Regional Settlements

Great Basin Culture

The peoples of the Great Basin area required ease of mobility to follow bison herds and gather seasonally available food supplies.

Learning Objectives

Describe the culture of the Great Basin civilizations

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Between 10,500 BCE and 9,500 BCE (11,500 – 12,500 years ago), the broad-spectrum, big game hunters of the Great Plains began to focus on a single animal species: the bison.
  • Paleo-Indians were not numerous, and population densities were quite low during this time.
  • These bison-oriented indigenous peoples inhabited a portion of the North American continent known as the Great Basin.
  • The climate in the Great Basin was very arid, which affected the lifestyles and cultures of its inhabitants.

Key Terms

  • cultural region: A cultural region is inhabited by a culture that does not limit their geographic coverage to the borders of a nation state, or to smaller subdivisions of a state.
  • metates: A morter and grind stone tool used for processing grain and seeds.
  • Numic languages: A branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Includes seven languages spoken by American Indian peoples traditionally living in the Great Basin, Colorado River Basin, and southern Great Plains.

Between 10,500 BCE and 9,500 BCE (11,500 – 12,500 years ago), the broad-spectrum, big game hunters of the Great Plains began to focus on a single animal species: the bison, an early cousin of the American Bison. The earliest of these bison-oriented hunting traditions is known as the Folsom tradition. Folsom peoples traveled in small family groups for most of the year, returning yearly to the same springs while others favored locations on higher grounds. There they would camp for a few days, moving on after erecting a temporary shelter, making and/or repairing stone tools, or processing meat. Paleo-Indians were not numerous, and population densities were quite low during this time.

These bison-oriented indigenous peoples mostly inhabited a portion of the North American continent known as the “cultural region” of the Great Basin. The Great Basin is the region between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, in what is now modern-day Nevada, Utah, California, Idaho, Wyoming, and parts of Oregon. The original inhabitants of the region are believed to have arrived as early as 10,000 BCE. The climate in the Great Basin was and is very arid; this affected the lifestyles and cultures of its inhabitants.

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Map showing the Great Basin: The Great Basin is a multi-state endorheic area surrounded by the Pacific Watershed of North America, home to the pre-Columbian indigenous peoples of the Great Basin.

Language

While anthropologists can point to many distinct peoples throughout the region, most peoples of the Great Basin shared certain common cultural elements that distinguished them from other surrounding cultures. Except for the Washoe, most of the groups spoke Numic languages. Some groups may have not have spoken Numic languages, but no relics of their linguistic patterns remain today. There was considerable intermingling among the groups, who lived peacefully and often shared common territories. These groups were all predominantly hunters and gatherers. As a result of these similarities, anthropologists use the terms “Desert Archaic” or more simply “The Desert Culture” to refer collectively to the Great Basin tribes.

Lifeways

Desert Archaic peoples required great mobility to follow seasonally available food supplies. The use of pottery was rare because of its weight, but intricate baskets were woven that could be used to hold water, cook food, and winnow grass seeds. Baskets were also used for storage, including the storage of pine nuts. Heavy items such as metates were cached rather than carried between foraging areas. Agriculture was not practiced within the Great Basin itself, although it was practiced in adjacent areas. The area was too dry, and even modern agriculture in the Great Basin requires either large mountain reservoirs or deep artesian wells. Likewise, the Great Basin tribes had no permanent settlements, although winter villages might be revisited winter after winter by the same groups of families. In the summer groups would split; the largest social grouping was usually the nuclear family, an efficient response to the low density of food supplies.

Religion

Because Great Basin peoples did not come into contact with European-Americans or African Americans until comparatively later in North American history, many groups were able to maintain their traditional tribal religions. These peoples were leading proponents of cultural and religious renewals during the 19th century. Two Paiute prophets, Wodziwob and Wovoka, introduced the Ghost Dance as a means to commune with departed loved ones and bring renewals of buffalo herds and precontact lifeways. The Ute Bear Dance also emerged in the Great Basin, as did the Sun Dance.

