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Chapter 12

Early Civilizations of the Americas

Chapter Preview

This chapter will introduce you to the civilizations that existed in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans.

Section 1

South America and the Incas

Section 2

Cultures of Middle America

Section 3

Cultures of North America

Target Reading Skill

Main Idea In this chapter you will focus on finding and remembering the main idea, or the most important point, of sections and paragraphs.

Temple of the Cross, Palenque, Mexico


MAPMASTER Skills Activity

Regions The term Middle America is often used to describe the region of Mexico and Central America, even though this region is also part of the continent of North America. In this chapter, North America describes what is now the United States and Canada.

Identify Which two civilizations were located in Middle America? Predict Notice the end dates for these two civilizations. What events might have contributed to their ending?


Section 1

South America and the Incas

Prepare to Read


In this section, you will

1. Find out about the geography of the Americas.

2. Learn about the empire established by the Incas of South America.

Taking Notes

As you read this section, record key points about the Incan Empire. Copy the start of the outline below, and then add more information to complete it.

Target Reading Skill

Identify Main Ideas Good readers identify the main idea in every written passage. The main idea is the most important, or the biggest, point of the section. It includes all of the other points made in the section. As you read, note the main idea of each paragraph or written passage.

Key Terms

Incas (ING kuhz) n. people of a powerful South American empire during the 1400s and 1500s

Andes (AN deez) n. a mountain chain of western South America

Cuzco (KOOS koh) n. the capital city of the Incan Empire, located in present-day Peru

census (SEN sus) n. an official count of people in a certain place at a certain time

quipu (KEE poo) n. a group of knotted strings used by the Incas to record information

terraces (TEHR us iz) n. steplike ledges cut into mountains to make land suitable for farming

Machu Picchu, Peru

Clouds cluster around the peaks of the towering mountains. As the sun breaks through, its rays fall upon stone walls and roofless buildings. These structures cling to the steep mountain slopes. Surrounding the quiet ruins are green grasses and shrubs. This is Machu Picchu (MAH chooh PEEK chooh). The thousands of people who once lived here have been gone for centuries.

This spectacular site was built by the Incas (ING kuhz), people of a powerful empire that ruled part of South America in the 1400s and 1500s. Their huge empire was located in the Andes (AN deez), a mountain chain that snakes along the western coast of the continent. Look at the map on page 335 to locate the Incan Empire.

This empire stretched through what are now the countries of Ecuador (EK wuh dawr), Peru, Bolivia, Chile (CHIL ee), and Argentina.


MAPMASTER Skills Activity

Place A wide variety of geographical features can be found throughout the Americas. Locate Compare this map with the map on page 335. What is the geography of the area in which the Incas lived? Contrast How does this geography compare with the geography of the area in which the Anasazi lived?

Geography of the Americas

The Incas were not the first culture to develop in the Americas. Many groups had lived in the region for thousands of years. Individual cultures developed different ways of life to fit their geographic settings. Some peoples made their homes in dense forests or fertile river valleys. Other peoples lived among rocky cliffs in areas that were dry for much of the year.

Locate the mountain ranges on the map above. See which parts of the Americas are covered by plains, highland plateaus, and deserts. Also, locate the Mississippi and Amazon rivers, two of the largest river systems in the world. In North America, temperatures range from extreme cold in the far north to hot and tropical in the southern region. In South America, mountain regions are cold. Areas near sea level are hot near the Equator but much cooler in the far south.

Reading Check Which two river systems in the Americas are among the largest in the world?

This earthenware vessel was designed to be carried on the back of a llama.


The Mountain Empire of the Incas

At its peak, the powerful South American empire of the Incas measured 2,500 miles (4,020 kilometers) from one end to the other. This great empire grew from small beginnings over many years.

Growth of an Empire About the year A.D. 1200, the Incas settled in a small village on a high plateau in the Andes. This village, named Cuzco (KOOS koh), became the Incas' capital city and a center of both government and religion. In fact, the word cuzco means "center" in the Incan language.

The Incas extended their control over nearby lands through conquests, or the conquering of other peoples. Over time, many different groups came under their rule. By the 1400s, the lands ruled by the Incas had grown into an empire. At its height, the Incan Empire included as many as 12 million people.

Even when the empire included millions of people, it was run in an orderly way. Incan rulers had a complex system of gathering knowledge about events that happened hundreds of miles away from their capital city.

Festival of the Sun

Thousands of people gather at the ruins of an Incan fortress in Cuzco for the yearly Festival of the Sun, which celebrates the winter solstice. Infer How can you tell which people are part of the festival and which are just watching?


Quipus in Incan Life

In the drawing below, dating from the 1500s, an official gives a noble a quipu like the one at left. The quipu may have been created hundreds of miles away. Analyze Images What details in the drawing tell which person is the noble?

Incan Government The Incan ruler was called Sapa Inca, or "the emperor." The people believed that their emperor was related to the sun-god. The emperor, and only he, owned all the land and divided it among those under his rule. Under the Sapa Inca was the noble class. Nobles oversaw government officials, who made sure the empire ran smoothly.

