UNIT 8 - EARLY AMERICASE_Americas_-_Cover.jpg



Two continents—North America and South America—make up the region we call the Americas. These two continents have a wide range of landforms and climates.

The northern continent, North America, has high mountains, desert plateaus, grassy plains, and forests. Look at the map to find the location of some of these physical features. In the northern part of the continent, the climate is cold and icy. Temperatures get warmer toward the south.

In the southern part of North America lies Mesoamerica. Mesoamerica is a region that includes the southern part of what is now Mexico and parts of the northern countries of Central America. Steamy rain forests cover some of this region. In some places, volcanoes rise above the forest. Their activity over the years has made the surrounding soil very fertile. Fertile mountain valleys, rivers, and a warm climate make Mesoamerica good for farming. In fact, the first farmers in the Americas domesticated plants in Mesoamerica.

Like North America, South America has many different kinds of landforms. The towering Andes Mountains run along the western shore of the continent. There, a narrow desert sits on the edge of rich fishing waters in the Pacific Ocean. East of the Andes lies the Amazon region—a huge, hot, and wet rain forest. The mighty Amazon River drains this region. As you will see, the geography of the Americas played an important role in the development of early societies there.



No one is sure how the first people got to the Americas or when they arrived. Most historians think they came to North America from Asia by 12,000 BC. They probably walked across a land bridge that crossed the Bering Strait. A land bridge may have formed there during the ice ages when ocean levels dropped and exposed land.
Most scientists accept the theory of the land bridge to explain how the first people came to the Americas. But some scientists today are challenging that theory. They think the first Americans may have arrived even earlier—perhaps by sea.

Regardless of how they arrived, the first people to arrive in the Americas were hunter-gatherers. They hunted herds of large animals that wandered the land. These animals, including bison and huge woolly mammoths, provided their main food source. Early people also gathered fruits, nuts, and wild grains to eat. Early people didn’t settle in one place very long, because they were always looking for food.

Eventually, some early people began to settle down. They formed small settlements on the coasts of North and South America, where they fished and gathered food. As populations grew, people started to experiment with seeds. From their experiments with seeds, people eventually learned to farm. Farming allowed people to stop following animal herds and settle permanently in one place.

The first permanent farming settlements in the Americas appeared in Mesoamerica. This region had rich soils, warm temperatures, and plenty of rain. By 3500 BC people in Mesoamerica were growing maize (MAYZ), or corn. Later they learned to grow beans and squash. By growing these foods, settlements could support larger populations. More advanced societies grew, and people began to focus on activities such as building, trade, art, and organized religion. Eventually, settlements developed into towns and cities.


The Olmec (OHL-mek) formed the first urban civilization in Mesoamerica around 1200 BC. Most Olmec lived in small villages, but some lived in larger towns. These towns were religious and government centers with temples and plazas. Impressive sculptures and buildings mark the Olmec as the first complex civilization in the Americas. They built the first pyramids in the Americas. They also made sculptures of huge stone heads. Each head probably represented a different Olmec ruler. Other sculptures, such as jaguars, probably represented Olmec gods.

Other factors that may mark the Olmec as a complex civilization are writing and scientific study. Some researchers think the Olmec may have developed the first writing system in the Americas. Scientists recently found an Olmec artifact with symbols that might be an early form of writing. The Olmec may have also had a calendar.

The Olmec civilization also had a large trading network. Villages traded with each other and with other peoples farther away. The Olmec may have even established a string of trading colonies along the Pacific coast. Through trade the Olmec got valuable goods such as the stones they used for building and sculpture.

Olmec civilization ended around 400 BC. By then trade had spread Olmec influence around Mesoamerica. Later peoples were able to build on their achievements. Some later peoples in Mesoamerica also followed some Olmec traditions.


Early civilizations also developed in other parts of the Americas. As in Mesoamerica, people in North and South America formed civilizations after they domesticated plants and learned how to farm. About the time Mesoamericans started growing maize, South Americans in the Andes started growing potatoes. Later, maize farming spread south into the Andes from Mesoamerica. By about 2000 BC, South Americans were growing maize and beans as well as potatoes.
A number of small civilizations developed in South America, but the first major civilization began in the Andes. It is known as the Chavín (chah-VEEN) culture, and it lasted from about 900 to 200 BC. Its city was a major religious and trading center. The Chavín culture is known for its woven textiles, carved stone monuments, and pottery shaped like animals and humans.

Several hundred years after farming began in South America, maize farming also spread north from Mesoamerica. People began growing maize in what is now the southwestern United States. The dry climate made farming difficult there, so people learned to choose fertile soils and use river water to irrigate their crops. Eventually maize became an important crop to people in the region. It was the main food of people in hundreds of small villages.

