Chapter 13

America on the Eve of Invasion

In This Chapter

• Early civilizations of North America

• The Early Mesoamerican civilizations

• The Mayans and the Aztecs

• The early civilizations of South America

• The Incan Empire

The history of the early Americas is not often told in detail, but recent archaeology and scholarship has shed new light on the Americas before exploration.

Early humans crossed the Bering Strait when it was a land bridge into the Americas during the Ice Ages. From that time, the first Americans populatedthe Western Hemisphere with a variety of cultures suited to their environmental settings in North, Central, and South America.

North America

Prehistoric North American civilization can be divided into the Eastern Woodlands and the Southwest. The other regions of North America only had nomadic tribal cultures,which did not leave enough of a historical or anthropological record to make an impact on the world historical stage.

Notable Quotable

"All the people came up. They traveled east until they arrived at the ocean; then they turned south until they came again to the ocean; then they went west to the ocean ... And as they went, each tribe stopped where it wanted to.”

—Account from Apache myth, Anonymous

The Eastern Woodlands

Three unique primitive cultures developed in the eastern region, in the fertile river valleys and forests of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The Adena thrived in the region from 500 B.C.E. to 100 C.E., to be eclipsed by the Hopewell culture that developedand peaked from around 100 to 400 C.E. Little is known about these cultures; the archaeological record is limited to only a variety of earthen mounds, and these peoples did not develop a written language.

The culture that subsequently emerged in the river valleys of eastern North America from 700 to 1500 C.E. left the clearest historical record to examine. The Mississippian civilization did not develop as a nation or a kingdom but as a loose confederation of tribes, which provided enough cultural stability to allow for the development of a few urban centers, most notably the city of Cahokia in modern-day Mississippi. Like its predecessors, the Mississippian culture created a large variety of earthen mounds that most likely served as ceremonial and religious centers.

The Southwest

In the dry desert region of Southwest North America, a civilization called the Anasazi, meaning “ancient ones,” emerged and adapted to the harsh environment. They began as small settlements around 450 C.E. Although very little is known about their culture because of a lack of written language, the Anasazi did leave behind elaboratecliff dwellings. These fascinating dwellings made of clay and rocks were carved into canyons high above the desert. The civilization reached its peak around 700 C.E. and thereafter suddenly declined. The reason is unknown, but some historians link its fall to the decline of a Mesoamerican civilization.

Central America

Central America, or Mesoamerica, witnessed the rise and fall of several unique and advanced civilizations, including the Olmec, Teotihuacán, Mayans, Toltecs, and Aztecs. Their advanced culture provided archaeologists and historians with more information to reconstruct their histories compared to the North American civilizations.

The Olmec

The Olmec emerged in east-central Mexico around 1200 B.C.E. and remained active in Mesoamerica until 400 B.C.E. It is considered by most to be the “mother civilization”of Central America, meaning that most of its descendents drew from its culture in the area of art, architecture, religion, and language.

What in the World

The Olmec constructed a series of enormous stone head monuments—incredibly, withoutthe use of any metal tools but stone tools. The faces of the monuments are unique because they contain detail unlike any found in early America before arrival of the Europeans. Archaeologists and historians have not been able to explain the reason for or origins of the Olmec monuments.


Influenced culturally by the Olmec, the Oaxaca Zapotecan people founded the city of Teotihuacán around 150 to 100 B.C.E. near modern-day Mexico City. It developed into one of the world’s largest cities with a population of over 200,000. Teotihuacán was carefully planned to accommodate its growing population, with streets laid out in a grid pattern with two pyramids in the center of the city, one dedicated to the sun and the other to the moon.

Teotihuacán thrived on intensive agriculture developed around the area of the city and an extensive regional trade network. The city’s social structure consisted of two major groups. At the top were the priests and nobles, who lived in lavish homes. The other group was composed of farm peasants and workers who inhabited apartment compounds. The city began to fall into decline between 800 and 1000 C.E., during which it was ruled by a form of militarism, until finally Teotihuacán was conquered by the expanding Mayan people.

The Maya

The Mayan civilization that developed in the early centuries of the Common Era in Mesoamerica has sometimes been called the “Greeks of the New World.” They emerged in Central America and eventually occupied an area that included present-dayGuatemala, Honduras, Belize, and southern Mexico. The Mayans flourished politically and culturally from 250 to 950 C.E., creating a calendar, a sophisticated written language, superior textiles, and elegant art.

