Pre-Columbian America
author Maxim Pretula, June 2016
Discoveries in the fields of archeology, anthropology and geology, together with modern research based on DNA analysis, confirm that the Americas were the last continents to be populated by the human race.
Discoveries in the fields of archeology, anthropology and geology, together with modern research based on DNA analysis, confirm that the Americas were the last continents to be populated by the human race.

The first theory put forward by researchers has the most support. According to this theory, a large number of Asiatic groups began to cross the Bering Strait during the last great ice age. The migrators used the “ice bridge” between Asia and North America to follow and hunt flocks of big herbivores migrating between the two continents.

The second theory put forward is that that of sea voyages along the Asian and American coasts of the Pacific. It is supposed that Asiatic groups originally from the western Pacific islands began to populate the coasts of the American continent, down to South America. They used small vessels. Coastal regions were considered to be good areas for development. There was a great variety of animal and plant species necessary to man for food.

Most researchers consider the Clovis culture to be the first American culture. This was located in North America. One of its defining characteristics is the use of bone and ebony spears for hunting large animals.

There is much archeological proof to show that the Clovis culture is the oldest American culture. However, in Brazil, California, Chile and Venezuela, traces have been found of an older culture. Thus, researchers are inclined to take into consideration both the theory of migration via the Bering Strait, and also the movement of Asian populations towards the new continent across the Pacific coast.

Whichever theory is true, it is certain that the migrators found a territory rich in resources. This allowed rapid expansion. Thus, only a few centuries after the last ice age, there was a significant population of people in both North and South America. This is a widely accepted fact.

The archaic period in the history of American cultures has been defined as being a few thousand years after the end of the migratory process from Asia to America. The process of migration ended after the ice bridge of the Bering Strait completely disappeared. This period is known as the beginning stage of the growth of a society of hunters and semi-agriculturalists. These people had social and organizational structures in incipient stages.

The process of population of the American continents lasted a long time. The main occupation of the new incomers was hunting. This was the element which determined, for the most part, the gradual spread of inhabitants over the whole surface of the continent.

The cultural development of the primitive American populations is attested by the discovery of the first structures raised for religious purposes. These structures were mounds of earth up to 19 metres tall. One example is the Grave Creek mound in western Virginia. It is believed that they were raised during religious ceremonies, at the burials of tribal chiefs.

The first complex societies began to appear when the climate of the continents stabilized. Thus, suitable conditions for agricultural activities appeared. Many species of plants - such as beans, corn, squash, yams, avocado, passion fruit - began to be cultivated. Thus, a stable source of food was provided for the new inhabitants.

The “Woodland” period of development was a new phase in the development of the cultures of eastern North America. This stage is characterized mainly by the spread of the use of ceramics. At the same time, agricultural instruments and hunting tools made from wood, bone, leather and stone were continually being developed. The spread of agricultural crops signalled the gradual change from a nomadic lifestyle to a pastoral one.

The most advanced culture of this historical period was in South America, on the territory of Peru. The “Norte Chico” culture, as it has been named by archaeologists, is considered to be the first advanced American culture. Although this culture did not manufacture ceramics, the constructions discovered show advanced social, economic and religious development.

The tribes around the Mississippi river and its tributaries, Ohio and Tennessee, created what researchers today call the “Mississippian” culture. The definitive settling of the population as an agricultural society permitted the apparition of the first towns. Cahokia was the largest town in the current territory of the United States, up until the founding of European towns on the east coast of the Atlantic.

The period of approximately 800 years of development of Amerindian tribes in the valley of the River Mississippi and its tributaries has been divided by historians into three stages. The first stage coincides with the end of the “Woodland” period and represents the definitive switch to a pastoral lifestyle, based on agriculture. The second stage is the most advanced level of development of these tribes, in which great cities were built. The last stage is a period of decline, characterized by military conflicts, political instability and the migration of populations to other areas.

Amongst the cultural characteristics of this civilization, the main ones were the cultivation of corn and the construction of earth mounds. Corn was cultivated on large tracts of land. The mounds were constructed in the shape of pyramids, over which dwelling places or temples were built. These were complex political structures based on hierarchy. Usually, the tribal leader had religious and political roles. There was a well-developed commercial network stretching from the eastern Atlantic coast to the west, in the area of the Rocky Mountains.

There are four large areas of development for this culture. The first is located in the central area of the Mississippi valley. This area is the site of most archaeological discoveries. The second area was east of the river, in the forested area of the Appalachian mountains. The third is centred on the lower reaches of the Mississippi river, and the fourth to the east of the river’s valley. Differences of climate and terrain impressed specific differences on these groups. However, commercial links between tribes contributed significantly to the creation of a unique cultural identity.

