by renegotiating Mexico's crippling national debt and bringing rising inflation under control. A sweeping privatization program and a burgeoning international finance market led to Mexico being heralded in the international press as an exemplar of free-market economics. The apex of Salinas' economic reform was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), effective January 1, 1994.
Fears that NAFTA would increase the marginalization of indigenous Mexicans led to the Zapatista uprising in the southernmost state of Chiapas. The day NAFTA took effect, a huge army of unarmed peasants calling themselves the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) shocked Mexico by taking over the state capital of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Their demands focused on improved social and economic justice. The EZLN were driven out of town within a few days, but the uprising struck a chord among all those who felt that the gap betweeen rich and poor was widening under Salinas and the NAFTA agreement. Today, the Zapatista movement (and the US government-sponsored, low-intensity warfare campaign) continues, and the rebels' leader, a balaclava-clad figure known only as Subcomandante Marcos, is now a national folk hero.
In March 1994, Luis Donaldo Colósio, Salinas' chosen successor, was assassinated. His replacement, 43-year-old Ernesto Zedillo, was elected with 50% of the vote. Within days of President Zedillo's taking office, Mexico's currency, the peso, suddenly collapsed, bringing on a rapid and deep economic recession. Among other things, it led to a huge increase in crime, intensified discontent with the PRI and caused large-scale Mexican immigration to the US. It's estimated that by 1997 more than 2.5 million Mexicans a year were entering the US illegally. Zedillo's policies pulled Mexico gradually out of recession. Despite a hiccup caused by international economic factors in 1998, by the end of his term in 2000, Mexicans' purchasing power was again approaching 1994 levels.
In the freest and fairest national election since the Mexican Revolution, National Action Party (PAN) presidential candidate and former Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox beat Zedillo's hand-picked successor, PRI candidate Francisco Labastida. The July 2, 2000, elections ended the PRI's 71-year reign, but it remains the chief opposition party. President Fox has sought to emphasize Mexico's role as a world player, and has strongly supported the US since the events of 9/11/01; security has been tightened on the nothern border. Meanwhile, rumours of government corruption are once again on the increase, the activities of the country's notorious drug cartels continue to make headlines and the soaring crime rate is tainting Mexico's much-vaunted holiday image.