The Maya, Inca, and Aztecs built great civilizations in Mexico and in Central and South America between 1,800 and 500 years ago. The first of these was the Maya civilization

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three great civilizations

Location and Land
The Maya, Inca, and Aztecs built great civilizations in Mexico and in Central and South America between 1,800 and 500 years ago. The first of these was the Maya civilization.


Maya Civilization
About 2,800 years ago, people known as the Maya lived in farming villages on the Yucatan Peninsula and the highlands to the south. From about A.D. 250 to A.D. 900, they built city-states in Central America that included great pyramid temples and public plazas featuring huge stone columns that recounted their history. Excavations at Tikal, Guatemala, one of the greatest and oldest Maya centers, have revealed thousands of structures and artifacts. The findings include temples, pyramids, ball-playing courts, stone monuments, tools, ceremonial objects, and a great many pottery fragments.

The limestone of the Yucatan Peninsula was easily quarried and used for building and tool making. In the south, volcanoes stretched over the highlands and yielded valuable resources. The fertile volcanic soil allowed the people to grow crops.

Incan Civilization
The Inca began settling in the Valley of Cuzco in the Andes Mountains of central Peru around the year 1200. Between 1440 and 1500, they expanded their empire until it extended nearly 2,500 miles from north to south and included as many as 16 million people. The lands they occupied included mountains, coastal desert, and low-lying jungle.

The Incan central government at Cuzco maintained a strong military and passed laws to create official customs and an official language and calendar. The Inca engineered 14,000 miles of roads, including tunnels and bridges, and built the great fortress of Sacsahuaman. They also developed highly advanced terracing and irrigation methods to allow farming in difficult mountain terrain.

Aztec Civilization
The center of the Aztec civilization was in the Valley of Mexico, a huge high-elevation basin in the Sierra Madre Mountains. This valley had a mild climate that was good for agriculture. The surrounding lowlands offered a hotter, wetter tropical climate and an abundance of natural resources.

Around 1325, the Aztecs settled on an island in Lake Texcoco, where they built their capital and largest city, Tenochtitlán. They called themselves the Mexica (pronounced me-shee-ka) and became accomplished corn farmers, warriors, and temple builders. The ceramic shown here is one of a pair of life-size statues discovered during the recent excavation of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlán. The statues stood guard at the doorway of the meeting room of the Aztec warriors. The aggression and warrior skill of the Aztecs allowed them to conquer neighboring people. Eventually, the empire stretched over most of central Mexico and included millions of people.

Civilizations Measure Time and Record Information

The Maya built their great cities between A.D. 250 and A.D. 900. Their accomplishments included the development of complex writing and mathematical systems and impressive advances in astronomy. They used two calendars. One calendar was based on a solar year, while the other was a kind of sacred almanac. A sophisticated three-symbol numerical system allowed the Maya to record numbers into the millions.

The Aztec civilization, which emerged beginning in the 1200s, is considered the greatest of the civilizations that developed in Mesoamerica, the area extending from central Mexico to Honduras. Settling first on an island in Lake Texcoco, the Aztecs expanded their control to most of central Mexico. Like the Maya, the Aztec used a sacred calendar and a 365-day agricultural calendar. The Aztec writing system was based on glyphs, symbols that stand for sounds or words. The few remaining Aztec books, called codices, provide rich depictions of Aztec legends, beliefs, and daily life.

At about the same time that the Aztecs flourished in Mexico, the highly developed Incan Empire flourished in the Andes Mountains and along the west coast of South America. The vast Incan Empire had a central government that established laws, developed a complex road system, planned cities, and created farmlands along the sides of mountains. Unlike the Aztecs and the Maya, the Inca did not develop a writing system. Records of inventories were kept on bundles of knotted cords called quipus. incan city machu picchu eagle warriormaya number systemaztec codex



Credits: Aztec Calendar Stone © Kimball Morrison/South American Pictures; Machu Picchu © Tony Morrison/South American Pictures; eagle warrior. Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City/ Photo © John Bigelow Taylor /Art Resource, New York; Codex Madrid Fragment of the Codex of Madrid. Mayan manuscript. Museo de America, Madrid, Spain. Photo © Scala/Art Resource, New York.

test your knowledge

You probably already know something about the great civilizations of Latin America. This quiz is an opportunity to check your knowledge before you start your explorations of the Maya, the Aztecs, and the Inca. After answering all of the questions, click "Check Your Answers."

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1.  Where was the Aztec civilization located?

northern Argentina
western Chile

central Mexico
the southwestern United States

2.   What peninsula did the Maya culture occupy?

Baja California


3.   What mountain range was part of the Incan Empire?

the Sierra Madres
the Andes

the Rockies
the Himalayas

4.   What was one accomplishment the Aztec, Maya, and Inca had in common?

a writing system
agriculture techniques

the use of wheeled vehicles

5.   When did the Maya build their great cities?

1200–900 B.C.
250 B.C–250 A.D.

250–900 A.D.
1200–1500 A.D.

6.   What type of astronomical calendar did the Maya use?

a solar calendar
A religious calendar based on their legends

a 365-day calendar determined by a central government
a lunar calendar

7.   During what period did the Aztec empire flourish?

1500–1200 B.C.
200 B.C.–1000 A.D.

500–1800 A.D.
1200–1500 A.D.

8.   What are glyphs?

written symbols that stand for a sound or a word
large, erect stones used in sundials

breads made from ground corn meal

9.   What was the purpose of the Inca quipus?

to observe the stars
to record inventories

to move large blocks of stone
to carve terraces on steep mountainsides

10.   What country took control of the lands of the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca?



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