Key Terms: Write a descriptive sentence for each term:
Cuzco: Explaining questions: Give me 5 good sentences for each!
1. Discuss religion as practiced by ancient Mesoamericans and South Americans:
2. Compare the writing systems and written products of these civilizations:
3. Describe the social structure (rich, poor, middle class) of these civilizations:
4. Mention five facts that especially interested you about this reading:
The Ancient Americas THE FIRST CIVILIZATIONS
Mesoamerica includes what is now southern Mexico and northern Central America. It was easy to grow the three main foods of the Native American diet (maize (corn), beans and squash) in Mesoamerica because of the rich volcanic soil and plentiful rainfall. As a result, civilizations developed and produced large cities, complex social structures, art and culture. Four early groups who lived in Mesoamerica were the Olmec, the Toltec, the Maya and the Aztecs.
The Olmec were the “mother culture” that gave rise to the other cultures in Mesoamerica. The Olmec lived in the hot, humid lowlands of the Gulf Coast in southern Mexico between 1200 BC and AD 300. They built the first large towns with plazas and pyramids that became the pattern for all Mesoamerican cities. Olmec towns contained giant stone heads – some measuring 9 feet in height and weighing 40 tons! Olmec towns contained elaborate tombs and throne-like monuments, which archaeologists think were ceremonial, religious and political centers. The Olmec elite (high-ranking citizens) controlled a large trade network among towns along the Pacific coast. They exported rubber, pottery, furs and cacao (chocolate beans) in exchange for shells and precious stones that weren’t available nearby. The Olmec invented a calendar, a form of writing and a game in which players tried to launch a heavy, solid rubber ball through a net using only their elbows, knees or hips. The losing team lost not only the game, but their lives as well: their hearts were cut out as a sacrifice to the gods! One of history’s mysteries is why the Olmec civilization declined and disappeared. (Maybe because of the ball game??!)
The Toltec lived in the highlands of central Mexico from AD 900 to 1200. Their main city, Tula, was a key trade center near obsidian mines. Obsidian is a black volcanic glass that is highly prized for its use in making incredibly sharp knife blades and arrow heads. The Toltec were fierce warriors, as shown in their artwork, and we know that they controlled a large region. Some combination of climate change and social conflict led to the abandonment of Tula in less than 3 centuries.
The Maya civilization, which developed around 1000 BC, was much larger than the others in Mesoamerica. At its height, 40 cities thrived in the Maya empire. The Maya began as farmers who used
slash-and-burn agriculture to clear dense rainforest to plant their
crops. Maya who lived in the highlands built flat terraces into the hillsides so that they could control erosion and grow crops easily. Maya villages established trade links to buy cotton and jade from other parts of Mesoamerica. As the population grew, Maya villages became cities. Between AD 250 and 900, Maya city-states flourished, each with its own government and links to others for trade and help in times of war.
Religion played an important role in Maya culture. The Maya worshipped many gods and offered them sacrifices of blood and, sometimes, humans. One common ritual involved piercing the tongue (ouch!) or skin. Priests belonged to the upper class, along with professional warriors, who had the responsibility of capturing war victims for human sacrifice. Below them were merchants and craftsmen. Most people were in the lower class, working as farmers or slaves.
The Maya civilization made advancements in architecture, as seen in their pyramids and palaces, and in astronomy, writing, and math. They charted the movements of the sun, moon, and planets to create an accurate 365-day farming calendar. The Maya also used a 260-day religious calendar to calculate the arrival of holy days. In math, they were one of the first civilizations in the world to come up with the concept of zero. They had a writing system that used glyphs, or symbols that stood for objects or sounds. Records were carved on stone monuments or kept in bark paper books called codices (one is a “codex”). The Maya civilization began to fail around AD 900, probably due to drought, warfare, and poor leadership. The Maya never completely disappeared, but moved to other cities in Mesoamerica.
The Aztec people began as farmers in northern Mexico where they were likely controlled by the Toltecs. They migrated south in the 1100s. In 1325 they founded Tenochtitlán, a city on an island in Lake Texcoco, where they saw an eagle with a snake in its beak sitting on a cactus, fulfilling an ancient prediction.