Officials used a census, or an official count of the people, to keep track of everyone's responsibilities. The census helped to make sure that everyone paid taxes. It recorded which men worked as soldiers or on public projects such as gold mining and road building. Farmers had to give the government part of their crops, while women had to weave cloth. In return, the empire took care of the poor, the sick, and the elderly.

The official spoken language of the empire was Quechua (KECH wuh), but the Incas did not have a written language. Instead, they invented a complex system for keeping detailed records. Information such as births, deaths, and harvests was recorded on a group of knotted strings called quipu (KEE poo). Each quipu had a main cord with several colored strings attached. The colors represented different items, and knots of varying sizes recorded numbers.

Incan relay runners carried quipus across vast networks of roads and bridges to keep the government informed about distant parts of the empire. These roads also carried the Incan armies and trade caravans, both of which helped to unify the vast empire.


Identify Main Ideas

Which sentence states the main idea under the blue heading Lasting Achievements?

Lasting Achievements The achievements of the Incas still amaze people today. They constructed thousands of miles of paved roads, massive walls, and mountaintop buildings. And they did all this with only stone hammers and bronze chisels. Remarkably, much of what the Incas built hundreds of years ago with only primitive tools still stands today.

The Incas took advantage of their environment. They used stone—plentiful in the Andes—for many purposes. Sometimes they used enormous stones whole. At other times, they carefully broke stones into smaller blocks. First they cut a long groove into a rock's surface. Then they drove stone or wooden wedges into the groove until the rock split.

When Incan stonemasons made a wall, they made sure its large, many-sided stones fit together perfectly. After a wall was complete, the fit was so tight that not even a very thin knife blade could be slipped between two blocks. Construction without mortar, or cement, also allowed the massive stones to move and resettle during earthquakes without damaging the wall.

Among their many ingenious uses of stone was a method to increase farm production. The Andes are steep, dry, and rocky. There is little natural farmland. By building terraces, or steplike ledges cut into the mountains, the Incas could farm on slopes that would otherwise have been too steep. Stone terraces held the soil in place so it would not be washed away by rain. A complex system of aqueducts, or stone-lined channels, carried water to these farms. One of these aqueducts was 360 miles (579 kilometers) long.

Links Across Time

Rope Bridges This rope bridge, strung across a gorge in the Andes, is similar to those used by the Incas. A gorge is a narrow pass between steep cliffs or walls. Incan bridges were made with strong cords of braided vines and reeds. Some peoples in the Andes still make bridges from vines and reeds today. Modern steel suspension bridges in other parts of the world use the engineering principles developed by the Incas hundreds of years ago when they built their rope-and-vine bridges.


The Decline of the Incan Empire The power of the Incan Empire peaked in the 1400s. After that, it lasted for less than 100 years. A number of factors contributed to the fall of the empire. Members of the ruling family began to fight among themselves for control. Also, many workers started to rebel against the strict government.

Then, in the 1530s, a Spanish conquistador (kahn KEES tuh dawr), or conqueror, named Francisco Pizarro arrived in South America. Pizarro had heard of the wealthy Incan Empire. He wanted to explore the region and conquer its peoples. The Incan emperor welcomed Pizarro. But when he and his unarmed men met the conquistador, they walked into a trap. Pizarro captured the emperor and killed his men.

The Spanish had superior weapons. They also carried diseases, such as smallpox and measles, to which the Incas had never been exposed. These diseases killed much of the Incan population. The Spanish quickly gained control of the vast Incan Empire. For decades, the Incas tried to regain rule of their land, but they never succeeded.

Reading Check Which Spanish conquistador conquered the Incas?

A wooden cup made for Pizarro shows Spanish and Incan figures.

Section 1 Assessment

Key Terms

Review the key terms at the beginning of this section. Use each term in a sentence that explains its meaning.

Target Reading Skill

State the main idea of the first paragraph on this page.

Comprehension and Critical Thinking


(a) Identify Name two geographic settings in which peoples of the Americas lived.

(b) Synthesize Information What are the climates of those two regions?

(c) Infer How might the people who lived in these regions have adapted to their geography and climate?


(a) Recall How much land did the Incan Empire cover at its greatest extent?

(b) Explain How did the government in Cuzco keep track of distant parts of the empire?

(c) Draw Conclusions What do you think were the major problems of keeping such a large empire running smoothly? Explain your answer.

Writing Activity

If you could interview a stonemason from the Incan Empire, what would you ask? Make a list of questions you would ask in order to learn how these skilled workers accomplished so much so long ago. Then write a paragraph explaining why you want to ask the questions.


Skills for Life

Identifying Cause and Effect

Wondering why things happen is something every human being does. Why does the sun rise in the east? Why does the United States have a president and not a king? Why did the Incas build Machu Picchu? This curiosity has driven people to ask how history has shaped our world. When we ask "why" about something, we are really trying to figure out causes and effects.

A cause is something that makes an event or a situation happen. An effect is a result of a cause. When you identify cause and effect, you understand how an action or several actions led to a particular result. Causes and effects can be short term or long term.

Learn the Skill

Use these steps to understand cause-and-effect relationships.

1. Choose one event or condition as a starting point. Determine whether in this case it is a cause or an effect.

2. Look at earlier events or conditions for possible causes. Also look for clue words that signal cause, such as because, so, and since. Words such as therefore, then, reason, and as a result signal effects.

