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National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City

National Museum of Anthropology

Charting the rise and fall of great civilizations


Roma, Condesa & Polanco
Mexico City


The Story of Pre-Columbian Mexico

Mexico’s largest and most visited museum tells the story of the rise and fall of the great civilizations that inhabited this region of the Americas before the Spanish conquest. It provides a comprehensive history of these lands, broken down chronologically and geographically.

The story begins with the arrival of first humans over 30,000 years ago, before focusing on the Central Highlands region that surrounds present-day Mexico City. Here, powerful dynasties including Teotihuacán, the Toltecs and the Aztecs (Mexica) built great political and economic powerbases over the centuries.

The collection then covers other regions of Mexico in geographic order. The great civilizations of the Maya, Olmecs and Zapotecs are on display, along with the indigenous groups of more remote regions in the north and west.

Finally, the upper floor of the museum explores the lives of Mexico’s indigenous peoples after the Spanish conquest, providing an insight into the communities that live across the country to this day.

Aztec Sun Stone, on display in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
The Aztec Sun Stone, an intricate work of art discovered buried under the Zocalo in 1790

A Remarkable Archaeological Collection

Some of the most remarkable pre-Columbian sculptures uncovered anywhere in the Americas are on display in this museum.

The collection dedicated to the Aztecs (Mexica) is perhaps the museum’s most impressive. The Sun Stone is emblematic of Aztec culture and artistry. This 12-foot wide carving is covered in iconography and symbols of Aztec cosmology. There is a giant sacrificial stone, the Stone of Tízoc, and an intricately carved sculpture of the god Coatlicue, as well as many smaller pieces of art devoted to the Aztec gods.

The collections dedicated to the earlier civilizations that ruled the Central Highlands are also impressive. The Toltec exhibit features an iconic Atlante sculpture, a dramatic 15-foot tall statue of a warrior. There are also masks and obsidian carvings recovered from the ruins of Teotihuacán.

From Mexico’s regions, the Olmec artifacts from the Gulf Coast are remarkable for their age, with giant sculptures and jade carvings that are around 3,000 years old. The Maya culture is fascinating, particularly the life-size recreation of the tomb of Pakal the Great. And Oaxaca’s Mixtec codices convey the richness of indigenous Mexico’s history, art, and mythology.

Mask from Malinaltepec, Guerrero, on display in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
This mask from Malinaltepec, Guerrero, features an intricate mosaic of shell, pearl and obsidian

Guided Tour

Rooms 1 & 2: Introduction to Anthropology

The museum opens with an introduction to anthropology and the arrival of humanity in the Americas, setting the scene for the rise and fall of great civilizations charted in the rooms that follow.

These rooms tell the story of the early evolution of human beings, their arrival in the Americas across the frozen north and their journey southwards to populate the continent. It explains how the development of agriculture enabled the rapid growth of the human population.

Exhibits include some of the oldest archaeological discoveries in the Americas, with sculptures and spear tips dating back to the prehistoric period.

Room 3: The Pre-Classic Period

The museum’s focus moves on to the Central Highlands. This region is centered on Mexico City, encompassing the present-day states of Puebla, Morelos, Tlaxcala, the State of Mexico and the south of Hidalgo.

Bordered by the Sierra Madre mountain ranges to the east and west, and a range of volcanic mountains to the south, this was a highly populated region from where powerful societies would build a political and economic sphere of influence across Mesoamerica.

During the Preclassic period (around 2,300 BC to 100 AD), the development of agriculture transformed the region from a nomadic hunter-gatherer society to one of settled, sedentary communities. Room 3 charts how society progressed over this period.

Ceramic production flourished and the room is filled with artifacts from this time. Villages were established and architecture developed with the construction of temples, ceremonial centers, and ball courts.

Religion became institutionalized, centered around gods and priests rather than shamans. A large reproduction in the room of a typical home with a burial site underneath demonstrates how sophisticated religious rituals began to emerge during this period.