Cahokia, the largest urban settlement in the current territory of the United States, was founded approximately 1000 years before contact with Europeans. From archaeological research, it has been discovered that this pre-Columbian town contained over 120 earth-mound structures with various different social, economic and religious purposes. The population of the town has been estimated at approx. 40,000 inhabitants in the period of its greatest development. This number was only exceeded by the populations of the towns of the Aztec and Maya civilizations in the territory of Mexico, up until the founding of European cities.

The first Europeans to arrive in the Mississippi river valley were Spanish. They came on the expeditions made by Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo. This first contact had a great influence on the native population. This influence was due in part to conflicts which arose on contact, but also to the lack of the Amerindians’ immunity to certain diseases brought by the Europeans. The arrival of horses, animals which were absent from the American continent before the arrival of the Europeans, helped bring certain groups back to a nomadic lifestyle.

The Classical Period was the age of the blossoming of American cultures, especially in Central America and in north-western parts of South America. Large urban centres developed, with complex social and political structures. Systems of transport were created, the economy advanced and foundations for the study of sciences such as mathematics and astronomy were laid. All these led to the creation of the great Aztec and Mayan pyramids in Central America and the stone towns of the Incas in the Andes Mountains.

At the same time as the explorations on the modern territory of the United States, the Spanish discovered the Pueblo culture. The name of this culture came from the name the explorers gave to the settlements they discovered - ‘pueblo’ means town in Spanish. These settlements were made up of multi-level houses. Many times, the houses were built directly into the rocks of mountains in order to offer advantageous defensive positions.

Teotihuacan was one of the largest cities built by an ancient civilization in America. Here, the largest pyramids of the American continent were discovered. The population of this city, in its greatest period of development, was estimated at 125,000 inhabitants. The cultural influences of this civilization spread throughout the whole of Central America. The Aztecs, who discovered the ruins of the city after their migration from northern to southern Mexico, declared themselves the descendents of this people.

The Zapotec civilization blossomed in the Oaxaca valley, a period of approximately 2500 years. The Monte Alban City, as it was named by the Spanish soldiers who discovered it, was one of the first large towns of Central America. It contained different types of structures built from stone. The Zapotecs were the first pre-Columbian people from Central America to develop a system of syllabic writing and a calendar. They were also contemporaries of the Aztecs, with whom they often entered into conflict.

The Olmecs were the precursors to the Aztecs on the modern territory of southern Mexico. Their civilizations was notable for their sculptures and ceramics. Like the Aztecs, the Olmecs practiced sacrificial rituals and a mesoamerican ball game, with special religious meanings.

The Chavin culture was discovered by archaeologists on the modern-day territory of Peru. It predated the Inca civilization by approx. 2,400 years. Numerous constructions and artefacts attest to the development of this civilization, but also to the influence of climate and terrain upon the inhabitants of the area. The most important archaeological site, Chavin de Huantar, is situated at an altitude of over 3,000 metres in the Andes mountains.

The Aztec civilization was one of the great classical Amerindian civilizations. The central area of modern-day Mexico was home to many cultures and civilizations before the apparition of the Aztecs. Amongst these civilizations was the great culture of the inhabitants of the Teotihuacan town. Even so, the Aztecs were the ones who founded, besides a great culture, a great empire, which stretched over the whole central area of Mexico. The influence of the Aztec empire spread to many towns and people of Central America.

The origins of the Aztecs are clothed in mystery. According to the pictograms through which the Aztecs transmitted their history, Aztlan, their place of origin, is situated somewhere in northern Mexico. Legend has it that one of the high priests of the tribe had a vision of an eagle sitting on a cactus, holding a snake in its beak. After this vision, the priest encouraged his people to go south to build a new home. Due to their trips south and motivated by conflicts with tribes met in the Mexico valley, the Aztecs settled on an island on the Texcoco lake. Here, they saw a vulture devouring a snake while sitting on a cactus, fulfilling the prophecy.

The Aztec towns built masterpieces of pre-Columbian architecture, using many of their scientific discoveries. Using the limited resources available, the Aztecs built bridges on the Texcoco lake in order to connect with the other towns in the area. They created a system of artificial floating islands, which they used to grow crops. Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, was divided into four large regions. Each of these had social, political and religious functions. Historians consider Tenochtitlan to be one of the greatest pre-Columbian cities.

At the beginning, the Aztecs encountered many difficulties, since they were surrounded by hostile kingdoms. However, shortly after founding their city, Tenochtitlan, under impulse from visions sent to their leaders by their supreme god, Huitzilopochtli - a god of war - the Aztecs began to extend their influence. They founded the so-called Triple Alliance together with two other city-states in the Mexico valley. The Aztecs became the leaders of this alliance. Through this they conquered all towns and kingdoms in the central region of Mexico.