The Aztecs eventually formed key alliances with two nearby city-states. This empire ruled more than 400 cities and 5 million people in Mesoamerica. The Aztecs forced conquered people to pay tribute, or taxes, and they built roads to make trade more efficient. Through tribute and trade, the Aztec Empire grew wealthy.
Tenochtitlán was one of the largest cities in the world at the time, with a population of around 200,000. It had a walled center with
a huge pyramid inside. The city was on an island without adequate
farmland, so city dwellers grew food on dirt-covered rafts or “floating gardens” in the lake. Canals led to a big market at Tlatelolco, where goods such as cotton and rubber were sold.
Aztec society, like that of other civilizations, had a strict class system. At the top was the king. Priests came next and tried to keep the gods happy by conducting many bloody sacrifices. Next in the social order came warriors, merchants who sold trade goods, and artisans who made trade goods. As with the Maya, the lower class consisted of farmers and slaves. Farmers could become warriors or government officials, but slaves could only hope that their children were born free. Slaves were often sacrificed to the gods. The Aztecs calculated the movement of some planets and created a solar calendar like the Maya. Their system of writing recorded taxes, business deals, poetry, riddles, and historical accounts. Advanced artisans created beautiful works in metal and stone. The Aztec empire came to an end in the 1500s when Europeans arrived.
EARLY CULTURES IN SOUTH AMERICA
Despite the geographical extremes of western South America, many groups created civilizations here. The most well-known today is the Nazca, a people who lived from 200 BC to 600 AD. They are famous for their Nazca Lines, huge designs of animals and geometric shapes in the desert floor. It is believed that the designs gave information about where water was found, because the Nazca were a desert culture that farmed. Their use of canals, natural springs, and an annual flood helped them raise enough food to support a large population.
THE INCA EMPIRE
The Inca civilization flourished many centuries after the Nazca. Once a small tribe, the Inca reached the height of their power in the early 1500s AD when 12 million people belonged to the empire. Expansion started in the 1400s when the Inca leader Pachacuti began to bring territory under Incan control through political alliances and
military force. The central government was strong, with most power in
the hands of one emperor. However, loyal leaders were sent out to rule each of the conquered areas.
The government controlled the economy and collected labor
taxes - the mita - from the people. The government ordered each family to do a certain kind of work and put them in charge of supplying goods to all people and storing the excess for emergencies. The Inca
had no written language; instead they used sets of knotted cords
called quipu to keep track of goods and record data, such as census
results. To date, no one has “translated” the quipu knots.
Because there were no draft (horses, donkeys or oxen) animals to pull carts, the Inca had no reason to build wheeled vehicles. Instead, they travelled by foot from city to city along an excellent system of narrow mountain roads, some of which can still be seen today.
The Inca government grouped families together in communities called ayllu (EYE-yoo) to work on projects. Ten ayllus had one chief who reported to higher levels of government. The chief had many responsibilities, including the job of checking that all family households in his ayllu were neat and clean. If a home was found to be dirty, the family had to scrub it from top to bottom – then drink the water they used to clean it! (Would this work in America?)
There were class divisions in Inca society. Members of the lower class were limited in what they could own and their purpose in life was to serve the upper class. The wealthy lived in the capital city of Cuzco, where they had fine stone houses and nice clothes. They were not forced to pay the labor tax like the lower class. The wealthy were typically priests or government officials.
The Inca worshipped a variety of local gods as well as the sun god, who was considered the most important. Inca kings were believed to be related to this god. Priests performed ceremonies in which llamas, food, or cloth was sacrificed. Unlike the Aztec, Incas rarely sacrificed humans to the gods but they did mummify their kings. These mummies were not sealed in tombs like Egyptian mummies. Instead, dead Inca kings were brought out for display during festivals so that they could also enjoy the festivities.
The highly structured Inca government organized a workforce that produced amazing things. Builders shaped large stone blocks that fit perfectly together without mortar, creating impressive temples, forts, and roads. Many structures built this way still stand today. Inca artists were skilled at weaving wool and cotton, and working with metal. They created everything from delicate jewelry to a large decorative field of
corn made from gold and silver for a temple’s courtyard. Weavers created everyday clothing as well as special fabrics for royalty and religious ceremonies. The pattern of the fabric showed the owner’s status in society.
The Inca Empire remained strong for about 100 years. However, internal struggles for power started a decline that severely weakened the empire by the time the Spanish arrived in 1532.