What in the World

Around 850, the Mayans built an observatory for astronomy called the Caracol in the city of Chichén Itca. Its architecture was based on the alignments of different celestial events. The observations of the planet Venus at this observatory proved to be very important to the Mayans, serving as the basis of the Mayan calendar.

Religion was the foundation of the Mayan culture, a complex set of beliefs involving the worship of serpentgods and jaguar deities. The Mayan people built large pyramid complexes in which to perform large-scalehuman sacrifices to the gods. They also created a ritualistic ball game, much like basketball, which involved shooting a ball through a hoop, but the losersof the competition were then ritually sacrificed to the gods.

The Mayans took religion very seriously, which produced some very positive results. The Mayans developed hieroglyphs to record their history, astronomy, dynastic lineage, and religious practices. This hieroglyphic system was based on a number system of 20. It consisted of an ideographic series of bars and dots that made over 850 characters, which the Mayans carved on stone and wrote on a primitive form of paper. Furthermore, the Mayans made many advances in mathematics and astronomy, including the creation of a calendarsystem accurate to within a second.

Notable Quotable

"This is the account of how all was in suspense, all calm, in silence; all motionless, still, and the expanse of sky was empty. This is the first account, the first narrative. There were neither man, nor animal, birds, fishes, crabs, trees, stones, caves, ravines, grasses, nor forests, there was only the sky.”

Popul Vih (Sacred book of Maya), Anonymous

The Mayans were ruled by a theocracy that combined civic and religious authority over the people. Generally, these theocrats came from the same family and directed the activities of the elite scribes and priests who administered the affairs of the state. Mayan cities reached populations of 80,000 people, and the Mayans centralized agricultureto drain swamps to raise maize or corn. Eventually, the populations of the cities became a drain on environmental resources. The Mayan civilization fell into decline until the Toltec invaded their territories and ended the Mayan rule for good.


A theocracy is a government ruled by a person who claims to have the sanction of a god or gods. Generally, these claims have a powerful effect on the people if the religion is culturally very important.


The Toltecs emerged from northern Mesoamerica to invade and conquer most of the Mayan territories and establish a capital at Tula by 968. A very aggressive civilization, the Toltecs were dedicated to a militaristic ethic that included continuous warfare and the cult of sacrifice.

Later successors, most notably the Aztecs, confused and combined the legacy of the Toltecs with that of the city of Teotihuacán. In reality, the Toltec influence on Mesoamerica was very limited, as was their ability to maintain an empire for any length of time. By 1150, the Toltecs fell into decline and no longer dominated the region of Mesoamerica.

The Aztecs

The Aztecs emerged from the struggle for supremacy in Mesoamerica after the fall of the short-lived Toltecs. Although their origins are not altogether clear, most agree that the Aztecs were part of a nomadic group referred to as the Mexica. This tribe, which spoke Nahautl, the language of the Toltecs, migrated to the shores of Lake Texcoco in the central valley of Mexico around 1325. At that time the Aztecs founded their major city, Tenochtitlan, on a marshy island in the middle of the lake. From there, the Aztecs began a rapid and spectacular rise to power. With a reputation as fierce warriors and zealous followers of their religion, they became a major power in Mesoamerica by the early fifteenth century until the arrival of the Spanish in the mid-sixteenth century.

As the Aztecs conquered Central America, they developed a tribute system that ensured their short-term dominance. Conquered people were forced to pay tribute, surrender lands, and perform military service. Local rulers were allowed to stay in their positions to act as tribute collectors, allowing for Aztec political dominance without direct administrative control. In exchange, the conquered people were extended Aztec protection, which was dominated by the Great Speaker, the ruler of Tenochtitlan. The Great Speaker was first among equals and a civil power as well as a representative of the gods on Earth. For these privileges, the conquered had to give up a few of their own to help feed the fast developing Aztec cult of human sacrifice.

Aztec Religion

The religion of the Aztecs was vast as well as complex. The Aztec religion made little distinction between the world of the gods and the natural world and had at least 128 major deities. Each deity served as patrons of cities and occupations. The forces of nature had a duality that allowed for a male or female counterpart, which multiplied the complexity and number of the Aztec pantheon of gods.