The Aztec religion was closely linked to social order and political leadership, with political leaders also having the role of high priests. The Aztec pantheon was vast and often incorporated gods of conquered populations. The most important gods were Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and Quetzalcoatl, the god of life. Through animal and especially human sacrifices, the Aztecs believed they were paying a blood debt to their gods, through which the world and the sun would be able to continue to exist.

The Aztec society was very well organized. The extended family was the basic social unit, which also determined each person’s social stature. Families were nobles or commoners, but there were also slaves. These were enemies captured in battle, or citizens who became indebted. The Aztec economy was based on agriculture and commerce, but also on the results of military campaigns. After these campaigns, the defeated towns were forced to pay tribute.

The conquistador Hernán Cortés disembarked on the shores of the Yucatan peninsula. After making alliances with the local tribes which were enemies with the Aztec leadership, he headed towards the Tenochtitlan town. The Spanish were deeply impressed by the size of the Aztec towns, their high level of development, but also by their riches. In short time, this led to war. After the war, the Aztec capital was destroyed, and the Spanish became the rulers of Central America.

The Mayan civilization lasted for almost 3,500 years. It was known for its monumental towns and for developing the first complete hieroglyphic system of writing in pre-Columbian America. The Mayan civilization was also known for its high level of mathematical knowledge, surpassing the Romans and ancient Greeks in this respect. The Mayans were also known for the rapid and still unelucidated collapse of their civilization, before Europeans arrived on the continent.

The history of the Mayans has been divided by historians into three periods. The preclassic period was a long period of development. This is when they gradually passed from small rural settlements and a lifestyle based mostly on hunting and gathering, to founding large urban centers. One example is the town named El Mirador. The classic period was the height of the Maya culture, characterized by vast development of urban centers. The post-classic period contains the gradual decline of many Mayan towns, up until the moment of the Spanish conquest.

In contrast to the Aztecs and Incas, the Mayans did not create a unified state. They were organized into a great number of kingdoms and city-states, similar in this respect to the ancient Greeks. Towns such as Tikal, Calakmul, Palenque, Copan, Chichen Itza, Kaminaljuyu, Nojpeten, Coba, Zaculeu and Mayapan had their own organization, their own dynasties. These towns fought amongst themselves and formed alliances to get control of commerce and resources.

The most important aspect of the Mayan culture was religion. This strongly influenced politics, economic relations and military conflicts between different town-states. Like the Aztecs and other Central American peoples, the Mayans practiced human sacrifice for religious purposes. They believed that they honored their gods in this way. Political and military decisions were sanctioned and approved by high priests. Advanced knowledge of astronomy, architecture and mathematics was correlated with the cosmogonical vision of the Mayans.

The Mayan constructions are true masterpieces of pre-Columbian architecture. The Kukulkan Temple and the Temple of warriors in Chichen Itza, Temple I in Calakmul, The Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque, and Temple I in Tikal are just a few of the constructions which rival those of the Egyptians, Greek and Romans. It’s important to notice the extraordinary difficulties encountered in their construction. The Mayans did not use animals for work, nor did they work with metal.

Besides their great accomplishments, the Mayan civilization is also known in history for its unexplainable decline. This happened towards the end of the classical period. The reasons for the decline are still subjects for speculation. Historians have suggested that overpopulation of towns, together with a reduction in resources due to excessive deforestation and aggressive agriculture, might be to blame. These problems generated political crises and military conflicts, after which the populations migrated to other areas and abandoned the great towns.

The Inca empire was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. It had humble beginnings - the Incas were originally a tribe of shepherds. They began the systematic conquest of all neighboring kingdoms, extending the limits of their state from what is now southern Colombia, to Chile and Argentina.

Legend states that the ancestors of the Incas came out of three caves. The prophecy of the founder of the Cusco Kingdom, Manco Capac, was that in the place where his staff would sink into the earth, he would build the city of the Incas. This place was Cusco, the capital of the future Empire.

200 years after the founding of the Cusco town, the Inca king, in their language called Sapa Inca, Pachacuti-Cusi Yupanqui, began a campaign of expanding the kingdom. On one hand, he conquered opposing tribes, while on the other hand he asked them to be part of his state, offering precious gifts in exchange.

As in the case of the Aztecs and Mayans, religion was an element which influenced every aspect of Inca lives. Human sacrifices were used to honor the gods. In some cases, such as the death of Sapa Inca, or natural disasters, even children were sacrificed. The supreme god of the Incas was called Viracocha and was the creator of the world and all living creatures.

Machu Picchu, the best-known remnant of the Incas, was discovered by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Situated at an altitude of 2,430m, it has been named the lost town of the Incas. At present, most specialists believe that the town was built as a residence for Sapa Inca Pachacuti.

The newly formed empire was organized into four large regions, with the edges of each region starting at the empire’s capital. With a vast surface area, the Incas constructed a system of roads and created a courier system. Thus, they were able to control even the farthest corners of the empire from the capital.