Early Civilizations of
Middle America
Presentation created by Robert L. Martinez
Primary Content Source: Prentice Hall World History
Images as cited.
Approximately 30,000 years ago, small family
groups of Paleolithic hunters and food
gatherers reached North America from Asia.
This great migration took place during the last
ice age .
At that time, so much water froze into
thick ice sheets that the sea level
dropped, exposing a land bridge between
Siberia and Alaska, in the area known as
the Bering Strait.
Many historians
believe that hunters
followed herds of
bison and
mammoths across
this land bridge.
Other migrating
people may have
paddled small boats
and fished along the
About 10,000 B.C.E., the Earth’s climate grew
warmer. As the ice melted , water levels rose,
covering the land bridge under the Bering
The global warming,
or worldwide
temperature increase,
along with the
hunting skills of the
first Americans, may
have killed off large
game animals like the
People adapted by hunting small animals,
fishing, and gathering fruit, roots, and
shellfish. These nomadic hunter-gatherers
slowly migrated eastward and southward
across the Americas.
The Americas are made up of the two
continents of North America and South
America. Within these two geographic
regions is a cultural region called Middle
Middle America includes Mexico and
Central America and was home to
several early civilizations.
Great mountain chains form a spiny
backbone down the western Americas. In
North America, the Rocky Mountains split
into the East and West Sierra Madre of
The towering Andes
run down the length
of South America. The
continents are
drained by two of the
world’s longest rivers,
the Amazon of South
America and the
Mississippi of North
The greatest adaption by early Americans was
the cultivation of plants and domestication of
animals. It is believed that farming was partly a
response to the disappearance of large
With fewer animals to hunt, people came to
depend more on other food sources. Neolithic
people began cultivating a range of crops, from
corn and beans to sweet potatoes, peppers,
tomatoes, and squash.
Early American farmers domesticated animals.
In South America, domesticated animals
include the llama valued for their wool. The
lack of draft animals in the Americas, such as
oxen or horses, would limit development in
some areas.
In the Americas, like other continents, the
Agricultural Revolution would lead to people
settling in villages. Populations expanded.
The earliest American civilization
emerged in the tropical forests along the
Mexican Gulf Coast. The Olmec
civilization lasted from about 1400 B.C.E.
to 500 B.C.E.
Archeologists know very little about the
Olmecs. However, rich tombs and temples
suggest that a powerful class of priests and
aristocrats stood at the top of Olmec society.
The Olmecs did not build true cities.
Rather, they built ceremonial centers made up
of pyramid-shaped temples and other
buildings. People came from nearby farming
villages to work on the temples or attend
religious ceremonies.
The most dramatic
remains of the Olmec
civilization are the giant
carved stone heads
found in the ruins of a
religious center at La
Venta. No one knows how
the Olmecs moved these
colossal 40-ton stones
from distant quarries
without wheeled vehicles
or draft animals.
The Olmecs invented a calendar and used
carved inscriptions as a form of writing. But
their most important legacy may have been the
tradition of priestly leadership and religious
devotion that became a basic part of later
Middle American civilizations.
Among the peoples influenced by the Olmecs
were the Mayas. Between 300 and 900 C.E.
Mayan city-states flourished from the Yucatan
in southern Mexico through much of Central
Scientists have determined how Mayan farming
methods allowed them to thrive in the tropical
environment. Mayan farmers cleared the
dense rain forests and then built raised fields
that caught and held rainwater.
They also built
channels that could be
opened to drain
excess water. This
complex system
produced enough
native corn, called
maize, and other crops
to support rapidly
growing cities.
Towering pyramid temples dominated the
largest Mayan city of Tikal, in present-day
Guatemala. Priests climbed steep temple stairs
to perform sacrifices on high platforms, while
ordinary people watched from the plazas
Some temples served as burial places for
nobles and priests.
Tikal boasted large palaces and huge stone
pillars covered with elaborate carvings. The
carvings, which usually record events in
Mayan history, preserve striking images of
aristocrats, warriors in plumed headdresses,
and captives to be sacrificed to the gods.
Much of the wealth of Tikal and the other
Mayan cities came from trade. Along roads
made of parked earth, traders carried valuable
cargoes of honey, cocoa, cotton cloth, and
feathers to exchange with other people across
Middle America.
Each Mayan city had its own ruling chief.
He was surrounded by nobles who
served as military leaders and officials
who managed public works, collected
taxes, and enforced laws.
Priests held great
power because
only they could
conduct the
needed to ensure
good harvests and
success in war.
Most Mayans were farmers. They grew
corn, beans, and squash, the basic food
crops of Middle America, as well as fruit
trees, and cotton. Men usually cultivated
the crops, while women turned them into
To support the cities, farmers
paid taxes in food and helped
build the temples.
The Mayas made
impressive advances
in learning. They
developed a
hieroglyphic writing
system, which has
only recently been
deciphered. Mayan
scribes kept their
sacred knowledge in
books made of bark.