Peyote religion flourished in the Great Basin as well, particularly among the Ute who used peyote obtained through trade and other potent ceremonial plants. Ute religious beliefs borrowed heavily from Plains Indians after the arrival of the horse. Northern and Uncompahgre Ute were among the only group of indigenous peoples known to create ceremonial pipes out of salmon alabaster and rare black pipestone found in creeks that border the southeastern slops of the Uinta Mountains in Utah and Colorado. The Uncompahgre Ute are also among the first documented peoples to utilize the effect of mechanoluminescene with quartz crystals to generate light in ceremonies used to call spirits. Special ceremonial rattles were made from buffalo rawhide and filled with clear quartz crystals collected from the mountains of Colorado and Utah. These ceremonial rattles were considered extremely powerful religious objects.

Pacific Coast Culture

The mild climate and abundant natural resources along the Pacific Coast of North America allowed a complex aboriginal culture to flourish.

Learning Objectives

Examine how natural resources shaped the cultures of the Pacific Coast

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Due to the prosperity made possible by the abundant natural resources in this region, the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest developed complex religious and social ceremonies as well as many fine arts and crafts.
  • Music was created to honor the Earth, the creator, ancestors, and all other aspects of the supernatural world.
  • Many works of art served practical purposes, such as clothing, tools, weapons of war and hunting, transportation, and shelter; but others were purely aesthetic.
  • The Pacific Coast was at one time the most densely populated area of North America in terms of indigenous peoples.

Key Terms

  • permaculture: Any system of sustainable agriculture that renews natural resources and enriches local ecosystems.
  • potlatch: A ceremony amongst certain American Indian peoples of the Pacific Coast in which gifts are bestowed upon guests and personal property is destroyed in a show of wealth and generosity.
  • animism: The worldview that non-human entities—such as animals, plants, and inanimate objects—possess a spiritual essence.

The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast were composed of many nations and tribal affiliations, each with distinctive cultural and political identities; but they shared certain beliefs, traditions, and practices, such as the centrality of salmon as a resource and spiritual symbol.

These nations had time and energy to devote to the establishment of fine arts and crafts and to religious and social ceremonies. The term “Northwest Coast”, or “North West Coast”, is used to refer to the groups of indigenous people residing along the coasts of British Columbia, Washington State, parts of Alaska, Oregon, and northern California.

The Pacific Northwest Coast at one time had the most densely populated areas of indigenous people. The mild climate and abundant natural resources, such as cedar and salmon, made possible the rise of a complex aboriginal culture.

The indigenous people in this region practiced various forms of forest gardening and fire-stick farming in the forests, grasslands, mixed woodlands, and wetlands, ensuring that desired food and medicine plats continued to be available through the use of advanced farming techniques. Those involved in agricultural development would create low-intensity fires in order to prevent larger, catastrophic fires and sustain low-density agriculture in a loose rotation. This is what is known as permaculture, or any system of sustainable agriculture that renews natural resources and enriches local ecosystems.

Arts and Crafts

One of the major cultural elements that began to flourish on the Pacific Northwest Coast was the use of music and other forms of arts and crafts. Although music varied in function and expression among indigenous tribes, there were cultural similarities. For example, some tribes used hand drums made of animal hides as their instrument of choice, while others used plank or log drums, along with whistlers, wood clappers, and rattles. However, regardless of the type of instrument used, music and song were created to accompany ceremonies, dancing, and festivities.

The principal function of music in this region was to invoke spirituality. Music was created to honor the Earth, the creator, ancestors, and all other aspects of the supernatural world. Songs were also used to convey stories and sometimes were owned by families like property that could be inherited, sold, or given as a gift to a prestigious guest at a feast. Professional musicians existed in some communities, and in some nations, those who made musical errors were punished, usually through shaming. Vocal rhythmic patterns were often complex and ran counter to rigid percussion beats.

As with music, the creation of art also served as a means of transmitting stories, history, wisdom, and property from generation to generation. Due to the abundance of natural resources and the affluence of most Northwest tribes, there was plenty of leisure time to create art. Many works of art served practical purposes, such as clothing, tools, weapons of war and hunting, transportation, cooking, and shelter. Others were purely aesthetic. Art provided indigenous people with a tie to the land and was a constant reminder of their birth places, lineages, and nations. One example of this is the use of symbols on totem poles and plank houses of the Pacific Northwest coast.

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Pacific Coast Art: Tribal art included plank houses and totem poles that served as constant reminders of indigenous peoples’ birth places, lineages, and nations.