This Native American legend reveals the importance of maize, or corn:

“The breaths of the corn maidens blew rain-clouds from their homes in the Summer-land, and when the rains had passed away green corn plants grew everywhere the grains had been planted.”

The development of farming was important in the growth of civilizations all over the Americas. As with other peoples you have studied, a steady food supply led to population growth. Farming also encouraged people to establish permanent villages and cities.


The Maya (MY-uh) civilization developed in Mesoamerica. Early Maya lived in the lowlands of this region beginning around 1000 BC. Thick forests covered most of the land, so the Maya had to clear wooded areas for farmland. Like earlier Mesoamericans, the Maya grew maize and other crops.

Although the thick forests made farming hard, they provided valuable resources. Forest animals such as deer and monkeys were a source of food. In addition, trees and other plants made good building materials. For example, the Maya used wood poles and vines, along with mud, to build their houses.

The early Maya lived in small villages. Eventually these villages started trading with one another. They traded goods such as cloth and obsidian, a sharp, glasslike volcanic rock, that came from different parts of Mesoamerica. As trade helped support larger populations, villages grew. By about AD 200 the Maya were building large cities in the Americas.


The Maya civilization reached its height between about AD 250 and 900. Historians call this period of Maya history the Classic Age. During the Classic Age, Maya civilization spread to the Yucatán Peninsula and grew to include more than 40 cities of 5,000 to 50,000 people each.

Maya cities in the highlands traded with those in the lowlands. In this way people all over Maya territory got things that they didn’t have nearby. Look at the trade routes on the map to see the goods that were available in different areas of Mesoamerica. For example, the warm lowlands were good for growing cotton, rubber trees, and cacao (kuh-KOW) beans, the source of chocolate. Cacao beans had great value. Chocolate was known as the food of rulers and of the gods. The Maya even used cacao beans as money.

Lowland crops didn’t grow well in the cool highlands. Instead, the highlands had valuable stones such as jade and obsidian. People carried these and other products along Maya trade routes.



Maya cities had many grand buildings, including large stone pyramids, temples, and palaces. Some of these buildings honored local Maya kings. For example, in the city of Palenque (pah-LENG-kay), a temple honored the king Pacal (puh-KAHL). Pacal had the temple built to record his achievements as a ruler. Maya artists decorated temples and palaces with carvings and colorful paintings.

In addition to temples and palaces, the Maya also built structures to improve life in their cities. For example, builders paved large plazas for public gatherings, and they built canals to control the flow of water through their cities. Farmers shaped nearby hillsides into flat terraces so they could grow crops on them.

Most Maya cities also had a special ball court. People played or watched a type of ball game in these large stone arenas. Using only their heads, shoulders, or hips, players tried to bounce a heavy, hard rubber ball through a stone ring above their heads. Players weren’t allowed to use their hands or feet. The winners were awarded jewels and clothing. The losers were sometimes killed. This ball game was one that the Maya had picked up from Olmec traditions.

The Maya cities were really city-states. Each had its own government and its own king. No single ruler united the many cities into one empire.



Conflicts between cities often led to fighting. Maya cities usually battled each other to gain power and land. For example, the city of Tikal (tee-KAHL) fought many battles with its rival Calakmul (kah-lahk-MOOL). Both cities wanted to control a smaller city that lay between them. Power shifted back and forth between the two larger cities for years.

Maya warfare was bloody. Warriors fought hand-to-hand using spears, flint knives, and wooden clubs. The Maya often captured enemy prisoners and killed them in religious ceremonies as a sacrifice to their gods. They burned enemy towns and villages. Warfare probably tore up the land and destroyed crops. Maya warfare was so destructive that some scholars think it may have contributed to the end of the Maya civilization.

Maya Civilization Declines

Maya civilization began to collapse in the 900s. People stopped building temples and other structures. They left the cities and moved back to the countryside. What caused this collapse? Historians aren’t sure, but they do have some theories.
One theory says that increased warfare brought about the end of the Maya Classic Age. A related theory is that, as cities grew, perhaps the Maya could not grow enough food to feed everyone. Growing the same crops year after year might have left the soil too weak for farming. As a result, competition between cities for land may have increased. This competition could have led to even more warfare than before. Increased warfare would have destroyed more crops and made farming more difficult.

Another possible cause of the decline of Maya civilization is the demands Maya kings made on their people. Kings forced people to build huge temples or farm for them. Maybe people didn’t want to work for the kings. They might have rebelled or left the cities because of these demands.

Some historians also think climate might have played a role in the collapse of Maya civilization. Scientists have learned that the region suffered from a long dry period and droughts for about 150 years. This dry period took place about the time the Maya moved away from their cities. A drier climate and droughts would have made it hard to grow enough food to feed everyone in the cities.