Religious observances took on many forms, including a variety of festivals and ceremonieswith feasting, dancing, penance, and human sacrifices. Not all of Aztec religion had such a polytheistic perspective. The writings of Nezhualcoyotl, king of Texcoco, hinted at a deeper unity of spiritual belief and monotheistic concerns. Nezhualcoyotl questioned the existence of the pantheon of Aztec gods and advanced the notion of an invisible creative force underlying all things, which gave true meaningto existence.

Human sacrifice held a special place in the Aztec religion. The sun god Huitzilopochtli was, in addition to being the Aztec tribal patron, the central figure in the cult of human sacrifice. According to the Aztecs, sacrifice was based on the belief that Huitzilopochtli needed strength to fight the forces of darkness and cold with warmth and light. This warmth and light was derived from human life in the form of the heart and blood. So the Aztecs had to continually perform human sacrifices to help fight the forces of darkness. These performances developed into elaborate rituals and a cult that dominated Aztec society. Central to the cult was the city and temple complex at Tenochtitlan, which was viewed as the foundation of heaven.

Notable Quotable

"And when he [the priest] had laid him upon it [the stone table], four men stretched him out, his arms and legs. And already in the hand of the fire priest lay the [knife] ... and then, when he has split open the breast, he at once seized his heart. And he whose breast he laid open was quite alive.”

—Account from Fray Bernardino de Sahagún


To support its growing population, the Aztecs invented a unique system of agricultureto supplement traditional methods. Using Lake Texcoco as a resource, the Aztecs invented chinampas, which were beds of aquatic weeds, mud, and earth in frames made of cane that were rooted to the lake floor. These floating fields augmentedthe production of maize and other staple crops of the region, all of which was controlled and distributed by the Aztec state.

Social Structure

The social structure of the Aztecs mirrored that of other previous civilizations. Of course, at the top were the king and his family, who were representatives of the gods on Earth. The nobility, which made up a majority of the military, were next in line. As part of the military, their importance came from taking prisoners in war for sacrifice, which ensured immortality. To have a “flowery death” meant dying while gathering prisoners for the cult, which was one of the noblest ways for someone to die.

Below the nobles were the scribes, artisans, and healers who inhabited the cities of the Aztec empire. There was also the pochteca, or special merchant class, that traded in luxury items that the Aztec command economy did not control. The lower class was the peasantry, which worked in the fields to feed the empire.

The Decline of the Aztec

The most obvious reason for the Aztecs’ decline was the invasion of the Spanish, led by Cortez, but there were seeds of a fall years earlier. The lack of technology, and more specifically the lack of the wheel, made basic food preparation laborious and lengthy. The Aztecs had to grind maize for 30 to 40 hours per week by hand. This work was taxing on manpower as the Aztec Empire grew in population.

In addition, the Aztec tribute system caused problems as conquered people grew resentful of Aztec political and cultural domination. Finally, the religious need for more sacrificial victims pushed the empire to expand beyond its ability to effectively control and provide.

To the regions south of the Aztecs, the Spanish also contributed to the decline of civilizations but their development was very different in comparison to those of the central region.

South America

Humans began to develop settlements in the peaks and valleys of the Andes Mountainsin the second century B.C.E. The first known human settlement in South America emerged along the Supe River in central Peru in 2600 B.C.E. Eventually the settlements spread northward, developing weaving, pottery, and metallurgy as they grew into urban societies.

The Chavin

The Chavin civilization was the first true civilization to develop in South America and Peru. It flourished from 1000 to 200 B.C.E. and spread for hundreds of miles along the Peruvian coast. The center of the Chavin civilization was at Chavin de Huantar, high in the Andes Mountains north of present-day Lima.

The people of the Chavin civilization were united religiously rather than politically. As their religious authority declined, the people broke up into regional groups that dominated the political landscape of Peru for centuries. Their cultural legacy included improved techniques of cultivating maize, the back-strap loom, and advances in metallurgy.

The Moche

The Moche civilization emerged in the Moche and Chicam valleys of Peru from 200 to 700 C.E. It expanded to adjacent valleys of the northern coast of Peru through conquest. Its expansion and subsequent stability allowed for the development of two large urban cities: Tihuanaco, on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, and Huari, in southern Peru, which became dominant in the end.

