Much is unclear about the settlement of the Americas. The largest wave of migration from Siberia to Alaska probably took place about 13000 BCE. But small numbers of migrants likely crossed the Bering land bridge earlier, and it is also possible that some migrants reached the west coast of the Americas by watercraft - sailing or drifting with the currents. These more controversial theories are backed by several archeological excavations that have been origins older than 15000 BCE. When fact that many of the oldest sites are found in South America is combined with the genetic differences between South American and North American indigenous populations, it is increasingly suggested that at least a few human groups made their way to the Americas before the beginning of large scale migration from Siberia. And that these groups may have settled South America first, only for later groups to fill in North America. In any case, after 13000 BCE, migrants arrived in large numbers and quickly populated all habitable regions of the western hemisphere.
The earliest human inhabitants of the Americas lived exclusively by hunting and gathering. The American climate finally stabilized by 8000 BCE – to conditions similar to today. This led to population growth and widespread migration. Large game animals became scarce, and it became increasingly difficult for them to survive by foraging. Subsequent cultivation over the next thousand years led several indigenous American groups to domesticate and bred a large array of plant species. Some cultures adapted by supplementing their diets with fish or small game, trade, or small patches of cultivation. Others turned more fully agriculture giving rise to the first complex societies in the Americas – centered in the Andes Mountains of South America and Mesoamerica.
In South America, migrating peoples found both the mountainous highlands and the neighboring coastal, lowlands hospitable with a cool moist climate. This environment of western South America yielded natural harvests of squashes, gourds, and wild potatoes as well as deer, llama, and alpaca for hunting. Around 8000 BCE, pressure on natural food supplies led human communities to experiment with agriculture. The earliest cultivators of the region relied on beans, peanuts, and squashes as their main food crops. Geography conspired against the diffusion of these practices as communication between valleys divided by the Andes Mountains made communication and travel difficult. Nevertheless, agriculture encouraged the growth of population, the establishment of villages, and the elaboration of cultural traditions. In particular, the rich marine life of the Pacific Ocean supplemented agricultural harvests, first enabling coastal peoples to build complex societies. In time, a few highland Andean societies sometimes overcame the difficulties and spread their influence throughout the highlands, valleys, and coastal areas.
Norte Chico (Caral)
The oldest known civilization in the Americas emerged on the coast of present-day Peru around 3000 BCE; it is known as Norte Chico, or Caral in Peru. A complex society of 30 major population centers, Norte Chico arose a half-millennium after Mesopotamia and was contemporaneous with the Egyptian pyramids. Similar to the other early civilizations, Norte Chico built monumental architecture (in this case, earthen mounds and sunken circular plazas) as well as storage warehouses. In both cases, it suggests that Norte Chico had elites or authorities with the power to mobilize the population and control vital resources. Historians and archeologists theorize that the government was theocratic due to evidence of feasting at sites but lacking the human sacrifices typically associated with indigenous societies in South America.
Despite the similarities with other cradles of civilization, Norte Chico was unique for two reasons. In contrast to other known original civilizations, Norte Chico was not based on the farming of a cereal grain. Also, Norte Chico is considered a pre-ceramic culture, in archeological terms. These had several dramatic effects. In particular, the most important agricultural product was cotton. Without grain surpluses to sustain the population or ceramics to act as basis for clay tablets, cotton textiles were pivotal in nearly every aspect of society. Cotton was the used to create fishing nets, which provided vast amounts of seafood, combined with squashes, which comprised much of the Norte Chico diet. The interrelationship between cotton and fishing likely created a trade network thought to explain the region’s urbanization and rise of government authority. Additionally, the cotton was used to form a knotted record-keeping system, known as quipu.
Persisting until 2000 BCE, Norte Chico is thought to be the mother civilization of all the later Quechua cultures to inhabit Peru by establishing agricultural crops, religious symbols, government forms, and record-keeping systems that are repeated adopted until the arrival of Europeans.
Despite the seeming importance of Norte Chico, scholarship on the society is still very new, so many consider the Chavin to be the first civilization of South America. The complexities of farming in the rugged Andes Mountains probably led a delay in settlement; however, with the domestication of the potato in 2000 BCE, agricultural communities soon appeared in the more remote highland areas as well. By 1500 BCE, corn from Mesoamerica had also diffused to the region. Accompanying these agricultural gains, peoples in the Andean region had begun to fashion many distinctive styles of pottery and to build temples in large ceremonial centers. These additional signs of civilization are often called the Chavin culture because there is no evidence of fortresses or armies that might suggest the existence of a kingdom.
The Chavin religious cult was the basis of this new Andean society and enjoyed enormous popularity. It is believed that the increased capacity of agriculture to support large populations might well have served as the stimulus for the emergence of a cult designed to promote fertility and abundant harvests. In any case, the spread of large temple complexes and elaborate works of art that spread throughout present-day Peru demonstrate the religion’s importance. Devotees produced intricate carvings representing their deities with the features of humans and wild animals such as jaguars, eagles, and snakes. The extensive distribution of the temples and carvings shows that the Chavin cult seized the imagination of agricultural peoples throughout the central Andes until its eventual decline in 300 BCE.