Mayan priests needed to measure time
accurately in order to hold ceremonies at the
correct moment. As a result, many priests
became expert mathematicians and
They developed an accurate 365 day solar
calendar, as well as a 260 day calendar based
on the orbit of the planet Venus. Mayan priests
also invented a numbering system and
understood the concept of zero.
About 900
C.E., the
their cities,
leaving their
great stone
palaces and
temples to be
swallowed up
the jungle.
No one knows for sure why Mayan civilization
declined. Possibly, frequent warfare forced the
Mayas to abandon their cities. Or
overpopulation may have led to over-farming,
which in turn exhausted the soil. Heavy taxes
to finance wars and temple building may have
sparked rebellions.
Still, remnants of
Mayan culture
have survived.
Today, millions of
people in
Guatemala and
southern Mexico
speak Mayan
languages and are
descended from
the builders of
this early
Long before Mayan cites rose to the south, the
city of Teotihuacan had emerged in the Valley
of Mexico. The Valley of Mexico is a huge oval
basin ringed by snowcapped volcanoes,
located in the high plateau of central Mexico.
From 100 t0 750 C.E., Teotihuacan dominated
this large area.
The city of Teotihuacan was well planned, with
wide roads, massive temples, and large
apartment buildings. Along the main avenue,
the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the
Moon rose majestically toward the sky.
Citizens of Teotihuacan worshiped a powerful
nature goddess and rain god, whose images
appear on public buildings and on everyday
objects. Teotihuacan eventually fell to
invaders, but its culture influenced later
peoples, especially the Aztecs.
In the late 200s, bands of nomadic people, the
ancestors of the Aztecs, migrated into the
Valley of Mexico from the north. According to
Aztec legend, the gods had told them to search
for an eagle perched atop a cactus hold a
snake in it beak.
They finally saw the sign on a swampy island
in Lake Texcoco. Once settled, the Aztecs
shifted from hunting to farming. Slowly, they
built the city of Tenochtitlan on the site of
present-day Mexico City.
In the 1400s, the Aztecs expanded their
territory. Through a combination of conquests
and alliances, they spread their rule across
most of Mexico, from the Gulf of Mexico on the
east to the Pacific Ocean on the west. By 1500,
the Aztec empire numbered an estimated 30
million people.
War brought immense wealth as well as
power. Tribute, or payment from
conquered peoples, helped the Aztecs
turn their capital into a magnificent city.
From the temples and royal palaces to its
zoos and floating gardens Tenochtitlan
was a city of wonders. It was also the
center of a complex organized empire.
Unlike the Mayan city-states, each of which
had its own king, the Aztecs had a single ruler.
The emperor was chosen by a council of
nobles and priests to lead in war. Below him,
nobles served as officials, judges, and
governors of conquered provinces.
These officials enjoyed privileges such as
wearing luxurious feathered cloaks and gold
jewelry. Next came the warriors, who could rise
to noble status by killing or capturing enemy
soldiers. The majority of people were
commoners who farmed the land.
At the bottom of
society were the
slaves, mostly
criminals or
prisoners of war.
Despite their low
status, slaves’
rights were clearly
spelled out by law.
For example,
slaves could own
land and buy their
Protected by Aztec power, a class of longdistance traders ferried goods across the
empire. From the highlands, they took goods
such as weapons, tools, and rope to barter for
tropical products such as jaguar skins and
cocoa beans. They also served as spies, locating
new areas for trade and conquest.
The priests were a
class apart. They
performed rituals they
believed pleased the
gods and prevented
droughts or other
disasters. The chief
Aztec god was
Huitzilopochtli the sun
god. His pyramidtemple towered above
Huitzilopochtli, the Aztecs believed, battled the
forces of darkness each night and was reborn
each morning. As the Legend of the Suns
shows, there was no guarantee that the sun
would always win. To give the sun strength to
rise each day, the Aztecs offered human
Priests offered the hearts of tens of
thousands of victims to Huitzilopochtli
and other Aztec gods. Most of the victims
were prisoners of war, but sometimes a
noble family gave up one of its own
members to appease the gods.
Other cultures, such as the
Olmecs and the Mayas,
had practiced human
sacrifice, but not on the
massive scale of the
Aztecs. The Aztecs carried
on almost continuous
warfare, using the
captured enemy soldiers
for a regular source of
sacrificial victims.
Among the conquered peoples,
discontent festered and rebellion often
flared up. When the armies from Spain
later arrived, they found allies among
peoples who were ruled by the Aztec
Priests were the keepers of Aztec knowledge.
They recorded laws and historical events.
Some ran schools for the sons of nobles.
Others used their knowledge of astronomy and
mathematics to foretell the future. The Aztecs,
like the Mayas, had an accurate calendar.
Like many other
peoples, the Aztecs
believed that illness
was a punishment
from the gods. Still,
Aztec priests used
herbs and other
medicines to treat
fevers and wounds.
Aztec physicians
could set broken
bones and treat
dental cavities.

Early Civilizations of Mesoamerica