Early Civilizations of the Americas

The first peoples of the Americas were modern human beings. Contrary to tales often shown in cheap Hollywood movies, no Neanderthals or early human beings lived in North or South America.

There is considerable debate as to how the first humans, often called paleo-Indians, arrived in the Americas. The most commonly accepted theory is that hunter-gatherer tribes from the Kamchatka peninsula in Siberia crossed the present-day Bering strait by means of a land bridge, known as Beringia, during the most recent Ice Age. Their journey probably was in search of game. Presumably from this point, they wandered throughout North and South America and populated it.

Many scholars disagree. Some argue that the Indians may have migrated from Africa or Asia. The prevailing winds and currents of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans make this quite possible. It is indeed likely that the several ethnic groups who have traditionally (and incorrectly) been classified simply as "Indians" have diverse origins. It is entirely possible that the early peoples of Meso-America and South America originated from different areas and at different times than the Indians of North America.

The exact date of the arrival of the first peoples in the Americas is also a subject of intense scholarly debate. There is no question that people were living in North America, including in the area of present-day South Carolina, as early as 10,000 B.C.E. Some archeological evidence points to settlement as early as 50,000 B.C.E., but this evidence is somewhat suspect.

Certain facts about the early civilizations of the Americas are indisputable:

  • They adopted Agriculture more than 8,000 years ago. As a result, they had a sedentary life style, built permanent settlements.
  • Evidence of a sedentary lifestyle and developed civilization in America actually predates similar situations in Western Europe. Were made sedentary by agriculture.
  • There was an adequate supply of meat, vegetables, water, so no longer migratory; as a result, population grew. Populations do not grow quickly in migratory societies; Indian population did grow.
  • A growing community must construct physical, economic structures: Indians had this; had division of labor; gender roles 8,000 years ago. By 3,000 years ago, they had a highly developed civilization.
  • By 1492 (the year Columbus landed), U.S. and Canada had 4 million residents. Most Indians preferred climates in warmer subtropical areas. Southern California, Central America, northern South America had over 40 million Indians.
  • There was a tremendous level of development.

  • Cortez wrote in his dairy in 1519 that the Aztec city of Technocticlan (under present day Mexico City) had a complex irrigation system based on a series of canals and a grid system. Houses, etc. were strategically located along the grid. Even he recognized that this far exceeded the development and lifestyle of big cities in Europe.
  • By 15th Century, the Incas of Peru were performing brain surgery; evidence indicates the practice dated back 1,000 years.
  • Mayas had two calendars; one based on 185 days; another quite close to our modern calendar. They also had the technology to drill tiny holes in stone; something American technicians learned only within the last 100 years.
  • Anasazi of Four Corners region had community developed 12,000 years ago with civilization more advanced than anything that existed in Europe. One subdivision had over 800 apartments; plus a network of roads that were straight.
  • Also evidence of large figures carved into surface of earth; can only see entire image from high altitude.
  • By 1892 (400 years after Columbus landed), only 200,000 Indians left in North America. Only 4 million left in South America – utter destruction.

    Where would society be today if this destruction had not occurred?

    Not all Indian cultures were that advanced; not all equally advanced; some were more advanced than others; but many were far more advanced than has previously been believed. Many were more advanced than European civilizations at the same time. By the time of the European Middle Ages, there were several cities in South America with greater populations than the largest cities of Europe. Additionally, the Aztec and Inca civilizations had large empires and extensive trading networks that again exceeded advancement in Europe. Even so, in some respects, early American civilizations lacked certain technological advancements common in Europe and Asia:

  • No American culture before contact with Europeans learned the use of the Wheel.
  • Horses were not known to the Indians. Although horses had been native to America, they had been killed off for food early on. They had no other herd animals, such as cattle and sheep. The only domestic animals were dogs which were used for work, and when they were too old to work, were eaten.
  • They never developed the use of metals, such as copper or Iron. All tools and weapons were made of stone. In some South American cultures, knives and other weapons were made of obsidian, a form of volcanic glass.
  • It is entirely possible that these technological developments did not occur because the early people of the Americas did not need them. There were abundant natural resources. In fact, their ability to work with stone and build large sophisticated cities, plus the multiplication of their population indicates they fared quite well without them.

