What took place in the Americas had little connection to the
civilizations of Eurasia and Africa, although there were some
parallels. The timing of civilization development in the
Americas was different due to American separation from other
core regions. American civilizations lacked horses and
cattle and relied on a completely different range of
agricultural crops. Although American civilizations
developed great empires, they did so with limited technology.
- Origins of American Societies
During the last Ice Age, peoples from Asia moved across a
land bridge to the Americas. The expansion of the ice sheets
lowered water levels in the oceans and made the migration
possible. Hunters possibly followed game animals across the
land bridge. About 10,000 years ago, increases in
temperature melted the ice sheets and ended the period of
- The Ancient Hunters
The migrations took place between 20,000 and 8,000 B.C.E.
The length of time needed to populate the Americas is
unknown. Early stone technology was limited to scrapers and
crude knives. Hunting spear points appeared about 12,000
years ago. The warming of the climate coincided with the
disappearance of the great mammals that had also migrated
from Asia. Successful hunting techniques may account for the
elimination of large animal species. Early migrants probably
lived in small bands based on kinship with little social
stratification or economic specialization.
- American Diversity
The earliest migrants to the New World represented different
genetic types, including Caucasoid, Australoid, and Mongoloid
peoples. Despite genetic difference, genetic and physical
similarities among American Indian populations indicate a
high degree of common ancestry. Variations in language and
culture can be attributed to adaptation and localization of
- The Question of Outside Contacts
Various cultural patterns and some biological origins have
suggested contacts between the Americas and Asia. Despite
apparent similarities, there is no concrete evidence for
contact prior to the fifteenth century. The cultural aspects
of civilization agriculture, domestication of animals,
weaving, ceramics, social stratification, urbanism, religious
ideas, and numerical systems were developed independently in
the New World. Although independent development made
American cultures durable, there were certain drawbacks.
American cultures lacked the wheel, iron technology, and
large mammals. Pastoralism was largely absent in the
earliest American cultures. American peoples also lacked
resistance to the diseases of Eurasia and Africa.
- The Archaic Cultures
The earliest peoples in the Americas depended on hunting and
gathering. Agriculture may have developed by 7000 B.C.E. in
the Andes and by 5000 B.C.E. elsewhere. Initially,
agricultural societies intermingled with intensive hunting
and gathering groups. The most important crops were maize,
potatoes, and manioc. Agricultural societies developed
economic specialization and social stratification. The
development of maize in central Mexico by 4000 B.C.E. led to
population growth that, in turn, stimulated the development
of new crops. Maize cultivation spread throughout North and
South America. Maize introduction, even in areas where
manioc and potatoes had previously been cultivated, resulted
in population growth and more complex societies.
- Cultural Hearths and Social Systems
Civilizations developed in two regions of the Americas
Mesoamerica and the Peruvian highlands. The entire region
from central Mexico to Chile formed a continuous nucleus of
developing civilizations called hearths. From these regions,
the cultural features of American civilizations spread to
- Types of American Indian Societies
The idea of a central hearth region accounts for basic
similarities in American cultural features. Distinctions
among American groups were based on economic and political
organization with adoption of sedentary agriculture as the
key. Hunting and gathering groups continued to occupy large
regions of the Americas. These groups existed in bands
organized along lines of kinship with little formal political
organization. Those groups which had made partial
transitions to sedentary agriculture lived in larger groups
organized in villages. Only among peoples who converted
entirely to sedentary agriculture did the most complex
societies develop. Social stratification and economic
specialization were typical of the latter groups.
- Chiefdoms and States
Chiefdom was a common form of social and political
organization among the more sedentary peoples of the
Americas. Chiefdoms were typified by government of
hereditary chieftains who ruled from central towns which paid
tribute to the central administrators. Central towns often
had a priestly class who organized ritual. Chiefdoms were
socially stratified into groups of nobles, priests, and
commoners. States may have emerged from these chiefdoms,
although in many ways the two forms of political structure
were similar. Distinctions were observed between the
residents of the chiefdoms and the less sedentary populations
that surrounded them. Thus the tension between civilization
and more mobile populations typical of the Old World was
replicated in the Americas.
- Spread of Civilization in Mesoamerica
The Olmec civilization was the foundation for the
civilizations of Mesoamerica. The region was typified by
geographical diversity which gave rise to various
environments requiring different human adaptations.