Room 4: Teotihuacan

Mesoamerica’s earliest great city, Teotihuacán, emerged in the first century AD to become a political and economic powerhouse. This room explores the growth of this remarkable society which prospered for centuries until a dramatic decline around 750 AD.

With an economy based around the mining and production of obsidian goods and pottery, Teotihuacán became the center of a trading network that spanned Mesoamerica. Its economic might and importance as a religious center led to the construction of the giant pyramids of the Sun and Moon, the ruins of which can be seen today just an hour’s drive from Mexico City.

This room is filled with artifacts retrieved from the ruins of Teotihuacán, including ceramics, masks and objects made from obsidian. The most striking object, the Disk of Mictlantecutli, was most likely left by the Aztecs centuries later, for whom Teotihuacán held great spiritual importance as the site of the creation of the Fifth Sun.

Several large reproductions showcase the fine artistry in the design of the pyramids, and in the gardens outside, a large model maps out the geography of the city.

Disk of Miclantecutli, from Teotihuacan, on display in the National Museum of Anthropology
The most striking sculpture discovered in Teotihuacán, the disk of Mictlantecutli, was in fact brought to the Pyramid of the Sun on a pilgrimage by the Aztecs

Room 5: The Toltecs

The demise of Teotihuacán left a power vacuum across central Mexico. Over the following centuries, various smaller city-states would compete to takeover Teotihuacán’s lucrative trade routes.

This period, known as the Epiclassic (650 – 900 AD), was a time of conflict and political instability within heavily fortified urban centers. No city-state would gain regional hegemony until the Toltecs, a highly militaristic society, rose to power in the Early Postclassic period (900 – 1250 AD).

This room’s highlight is the central hall dedicated to the Toltecs. It is filled with giant statues and smaller artefacts recovered from their capital Tula, in Hidalgo. The Toltecs rose to power at a time of conflict and were an extremely militarized society. Many of the statues and artifacts are linked to warfare, seen most prominently in the imposing 15-foot high Atlante statue that depicts an idealized Toltec warrior.

This room also explores the smaller city-states that battled for dominance in the Epiclassic period prior to the rise of the Toltecs. These include Xochicalco, Cacaxtla-Xochitecatl and Cantona.

Similarly, it ends with two city-states that prospered in the Postclassic period after the Toltec’s demise: Cholula and Teotenango.

Toltec warrior stone, on display in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Stone sculptures depicting warriors recovered from the Toltec capital, Tula, a highly militaristic society

Room 6: The Aztecs (Mexica)

The museum’s central hall is dedicated to the Aztecs, who are referred to throughout the museum as the Mexica (a more accurate but less widely recognized name).

The Aztecs built their capital, Tenochtitlan, on the same land that Mexico City’s Centro Histórico occupies today. This imperial society built a political and economic powerbase that dominated vast swathes of Mesoamerica throughout the Late Postclassic period, until the Spanish conquistadors defeated the Aztec Empire at the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521.

This immense collection contains a wealth of archaeological findings. The room tells the story of the Aztecs arrival in the Valley of Mexico and explains how earlier Mesoamerican cultures influenced and legitimized their empire. It recreates their capital Tenochtitlan and the trading market at Tlatelolco, both of which left the conquistadors in awe. There are sculptures of the Aztec gods that held special significance to their society: those related to agriculture (rain, maize, weather and seasons), the creation myth, as well as warfare.

The center of the room is filled with some of the most remarkable artifacts in the museum, including the vast circular Sun Stone (Piedra del Sol), the Stone of Tízoc, and a large statue of Coatlicue, the mother-goddess of the earth and fertility.

Aztec sculpture of Coatlicue, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
A vast sculpture of Coatlicue, mother-goddess of the earth and fertility, discovered buried beneath the Centro Histórico in 1790

Room 7: Oaxaca

The museum now covers Mexico’s regions, organized geographically rather than chronologically. It begins with Oaxaca’s rich history, where two cultures were dominant: the Zapotecs and Mixtecs.

The room explores the great Zapotec city of Monte Alban. Founded around 500 BC, the city grew as the Zapotecs expanded their sphere of influence through conquests and alliances across the central Oaxaca valleys.