    Early Societies of Mesoamerica:

    Olmec: The Olmec (meaning "rubber people," a modern term, since there proper name is unknown) were the earliest civilization in Central America, possibly the earliest civilization in the Americas. Their civilization developed sometime between 1200 and 1000 B.C.E in the Gulf Coast region of southern Mexico, and later expanded into Guatemala. They were an agricultural people who grew beans, chili peppers, avocados, squash and gourds. By 4000 B.C.E. they had begun the cultivation of maize (commonly known in the U.S. today as "corn.") Tomatoes were cultivated as early as 3000 B.C.E. Crop production was made possible by an irrigation system that was built through the city. Their crops were frequently fertilized with guano, droppings from bats or seagulls. Crops were supplemented by fishing and hunting, but they also domesticated turkeys and small dogs who did not bark. Both were raised for food. Because larger animals in the area could not be domesticated, they had no work animals. All fields were prepared by hand and trade goods carried on the backs of porters.

    The Olmec constructed elaborate ceremonial centers with pyramids, temples, and palaces near agricultural villages. They were not cities in the strict sense of the word; but were rather centers of worship, occupied primarily by the ruling elite, priests, and the necessary artisans and craftsmen to maintain the structures. Although large numbers of people were in the centers for special worship occasions; they returned to their homes at the end of business. They developed a complex calendar and hieroglyphic writing system, and had unique art creations.

    The Olmecs were most notable for their colossal head art. The largest existing stone head is almost ten feet tall, and weighs over twenty tons. Scholars have theorized that the heads are modeled after their rulers. Most of the colossal heads were decapitated or destroyed in some way, which has led researchers to speculate that the Olmecs did this themselves after a ruler died as a sacrifice to the gods or animal spirits. The facial features of the heads illustrate people with slanted eyes and large lips which has caused some speculation as to whether the Olmecs were of African or Asian descent. The Olmec also constructed stone sculptures and monumental buildings which would have required the labor of hundreds of thousands of workers.

    The Olmecs were apparently the first Mesoamerican people to fathom the concept of zero, develop a calendar, and create a hieroglyphic writing system. These intellectual achievements, along with Olmec myths and rituals, were influential in the subsequent Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec and Aztec cultures.

    Olmec society appears to have been authoritarian. All indications are that commoners delivered a portion of their harvests for the maintenance of the elite who lived in the ceremonial centers and provided labor for large scale construction projects.

    Trade was also important to the Olmec, primarily with other people of Mesoamerica. They produced large numbers of decorative objects from jade, which they would of necessity have imported as there were no local supplies of the substance. They also imported obsidian, a volcanic glass, which they used for forming knives, axes, and sharp cutting instruments..

    As with many other early American cultures, the Olmec disappeared. The last evidence of them appears c. 400 B.C.E. There is some evidence that they systematically destroyed several of their ceremonial centers, perhaps because of civil conflict. It is possible that they blended in with other Indian groups who may have conquered them. Their successors built the first great city in the Americas, known as Teotihuacan, which was a center of trade and worship. Those who followed also suffered setbacks as a result of regional wars and conflict with migrating tribes. They did, however, lay the basis, for a great civilization beginning about 400 C.E. (800 years after the disappearance of the Olmecs): the Maya.

        Maya:  The ancient Maya civilization occupied the eastern third of Mesoamerica, primarily the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, and appeared about the third century, B.C.E.. Contrary to popular belief, the Mayan civilization was not one unified empire, but rather a multitude of separate entities with a common cultural background. Similar to the Greeks, they were religiously and artistically a nation, but politically sovereign states. As many as twenty such states existed on the Yucatan Peninsula. They did, however, erect cities with pyramids and other public buildings. Their cities were often centers of trade with wide streets for easy public access. Among the most important of their cities was Tikal, erected c. 600 – 800 B.C.E, which had a population of almost forty thousand. Mayan kings often had names with menacing appeal, such as Curl Snout, Smoking Frog, Stormy Sky. Names which were associated with the jaguar, the most dangerous animal in the area, were especially popular.

        The Maya had a developed system of agriculture based on a "slash and burn" system, whereby trees were burned away, and holes for planting dug with stone tools. When the soil was exhausted, they moved on to new areas; and the old area soon grew scrub brush, etc. which was ideal vegetation for game animals. Among their other agricultural products were maize, cotton, and cacao, from which chocolate is made. Mayan nobles consumed a chocolate drink made by mixing the powdered beans into water. Cacao beans were so valuable that they were used as money.

    The Maya kingdoms fought each other almost constantly. Warfare often resulted in the destruction of ceremonial centers and widespread bloodshed; however their primary purpose in fighting was to capture enemies in hand to hand combat who were brought back as human trophies. The captured soldiers were stripped of their dress and symbols of rank, and might be kept alive for years. More often, they were ritually tortured and sacrificed on ceremonial occasions. By the year 900 C.E. the Mayan kingdom of Chichén Itzá was able to organize a loose empire that brought political stability to the region.