Most researchers agree that there was probably no single event that caused the end of the Classic Age. More likely, a mix of several factors led to the decline of the Maya civilization.


The Upper Class

Maya society had a complex class structure. As you might expect, life for the upper social classes differed greatly from life for the lower classes.

The upper class of Maya society included different groups of people. The king held the highest position in society. Priests, warriors, and merchants were also part of the upper class. The Maya believed their rulers were related to the gods. For this reason, rulers were often involved in religious ceremonies. They also led battles. As the richest people in Maya society, rulers had beautiful clothing and jewelry. Kings wore huge feather headdresses and capes of cotton, jaguar skins, and feathers.

Priests were usually born into their role in Maya society. They led religious ceremonies. They were also the most educated people. Priests used their knowledge of astronomy and math to plan the best times for religious ceremonies.

Professional warriors fought battles against other Maya cities. In battle, these warriors wore animal headdresses, jade jewelry, and jaguar-skin capes. They painted their bodies red and black.

Merchants directed trade among the cities. They organized the transportation and distribution of goods. They also supervised the people who carried goods between cities. Together, the members of the upper class controlled the politics, religion, and economy in Maya society.



The Lower Class

Although the upper classes had the most power, most Maya belonged to the lower classes as farming families. These Maya lived in small houses outside the cities. Girls learned from their mothers how to cook, make yarn, and weave. Women cared for children. Men crafted household tools such as knives. They had to provide food for their family, so they also spent a lot of time hunting and farming. They kept small gardens next to their houses and worked together to farm larger fields.

Farmers had to give some of their crops to their rulers. Lower-class Maya also had to “pay” their rulers with goods such as cloth and salt. They had to work on building temples, palaces, and other buildings. They also had to serve in the army during times of war. If captured in battle, a lower-class man usually became a slave.

Slaves held the lowest position in society. Orphans, slaves’ children, and people who owed money also became slaves. Slaves had to carry trade goods between cities. They also served upper-class Maya by working as farmers or household servants.

The lower class supported the upper class with food and labor, but the upper class also helped the lower class. For example, upper-class Maya led the religious ceremonies that were vital to daily life for all classes of society.


The Maya worshipped many gods related to different aspects of their daily life. The most important god was the creator. This god would take many different forms. Others included a sun god, moon goddess, and maize god. The Maya believed their kings communicated with the gods.

According to Maya beliefs, the gods could be helpful or harmful, so people tried to please the gods to get their help. The Maya believed their gods needed blood to prevent disasters or the end of the world. Every person offered blood to the gods by piercing their tongue or skin. The Maya sometimes held special ceremonies to give blood at events such as births, weddings, and funerals.

On special occasions the Maya believed they needed extra amounts of blood. On these occasions they made human sacrifices to their gods. They usually used prisoners captured in battle for this ritual. A priest would offer human hearts to stone carvings of gods. These sacrifices usually took place at a temple.

Art and Architecture

Some of the best-known Maya art is their sculpture and their jade and gold jewelry. They carved stone sculptures of kings or gods for their cities. Maya cities showed the talent of their architects and builders. The Maya built cities without using metal tools. They didn’t even have wheeled vehicles to carry supplies. Instead, workers used obsidian tools to cut limestone into blocks. Then, to move the giant blocks, workers rolled them over logs and lifted them with ropes. It took many workers to build Maya cities, perhaps the most recognizable Maya achievement.


Science and Math

Maya achievements in science and math were just as important as their achievements in art and architecture. The Maya built observatories, or buildings to study astronomy, so their priests could study the stars. Maya astronomers figured out that a year is about 365 days long. They also learned about the cycles of the moon and how to predict eclipses.
Partly based on their discoveries in astronomy, the Maya developed calendars. They had a religious calendar to plan religious events. The Maya used a different calendar for agriculture. It had symbols for different months tied to farming activities such as planting or harvesting. These activities matched changes in the seasons. The Maya calendar was more accurate than the calendar used in Europe at that time.

To go along with their calendars, the Maya created a number system that included some new concepts in math. For example, the Maya were among the first people with a symbol for zero. The Maya used their number system to record important dates in their history.


The Maya also developed a writing system. It was similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Symbols represented both objects and sounds. The Maya created records, especially about achievements of their kings, by carving symbols into large stone tablets. They also wrote in bark-paper books.

Stories and poetry got passed down orally from one generation to the next. After the Spanish arrived, Maya legends and history were written in a book called the Popol Vuh (poh-pohl VOO). This book provides valuable information about the Maya.




Engineering an Empire - The Maya - History Channel

The Dawn of the Maya

Olmec Heads - BBC

Who Killed the Maya?