Monte Alban reached its peak in the Late Classic Period, before its decline began around 800 A.D, perhaps caused by drought or conflict. A model and mural illustrate the city at its peak, framed by the natural beauty of Oaxaca’s highlands. Intricate artistry is visible in the collection of artifacts that cover each stage of Monte Alban’s long history.

The room moves on to cover the Mixtec culture. In the Postclassic period following the fall of Monte Alban, the Mixtecs subjugated the remaining Zapotec strongholds and built a territory that stretched across western Oaxaca.

The Mixtecs produced remarkable codices, with hieroglyphic and pictographic imagery recounting historical and mythical stories. Several of these codices are on display along with other feats of Mixtec art.

Mixtec hummingbird cup from Oaxaca, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
This cup with a hummingbird carving on top shows the fine artistry of the Mixtecs in Oaxaca

Room 8: The Gulf Coast

The Gulf Coast region stretches down the country’s east coast, from Tamaulipas in the north to Tabasco in the south. This diverse region reaches inland to cover mountains, rainforest and semi-desert regions at different latitudes.

This region was once home to the first civilization to emerge in Mesoamerica: the Olmecs. As early as the Preclassic Era, around 1,800 – 200 BC, the Olmecs had developed a sophisticated society, with towns, ceremonial centers and organized religion that were remarkably advanced for this era.

This room is filled with Olmec sculptures and other works of art that are distinguished by their age. There are several large stone sculptures, including a colossal head which dates from 1,200 – 600 BC. Equally impressive is the set of intricate jade carvings used in religious rituals and ceremonies, also around 3,000 years old.

Several distinct cultures descended from the Olmecs, and the room covers these through the Classic and Postclassic eras. The region became a crossroads for cultures, goods and trade. This is evident in the varied archeological collection recovered from sites across the Gulf Coast, with a focus on the major settlements of El Tajín, Tres Zapotes and Cerro de las Mesas.

Olmec colossal head, from the Gulf Coast, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
An Olmec colossal head from Veracruz, sculpted from a giant boulder around 1200 - 600 B.C

Room 9: The Maya

The Maya are a fascinating culture, admired for their ancient cities, artistic wonders, and an understanding of astrology and mathematics that led to the development of a remarkable calendar system.

This society of warriors conquered a territory spanning southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and pockets of Honduras and El Salvador.

This room offers a tour of Mayan culture, from the very earliest discoveries in the Preclassic period, through the culture’s peak in the Classic era (300 – 900 AD), ending with the great cities that ruled in the Postclassic age: Chichén Itzá, Tulum and Mayapán.

There are many findings recovered from the great Mayan sites, including large lintel carvings, sculptures of the gods and a chac-mool, as well as smaller offerings made from mosaic, gold and metal.

Downstairs, the display introduces the underworld and burial rituals. There is a large recreation of the tomb of Pakal the Great, ruler of Palenque for 68 years in the 7th century, which was uncovered in the ruins of the Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque, Chiapas.

Outside, there are impressive recreations of Mayan buildings, including the Temple of the Murals in Bonampak, Chiapas, and the Main Palace at Hochob, Campeche.

Maya Stele 18 of Yaxchilan, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Stela 18, one of a series of hieroglyphic texts and illustrations carved into stone slabs by the Mayans, discovered in Yaxchilan, Chiapas

Room 10: The West

Mexico’s western region spans the west coast states from Sinaloa to Guerrero, reaching inland far enough to cover portions of Guanajuato.

During the Classic period (around 200 BC – 600 AD), the cultures of the West were known for their sophisticated burial rituals in the use of shaft tombs. This room includes a life-size reproduction of a shaft tomb chamber, where the deceased can be seen surrounded by offerings.

The West’s most significant cultures are covered in detail. The Chupícuaro culture developed around 400 BC – 200 AD. Their influence spread across Western Mexico as far as the present-day Southwest United States.