3. Make a cause-and-effect diagram. A diagram like the one above can help you understand cause-and-effect relationships. Remember that sometimes an effect becomes a cause for another effect.

4. Summarize the cause-and-effect relationships. Be sure to include all of the causes and effects.


An Incan woman weaving

Incan Taxes

The Incas did not use money. Even so, villages had to pay taxes on their harvest and herds. To do so, they gave one third of their crops and animals to the empire. Villages could also pay their taxes by having their people do special work.

For this reason, every village sent a few young men and women to work for the empire. Some made jewelry, textiles, or pottery for nobles. Many men worked as soldiers or miners. Others built buildings or inspected roads or bridges.

In return, the government gave something back to the villages. The poor, the old, and the sick received government help.

Practice the Skill

Follow the steps in Learn the Skill to look for causes and effects in the passage above.

1. Read the passage. Find one event or condition that can serve as your starting point. Decide if it is a cause or an effect. How might the title help you?

2. What facts or conditions led to the way Incas paid taxes? What clue words in the second paragraph signal cause and effect?

3. Make a cause-and-effect diagram. Check for effects that in turn become causes for other effects. Expand your diagram if you need to.

4. Summarize the cause-and-effect relationships you have discovered.

Incan men building a fortress

Apply the Skill

Reread the two paragraphs under the heading The Decline of the Incan Empire on page 341. Use the steps in this skill to identify the causes and effects described in the passage. Make a cause-and-effect diagram or write a paragraph explaining the cause-and-effect relationships you find.


Section 2

Cultures of Middle America

Prepare to Read


In this section, you will

1. Learn about the Mayan culture of Middle America.

2. Find out about the powerful Aztec Empire.

Taking Notes

As you read this section, look for the characteristics of the Mayan and Aztec civilizations. Copy the web diagram below and record your findings for the Mayas. Then make a similar diagram for the Aztecs.

Target Reading Skill

Identify Supporting Details Sentences in a paragraph may give further details that support the main idea. These details may give examples, explanations, or reasons. In the first paragraph on page 345, this sentence states the main idea: "Thousands of years before the Aztecs built Tenochtitlan, other cultures thrived in Middle America." Note three details that support this main idea.

Key Terms

Aztecs (AZ teks) n. a people who lived in the Valley of Mexico

Tenochtitl‡n (teh nawch tee TLAHN) n. capital city of the Aztecs

Mayas (MAH yuhz) n. a people who established a great civilization in Middle America

slash-and-burn agriculture (slash and burn AG rih kul chur) n. a farming technique in which trees are cut down and burned to clear and fertilize the land

maize (mayz) n. corn

hieroglyphics (hy ur oh GLIF iks) n. the signs and symbols that made up the Mayan writing system

This page dating from the 1500s illustrates the Aztec legend. A version of it forms part of the Mexican flag today.

In about 1325, the Aztecs (AZ teks), a people who lived in the Valley of Mexico, began looking for a place to build a new capital. According to legend, the Aztecs asked their god of war where they should build this capital. He replied, "Build at the place where you see an eagle perched on a cactus and holding a snake in its beak."

When the Aztecs found the sign their god had described, they were surprised. The cactus on which the eagle perched was growing on a swampy island in the center of Lake Texcoco. It was an unlikely setting for an important city. But they believed their god had given them this sign, and so this was the place where the Aztecs built Tenochtitl‡n (teh nawch tee TLAHN), their capital. It would become one of the largest and finest cities of its time.


The Culture of the Mayas

Thousands of years before the Aztecs built Tenochtitlan, other cultures thrived in Middle America. One of these ancient peoples, called the Olmec (AHL mek), lived along the Gulf Coast from about 1200 B.C. until about 600 B.C. The Olmec are known for their pyramid-shaped temples and huge carved stone heads.

Somewhat later, an important culture developed in parts of Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula to the north. The Yucatan Peninsula is located at Mexico's southeastern tip. These people, called the Mayas (MAH yuhz), established a great civilization and built many cities in this region of Middle America. The Mayas may have been influenced by Olmec culture. The Mayan way of life lasted for many centuries. Its greatest period was from about A.D. 250 until 900.

A Farming Culture Mayan life was based on farming. To grow crops, Mayan farmers used a technique called slash-and-burn agriculture. They first cleared the land by cutting down trees. They then burned the tree stumps, saving the ash to use as fertilizer. Finally, they planted seeds. After a few years, however, the soil would be worn out. The farmers would then have to clear and plant a new area.

Mayan farmers grew a variety of crops, including beans, squash, peppers, papayas (puh PY uz), and avocados. But their most common crop was maize (mayz), or corn. In fact, maize was so important to the Mayas that one of the gods they worshiped was a god of corn. And since the corn needed the sun and rain to grow, it is not surprising that the Mayas also worshipped a rain god and a sun god.

Olmec statues like this one were usually several feet tall.

Tikal—Ruins of a Great City

Tikal, located in Guatemala, was once a thriving Mayan city. The city and its surrounding areas had a population of nearly 100,000. Infer Judging from the photo, what challenge probably faced Mayan farmers who lived in this region?