Religious and Social Ceremonies

Other cultural elements that became established were the religious and social ceremonies of the Pacific Northwest nations. Although various tribes might have had their own different mythologies and rituals, “animism” is said to describe the most common, foundational thread of indigenous peoples’ spiritual or supernatural perspectives in this region. Spiritualism, the supernatural, and the importance of the environment played such integral roles in day-to-day life. Therefore, it was not unusual for worldly goods to be adorned with symbols, crests, and totems that represented some important figure(s) from both the seen and unseen worlds.

Many of these religious or spiritual symbols would be present during social ceremonies as well. The potlatch, a gift-giving feast, was perhaps one of the most significant social experiences that occurred within Pacific Northwest groups. It was a highly complex event where people gathered in order to commemorate a specific event such as the raising of a totem pole or the appointment/election of a new chief. In the potlatch ceremony, the chief would give highly elaborate gifts to visiting peoples in order to establish his power and prestige, and by accepting these gifts, the visitors conveyed their approval of the chief. There were also great feasts and displays of conspicuous consumption. Groups of dancers put on elaborate dances and ceremonies. Watching these performances was considered an honor. Potlatches were held for several reasons: the confirmation of a new chief, coming of age, tattooing or piercing ceremonies, initiation into a secret society, marriages, the funeral of a chief, or a battle victory.

Eastern Woodland Culture

Eastern Woodland Culture refers to the way of life of indigenous peoples in the eastern part of North America between 1,000 BCE and 1,000 CE.

Learning Objectives

Analyze how agricultural practices shaped the Eastern Woodland Culture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • This time period is widely regarded as a developmental period for the people of this region as they steadily advanced in their means of cultivation, tools and textile manufacture, and use of pottery.
  • While the increasing use of agriculture meant the nomadic nature of many groups was supplanted by permanent villages, intensive agriculture did not become the norm for most cultures until the succeeding Mississippian period.
  • The Early Woodland period differed from the Archaic period in the following ways: the appearance of permanent settlements, elaborate burial practices, intensive collection and horticulture of starchy seed plants, differentiation in social organization, and specialized activities.
  • Due to the similarity of earthworks and burial goods, researchers assume a common body of religious practice and cultural interaction existed throughout the entire region, referred to as the “Hopewellian Interaction Sphere.”

Key Terms

  • maize: A grain, domesticated by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica in prehistoric times, known in many English-speaking countries as corn.
  • atlatl: A wooden stick with a thong or perpendicularly protruding hook on the rear end that grips a grove or socket on the butt of its accompanying spear.

The Eastern Woodland cultural region extended from what is now southeastern Canada, through the eastern United States, down to the Gulf of Mexico. The time in which the peoples of this region flourished is referred to as the Woodland Period. This period is known for its continuous development in stone and bone tools, leather crafting, textile manufacture, cultivation, and shelter construction. Many Woodland hunters used spears and atlatls until the end of the period when those were replaced by bows and arrows. The Southeastern Woodland hunters however, also used blowguns. The major technological and cultural advancements during this period included the widespread use of pottery and the increasing sophistication of its forms and decoration. The growing use of agriculture and the development of the Eastern Agricultural Complex also meant that the nomadic nature of many of the groups was supplanted by permanently occupied villages.

Early Woodland Period (1000–1 BCE)

The archaeological record suggests that humans in the Eastern Woodlands of North America were collecting plants from the wild by 6,000 BCE and gradually modifying them by selective collection and cultivation. In fact, the eastern United States is one of 10 regions in the world to become an “independent center of agricultural origin.” Research also indicates that the first appearance of ceramics occurred around 2,500 BCE in parts of Florida and Georgia. What differentiates the Early Woodland period from the Archaic period is the appearance of permanent settlements, elaborate burial practices, intensive collection and horticulture of starchy seed plants, and differentiation in social organization. Most of these were evident in the southeastern United States by 1,000 BCE with the Adena culture, which is the best-known example of an early Woodland culture.

