Chapter 11: The Americas to 1492

American civilizations followed the same developmental sequences as the civilizations in Eurasia and Africa that we have already studied. American civilizations attained a high level of complexity--cultural, political, economic, and technological.
The people who first populated the Americas began to arrive on the North American continent around 30,000 BCE from Asia. Nomadic migrations led them to cross from Asia to Alaska via a land bridge across the Bering Straights. This land bridge was submerged under the ocean when ice from the ice age melted and increased sea levels. In the Americas these migrants, originally from Asia, split into hundreds of ethnic and linguistic groups over time. Descendants of these migrants reached Mexico about 20,000 years ago and Peru about 7,000 years ago.


Mesoamerica refers to Mexico and Central America—meso means middle and Mesoamerica refers to the land that is between North and South America.


I) Foundations of Mesoamerican Civilization 1200 BC – 150 AD

Olmec Civilization: 1200 BCE (BC) – 600 CE (AD)
The Olmecs were the first civilization that developed in Mexico beginning arond 1200 BCE near Vera Cruz (in the southeast of Mexico). They are thought to be the mother culture of all of the following Mesoamerican civilizations. The 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 Olmecs were the first culture in the Americans 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 (subsequent means following) Mesoamerican civilizations.

Olmec writing was unique, yet the some scholars argue that the signs are similar to the writing used by the Vai people of West Africa and that the Olmec’s language was similar to the Mandingo (Malinke-Bambara) language spoken in West Africa.

In 1862 a colossal stone head was discovered in the state of Veracruz along the Gulf Coast of Mexico. In the years to come, artifacts from the culture that would be termed Olmec turned up at widespread sites in Mexico and adjacent Central America. It is believed that the colossal heads glorified the rulers while they were alive, and commemorated them as revered ancestors after their death. Other megalithic heads were discovered in the intervening years, all with African facial features. some believe this suggests that the founders or leaders of Olmec civilization came directly from Africa. Other suggest that since many original populations of countries like Cambodia and the Philippines have similar characteristic, they might have been brought along when the first humans entered the Americas from Asia.


II) Mesoamerica’s Classical Age 300 – 900

Teotihuacan: 200 BCE (BC) – 700 CE (AD)
Teotihuacan was a great city in present day Oaxaca that began to develop around the time of Christ. By 200 CE (AD) the city was attracting people, including specialized craftspeople, from all over Mexico, They built a magnificent pyramid. The population was as high as 125,000 and by 500 this was the world’s sixth largest city. No one yet knows just which Mesoamerican ethnic group or culture developed this great city.

Mayan Civilization
The Mayan people of the Yucatan and Guatemala developed an extremely complex civilization during the “classical period” of Mesoamerican history (300-900). Mayan cities had 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 Olmecs, they were ruled by priest-kings and had an elite class of merchants and craftsmen. They developed very sophisticated mathematics, art, and architecture.


III) Mesoamerica’s Postclassical Age 900-1500

Widespread upheavals ended classical Mesoamerican civilization around 900. The causes are not fully understood but may include overpopulation, internal conflicts, and barbarian invasions. The great city of Teotihuacán was conquered by northern tribes in 700 AD and began to rapidly decline in its influence over the Mexican peoples. For two hundred years following the decline of Teotihuacán, the region had no centralized culture or political control. Beginning around 950, a culture based in northern Mexico began to dominate Central America. These people were known as the Toltecs.

Toltec Civilization 950 -1200
The Toltecs were a war-like people who expanded rapidly throughout Mexico, Guatemala, and the Yucatán peninsula. 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. Around 1200, their dominance over the region faded. The Toltecs conquered large areas controlled by the Maya and settled in these areas; they migrated as far south as the Yucatán peninsula. The culture borne out of this fusion is called the Toltec-Maya, and its greatest center was Chichén Itzá— on the very tip of the Yucatan peninsula. Chichén Itzá was the last great center of Mayan civilization. The Toltec-Maya cultures greatly expanded the cultural diffusion of Mayan thought, religion, and art north into the Valley of Mexico.

The Toltecs were important as transmitters of the culture of Teotihuacán, including religion, architecture, and social structure. Their name, in fact, is not a tribal name (the original Toltec tribal names have been lost to us); the word, toltecatl , simply means "craftsman" in the Nahua languages. Toltec was simply the word used to distinguish the Mexican peoples which retained the urban characteristics of the culture of Teotihuacán from other peoples; even the Aztecs primarily referred to themselves by either their tribal name (Tenochca) or as "Toltecs."