During the era of the Chavin cult, Andean society became increasingly complex. Adding to intricate cotton textiles and fishnets, craftsmen experimented with minerals and discovered techniques of gold, silver, and copper metallurgy. They mostly fashioned metal into pieces of jewelry but also made small tools out of copper. There is no evidence to suggest that Chavin cultural and religious beliefs led to the establishment of a state or any organized political order, however. Indeed, they probably inspired the building of ceremonial centers rather than the making of true cities. Still, Chavin pottery, metallurgy, and religious practices were an important forerunner to the 14th century Inca who combined Chavin culture with the political, economic, and urban integration of Norte Chico society.
In Mesoamerica, people began to experiment with farming beans and squashes by 7000 BCE with cultivation of maize (a corn prototype) and tomatoes to follow shortly thereafter. The agricultural potential of maize soon made it the staple crop of the region. Due to the steady rainfall of the region, there was so need to build extensive irrigation near river systems. Although early Mesoamerican peoples had a diet rich in cultivated foods, they did not domesticate as many animals as civilizations in the eastern hemisphere. Mesoamericans domesticated a few small animals (such as turkeys and dogs) for food, but most large animals of the western hemisphere were not susceptible to domestication. As a result, Mesoamericans were unable to harness animal energy leaving human laborers to prepare fields for cultivation and human porters carried trade goods on their backs. Additionally, with no draft animals, Mesoamericans had little need for the invention of wheeled vehicles. Yet, the slow transition to agriculture led to the establishment of villages around 3000 BCE.
Developing at the same time as the Chavin in South America was a society inhabiting the coastline of modern-day Mexico. This earliest known civilization of Mesoamerica was the Olmec. By 1800 BCE, the tempo of Mesoamerican life quickened as elaborate ceremonial centers with monumental pyramids, temples, and palaces arose alongside the agricultural villages. The earliest known ceremonial centers of the ancient Mesoamerica appeared on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico: first San Lorenzo served as the Olmec capital for some four hundred years (1200 BCE-800BCE), and then when the influence of San Lorenzo waned, leadership passed to a newer ceremonial center at La Venta (800-400 BCE). These ceremonial centers served as the nerve centers of society and eventually developed into cities. Permanent residents of the cities included members of the ruling elite, priests, and a few artisans to tend to the needs of the aristocrats. Large numbers of people gathered in the ceremonial centers on special occasions to observe rituals or on market days to exchange goods, but most people lived on the neighboring farms.
Based on archaeological remains of these ceremonial centers, historians believe Olmec society was probably authoritarian in nature. Untold thousands of laborers must have participated in the construction of the ceremonial centers. Each of the principal Olmec sites featured an elaborate complex of temples, pyramids, altars, stone sculptures, and tombs for rulers. Commoners delivered a portion of their harvests for the maintenance of the elite classes living in the ceremonial centers and provided labor for various large-scale construction and art projects. The most distinction artistic creations of the Olmecs were colossal human heads sculpted from basalt rock. The largest of the sculptures stands almost 10 feet tall and weighs some 20 tons. In the absence of draft animals and wheels, human laborers dragged enormous boulders from quarries, floated them on rafts to points near their destinations, dragged them to their intended sites, and them positioned them for the sculptors. The largest sculptures required the services of about one thousand laborers.
As the first organized society of Mesoamerica, the Olmec extended their influence beyond their heartland to neighboring regions through military force and trade. The Olmecs produced large numbers of decorative objects from jade, which they had to import. In the absence of any metal technology, they also made extensive use of obsidian from which they fashioned knives and axes with wickedly sharp blades. Like jade, obsidian came to the Gulf coast from distant regions in the interior of Mesoamerica. In exchange for the imports, the Olmecs traded small works of art, ceramics, and animal skins.
Among the many mysteries surrounding the Olmecs, one of the most perplexing concerns the decline and fall of their society. The Olmecs systemically destroyed their ceremonial centers at both San Lorenzo and La Venta and then deserted their sites. Archaeologists studying these sites found statues broken and buried, monuments defaced, and the capitals themselves burned. Although intruders may have ravaged the capitals, many scholars believe that that the Olmecs deliberately destroyed their own cities because of civil conflict with the ruling classes. The Olmecs left inscriptions, which may be the first written language in the Americas, but historians have yet to decipher them, however, so the exact meanings of many Olmec traditions remain up for debate.
Although they were exact contemporaries, early Mesoamerican and Andean societies largely developed independently. Geography discouraged the establishment of communications between the Andean region and Mesoamerica because neither the soaring Andes Mountains nor the dense rainforests of Central America offered an attractive highway to link the two regions. Nevertheless, the Olmec developed a complex society that established the cultural blueprint by which all succeeding indigenous civilizations would follow in Mexico. Maize cultivation, ceremonial pyramid temples, and ritual human sacrifice heavily influenced later Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Maya and Aztecs.