The Adena culture was centered around what is present-day Ohio and surrounding states and was most likely a number of related American Indian societies that shared burial complexes and ceremonial systems. Adena mounds generally ranged in size from 2o to 300 feet in diameter and served as burial structures, ceremonial sites, historical markers, and possibly even gathering places. The mounds provided a fixed geographical reference point for the scattered populations of people dispersed in small settlements of one to two structures. A typical Adena house was built in a circular form, 15 to 45 feet in diameter. Walls were made of paired posts tilted outward that were then joined to other pieces of wood to form a cone-shaped roof. The roof was covered with bark, and the walls were bark and/or wickerwork.

While the burial mounds created by Woodland culture peoples were beautiful artistic achievements, Adena artists were also prolific in creating smaller, more personal pieces of art using copper and shells. Art motifs that became important to many later American Indians began with the Adena. Examples of these motifs include the weeping eye and the cross and circle design. Many works of art revolved around shamanic practices and the transformation of humans into animals, especially birds, wolves, bears, and deer, indicating a belief that objects depicting certain animals could impart those animals’ qualities to the wearer or holder.

Middle Woodland Period (1–500 CE)

The beginning of this period saw a shift of settlement to the interior. As the Woodland period progressed, local and inter-regional trade of exotic materials greatly increased to the point where a trade network covered most of the eastern United States. Throughout the Southeast and north of the Ohio River, burial mounds of important people were very elaborate and contained a variety of mortuary gifts, many of which were not local. The most archaeologically certifiable sites of burial during this time were in Illinois and Ohio. These have come to be known as the Hopewell tradition.

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Hopewell mounds: The Eastern Woodland cultures built burial mounds for important people such as these of the Hopewell tradition in Ohio.

The Hopewellian peoples had leaders, but they were not powerful rulers who could command armies of soldiers or slaves. It has been posited that these cultures accorded certain families with special privileges and that these societies were marked by the emergence of “big-men,” or leaders who were able to acquire positions of power through their ability to persuade others to agree with them on matters of trade and religion. It is also likely these rulers gained influence through the creation of reciprocal obligations with other important community members. Regardless of their path to power, the emergence of big-men marked another step toward the development of the highly structured and stratified sociopolitical organization called the chiefdom, which would characterize later American Indian tribes. Due to the similarity of earthworks and burial goods, researchers assume a common body of religious practice and cultural interaction existed throughout the entire region (referred to as the “Hopewellian Interaction Sphere”). Such similarities could also be the result of reciprocal trade, obligations, or both between local clans that controlled specific territories. Clan heads were buried along with goods received from their trading partners to symbolize the relationships they had established. Although many of the Middle Woodland cultures are called Hopewellian, and groups shared ceremonial practices, archaeologists have identified the development of distinctly separate cultures during the Middle Woodland period. Examples include the Armstrong culture, Copena culture, Crab Orchard culture, Fourche Maline culture, the Goodall Focus, the Havana Hopewell culture, the Kansas City Hopewell, the Marksville culture, and the Swift Creek culture.

The map shows the Hopewell exchange system, which at its greatest extent ran from the Southeastern United States as far south as the Crystal River Indian Mounds into the southeastern Canadian shores of Lake Ontario up north.

Hopewell Interaction Area and local expressions of the Hopewell tradition: Throughout the Southeast and north of the Ohio River, burial mounds of important people were very elaborate and contained a variety of mortuary gifts, many of which were not local. The most archaeologically certifiable sites of burial during this time were in Illinois and Ohio. These sites were constructed within the Hopewell tradition of Eastern Woodland cultures.

Ceramics during this time were thinner, of better quality, and more decorated than in earlier times. This ceramic phase saw a trend towards round-bodied pottery and lines of decoration with cross-etching on the rims.

Late Woodland Period (500–1000 CE)

The late Woodland period was a time of apparent population dispersal. In most areas, construction of burial mounds decreased drastically, as did long distance trade in exotic materials. Bow and arrow technology gradually overtook the use of the spear and atlatl, and agricultural production of the “three sisters” (maize, beans, and squash) was introduced. While full scale intensive agriculture did not begin until the following Mississippian period, the beginning of serious cultivation greatly supplemented the gathering of plants.

