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For someone in the United States, it is not hard to “find” the Americas: all one has to do is look down at the ground. The Americas, sometimes called the Western Hemisphere or the New World, consist of two continents, North America and South America. The most commonly used division, however, is between North America—that is, the United States and Canada—and Latin America, which comprises the remainder of the New World, including the islands of the Caribbean. The most significant ancient civilizations of the Western Hemisphere developed in Latin America: the Olmec and other groups in what is now Mexico and parts of Central America (referred to by archaeologists as Mesoamerica); and the Chavin and other cultures in the Andes Mountains of South America.

The Americas share certain characteristics with sub- Saharan Africa, characteristics that distinguish these cultures from most others examined in this book. Archaeologists know much less about these cultures than they do about those of the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. It is virtually impossible to find examples of famous people from ancient America, simply because hardly any individual names have survived in the historical record. The histories of American civilizations, as with those of Africa, are primarily the record of an entire people. Also like African civilizations, those of the New World did not reach their peak in ancient times; rather, they flourished during what is commonly referred to as the Middle Ages. Yet it is important to study ancient America because the great Mayan and Aztec cultures of Mesoamerica developed on a foundation created by the Olmec and the people who established the city of Teotihuacan, just as the splendid Inca Empire of Peru grew from seeds planted by the Chavin.

The Peoples of the Americas

American History EssayThe word Indian, when used to describe the people living on the American continent at the time Christopher Columbus arrived in A.D. 1492, is based on Columbus’s mistaken belief that he had reached India. In order to overcome this error, in the late twentieth century the name “Native American” became more common. However, this name has its own problems, because there is no such thing as a native American. Even the peoples who inhabited the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans were migrants, though they beat the Europeans to the New World by a good 20,000 years or more.

The first Americans came from eastern Siberia, now part of Russia, where even today one will find a hardy native population with facial features much like that of the American “Indian.” They began arriving somewhere between 30,000 and 20,000 B.C., during the last Ice Age. With much of North America covered in a sheet of ice two miles thick in places, the seas were lower than they are now. This created a land bridge across what is now the Bering Sea between Alaska and Siberia, and thus like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, the first Americans simply walked to the new land.

Origins of the “Native Americans”

There is much dispute concerning the approximate date of the first Americans’ arrival, how they spread throughout the New World, and the dates of subsequent migrations by groups from Siberia. But it is fairly clear that they could have come only by this northern route, by far the closest approach from the Old World—that is, Asia, Africa, and Europe—to the New. It is likewise clear that many of them moved southward. By about 9000 B.C., people lived in the southern tip of South America. They continued to spread throughout the Americas. Over thousands of years, the first Americans divided into thousands of groups in every part of the New World, yet all these groups shared certain characteristics. This was particularly true of the two most outstanding civilizations of ancient America: the Olmec and the Chavin.

Olmec, Chavin, and Other Ancient Americans

There is enormous variety in the lands of North and South America. This variety causes wide differences in the people’s ways of life. The Olmec homeland in Mesoamerica was a land of steaming rain forests and lush, vegetation-covered mountains. By contrast, the Andes, the high mountains of South America where the Chavin settled, were rocky and dry. Despite these differences in environment, however, the two groups had much in common.

It is a mystery why the Olmec and Chavin, widely separated by distance and apparently ignorant of one another, both constructed pyramids. It is a mystery, too, why pyramidbuilding seems to have taken place primarily in northeast Africa and in the Americas, areas separated by thousands of miles of ocean. Some people believe that beings from another planet built the pyramids of Egypt, as well as those of the Americas. However, even if one attempts to approach the question from the standpoint of a scientist (that is, by studying the facts and attempting to build a theory from them, rather than starting out with a theory and trying to find facts that agree with it), there seem to be no clear answers.

Another curious aspect of ancient American cultures is their relatively low level of technological development in comparison to their achievements as builders. It appears that the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom who built the pyramids had no knowledge of the wheel. When the peoples of America built their own pyramids some 1,500 years later, they also did so without the use of wheels. This is a curious fact, since archaeologists have found wheeled toys at various sites, particularly in Mesoamerica. Why the Olmec did not adapt the wheel to more practical uses is yet another mystery.