    Maya society included large numbers of priests who developed an elaborate system of hieroglyphic writing to record the transition of power through the generations. Maya writing was composed of recorded inscriptions on stone and wood and used within architecture. The priests, who followed the ruling class in importance, were instrumental in the recordings of history through the hieroglyphs. The two classes were closely linked and held a monopoly on learning, including writing. More information on Mayan hieroglyphs, including information on translation, etc. can be found at Mayan Hieroglyphic Syllabary and Glyphs

     To be a king, one must have taken a captive in a war and that person was then used as the victim in his accession ceremony. This ritual was the most important of a king's life as it was the point at which he became head of the lineage and leader of the city. The religious explanation that upheld the institution of kingship asserted that Maya rulers were necessary for continuance of the Universe.  When an heir was born, the king performed a blood sacrifice by drawing blood from his own body as an offering to his ancestors.

    There were several degrees of social stratification among the Maya. At the top of the social pyramid were the kings and ruling families. There was a nobility which owned most of the land and in which membership was by birth only. Maya merchants were members of the ruling and noble classes. Trade was normally in animal skins, cacao beans and works of art. There were also professional architects, sculptors, and artisans. At the bottom of the social pyramid were peasants and slaves who performed all agricultural work and provided the hard labor needed for construction.

    Maya priests studied astronomy and mathematics and also understood the movements of heavenly bodies. By using their mathematical skills, which included a digit for the number zero, they calculated the length of a solar year to be 365.242 days—seventeen seconds shorter than modern day calculations. Their calendar was the most elaborate of ancient America. It interwove a solar year of 365 days with a ritual year of 260 days. The former regulated agricultural practices; the latter was used for ritual practices. It was divided into twenty "months" each consisting of twenty days. The two calendars were so intricately connected that they only worked through all possible combinations of days every fifty two years. The positions of the calendars were indications of the good or bad events that could be expected that day. They believed that at the end of one of these fifty two year cycles, the world would come to an end.

    Maya religion contained a myth of creation known as the Popol Vuh, which said the gods had created humans out of maize and water, which became flesh and blood. Priests taught that the gods kept the world going and the agricultural cycle working in exchange for honors and sacrifices made by humans. Among the most important of these sacrifices was the shedding of human blood which the Maya believed would prompt the Gods to send water for crops. Bloodletting often involved war captives; who had their bodies lacerated or the tips of their fingers cut off to cause blood to flow copiously, after which the victim was decapitated. Sacrifice of enemies was not enough, however. The Maya often mutilated themselves to please and honor their gods. Maya women often pierced their tongues and Maya men on ceremonial occasions would slit their penises and insert strips of bark to encourage blood flow.

        The Maya held crossed eyes in great esteem. Yale anthropologist Michael Coe in his book The Maya states that: "Parents attempted to induce the condition by hanging small beads over the noses of their children." The Maya also seemed to go in for shaping their children's skulls: They liked to flatten them (although this may have simply been the inadvertent result of strapping babies to cradle boards) or squeeze them into a cone. Some scholars have speculated that the conehead effect was the result of trying to approximate the shape of an ear of corn. The Maya filed their teeth, sometimes into a T shape and sometimes to a point. They also inlaid their teeth with small, round plaques of jade or pyrite. According to Coe, young men customarily painted themselves black until marriage and later engaged in ritual tattooing and scarring.

    The Maya also had an interesting game of ball that was originally played by two men, but later by teams. The object was to score points by propelling a ball made of baked rubber through a ring without using their hands. The ball was roughly eight inches in diameter and was very heavy. A blow could cause a concussion. Players had to maneuver the ball using their feet, legs, hips, torso, shoulders, or elbows. It was extremely popular at Maya ceremonial centers where it was played on stone-paved courts. Oftentimes spectators laid bets on the outcome of the game. At times, high ranking captives were forced to participate in the game; and members of the losing team were tortured and executed at its conclusion. Some ball courts sported the skulls of losing players.

        The civilization was abandoned c. 800 C.E. and its major city collapsed. Descendants of the Maya still live in Mexico. They tend to be short people with flattened foreheads.

    Teotihuacan:  Teotihuacan was a large agricultural village in the valley of Mexico established c. 500 B.C.E. The geography of the area at that time provided several large lakes which provided large numbers of fish and waterfowl as well as a system of irrigation. The village grew rapidly into a large city with a population of approximately 50,000 by the year 100 C.E. It had two prominent landmarks: the pyramids of the sun and of the moon. The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest single structure in Mesoamerica; it occupies almost as much space as the giant Cheops pyramid of Egypt, but is only half as tall. By 600 C.E. the city housed over 200,000 people. It had large numbers of temples, palaces, neighborhoods with small apartments, markets and workshops.