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 from Tula, but would return some day. The Toltecs also may have originated the Central American ball-game played on a large stone court with a rubber ball. The game was primarily a religious ritual celebrating the victory of god-heroes over the gods of death; as a religious ritual, it involved the human sacrifice of the loser.

Aztec Civilization 1100-1500
The Aztecs were the native American people who dominated northern México at the time of the Spanish conquest led by Hernan Cortez in the early 16th century. According to their own legends, they originated from a place called Aztlan, somewhere in north or northwest Mexico. At that time the Aztecs (who referred to themselves as the Mexica or Tenochca) were a small, nomadic, Nahuatl-speaking aggregation of tribal peoples living on the margins of civilized Mesoamerica. Sometime in the 12th century they embarked on a period of wandering and in the 13th century settled in the central basin of México. Continually dislodged by the small city-states that fought one another in shifting alliances, the Aztecs finally found refuge on small islands in Lake Texcoco where, in 1325, they founded the town of Tenochtitlan--modern-day Mexico City.

Fearless warriors and pragmatic builders, the Aztecs created an empire during the 15th century that was surpassed in size in the Americas only by that of the Incas in Peru (see below). They developed a highly specialized and stratified society and an imperial administration, trading networks and a tribute system, sophisticated agricultural economy, and an intellectual and religious outlook that held society to be an integral part of the cosmos. The yearly round of rites and ceremonies in the cities of Tenochtitlan and neighboring Tetzcoco, and their symbolic art and architecture, gave expression to an ancient awareness of the interdependence of nature and humanity.


SOUTH AMERICA—Peru, Ecuador, and Chile

Incan Civilization 1100-1500
The Incas were a distinct people with a distinct language living in a highland center, Cuzco (in present day Peru). 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 South American history. The empire consisted of over one million individuals, spanning a territory stretching from Ecuador to northern Chile.

Unlike the military empires (like the Toltecs) in Central America, the Incas ruled by proxy. After conquering a people, they would incorporate local rulers into their imperial system, generously reward anyone who fought for them, and treated well all those conquered people who cooperated. So, in reality, the Inca "empire," as the invading Spanish called it, was not really an empire. It was more of a confederation of tribes with a single people, the Incas, more or less in control. Each of these tribes was ruled independently by a council of elders; the tribe as a whole gave its allegiance to the ruler, or "Inca." The "Inca" was divine; he was the descendant of the sun-god.

The social structure of the Incas was extremely inflexible. At the top was the Inca who exercised, theoretically, absolute power. Below the Inca was the royal family which consisted of the Inca's immediate family, concubines, and all his children. This royal family was a ruling aristocracy. Each tribe had tribal heads; each clan in each tribe had clan heads. At the very bottom were the common people who were all grouped in squads of ten people each with a single "boss." The social unit, then, was primarily based on cooperation and communality. This guaranteed that there would always be enough for everyone; but the centralization of authority meant that there was no chance of individual advancement (which was not valued). It also meant that the system depended too much on the centralized authority; once the invading Spanish seized the Inca and the ruling family, they were able to conquer the Inca territories with lightening speed. 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.

Agriculture was tough business in the Andes. The Incas actively set about carving up mountains into terraced farmlands—so successful were they in turning steep mountainsides into terraced farms, that in 1500 there was more land in cultivation in the Andean highlands then there is today. The Incas 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. But the Inca built massive forts with stone slabs so perfectly cut that they didn't require mortar (like the architecture of Great Zimbabwe)—and they still stand today in near-perfect condition. They built roads through the mountains from Ecuador to Chile 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.

The central god of the Incan religion was the sun-god, the only god that had temples built for him. The sun-god was the father of the royal family. There were many gods among the Incas, but the sun-god outshone them all. The Incas also believed that there was a heaven, a hell, and a resurrection of the body after death.
At its height, the Inca civilization crashed into the European expansion. In 1521, Herman Cortés conquered the Aztecs; this conquest inspired Francisco Pizzarro to invade the Incas in 1531. He only had two hundred soldiers, however, he convinced the ruler of the Incas, Atahualpa, to come to a conference at the city of Cajamarca. 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.



The information above comes from Richard Hooker’s World Civilizations website that is linked to the web syllabus, the website, and Brummett, et. al. Civilization Past and Present.