CHAPTER 13 ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS
OF THE AMERICAS
A. Read “Global Perspective.” Use Focus Questions to direct
B. There are no Review Questions for this Chapter. Instead, you
are asked to focus on ten traits of the cultures as explained below.
C. In Chapter One, Craig says that the Americas experience
similar cultural changes worldwide as the Neolithic
begins. Review Chapter One on the Americas to understand this.
Then in this chapter, the text says, “Although isolated from one
another, the peoples of the Americas, Africa and Eurasia
experienced similar cultural changes at the end of the
Paleolithic.” This is shown in the Time Charts accompanying the
lectures. Drag those Time Charts out! The Americas appear to go
through the same eras as the rest of the world (Sacred State,
Warrior Period, Empire…). However, in some cases we lack
adequate evidence to really show this.
II. RECONSTRUCTING THE HISTORY OF NATIVE
A. We have limited knowledge about Native American
civilizations because (note the similarities to the African
1. Little writing -- Be careful here. The fact that no obvious
writing can be found in some cultures does not mean they did not
have writing. For instance, there may be symbols that are not
recognized as writing. Peru’s quipu, thought to be a counting
device, is argued to represent syllables. Also, writing evidence
may have been eaten up by the rainforest or buried in sand or ice.
2. Environmental destruction -- Note how much of central and
south America is covered by jungle, wetlands, deserts, and
mountains, all of which will obliterate human creations.
3. Limited archaeology -- In countries without many resources
and overwhelming current problems, money for archaeology is
hard to obtain.
4. Prejudice -- Many Westerners have thought the pre-Columbian
cultures of the New World were either too undeveloped or too
barbaric to teach us anything useful. They also used European
categories of thought and European vocabulary to explain what
they did find, which did not exactly capture the native
reality. (Think like a native!)
B. Ten Common Traits in Native American early cultures
There are so many ethnically and linguistically diverse cultures
and so many traits in Central and South America that you can be
overwhelmed with the detail. I think it helps to isolate ten key
characteristics that seem to appear in all the cultures which follow
below and focus primarily on these ten characteristics.
Here I am going to explain the ten traits which you should then
look for in the text account of the cultures discussed in
lecture. Take notes from the text on each trait that you find and
put these notes in the lecture section where I briefly discuss the
1. Blood Debt Sacrifice -- This is one of the more horrific aspects
of these cultures for westerners, although it is misunderstood. The
native rationale is that the powers of the universe give humans
water for crops, and humans therefore should return something
equally valuable. In most cases, the return was prisoners of war
who were especially notable or brave, or the return was members
of their own society who were noble or celebrated. This kind of
exchange of human or animal sacrifice in return for sustenance is
found in virtually all cultures worldwide at an early stage in their
development. Even the Old Testament has this blood debt echoed
in the Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to his god.
2. Writing—The text mentions that all pre-Columbian cultures
with the current exception of the Inca had writing. However, as
noted above, writing may not have survived. Or symbols may not
be recognized as writing.
3. Astronomy and Calendar—The evidence of advanced irrigation
farming, certain rituals, and their connection to monumental
buildings necessarily involves astronomy. No astronomy exists
apart from a calendar of some kind.
4. Mother and Father Chief Gods – All the cultures have a malefemale or father-mother set of main deities. Both are connected
with blood and water. Both have a destructive and creative aspect.
5. Urban Ceremonial Center—The main cities or city of each
culture exhibit a vast central plaza surrounded by the chief temples
and related buildings
6. Pyramids—Around this main plaza, pyramids of varying
heights and construction are established for the chief deities. Some
of these pyramids contain royal burial remains.
7. Underworld—Recently, tunnels and caves symbolizing the
afterlife or underworld have been discovered in several of the sites
we discuss. Several of the caves have a connections with a jaguar
as a statue or part of a ritual. Rituals of rebirth took place in these
caves and tunnels.
8. Ballgame—This game involved two teams trying to keep a
rubber ball representing the sun from either touching the ground or
ending up on the wrong side of the ball court. Either the winning
or losing team was sacrificed. This is not understood yet. This
sounds strange to us, but it seems that both teams were prisoners of
war doomed to be killed anyway. Their winning the ballgame may
have guaranteed them a better afterlife. (See text photo.)
