20,000 years ago expanding ice caps reveal land bridge across the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska.
People migrated across North America and down through Central and South America and developed many distinctive cultures and societies.
Some peoples turned from hunting and gathering to food production (maize, beans, squash, sunflowers, cassava) and developed sedentary communities.
Numerous Native American societies flourished perhaps as early as 14,000 years ago. Between 500 and 1500 several societies in the American southwest--the Mogollon, Hohokam, and the Anasazideveloped complex towns and small cities with trade networks, complex religious calendars, and adobe buildings. Societies in the Mississippi River valley also developed highly organized towns and small cities. However, in the Americas as a whole only Mexico and Peru developed complex civilizations that created large cities and managed vast empires.
MESOAMERICA (Central America, Mexico)
Extremely complex and sophisticated civilizations developed beginning with the Olmec and ending with Cortezs conquest of the Aztec.
The Olmec (1000 BC) are the mother culture of all of the Mesoamerican civilizations. They called themselves the Jaguar People. Evidence suggests that they were not a violent or warring civilization, although they, like most Mesoamerican civilizations, performed human sacrifice for religious purposes. They developed a great amount of wealth, impressive technical efficiency, and beautiful art. The Olmec are the first culture in Mesoamerica to develop a ruling class: priests ruled and merchants were held in high regard. This culture produced great stone buildings, pyramids, stone heads, and jade carvings. They laid the foundations for religion, art, architecture, ball games, mathematics, astronomy, calendars, and a hieroglyphic writing system for subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations. They built massive stone heads. Some think the heads represent West Africans.
Teotihuacan (200 AD) was a great city that attracted people, including specialized craftspeople, from all over Mexico. They built a magnificent pyramid. The population may have been as high as 125,000 and by 500 AD this was the worlds sixth largest city. No one yet knows just which Mesoamerican culture developed this great city.
The Maya (500 AD) developed an extremely complex civilization with great
Mayan cities (like Chichen Itza) with temples, palaces, and astronomical observatories.
They had an economy based on agriculture, craft specialization, and long-distance
trade. Mayan society was rigidly stratified (hierarchical), and like the Olmec,
they were ruled by priest-kings and had an elite class of merchants and craftsmen.
They developed very sophisticated mathematics, art, and architecture. No one
today knows for sure why this great civilization declined around 1000 AD.
The Toltec (1000 AD) were a war-like people who expanded rapidly throughout Mexico and beyond. At the top of their society was a warrior aristocracy which attained mythical proportions in the eyes of Central Americans long after the demise of their power. The Toltecs expanded the cult of Quetzalcoatl, the "Soveriegn Plumed Serpent," and created a mythology around the figure. In Toltec legend, Quetzalcoatl was the creator of humanity and a warrior-god that had been driven away, but would return some day.
The Aztec (1300) In 1325 they founded the town of Tenochtitlan
which is now the site modern-day Mexico City . In the 15th century these great
warriors and builders ruled the second largest empire in the Americas. In the
early 16th century Hernan Cortez led the Spanish conquest that devastated
the resistant Aztec and signaled Spains commitment to carving out a permanent
hold on the New World. With a force of 600, Cortez marshalled 50,000 disgruntled
Aztec neighbors and captured the Aztec leader, Monteczuma, and gained access
to trhe captial, Technoctitlan. Still conquest was not easy as the Aztec continued
SOUTH AMERICA (Peru)
Peru was the center of South American civilization. Recent findings suggest that Peru had great cities and civilizations as early as 2500 BC (at the same time of the other first civilizations on the planet: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Sudan, India, and China).
The Inca began to dominate the many societies in this region around 1000 AD.
They were an ancient people, but had been subject to other urban culture in the region throughout their early history. They began to expand their influence in the 12th century and by the early 16th century, they controlled more territory than any other people had done in American history. The empire consisted of over one million individuals, spanning a territory stretching from Ecuador to northern Chile. Conquered people were required to pay a labor tax to the state; with this labor tax, the Incas built an astonishing network of roads and terraced farmlands throughout the Andes.
The Inca cultivated corn and potatoes, and raised llama and alpaca for food and for labor. Of all the urbanized people of the Americas, the Incas were the most brilliant engineers. They performed amazing feats of fitting gigantic stones together and designed huge earth-drawings that still exist today. They built roads through the mountains with tunnels and bridges. They also built aqueducts to their cities as the Romans had. And of all ancient peoples, they were the most advanced in medicine and surgery. The language they spoke was Quechua which they imposed on all the peoples they conquered. Because of this, Quechua is still spoken among large numbers of Native Americans throughout the Andes. They had no writing system at all, but they kept records on various colored knotted cords.
At its height, the Inca civilization crashed into the European expansion. In 1521, Herman Cortés conquered the Aztecs in Mexico; this conquest inspired Francisco Pizzarro to invade the Incas in 1531. He only had two hundred soldiers, however, he convinced the ruler of the Inca, Atahualpa, to come to a conference. When Atahualpa arrived, Pizzarro kidnapped him and killed several hundred of his family and followers. Atahualpa tried to ransom himself, but Pizzarro tried to use him as a puppet ruler. When that failed, Pizzarro simply executed him in 1533. Over the next thirty years the Spanish struggled against various insurrections, but, with the help of native allies, they finally gained control of the Inca empire in the 1560's.