Environmental variations created different products and
enhanced trade between regions. The transition to more
complex societies began around 5000 B.C.E. in Mesoamerica.
Pottery was first used around 2000 B.C.E. Sedentary villages
based on agriculture first appeared in the region about
contemporary with the emergence of the Shang dynasty in
- The Olmec Mystery
Olmec civilization appeared suddenly around 1200 B.C.E.
without much evidence of gradual development. The Olmecs
possessed irrigation systems, monumental architecture,
calendrical and writing systems, religion, and urbanism. The
earliest Olmec sites were located in the tropical forests of
the Gulf coast of eastern Mexico, but Olmec culture spread
inland to the highlands.
Maize cultivation provided the basis for a state ruled by a
hereditary elite dependent on the maintenance of organized
religious ceremonialism. Olmec culture seems to have
influenced other developing centers of civilization, such as
the Zapotecs of Oaxaca and the Mayas of the Yucatan. Olmec
art and symbols appear in many places in Mesoamerica, but it
is difficult to interpret the significance of their
- The Classic Era of Mesoamerican Civilization
Between 150 and 900 C.E., the classic period in Mesoamerica
followed the Olmec era. The two main centers of development
were in the high valley of central Mexico and the tropical
lowlands of the Yucatan and Guatemala. In central Mexico an
important ceremonial center developed in the city of
Teotihuacan. Surrounded by irrigated agricultural systems,
Teotihuacan seems to have been able to command huge numbers
of workers to support the massive monumental structures
and the elite of the city. There is evidence for economic
specialization and social stratification. The rulers of
Teotihuacan were probably able to extract tribute from a wide
region extending as far south as Guatemala. The lack of
martial artwork in the city of Teotihuacan has led to the
assumption that the city was able to establish a long period
At approximately the same time as Teotihuacan dominated the
central Mexican highlands, Mayan civilization was developing
in southern Mexico and Central America. Mayan culture
included monumental architecture, a written language, a
calendrical and mathematical system, religion, social
stratification, and economic specialization. The political
structure of the Mayans was based on city-states. To support
themselves, Mayan religious centers depended on elaborate
irrigation systems and intensive cultivation. Mayan cities
varied in size, but all included monumental architecture
devoted to religious ceremonialism. Two of the great Maya
accomplishments were the creation of a sophisticated system
of mathematics used, in part, to create a calendar based on
recurring cycles and the development of a writing system.
Mayan writing was used in both religion and more secular
Mayan religion featured a complex cosmology of thirteen
heavens and nine underworlds. The religion was dualistic
with good and evil, male and female, night and day all
balanced. Inscriptions on public stelae are historical
records of individual dynasties and records of the constant
warfare between city-states. Priests and scribes assisted
powerful rulers in the administration of the city-states.
Maya rituals included mutilation and human sacrifice.
Although there were artisans who lived in the cities, the
majority of the population consisted of peasant farmers.
Captives in war were enslaved. Family structure among
the Maya was patrilineal, although elite women retained some
- Classic Collapse
Between 700 and 900 C.E., the classical civilizations of
Mesoamerica began to collapse. Nomadic peoples from northern
Mexico destroyed Teotihuacan around 650 C.E. The Zapotec
civilization based on Monte Alban went into slow decline at
the same time. By 900 C.E., most Maya centers had been
abandoned. Constant war between Mayan city-states may have
led to collapse. It has also been proposed that the
intensive system of agriculture on which the Maya depended
could no longer support the Mayan population. Cultural
achievements of the classic period were not maintained in the
aftermath of the collapse, although some Mayan cities
continued to flourish with considerable influence from the
highlands. After 1000 C.E., the Toltecs assumed control over
the region of central Mexico. From their capital at Tula,
the Toltecs established a military empire based on classical
cultural foundations. The Toltec empire collapsed around
- The Peoples of the North
In the Mississippi basin and in the American southwest,
complex societies emerged based on sedentary agriculture.
- The Mound Builders
The valleys of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers supported the
development of sedentary agricultural societies. The Adena
culture featured the construction of large earthen mounds
used for defense and for burials. The Adena society appears
to have traded with other regions of North America. Adena
culture may have spread along trade routes to regions of New
York and Maryland.
The Hopewell culture, which arose around 200 C.E., replaced
the Adena in Ohio. The Hopewell people were also mound
builders who established networks of trade. The Hopewell
culture declined by 500 C.E.