Links to Math

Mayan Counting The Mayas created a number system to count and record information. Dots stood for single numbers. For example, three dots in a row represented the number three. Bars stood for groups of five. Unlike our number system, which is based on 10, the Mayas' number system was based on 20. So, to record a number larger than 19, they used one large dot standing alone to represent the number 20, and more large dots for larger numbers divisible by 20. Dots and bars were used to make up the rest of the number. In the Mayan book at left, the number 29 is circled in white.

Centers of Religion and Government Mayan cities were religious and governmental centers. A different ruler commanded each city. Priests and nobles were also important community leaders. These leaders lived in large palaces within the city. Ordinary people lived on the edges of the city. Each city held great festivals to honor the many Mayan gods. The most important religious events took place at large temple-pyramids. Some of the ceremonies included human sacrifice.

Skilled mathematicians, Mayan priests developed a calendar to plan when to hold religious celebrations. The Mayas also created a system of writing using signs and symbols called hieroglyphics. They used these hieroglyphics to record information in books made from the bark of fig trees.

A Mayan Game Cities also had outdoor courts where a special ball game called pok-ta-tok was played. A court was about the size of a football field, and the game was a bit like soccer and basketball combined. The ball was made of hard rubber. Players tried to knock it through a stone hoop set on a wall. They could hit the ball with their elbows, knees, or hips—but not with their hands or feet. The ball could not touch the ground.

The Mayas Abandon Their Cities Around A.D. 900, the Mayas abandoned their cities, and their civilization declined. No one knows the exact reason they left. Crop failures, war, disease, or overuse of natural resources may have altered the Mayan way of life. Or people may have rebelled against their leaders. Today, descendants of the Mayas still live in Middle America. Many continue some of the cultural traditions of their Mayan ancestors.

Reading check What did Mayan priests do?

Identify Supporting Details

What details in the paragraph at right support the main idea that the Mayas had an important culture?


The Aztec Empire

You have already read that the Aztecs built their new capital, Tenochtitlan, in the middle of a lake in about 1325. They had first settled in the Valley of Mexico in the 1100s. By the 1470s, the Aztecs had conquered the surrounding lands. Their large empire stretched from the Gulf of Mexico in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west. A single powerful leader, the Aztec emperor, ruled these lands. All the people he conquered were forced to pay him tribute, or heavy taxes, in the form of food, gold, or slaves.

Waterways and Gardens In spite of its swampy origins, Tenochtitl‡n became a magnificent capital city. At its center were an open plaza and one or more towering pyramid-temples. There were schools for the sons of the nobles and large stone palaces. Raised streets of hard earth, called causeways, connected the city to the surrounding land. To supply the city with enough fresh water, the Aztecs also built aqueducts. These special channels carried spring water from distant sources to storage areas in the city.

As the population of Tenochtitl‡n grew, the Aztecs realized they needed more farmland. Their solution was to build many island gardens in the shallow lakes around the capital. These raised fields, called chinampas (chih NAM puz), were made from rich soil dredged up from the lake bottom. Trees planted along the edges prevented soil from washing away. Between the fields were canals. Farmers used the canals to transport produce by boats to a huge marketplace near the capital.

Floating Gardens Today

A man poles a boat among the chinampas on the outskirts of Mexico City. Draw Conclusions List some advantages and disadvantages of growing crops on chinampas.


Religion and Learning To bring about good harvests, Aztec priests held ceremonies that would win the favor of their gods. Their most important god was the sun god. Aztec religion taught that the sun would not have the strength to rise and cross the sky every day without human blood. Of course, if the sun did not rise, crops could not grow, and the people would starve. Therefore, Aztec religious ceremonies included human sacrifice. The Aztecs also prayed to their gods for victory in war. Prisoners captured in war often served as human sacrifices.

To schedule their religious festivals and farming cycles, Aztec priests created a calendar based on the Mayan calendar and their own knowledge of astronomy. The calendar had 13 periods, like months, of 20 days each. The Aztecs also kept records using hieroglyphs similar to those used by the Mayas.

Tenochtitl‡n had schools and a university. Boys from noble families attended these schools. They studied to be government officials, teachers, or scribes.

Aztec Society Aztec society had a strict class structure. The emperor, of course, was most important. Next were members of the royal family, nobles, priests, and military leaders. Soldiers were next in importance. Below soldiers came artisans—skilled creators of jewelry, pottery, sculpture, and other goods—and merchants. Then came the farmers. They made up the largest class of people. The lowest position in Aztec society was held by slaves, most of whom were prisoners captured in battle.

War was a part of life in the Aztec Empire, as new territory was conquered. Most young men over the age of 15 served as soldiers for a period of time. They were well trained and well equipped. Soldiers had swords and bows and arrows. For protection, they had special armor made from heavy quilted cotton. Priests and government officials did not serve in the military.

Aztec Gods and Goddesses

The Aztec God Quetzalcoatl (top) was the god of priests, and was believed to have invented the Aztec calendar. Above is the Aztec maize goddess. Both figures appear often in Aztec art. Make Generalizations What does the worship of gods and goddesses such as these tell you about Aztec society?