9. Elite rule by priest-kings or sacred semi-divine kings and elite
trade—The Sacred State phase of native American cultures had
priest-kings, as did the other early Sacred States like Egypt and
Mesopotamia. The sacred character persists stronger and longer in
the Americas than it does elsewhere, though the Empire Periods
see the priest-kings acting more like army commanders of empires.
10. Jaguar—This animal is widespread in the Americas and came
to be seen as the animal ancestor of the humans there. Thus, the
jaguar is often depicted in sacred caves representing the
underworld, where the tribe is said to have originated. In the
underworld, priests masked as jaguars often took part in the rituals
of the king who died. These rituals embraced the king’s living heir
who had to undergo frightening initiation ceremonies in the
underworld caves and then emerge from the underworld
embodying the powers of the jaguar which made him fit to rule.
C. The Americas
1. Bering Strait Land Bridge
Chapter One tells you about the Bering Strait Land Bridge,
supposedly open from c. 40,000 to 10,000 BC, when it is said to
have closed due to rising sea levels. However, there are some new
theories to consider: The Bering Strait Land Bridge may always
have been open to some adventurous folk. Even with higher sea
levels, there are islands which allow hopping from one continent to
another. Also, it is now argued that humans came by boat along
the coastlines. Sites where they might have stopped and settled
have been washed away with surging sea levels. Without these
new theories, it is hard to explain why some scholars argue that
there are signs of people all the way down in southern South
American close to 40,000 BC.
2 Sacred State Period in the Americas
We now know that the Maya go back to at least 2000 BC, the
beginning of what I have termed a Warrior period. Perhaps the
earliest Maya sites to be found will show they have a Sacred State
phase. We do know that south of the Maya in Peru, a culture
called the Aspero existed c. 2500 with some of the characteristics
of sacred states. Not enough excavation has been done though.
The first real and abundant evidence of early Native American
cultures comes with the Warrior Period of c.2000-1000 BC and the
Olmecs, c. 1500 BC. This takes us to Mesoamerica.
Locate the cultures and sites that follow on the text maps.
TAKE A LITTLE BREAK TO REST YOUR MIND AND
DIGEST THIS MATERIAL
III. MESOAMERICA: THE FORMATIVE PERIOD AND
THE EMERGENCE OF MESOAMERICAN CIVILIZATION
1. Called the “mother culture” of the Americas because it is the
earliest with abundant remains which can be compared with other
American cultures, the Olmecs were located at San Lorenzo and
La Venta and neighboring sites on the eastern coast of Mexico c.
2. If you go through the text on the Olmecs, you will find evidence
of most of the ten traits common to all these cultures: stone
carvings of blood sacrifice of prisoners, maybe writing, probably
astronomy, since they have the ballgame (remember, it is a ritual
involving the sun); mother and father gods connected to water,
urban center, pyramids, and underworld depicted in the stone
carvings of caves, elite obsidian and jade trade, and the
jaguar. This last is important in the most famous of the Olmec
artifacts, the giant stone heads. The Olmec geographical location
and these dramatic stone heads suggested to many that they were
immigrants from Africa. This is not supported by
scholarship. Today the accepted explanation is more startling: the
heads seem to show stages of a jaguar turning into a man, or a
were-jaguar. As the jaguar in the cave is the ancestor of the clan
and giver of royal powers, so the chief emerges from his jaguar
origins (see text photo). No calendar or writing has been definitely
identified, but pyramids and sophisticated agriculture require
astronomical advances and a calendar. Besides, the text itself says
that “All the pre-Spanish societies of Mesoamerica were literate.”
GO TO FILM CLIP OLMEC ART
GO TO FILM CLIP THE OLMEC—ANCIENT MEXICO
B. The Valley of Oaxaca and the Rise of Monte Alban
This site of Monte Alban is separate from the Olmec sites and
housed the Mixtec and Zapotec tribes. It is capital of an early
Empire c. 500 BC. The ruins indicate frequent warfare and human
sacrifice and all the other ten traits, including the all-important
mother and father gods. The underworld includes tunnels running
under the main plaza.
GO TO FILM CLIP MONTEALBAN, OAXACA
IV. THE CLASSIC PERIOD IN MESOAMERICA
Right outside Mexico City is a capital of an empire where yet
another group lived about the time of the Roman Empire. All ten
traits are vividly present in this extensive settlement. Most
outstanding are the Temples of the Sun and the Moon (see text
photo) and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (see photo) with its
sacrificial burials of dozens of young men under it. Much of its
power and importance was based on a trade in obsidian,
indispensable for weapons.