Mississippian culture was also based on mound building and
flourished between 800 and 1300 C.E. It is possible,
although not known, that the Mississippian culture was a
centralized chiefdom. Its ruler may have governed a society
divided into four classes. Mississippian culture was more
heavily dependent on sedentary agriculture than its two
antecedents. Mesoamerican civilizations may have influenced
- The Desert Peoples
By 300 B.C.E., irrigated agriculture supported settled
communities in the desert region of the American southwest.
Early groups lived in pit houses, which later developed into
full stone structures.
The most famous of the early southwestern cultures was the
Anasazi. As a means of defense, the Anasazi constructed
large complexes of stone structures built into the sides of
cliffs. Characteristic of these dwellings was the use of a
circular pit for religious ceremonies. The Anasazi traded
with the civilizations of Mesoamerica. A long period of
drought in the late thirteenth century probably accounts for
the decline of the Anasazi.
- The Andean World
Civilization in South America shared many traits with
Mesoamerica. Chavin civilization was followed by a number of
regional variations. After Chavin, a new civilization
horizon centered on the upland states of Huari and Tihuanaco.
The rapid rise from the Pacific coast of South America to the
Andean highlands created numerous microregions, each with its
own ecology. Andean population clustered on the more arid
coastal regions or on the uplands between the two major
chains of the Andes. To the east of the Andes lay the
tropical rain forests in the basins of the Amazon and La
Plata rivers. The establishment of irrigated systems of
agriculture and roads required social complexity and
political organization. Communities attempted to control a
number of ecological zones from the coastal plain to the
highlands in order to provide for varied resources.
Successful control of various regions determined political
organization, settlement, and growth.
- Early Developments and the Rise of Chavin
Andean history is often divided between periods in which
strictly regional cultures dominated and eras typified by
more centralized state control over the entire area.
Sedentary agricultural communities were established in the
Andes between 3000 and 2000 B.C.E. Maize and pottery were
introduced by 2700 B.C.E. Between 1800 and 1200 B.C.E.,
ceremonial centers featuring monumental architecture appeared
on the coast and in the highlands. The most important of the
centers was Chavin de Huantar in the highlands. The jaguar
was a common motif in Chavin art. Chavin-style art was
widely disseminated, a fact that suggests broad political
control over the entire region. It is unknown whether Chavin
culture was spread as a result of military conquest.
- Regional Cultures and a New Horizon
The political unity imposed by Chavin was lost by 300 B.C.E.
In its wake arose regional centers with indigenous cultures,
such as those at Nazca and Moche. In the Mochica state (200-
700 C.E.), monumental structures were constructed of brick.
Moche expanded its control over the region by military
conquest. The period of regional organization was brought to
an end by the growth of two larger states, Tihuanaco and
Huari. The religious symbols and artistic motifs associated
with these two states were widely disseminated, possibly
suggesting the creation of a second horizon. Tihuanaco
extended its control over the southern Andes region, while
Huari controlled the northern region. The period of
dominance of these two states ended in the ninth century
C.E., about the same time as the end of the classic period in
Mesoamerica. The decline precipitated another round of
regional development, as at Chimu on the coast.
- Andean Lifeways
The control of various ecological niches located at different
altitudes was the objective of states, families, and
communities. Despite ethnic and linguistic variations,
Andean communities were most often composed of kinship
groups, or ayllus. Marriage was most often within the ayllu.
Each kinship group assigned land and water rights to families
within the kindred. Each ayllu was directed by a chief, or
curaca. Labor and military conscription were based on
ayllus. Related kinship groups could, on occasion, be bound
together in larger political confederations. Much of Andean
society was suffused with the concept of reciprocity in
return for labor and tribute, states were to manage public
works projects for the benefit of the community. The
principle of reciprocity even extended to religion.
- Conclusion: American Civilizations
Contact between Mesoamerica and the Andes led to parallels in
cultural development and the chronology of the emergence of
more complex political systems. Much of this was probably
funnelled through intermediate cultures in Central America.
There were important differences. Peruvian cultures used
metallurgy more fully than their Mesoamerican counterparts.
The existence of the llama in the Andes allowed the
development of a form of pastoralism there unknown in Mexico.
Unlike the Maya, the cultures of the Andean highlands never
developed a system of writing.