Aztec women were not allowed to work as soldiers or military leaders, though they could train to be priestesses. Most women— even women from noble families—had to be skilled at weaving. Some of the cloth they wove was used for trade. Some was used to decorate temples. The finest cloth was used to make clothing for the Aztec royal family and nobles. Before teenage girls learned to weave, they were expected to grind flour, make tortillas, and cook meals.

The End of an Empire In 1519, Spanish conquistadors invaded the Aztec Empire. Some of the peoples whose lands the Aztecs had conquered joined forces with the Spanish. Together, they fought the Aztecs and tried to overthrow the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma. The two sides waged fierce battles. Diseases carried by the Spanish spread to the Aztecs and killed many of them. In 1521, the Aztecs surrendered to the Spanish. The once-powerful Aztec Empire was at an end.

Reading Check Describe the levels of Aztec society.

Aztec Feather Headdress

Moctezuma's head covering was decorated with feathers—an important symbol in the Aztec religion.

Section 2 Assessment

Key Terms

Review the key terms at the beginning of this section. Use each term in a sentence that explains its meaning.

Target Reading Skill

State three details that support the main idea of the first paragraph under the heading Aztec Society.

Comprehension and Critical Thinking


(a) Recall What activity was the basis of Mayan life?

(b) Explain How did Mayan religion reflect the importance of this activity?

(c) Infer What do you think is the most likely reason the Mayas abandoned their cities? Explain your choice.


(a) Describe How did the Aztec Empire expand?

(b) Synthesize How did the Aztecs treat the peoples they conquered in war?

(c) Draw Conclusions Why might some of the peoples conquered by the Aztecs have wanted to overthrow the emperor?

Writing Activity

The Mayas and the Aztecs created great civilizations. How were their cultures alike? How were they different? Write a paragraph comparing and contrasting the two civilizations.

Writing Tip First take notes on the similarities and differences. You may want to use a chart to help you organize. Be sure to write a topic sentence for your paragraph, and then support it with details from your notes.


Focus On The Great Temple

In 1521, the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and began to destroy the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. On the site of the ruined Aztec city, they built a new capital: Mexico City. For many years, an important piece of Mexico's past—the Great Temple of the Aztecs—remained buried under this new city. Scholars were not sure where the site of the Great Temple lay. Then in 1978, electrical workers dug up an old stone carving. Experts who studied the carving knew that it had been made by the Aztecs. The site of the Great Temple had been found.

Building the Temple The Great Temple honored two Aztec gods: Tlaloc (tlah LOHK), the god of earth and rain, and Huitzilopochtli (weets eel oh POHCH tlee), the god of sun and sky. The Aztecs first built the temple about 1325. A solid, earth-filled pyramid, the heavy temple soon began to sink into the soft soil of Tenochtitl‡n. To save their sinking monument, the Aztecs rebuilt it six times within the next 200 years.

The Aztecs rebuilt each new temple over the previous temple. After rebuilding, they honored their gods with human sacrifices in the temple's shrines. A figure called a chacmool, at the top left, was used to hold offerings to the gods.

The illustration at the right shows some of the temple layers. By the time the Spanish began to destroy Tenochtitl‡n in 1521, the Great Temple had been built seven times.


Sacred Ornament

The double-headed serpent was a symbol of Tlaloc, the god of earth and rain. A high priest probably wore this ornament on his chest.


The shrine at the left honored the god Tlaloc. The shrine at the right honored the god Huitzilopochtli.

Stone Disk

A stone carving of Huitzilopochtli's sister Coyolxauhqui (koh yohl SHAH kee) was part of the sixth temple layer.


Identify Name the two main gods the Aztecs honored at the Great Temple.

Infer Why were these gods so important to the Aztecs?


Section 3

Cultures of North America

Prepare to Read


In this section, you will

1. Find out about the Mound Builders who lived in eastern North America.

2. Learn about the cultures of the Southwest and the Great Plains.

3. Find out about the Woodland peoples of North America.

Taking Notes

As you read this section, look for information about three major Native American cultures. Copy the table below and record your findings in it. Add categories as needed.

Target Reading Skill

Identify Implied Main Ideas Identifying main ideas can help you remember what you read. Even if a main idea is not stated directly, the details in a paragraph add up to the main idea. For example, the details in the paragraph under the heading The Eastern Mound Builders add up to this main idea: The Mound Builders, hunters and gatherers who relied on the land's resources, became settled farmers over time.

Key Terms

Mound Builders (mownd BIL durz) n. Native American groups who built earthen mounds

Anasazi (ah nuh SAH zee) n. one of the ancient Native American peoples of the Southwest

pueblo (PWEB loh) n. a Native American stone or adobe dwelling, part of a cluster of dwellings built close together

kiva (KEE vuh) it a round room used by the pueblo people for religious ceremonies

Great Plains (grayt playnz) n. a mostly flat and grassy region of western North America

A Mississippian copper sculpture dating from the 1000s

Seen from above, a huge snake seems to twist and turn across the landscape. A mysterious shape—perhaps an egg?—is at its mouth. This enormous earthwork was created hundreds of years ago in what is now Ohio. Called the Great Serpent Mound, it is the largest image of a snake anywhere in the world. Uncoiled, the serpent would be about 1,349 feet (411 meters) long.