Late Woodland settlements became more numerous, but the size of each one was generally smaller than their Middle Woodland counterparts. It has been theorized that populations increased so much that trade alone could no longer support the communities and some clans resorted to raiding others for resources. Alternatively, the efficiency of bows and arrows in hunting may have decimated the large game animals, forcing tribes to break apart into smaller clans to better use local resources, thus limiting the trade potential of each group. A third possibility is that a colder climate may have affected food yields, also limiting trade possibilities. Lastly, it may be that agricultural technology became sophisticated enough that crop variation between clans lessened, thereby decreasing the need for trade.

In practice, many regions of the Eastern Woodlands adopted the full Mississippian culture much later than 1,000 CE. Some groups in the North and Northeast of the United States, such as the Iroquois, retained a way of life that was technologically identical to the Late Woodland until the arrival of the Europeans. Furthermore, despite the widespread adoption of the bow and arrow, indigenous peoples in areas near the mouth of the Mississippi River, for example, appear never to have made the change.

Southwestern Culture

Environmental changes allowed for many cultural traditions to flourish and develop similar social structures and religious beliefs.

Learning Objectives

Describe the cultural traditions of the Southwest

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Three of the major cultural traditions that impacted the region include the Paleo-Indian tradition, the Southwestern Archaic tradition, and the Post-Archaic cultures tradition.
  • As Southwestern cultural traditions evolved, tribes transitioned from a hunting-gathering, nomadic experience to more permanent agricultural settlements.
  • As various cultures developed over time, many shared similarities in family structure and religious beliefs.
  • Extensive irrigation systems were developed and were among the largest of the ancient world.
  • Elaborate adobe and sandstone buildings were constructed, and highly ornamental and artistic pottery was created.

Key Terms

  • animism: The worldview that non-human entities—such as animals, plants, and inanimate
    objects—possess a spiritual essence.
  • sandstone: A sedimentary rock produced by the consolidation and compaction of sand, cemented with clay.
  • irrigation: The act or process of irrigating, or the state of being irrigated; especially, the operation of causing water to flow over lands for the purpose of nourishing plants.
  • shamanism: A practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with a spirit world and channel transcendental energies into this world.

Overview

The greater Southwest has long been occupied by hunter-gatherers and agricultural settlements. This area, comprised of modern-day Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada, and the states of Sonora and Chihuahua in northern Mexico, has seen successive prehistoric cultural traditions since approximately 12,000 years ago. Three of the major cultural traditions that impacted the region include the Paleo-Indian tradition, the Southwestern Archaic tradition, and the Post-Archaic cultures tradition. As various cultures developed over time, many of them shared similarities in family structure and religious beliefs.

Southwestern Agriculture

Southwestern farmers probably began experimenting with agriculture by facilitating the growth of wild grains such as amaranth and chenopods as well as gourds for their edible seeds and shells. The earliest maize known to have been grown in the Southwest was a popcorn varietal measuring one to two inches long. It was not a very productive crop. More productive varieties were developed later by Southwestern farmers or introduced via Mesoamerica, though the drought-resistant tepary bean was native to the region. Cotton has been found at archaeological sites dating to about 1,200 BCE in the Tucson basin and was most likely cultivated by indigenous peoples in the region. Evidence of tobacco use and possibly the cultivation of tobacco, dates back to approximately the same time period.

Agave, especially agave murpheyi, was a major food source of the Hohokam and grown on dry hillsides where other crops would not grow. Early farmers also possibly cultivated cactus fruit, mesquite bean, and species of wild grasses for their edible seeds.

Paleolithic peoples utilized habitats near water sources like rivers, swamps, and marshes, which had an abundance of fish and attracted birds and game animals. They hunted big game—bison, mammoths, and ground sloths—who were also attracted to these water sources. A period of relatively wet conditions saw many cultures in the American Southwest flourish. Extensive irrigation systems were developed and were among the largest of the ancient world. Elaborate adobe and sandstone buildings were constructed, and highly ornamental and artistic pottery was created. The unusual weather conditions could not continue forever, however, and gave way in time, to the more common arid conditions of the area. These dry conditions necessitated a more minimal way of life and, eventually, the elaborate accomplishments of these cultures were abandoned.

During this time, the people of the Southwest developed a variety of subsistence strategies, all using their own specific techniques. The nutritive value of weed and grass seeds was discovered and flat rocks were used to grind flour to produce gruels and breads. The use of grinding slabs originated around 7,500 BCE and marks the beginning of the Archaic tradition. Small bands of people traveled throughout the area gathering plants such as cactus fruits, mesquite beans, acorns, and pine nuts. Archaic people established camps at collection points, and returned to these places year after year.