And in the Late Postclassic period, the Tarascans built a powerful empire centered on Michoacán where, through fortified settlements and revered warriors, they managed to resist conquer by the Aztecs.

This room showcases the unique artistic styles of the West’s cultures. Highlights include elaborate ornaments, collars and bracelets created from conch and other shells.

The influence of other cultures can also be seen. Intricate mosaics of a style associated with Teotihuacán can be seen in a mask recovered from Malinaltepec, Guerrero, a state with much closer ties to the Central Highlands.

Shell mask from El Piñón, Jalisco, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
A mask made from seashells, placed over a man's face during burial, one of many sophisticated funerary rituals practiced at El Piñón, Jalisco.

Room 11: The North

Mexico’s north is an expansive and diverse region covered by semi-desert plains as well as more fertile landscapes.

The semi-desert regions, like Baja California, had extreme and inhospitable landscapes that were populated with semi-nomadic communities up until the time of the Spanish conquest.

This room begins exploring the lives of the desert inhabitants of the far north. Life-size reproductions show two caves: the Painted Cave, a ceremonial center and example of cave art discovered in Baja California; and the Candelaria Cave, used as a mausoleum in the state of Coahuila. The display showcases many tools and ornaments used by the nomadic people of these desert regions.

Other parts of the north benefitted from a more favorable climate and relatively fertile lands. Here, a semi-settled lifestyle could emerge with agriculture, towns and trade networks, although these never developed to the same extent as the Central Highlands.

The room contains archeological collections from a number of these smaller cultures and settlements. There is a large section on the region’s most significant urban center, Paquimé in Chihuahua, the main site of the Mogollon Culture.

Finally, the room explores the populations that permeated the Southwest USA: the Hohokam and Anasazi cultures.

Upper Floor: Ethnography Halls

The museum’s upper floor focuses on the experience of Mexico’s indigenous communities since the time of the Spanish conquest. It examines how these cultures have survived and developed, and how they continue to be practiced in Mexico to this day.

The first room explains how Mesoamerican civilization was gradually transformed by the arrival of Europeans, as well as African and Asian populations, creating the mestizo nation of today. Displays focus on how indigenous cultures, social structures and systems of government fused over time with the colonial state.

Although modern Mexico is a blend of indigenous, Spanish and other cultures, there remains a diverse range of indigenous communities living across the country. Their culture maintains links to their pre-Columbian ancestors, whether through their language, worldview, community structure, festivals, clothing or food.

The other rooms on this floor focus on some of these groups, or cover the regions where indigenous people remain most prevalent. There are rooms covering the communities of the Gran Nayar, Purépecha, Otopame and the Nahua. Others cover the various groups that live within a specific region: the Sierra de Puebla, Oaxaca, the Gulf Coast, the Northwest, and the Maya highland and coastal regions.


Planning Your Visit

The National Museum of Anthropology is extremely large, with 22 rooms spread across two floors. Exploring the entire museum in detail will take a full day, but a half-day visit is more than sufficient to appreciate the museum’s highlights.

The museum’s ground floor is focused on pre-Columbian history, covering Mexico’s indigenous cultures prior to the Spanish conquest that began in 1519. This floor should be the focus of any visit, as it is filled with a world-renowned collection of ancient works of art and artifacts. The upper floor examines how Mexico’s indigenous peoples have fared during the colonial and post-colonial periods, giving an insight on the cultures that survive to this day.

The building of the museum itself is an architectural wonder, and it is worth taking a break in the expansive central courtyard. There is a cafe and restaurant to be found down the stairs next to Room 11.

The museum is close to Chapultepec Park, home to Chapultepec Castle where several key events in Mexico’s post-colonial history unfolded. Two renowned art galleries are next door to the museum: the Museum of Modern Art and the Tamayo Museum of Contemporary Art. The upmarket residential district of Polanco is a short walk away to the north-west; or head south-east to the grand Avenida Paseo de la Reforma, from where the picturesque Roma and Condesa neighborhoods are easily accessible.

Last Updated: February 1, 2024
First Published: November 29, 2023