Archaeologists have found more than 1,000 earthen mounds across eastern North America. They were made by thousands of workers moving baskets of earth by hand. There are small mounds and large ones. Some contain graves, but others—like the Great Serpent Mound—do not. Most were constructed between around 700 B.C. and A.D. 1250. Today, we call the different Native American who built these curious and long-lasting mounds the Mound Builders.


The Eastern Mound Builders

The Mound Builders lived in eastern North America. They occupied the region roughly between Minnesota and Louisiana, and between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean. The Mound Builders lived along the area's many rivers, which provided them with plenty of fish and fresh water. They hunted wild animals for food, including deer, turkeys, bears, and even squirrels. They also gathered nuts such as acorns, pecans, and walnuts to supplement their diet. Over time, these communities began to grow their own food. This meant they did not have to move as much in search of food and could form settlements.

Early Mound Builders: The Adena Archaeologists have discovered evidence of early Mound Builders who lived about 600 B.C. in the Ohio Valley. Called the Adena (uh DEE nuh), these people constructed mounds that are usually less than 20 feet high. Certain mounds were tombs that contained weapons, tools, and decorative objects in addition to bodies. Some items were made from materials not found locally, such as copper and seashells. Thus, historians believe that the Adena must have taken part in long-distance trade. Little is known about the daily life of the Adena, but they seem to have declined about 100 B.C.

Great Serpent Mound

The Great Serpent Mound snakes across Ohio's countryside.

Infer What about the mound suggests that it may have had religious importance?


MAPMASTER Skills Activity

Movement The Mound Builders were spread out across a huge area, and they may have engaged in trade with one another. Identify Near what geographical features were most mounds located? Infer How might their locations have encouraged long-distance trade?

The Hopewell made figures like the copper raven (above) and the hand (bottom right), which is made of mica, a soft mineral.

The Hopewell Culture About 100 years before the Adena disappeared, another culture appeared along the Ohio and upper Mississippi rivers. Called the Hopewell, these peoples built larger mounds. The Hopewell did not have a highly organized society with a single ruler. Instead, they lived in many small communities with local leaders.

The Hopewell peoples grew a greater variety of crops than did the Adena. They also seem to have traded over a wider area. There is evidence that goods were traded from the Gulf of Mexico to present-day Canada and from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. Hopewell sites have silver from the Great Lakes region and alligator teeth from present-day Florida.

About A.D. 400, the long-distance trade across eastern North America seems to have faded out. Also, the Hopewell stopped building new mounds. Historians are not sure why. The climate may have turned colder and hurt agriculture. The Hopewell may have suffered a severe drought or been invaded. Overpopulation is also a possible reason for their decline.


The Mississippians By about A.D. 700, a new and important culture called Mississippian (mis uh SIP ce un) began to flower in eastern North America. These peoples inhabited both small and large communities. Like the earlier Mound Builders, the Mississippians lived along rivers and built mounds. They, too, grew new kinds of crops. Maize and beans became important parts of their diet. Both foods are easily dried and stored in large amounts. This helped the Mississippians protect themselves against years of drought and bad harvests.

The Mississippian culture spread over a wide area in the present-day South and Midwest. During this period, long-distance trade revived. Populations increased over time, and major centers of government and religion developed. These include Moundville in present-day Alabama, and Etowah (ET uh wah) in present-day Georgia. The largest center was Cahokia (kuh HOH kee uh), located in what is now Illinois. One of Cahokia's mounds, around 100 feet tall, was the largest mound in North America.

Cahokia was a large city for its day. Historians estimate that it reached its peak about A.D. 1100. At that time, as many as 20,000 to 30,000 people may have lived there. But by 1250, the population dropped. The disappearance of the last of the Mound Builders is as mystifying as the many earthworks they left behind.

Reading Check How did the Mississippians live?

Peoples of the Southwest and the Great Plains

The mounds of the Mound Builders are not the only amazing structures built by early Native American cultures. Other peoples in North America adapted to different landscapes and climates to create distinctive structures. One of these groups created remarkable multistory homes from the available materials of the Southwest.

The Ancient Ones The Anasazi (ah nuh SAH zee) were ancient Native American peoples of the Southwest. Their name can be translated as "the ancient ones." Anasazi culture began about A.D. 100. Historians think that Chaco Canyon, in present-day New Mexico, was a trading center for the region. A network of roads connected distant Anasazi villages to Chaco Canyon. Archaeologists have found tens of thousands of turquoise pieces as well as baskets, pottery, shells, and feathers in Chaco Canyon.

Identify Implied Main Ideas

List several details from the paragraphs under the heading The Mississippians. What implied main idea do these details support?

An archaeologist digs at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.


Southwestern North America has harsh winters in some areas and hot, dry summers. The soil is mostly poor, and there is little water. To capture rainwater for their fields, the Anasazi created a system of canals and dams. This system allowed them to grow maize, beans, and squash for food. They also grew cotton for cloth.

For their homes, the Anasazi constructed pueblos (PWEB lohz). These stone and adobe buildings, built next to one another, helped to keep people warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Pueblos had thick walls, and many had high ceilings. Round rooms called kivas (KEE vuz) were used for special religious ceremonies. As the population grew, so did the pueblos. Some pueblos were five stories tall and had hundreds of rooms. Between 1275 and 1300, however, severe droughts hit the region. The Anasazi abandoned all their major pueblos, never to return.