The American Indian Archaic culture eventually evolved into two major prehistoric archaeological culture areas in the American Southwest and northern Mexico. These cultures, sometimes referred to as Oasisamerica, are characterized by dependence on agriculture, formal social stratification, population clusters, and major architecture. One of the major cultures that developed during this time was the Pueblo peoples, formerly referred to as the Anasazi. Their distinctive pottery and dwelling construction styles emerged in the area around 750 CE. Ancestral Pueblo peoples are renowned for the construction of and cultural achievement present at Pueblo Bonito and other sites in Chaco Canyon, as well as Mesa Verde, Aztec Ruins, and Salmon Ruins. Other cultural traditions that developed during this time include the Hohokam and Mogollon traditions.

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Hohokam House: Photo of the Great House at the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

Family and Religion

Paleolithic peoples in the Southwest initially structured their families and communities into highly mobile traveling groups of approximately 20 to 50 members, moving place to place as resources were depleted and additional supplies were needed. As cultural traditions began to evolve throughout the Southwest between 7,500 BCE to 1,550 CE, many cultures developed similar social and religious traditions. For the Pueblos and other Southwest American Indian communities, the transition from a hunting-gathering, nomadic experience to more permanent agricultural settlements meant more firmly established families and communities. Climate change that occurred about 3,500 years ago during the Archaic period, however, changed patterns in water sources, dramatically decreasing the population of indigenous peoples. Many family-based groups took shelter in caves and rock overhangs within canyon walls, many of which faced south to capitalize on warmth from the sun during the winter. Occasionally, these peoples lived in small, semi-sedentary hamlets in open areas.

Many Southwest tribes during the Post-Archaic period lived in a range of structures that included small family pit houses, larger structures to house clans, grand pueblos, and cliff-sited dwellings for defense. These communities developed complex networks that stretched across the Colorado Plateau, linking hundreds of neighborhoods and population centers.

While southwestern tribes developed more permanent family structures and established complex communities, they also developed and shared a similar understanding of the spiritual and natural world. Many of the tribes that made up the Southwest Culture practiced animism and shamanism. Shamanism encompasses the premise that shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds. At the same time, animism encompasses the beliefs that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and that souls or spirits exist not only in humans, but also in some other animals, plants, rocks, and geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind, and shadows.

Conclusion

Although at present there are a variety of contemporary cultural traditions that exist in the greater Southwest, many of these traditions still incorporate similar religious aspects that are found in animism and shamanism. Some of these cultural traditions include the Yuman speaking peoples inhabiting the Colorado River valley, the uplands, and Baja California; O’odham peoples of southern Arizona and northern Sonora; and the Pueblo peoples of Arizona and New Mexico.

Meso-American Culture

The Aztecs and the Mayas were two of the most powerful and advanced civilizations of the ancient world.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the practices that enabled the Aztecs and the Mayas to become two of the most advanced civilizations of the ancient world

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Mexica migrated to present-day central Mexico and created a triple alliance with other dominant tribes in the area. Over time, this alliance became the Aztec Empire.
  • The heart of Aztec power was economic unity. Conquered lands paid tribute to the capital city, Tenochtitlan, the present-day site of Mexico City. Rich in tribute, this capital grew in influence, size, and population.
  • Because of the empire’s high rate of literacy, political and technological accomplishments, and economic unity, elements of Mexica and Nahua culture spread throughout Meso America and remain culturally significant today.
  • The Maya civilization was a Meso-American civilization developed by the Maya peoples in an area that includes southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, as well as the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador.
  • The Maya civilization is the only known pre-Columbian society to have fully developed its own writing system. It is also notable for its advances in art, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, as well as the development of a unique calendar.
  • Beginning around 250 CE, during the Classic period, the Maya civilization developed a large number of city-states linked by a complex trade network.
  • By the 9th century, the central Maya region experienced political collapse. The last Maya city fell to the Spanish in 1697 during the colonization of the Meso-American region.