GO TO FILM CLIP TEOTIHUACAN PYRAMIDS
Of the many well-preserved Maya sites, Palenque is a world
favorite. All ten traits appear in this mysterious, rain-forest setting
with well preserved buildings, from the temples and administration
centers, to the royal quarters and ballcourt (See text photos.) The
body of one of greatest Mayan rulers, Pacal, was found in a
Palenque pyramid with burial goods and a stunning turquoise mask.
Since the Maya language has recently been deciphered, we can
read their inscriptions and other writings.
It is interesting that the Teotihuacanos and Maya show extensive
decline by 900 AD. Although scholars still argue over reasons for
this collapse, it is consistent with the world-wide decline of the
great Classical Empires during c. 500-1000 AD, or what I have
called another Warrior Period.
GO TO FILM CLIP PALENQUE-MEXICO
GO TO FILM CLIP
THE TOMB OF A MAYAN KING (PACAL)
GO TO FILM CLIP LOST KINDGOMS OF THE MAYA PT.
2 (This is a great series.)
V. THE POST CLASSIC PERIOD
The Toltec sites are not very well preserved, but enough is visible
to indicate they were a well-developed warrior culture c. 900 AD
and mentors of the Aztec, which deserve a more extensive
discussion. The text photo of Tula depicts warrior pillars.
During the Sacred State period of c. 1000-1300 AD, the Aztec or
Mexica tribe apparently wandered from the area of modern north
Mexico south towards Lake Texcoco, where Mexico City stands
today. (See photos and map). During this wandering the Aztec
developed a fairly brutal ideology and practice which all the world
knows as cutting out the heart of a living victim and offering it to
the sun god in return for prosperity. (See Document.) By 1300-
1500, from their capital at Tenochtitlan, the Aztec has subdued the
other tribes in the region around the lake and were moving into the
land of the Maya and other cultures, that is, they were developing
an empire (See map). Isn’t it remarkable that we actually know the
name of the ruler who devised imperial Aztec practices, including
cannibal feasts of the sacrificed prisoners. The vast array of wealth
extracted from conquered regions found its way to all the Aztec
markets and greatly enriched the elite and encouraged their
arrogance and cruelty. This is a preeminent war culture, with a
strict code of honor, discipline, and a military code of ethics,
whose scale and brutality is nevertheless debated vigorously today.
GO TO FILM CLIP ENGINEERING AN EMPIRE—THE
AZTECS PART 1
GO TO THE AZTECS PART 2
VI. ANDEAN SOUTH AMERICA: THE PRECERAMIC
AND INITIAL PERIODS
I will skip this part but make one important point: If you check out
the Aspero, c. 2500 BC in Peru, you will find that there are
ceremonial mounds (pyramids) and urban plazas with public
buildings. We just have not excavated enough to term it a Sacred
State, which is no doubt was.
VII. EARLY INTERMEDIATE, MIDDLE HORIZON, AND
LATER INTERMEDIATE PERIOD
I will just discuss the Moche.
One of the richest sites ever to be excavated in the new world is the
pre-Inca Moche settlement of Sipan (see map) which was
prominent c. 500 AD, the time of Teotihuacan and Palenque
Maya. (See photo.) Like those other two, Sipan dominated an
empire and practiced human sacrifice near its pyramids of Sun and
Moon (like Teotihuacan). Of our ten traits, Sipan so far has
revealed all except the ball court.
GO TO FILM CLIP LORD OF SIPAN
VIII. THE INCA EMPIRE
The Inca did not create a new culture; they absorbed the existing
cultures in western South America from Chile to Bolivia and
unified all these diverse peoples them into a mighty empire c.
1300-1500 AD, the same time as the Aztec were forming their own
empire (See map). The Inca are renowned for their roads and
bridges which knitted the empire together and allowed taxes in
labor rather than goods. Their “highways” crossed spectacular
landscapes, such as Machu Picchu (see photo).
Such an administrative marvel could hardly have been achieved
without writing, and yet no writing has been identified. Perhaps
the quipu was a counting device as well as an alphabet or syllabary.
The text notes the importance of Incan weaving and textiles, where
cloth and clothing were a language in itself for art, ritual, and
GO TO FILM CLIP
THE INCA CODES, RISE AND FALL OF
GO TO FILM CLIP DOCUMENTARY ON THE PRE-INCA
GO TO FILM CLIP CUZCO, ANCIENT CAPITAL OF THE
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