Later Pueblo Peoples Anasazi customs survived among later groups who lived to the south of the Anasazi sites. They are called Pueblo peoples, or simply Pueblos. These groups also built apartment-style stone and adobe dwellings with kivas. Like the Anasazi, their crafts included weaving, basket-making, and pottery. They were also skilled farmers.

The region of New Mexico where the Pueblos lived receives only 8 to 13 inches of rain a year, but it does have rivers. The Pueblos planted corn, squash, beans, and other crops in the river bottoms near their dwellings. They relied on intensive irrigation to raise these crops. Hunting and gathering provided the Pueblos with the food they could not grow.

Anasazi Cliff Village

Entire villages of Anasazi people lived under the shelter of massive stone cliffs like this one in Colorado. Anasazi craftspeople decorated pottery like the jar above with black and white patterns.

Analyze Images What might be some advantages to living under cliffs like these?


The Pueblos believed in many spirits, called kachinas (kuh CHEF nuz). They wanted to please these spirits, who they believed controlled the rain, wild animals, and harvests. Many times a year, the Pueblos gathered for ceremonies that involved prayer, dancing, and singing. They also appealed to their ancestors, another type of kachina. Today the modern descendants of the Pueblo peoples, including the Hopi and the Zuni, keep many of these traditions alive.

The Plains Indians West of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains is a mostly flat and grassy region called the Great Plains. For centuries, this land was home to diverse groups of Native Americans called Plains Indians. Individual groups had their own languages and traditions. They used a form of sign language to trade with one another.

Some groups, such as the Mandan, were farmers. They lived in fenced villages along the Missouri River, in lodges made of earth and wood. Others, such as the Sioux (soo), followed herds of bison that roamed the plains. Dwellings such as tipis (TEE peaz)—easy to take apart, carry, and set up again—were ideal for such a lifestyle.

After the arrival of Europeans, the lives of Plains Indians changed rapidly. They had to share their land with eastern Native Americans, such as the Omaha, who had been forced west by white settlers. Newly introduced horses, guns, and railroads altered their traditions. Most groups suffered from diseases brought by Europeans and lost their land to European settlement. Many Native American cultures began to break down. Today, there is a strong effort to revive these traditional cultures.

Reading Check How did the Sioux live?

Links Across the World

The Arrival of the Horse The arrival of the horse in the Americas brought major changes to the lives of many Plains Indians. Native Americans on horseback became expert buffalo hunters. They came to depend more and more on the buffalo for their existence, using the animal for food, clothing, and shelter. Many previously settled Indian groups became nomadic. They rode their horses across the plains, following the great herds of buffalo.


Totem pole in Vancouver. Canada

Peoples of the Woodlands

Native American groups lived in woodlands in different parts of present-day Canada and the United States. The peoples of the Northwest Coast hunted in the forests and fished in rivers full of salmon as well as in the Pacific Ocean. They lived in settlements of wooden homes. Like the Mound Builders and the Pueblos, early Native Americans of the Northwest Coast created remarkable structures. They were called totem poles.

Totem poles were carved and painted logs stood on end. They typically had images of real or mythical animals. Often the animals were identified with the owner's family line, much as a family crest is used in European cultures. Totem poles were a symbol of the owner's wealth, as were ceremonies called potlatches. At a potlatch, a person of high rank invited many guests and gave them generous gifts.

In the eastern woodlands, Native American groups such as the Iroquois (IHR uh kwoy) not only hunted in the forests but also cleared land for farms. Because the men were often at war, the women were the farmers. In the 1500s, five Iroquois nations— Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Oneida—formed a peace alliance. Nations of the Iroquois League governed their own villages, but they met to decide issues that affected the group as a whole. This was the best-organized political system in the Americas when Europeans arrived.

Reading Check What was the Iroquois League?

Section 3 Assessment

Key Terms

Review the key terms at the beginning of this section. Use each term in a sentence that explains its meaning.

Target Reading Skill

State the main ideas in Section 3.

Comprehension and Critical Thinking


(a) Sequence List the three groups of Mound Builders, from earliest to latest.

(b) Compare In what ways were the three groups alike?


(a) Identify What is the climate of southwestern North America? (b) Identify Cause and Effect Why did peoples of this region build pueblos rather than other types of structures?


(a) Define What are totem poles and potlatches?

(b) Infer Why were totem poles and potlatches symbols of a family's wealth?

Writing Activity

Study the photograph of the Anasazi cliff dwellings on pages 356-357. Write a paragraph describing the site. What are the buildings like? Where are they located? What might it be like there at night or during a storm?

Writing Tip Use descriptive adjectives for colors, textures, and shapes. Also include any sounds and smells you might experience there at different times of the day or year.


Chapter 12 Review and Assessment

Chapter Summary

Section 1: South America and the Incas

• The varied geography and climate of the Americas produced a diversity of Native American peoples and cultures.

• The Incas ruled a large, highly organized mountain empire in South America. Their accomplishments included long-lasting stone structures.