Key Terms

  • Mexica: Called Aztecs in occidental historiography (although this term is not limited to the Mexica), they were an indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico, known today as the rulers of the Aztec Empire. A Nahua people who founded their two cities Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco on raised islets in Lake Texcoco around 1200 CE.
  • chinampa: A method of ancient agriculture once used in Mexico that utilized artificial islands of fertile land.
  • calpolli: A political unit comprised of several interrelated family groups.

Meso-American Civilizations

Meso-American civilizations were amongst some of the most powerful and advanced civilizations of the ancient world. Reading and writing were widespread throughout Meso-America and these civilizations achieved impressive political, artistic, scientific, agricultural, and architectural accomplishments. Many of these civilizations gathered the political and technological resources to build some of the largest, most ornate, and highly populated cities in the ancient world.

The aboriginal Americans settled in the Yucatán peninsula of present-day Mexico around 10,000 BCE. Archaeological, historical, and linguistic evidence suggests that the Nahua peoples originally came from the deserts of northern Mexico, where they lived alongside the Cora and Huichol, and the southwestern United States. They migrated into central Mexico in several waves. The first group of Nahuas to split from the main group were the Pochutec. The Pochutec went on to settle the Pacific coast of Oaxaca, possibly as early as 400 CE. From c. 600 CE, the Nahua quickly rose to power in the places where they had settled in central Mexico and expanded into areas earlier occupied by Oto-Manguean, Totonacan, and Huastec peoples.

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Telamones Tula: Toltec warriors were represented by the famous statues of Atlantis in Tula.

From this period on, the Nahua were the dominant ethnic group in the Valley of Mexico and beyond, with migrations continuing to come in from the north. One of the final Nahua migrations to arrive in the valley settled on an island in Lake Texcoco c. 1200 CE and proceeded to subjugate the surrounding tribes. This group were the Mexica who, over the course of the next 300 years, became the dominant ethnic group of Meso-America, ruling from Tenochtitlan, their island capital. Allying with the Tepanecs and Acolhua people of Texcoco, they formed the Aztec empire, spreading the political and linguistic influence of the Nahuas well into Central America.

The Aztec Confederacy

The Aztec Confederacy began a campaign of conquest and assimilation. Outlying lands were inducted into the empire and became part of the complex Aztec society. Local leaders could gain prestige by adopting and adding to the culture of the Aztec civilization. The Aztecs, in turn, adopted cultural, artistic, and astronomical innovations from its conquered people.

The heart of Aztec power was economic unity. Conquered lands paid tribute to the capital city, Tenochtitlan, the present-day site of Mexico City. Rich in tribute, this capital grew in influence, size, and population. When the Spanish arrived in 1521, it was the fourth largest city in the world (including the once independent city Tlatelco, which was by then a residential suburb) with an estimated population of 212,500 people. It contained the massive Temple de Mayo (a twin-towered pyramid 197 feet tall), 45 public buildings, a palace, two zoos, a botanical garden, and many houses. Surrounding the city and floating on the shallow flats of Lake Texcoco were enormous chinampas—floating garden beds that fed the many thousands of residents of Tenochtitlan.

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The basin of Mexico circa 1519 at the arrival of the Spanish: The Aztec Empire was based in the Basin of Mexico, pictured here. The capital, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, was located on an island in Lake Texcoco.

Aztec Family and Lineage

Family and lineage were the basic units of Aztec society. One’s lineage determined one’s social standing, and noble lineages were traced back to the mythical past with nobles being said to descend from Quetzalcoatl. Many prestigious lineages also traced their kin back through ruling dynasties, most often ones with Toltec heritage, which was considered favorable. The extended family group was the basic social unit and living patterns were determined by family ties, with networks of family groups settling together to form calpollis. Lineage was traced back via both the father and mother’s ancestry, however, paternal lineage was favored.

Aztec Religion

The Aztecs practiced a religion that was polytheistic and recognized a large and ever increasing pantheon of gods and goddesses. The Aztecs would even incorporate deities who came from other geographic regions or peoples into their own religious practices. The most important celestial entities in the Aztec religion were the Sun, the Moon, and the planet Venus (referred to as both the “morning star” and “evening star”). All these entities had different symbolic and religious meanings as well as associations with certain deities and geographical places.