The Moche rulers oversaw the building of two huge pyramids of adobe blocks known as the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon, which were painted with polychrome murals. In addition, the Moche people constructed extensive irrigation ditches and fortifications around their cities. To some degree, these measures providedprotection and stability, which resulted in the development of an artisan class to create painted water jars and gilded metal objects.

The Moche civilization used the practices of ayllus, reciprocity, and verticality to help to bond their society together. Ayllus were kinship units based on shared mythical ancestors to which everyone belonged. Reciprocity developed cooperative relationshipsbased on Moche religious beliefs. And finally, verticality was the creation of social and political objectives of families and communities based on different economicsand altitudes. Over time, these techniques of societal cohesion came to naught and the Moche civilization was conquered by the state of Chimu.

The state of Chimu emerged around 800 C.E. to dominate over 600 miles of the Peruvian and Chilean coast. Its capital city was Chan Chan near present-day Trujillo. This powerful state was quite abruptly conquered at its height by the Incas in 1465.

The Incas

The Incan people emerged from the region of Cuzco in the Andean highlands around 1350 and, before their sudden end at the hands of the Spanish, they became the most powerful empire of South America.

By 1438, the Incas had defeated and conqueredall of their surrounding neighbors to create a large and powerful state. But it was the three rulers—Pachacuti (1438-1471), Topac Yupanqui, and Huayna Capac (1493-1527)—who created the Incan Empire. Pachacuti conquered more territoryto create not just a powerful state but a large empire. Topac Yupanqui, the son of Pachacuti, added to that empire by conqueringthe Chimu state by cleverly seizing its irrigation system. Finally, Huayna Capac consolidated the newly conquered lands under Incan rule and suppressed subsequent rebellions against that consolidation.

What in the World

Over half of the population of Peru are descendants of the Incan civilization, and its culture is still alive. The Andean pipes, an Incan instrument, are still played in the music of the country. Many Peruvians speak the ancient Incan language of Quecha. The people of Peru also use Incan techniques in farming and clothing.

The Incan Empire developed a proven technique of rule and empire. The empire was divided into four provinces, each with its own governor. Underneath that governor was a provincial bureaucracy in which the Incan nobles played a major role. Local rulers who were conquered by the Incas maintained their positions and received privileges for their loyalty. Also the conquered people did not pay tribute (remember those unhappy groups who were conquered by the Aztecs?), but instead provided labor on lands. To further help with cohesion in the empire, the Inca spread the Incan language, Quechua. Finally, the Inca constructed a system of roads to connect all of the empire culturally and economically.

The Incan Religion

The Incan religion had many different elements. A royal ancestor cult drove the Inca to expand the empire, maybe to its determent. Deceased Incan rulers were mummified.After their mummification, the dead rulers were treated as intermediaries between the Incan people and the gods. All of the deceased’s land and possessions were used to support the cult surrounding its mummified body. This meant that subsequentIncan rulers received no lands or possessions when they took over the empire, so they continually sought to expand the empire.

The Incas also worshipped many gods, with the sun god being the most revered. The ruler of the Incas was the sun god’s representative on Earth and thus very important, whether he was alive or dead. The Temple of the Sun in Cuzco combined the cult of the royal ancestor and reverence for the sun god. It became the center of the state religion and housed the mummies of the dead Incan rulers.

Finally, animism was another element found in the Incan religion. Huacas, or holy shrines, found in such places as mountains, stones, rivers, caves, and tombs were believed to be inhabited by spirits. Some of these acknowledged spiritual shrines became pilgrimage sites for the Incas.

Incan Achievements

The stability of the Incan Empire allowed developments in mathematics, architecture,and metallurgy. Incan craftsmen created many beautiful religious and domestic objects out of gold and silver. Copper and bronze were used to make various weapons and tools.

In architecture the Inca built precise, fitted-stone buildings. In math they developed the quipu, a system of knotted strings to record numerical information for trade and engineering. Finally, the Inca laid over 2,500 miles of roads throughout their empire, an engineering feat similar to that of the Roman Empire.

The Least You Need to Know

• The early people of the Americas traveled from Asia across the Bering Strait during the Ice Age, when it was a land bridge.

• The early Americans gradually populated both North and South America, adapting to the different environments.

• Many civilizations developed in the Americas, but the most notable were the Mayans, Aztecs, and the Incas.

• The Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas developed and administered complex societies that included large urban centers and government bureaucracies.

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