Section 2: Cultures of Middle America

• Mayan civilization was based on farming, which supported cities throughout the Yucatan Peninsula of Middle America.

• The Aztecs ruled a rich and powerful empire of diverse peoples in Middle America, from a magnificent capital called Tenochtitlan.

Anasazi clay vessel

Aztec feather headdress

Section 3: Cultures of North America

• The Mound Builders lived along the rivers of eastern North America and built thousands of earthen mounds across the region.

• The Anasazi, and later the Pueblo peoples, adapted to the dry environment of the Southwest, while the Plains Indians farmed or followed herds of buffalo.

• Woodlands peoples of the Northwest Coast were hunters and fishers. In eastern forests, the Iroquois League was formed to bring peace to the region.

Key Terms

Match each term with its definition.

1. quipu

2. kivas

3. hieroglyphics

4. census

5. pueblos

6. maize

7. terraces
A corn

B an official count of people

C steplike ledges cut into mountains

D stone dwellings, built next to one another

E group of knotted strings used to record information

F round rooms used for religious ceremonies

G signs and symbols that made up the Mayan writing system


Comprehension and Critical Thinking


(a) Describe What special farming methods were developed by the Incas and the Aztecs?

(b) Compare How were these methods similar?

(c) Analyze Information How did each method suit the geography of the region where it was used?


(a) Recall What type of government did Mayan cities have?

(b) Analyze Why is it not correct to call Mayan civilization an "empire"?

(c) Make Generalizations If a civilization like that of the Mayas came under attack, would it be easy or hard to defend? Explain your answer.


(a) Identify What city was the capital of the Aztec Empire?

(b) Describe What was this capital city like?

(c) Generalize In what ways are modern capital cities like the Aztec capital?


(a) Locate Where in North America are human- built mounds located?

(b) Synthesize What have archaeologists learned from studying these mounds?

(c) Analyze Why is it difficult to determine the exact use of some mounds?

Skills Practice

Identifying Cause and Effect Review the steps to identify causes and effects that you learned in the Skills for Life activity in this chapter. Then reread the part of Section 3 titled The Plains Indians. Choose an event from this section, and decide if it is a cause or an effect. Look for earlier or later events that might be causes or effects. Then summarize the cause-and-effect relationships you have identified.

Writing Activity: Science

Review this chapter to find out which crops were grown or collected for food by early Native Americans. Choose three crops. Do research to find out why each one might be important to a healthful diet. To which food group does it belong? What is its nutritional value? How is it different from or similar to other foods eaten by these people? Write a brief report on what you learn.

MAPMASTER Skills Activity

Native American Sites

Place Location For each place or feature listed below, write the letter from the map that shows its location.

1. Cuzco

2. Cahokia

3. Andes

4. Tenochtitlan

5. Chaco Canyon


(a) Describe Where are the Great Plains, and what are they like?

(b) Identify Cause and Effect What changes to their way of life did many Plains Indians experience, and why?

(c) Infer Why do you think some Plains Indians battled with European settlers?


Standardized Test Prep

Test-Taking Tips

Some questions on standardized tests ask you to analyze a timeline. Study the timeline below. Then follow the tips to answer the sample question.

TIP Use the lines at the beginning and end of each civilization bracket to calculate how long each civilization lasted.

A.D. 250-900 The Mayas are at their strongest.

A.D. 700-1250 Mississippian culture thrives.

A.D. 1400-1535 The Incas rule from Cuzco.

A.D. 1325-1520 The Aztecs rule from Tenochtitl‡n.
Choose the letter of the best answer.

Based on the timeline, which statement is true?

A Mississippian culture ended at A.D. 1100.

B The Incas ruled from Cuzco for more than 400 years.

C The Aztecs and the Incas did not live at the same time.

D Mississippian culture began to thrive about A.D. 700.

Think It Through You can see that the line marking the end of Mississippian culture falls after 1200. Therefore A is incorrect. "The Incas rule from Cuzco" starts at 1400 and ends before 1600, so you can rule out B, too. The brackets on the timeline show that the Incas and the Aztecs did live at the same time. And the dates for the Aztecs, 1325-1520, overlap with the dates for the Incas, 1400-1535. So C is incorrect. That leaves only D. You can see that the line marking the start of Mississippian culture does indeed fall halfway between 600 and 800. D is the correct answer.

TIP Preview the question and skim over the answer choices before you look at the timeline. Keep the questions and possible answers in mind as you study the timeline.

Practice Questions

Use the timeline above to help you choose the letter of the best answer.

1. Based on the timeline, which statement is true?

A The Incas began to rule from Cuzco about A.D. 1000.

B The Aztecs and the Incas did not live at the same time.

C The Mayas were at their strongest for more than 600 years.

D Mississippian culture lasted for only 200 years.

Choose the letter of the best answer to complete each sentence.

2. The _____ built stone and adobe dwellings close together.

A Incas

B Hopewell peoples

C Anasazi

D Adena
3. The spectacular site of Machu Picchu is located in

A the Great Plains.

B South America.

C North America.

D Lake Texcoco.

4. The _____ lived along rivers in eastern North America.

A Mound Builders

B Aztecs

C Mayas

D Pueblo peoples


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