Many of the leading deities of the Aztec pantheon were worshiped by previous Meso-American civilizations, such as Tlaloc, the rain god; Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent; and Tezcatlipoca, the god of destiny and fortune. Each of these gods had their own shrine, side-by-side, at the top of the largest pyramid in the Aztec capital. A common Aztec religious practice was to recreate the divine through sacred impersonation. Mythological events were ritually recreated and living persons would impersonate the specific deities involved. The people impersonating deities were treated with reverence once they were in their roles, some even living in splendor and luxury up to a year prior to the religious ceremony in which they were to perform. Many such ritual actors, however, were typically sacrificed to the very deity they had represented during the ceremony.

While many Meso-American civilizations practiced human sacrifice, none performed it to the scale of the Aztecs. To the Aztecs, human sacrifice was a necessary appeasement to the gods. According to their own records, one of the largest slaughters ever performed occurred when the great pyramid of Tenochtitlan was reconsecrated in 1487. The Aztecs reported that they had sacrificed 84,400 prisoners over the course of four days.

The Arrival of the Spanish

The Spanish arrival at Tenochtitlan marked the downfall of Aztec culture. Although shocked and impressed by the scale of Tenochtitlan, the display of massive human sacrifice offended European sensitivities, and the abundant displays of gold and silver inflamed their greed. The Spanish killed the reigning ruler, Montezuma, in June 1520 and lay siege to the city. They destroyed it completely in 1521, aided by their alliance with a competing tribe, the Tlaxcala.

The Maya Civilization

The Maya civilization was a Meso-American civilization developed by the Maya peoples in an area that encompasses southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, as well as the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. The region consists of the northern lowlands encompassing the Yucatán Peninsula and the highlands of the Sierra Madre. The Maya civilization is the only known pre-Columbian society to have fully developed its own writing system. It is also notable for its advances in art, architecture, mathematics, as well as the development of a unique calendar and astronomical system.

The first developments in agriculture and the first villages of the Maya civilization appeared during the Archaic period prior to 2000 BCE. The establishment of the first complex societies in the Maya region, including cultivation of the staple crops of the Maya diet—maize, beans, squashes, and chili peppers occurred in the Preclassic period c. 2000 BCE to 250 CE. The first Maya cities developed around 750 BCE, and by 500 BCE, these cities possessed monumental architecture, including large temples with elaborate stucco façades. Beginning around 250 CE, during the Classic period, the Maya civilization developed a large number of city-states linked by a complex trade network. During this same time, the central Mexican city, Teotihuacan, was becoming increasingly intrusive in Maya dynastic politics. By the 9th century, the central Maya region experienced political collapse, resulting in internecine warfare, the abandonment of some cities, and a northward shift in population. The last Maya city fell to the Spanish in 1697 during the colonization of the Meso-American region.

Maya Society and Family

Since the early Preclassic period, Maya society was divided into elite and common classes. Over time, as the population increased and urban centers grew, the wealthy segment of society multiplied, and a middle class may also have developed, comprised of artisans, low-ranking priests and officials, soldiers, and merchants. Property was held communally by noble houses or clans, according to indigenous histories, and connections to land were established and maintained via a strong connection to ancestry, with many deceased ancestors being buried in residential compounds. Many families even buried their dead underneath the floorboards of their home.

Maya lineages were patrilineal, so household shrines to prominent male ancestors would often decorate residential compounds. As elites became more powerful, these shrines evolved into grand pyramid structures to house the remains of deceased royals.

Maya Religion

The Maya, like many Meso-American peoples, believed in a pantheon of deities, which were routinely placated with ceremonial offerings and ritual practices. Deceased ancestors played a significant role as intercessors between deities and human beings. Shamans also acted as early intercessors between humanity and the supernatural. Over time, political elites codified the ritualistic Maya practices into religious cults that justified the ruler’s claim to power. By the late Preclassic period, this culminated in the concept of a divine kingship.

The Maya believed in a highly codified cosmos, with 13 levels within heaven and nine levels subsumed within the underworld. The supernatural pervaded every aspect of Maya life, and Maya deities governed all aspects of the world. Public ceremonies incorporated aspects of feasting, bloodletting, incense burning, music, ritual dance, and even human sacrifice, which became more common in the Postclassic period.