     The people of the city shared some cultural elements with the Olmecs. They engaged in the ball game of the Olmecs, adapted the Olmec calendar to their own use, and expanded the Olmec alphabet into a complete system of writing. They apparently worshiped an earth god and a rain god; and almost certainly engaged in human sacrifice. Evidence indicates that the city was a theocracy with priests considered crucial to the survival of the city. They kept the calendar and ensured that planting and harvesting took place at the right time. There was little sign of military organization for many years; as the city appeared to extend its influence primarily by means of trade. However, it apparently fell under attack around 650 C.E. and entered a period of decline. About 750 C.E. the city was attacked by an invading army and destroyed. After the attach, it was deserted and fell into ruin.

    Zapotec: The Zapotecs were agricultural people whose civilization thrived from 800 B.C.E. until almost 1600 C.E.  They believed themselves to have been descended from jaguars and inanimate objects such as rocks and trees. They build a city known as Monte Alban from which they conducted practiced religious rites, including, on occasion, human sacrifice. Their primary object of worship were their ancestors.  They believed in an underworld which was a paradise to where their ancestors continued to live after departing earthly life. Their society was divided into three distinct social groups: the priests, rulers, and everyone else. These three groups were united only within the limits of the city of Monte Alban.

     Toltecs: Nomadic people from northern Mexico took advantage of the power vacuum created by the collapse of the Mayan civilization; including the Toltecs, who established a capital city known as Tula c. 968 C.E. Although they quickly adapted to a sedentary lifestyle of those who preceded them, they also introduced a strongly militaristic element, including human sacrifice and the worship of the god, Quetzalcoatl. There is some evidence that these people traded and communicated with other nations as far North as the Hopewell civilization in the upper Mississippi Valley of North America.  The civilization was destroyed and its capital of Tula sacked in 1150 by another warlike nomadic tribe, the Aztecs.

    Early Societies of South America:  Early South American societies developed in the Andes Mountain regions, contemporaneously with the Mesoamerican societies, but were largely independent of each other.

       Moche: The Moche Civilization flourished in the Andes Mountain chain of Peru from 100 to 700 C.E.  They had a highly developed irrigation system which allowed them to transport water from various rivers to dry areas, and  enabled them to growgold_moche_art.jpg (92825 bytes) a number of crops, including cotton and peanuts. They often fertilized their crops with guano, (droppings from sea gulls and/or bats). Aside from agriculture, they developed very sophisticated pottery and ceramics, much of which was of a highly erotic nature.

    Inca:  The Inca are the most well known of all the Peruvian Indian cultures. They began to expand their influence in the twelfth century and in the early sixteenth century, they exercised control over more territory than any other people had done in South American history. The empire consisted of over one million individuals, spanning a territory stretching from Ecuador to northern Chile. Unlike the military empires in Central America, the Incas ruled by proxy. After conquering a people, they would incorporate local rulers into their imperial system, generously reward anyone who fought for them, and treated well all those conquered people who cooperated. There were requirements imposed on conquered people, however. Rulers of subordinate territories were required to send heirs or representatives to the Incan capital. In reality, the Inca "empire," as the invading Spanish called it, was not really an empire. It was more of a confederation of tribes with a single people, the Incas, more or less in control. Each of these tribes was ruled independently by a council of elders; the tribe as a whole gave its allegiance to the ruler, or "Inca." The "Inca" was divine; he was the descendant of the sun-god. The central god of the Incan religion was the sun-god, the only god that had temples built for him. The sun-god was the father of the royal family. There were many gods among the Incas, but the sun-god outshone them all. The Incas also believed that there was a heaven, a hell, and a resurrection of the body after death

    The Incas built an astonishing network of roads and terraced farmlands throughout the Andes. Their system of terraced fields and farms was so successful that more land was under cultivation at the time of contact with the Spanish than during the present day. The Incas cultivated corn and cotton, as well as potatoes, and raised llama and alpaca for food and for labor. Wool from these animals was woven into colorful textiles. They learned to make weapons and tools from copper and bronze, and also fashioned decorative objects from gold and silver. The latter proved to be their undoing. When the invading Spanish noticed their gold and silver objects, they determined to take as much of it by whatever means possible. The mistreatment of the Inca by the Spanish is one of the saddest stories in North American History.