Furthermore, although the Inca would later domesticate the llama, a relative of the camel that lives in the high Andes, ancient Americans were without beasts of burden. Nor did they possess sophisticated tools. The Chavin became highly accomplished in the art of fashioning objects from gold, but it appears that the Americas did not enter the Bronze Age until about A.D. 1200. Metal was chiefly for decoration, such as gold jewelry; tools, on the other hand, were of stone. Thus, as one contemplates the pyramids of Mesoamerica, it is amazing to consider that they were built by more or less Stone Age peoples.

Both the Olmec and the Chavin civilizations grew out of agricultural systems that began developing in about 3500 B.C. Both served as “parent” civilizations to others that developed around them. Not only did they trade goods with these satellite groups, but they also passed on knowledge and culture to them. Both groups built holy cities, or ceremonial centers, to which worshippers made pilgrimages.

Despite the presence of cities, however, the Olmec and Chavin had economies based on agriculture. Each had a central crop as important to their lives as rice was in India and China: corn (or maize) in Mesoamerica, and potatoes in the Andes. Like most peoples of ancient times, these early Americans believed that everything had a spiritual significance. Hence agriculture and religion were closely linked, and the power of ancient American gods centered around their ability to bring rain and grow crops.

Finally, the two groups were linked by time. Each fit into the period designated as Formative, or Preclassic, by archaeologists. This era lasted from about 1500 B.C. to A.D. 300. The Formative Period included not only the Olmec, Chavin, and their surrounding cultures but the earliest stages of what would become the greatest civilization of pre- Columbian America: the Maya. The latter would flourish during the Classic Period, from A.D. 300 to 900, continuing long after “ancient” times. Finally came the Postclassic Period (A.D. 900–1540), dominated by the Aztec in Mesoamerica and the Inca in the Andes. These great cultures of later periods, however, would not have been possible without the Olmec and Chavin who preceded them.

Other Mesoamerican Cultures

All around the Olmec were other cultures, the remains of which have been found at archaeological sites throughout Mesoamerica. The most prominent of these, of course, were the Maya. They had developed ceremonial centers of their own as early as 2000 B.C., and by about 300 B.C., they populated parts of what is now Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The Maya later moved into Mexico, where this greatest of all pre- Columbian civilizations would leave a lasting imprint at the same time Europe was going through the Middle Ages.

In the modern-day Mexican state of Chiapas, which lies at the southern edge of the country along the Guatemalan border, the majority of the people speak some version of the Mayan language. Chiapas contains an archaeological site at Izapa (ee-ZAH-pah), which may have been a ceremonial center between 1500 and 800 B.C. It is possible that Izapa preserved traditions of the Olmec that later became part of the Mayan culture, including the cult of the rain god.

There were also the Zapotec, who lived in what is now the state of Oaxaca. The Zapotec adapted the Olmec calendar, using both the 365-day cycle and a 260-day religious calendar. Once every 52 years, the first day of both would match up, and that was a day of celebration for the renewal of the earth. Monte Alban, the first true city in Mesoamerica, was a Zapotec city. By A.D. 200, it had become a dominant urban center, containing some 30,000 people. It survived until A.D. 800. Yet as great as Monte Alban was, there was another city even greater.

The Andes

About 2,500 miles (4,023 kilometers) south of the Olmec lived the people of the Chavin culture, around the border areas of modern Peru and Ecuador. The term “Chavin” refers to Chavin de Huantar, a ceremonial center that developed in what is now north-central Peru about 1200 B.C. Like the ceremonial centers of Mesoamerica, Chavin de Huantar was a city of pyramids and platforms, including a large structure dubbed the “Great Pyramid” by archaeologists. The name calls to mind the Great Pyramid of Cheops, but unlike the pyramids of Egypt, those of the Americas were places of worship rather than burial chambers.

Chavin de Huantar was about one and a half miles across and contained a “Great Plaza,” or open area, in the southeast. To the northwest was the court and temple of the Lanzon, a stone idol representing the supreme deity worshipped at Chavin. Like the Mesoamericans, these people also revered the jaguar; hence there were also the Stairs of the Jaguars leading down to the Great Plaza from the Great Pyramid.

Like other ceremonial centers, Chavin de Huantar had a small resident population (probably no more than 1,000 people)— with thousands more (presumably farmers and laborers to serve the priests and rulers) living in surrounding areas. Between 400 and 300 B.C., however, Chavin de Huantar entered a period of decline. Eventually a less advanced group of people built a village over the site. Yet its memory lived on to inspire the Inca, just as Teotihuacan did the Maya and Aztec.

Other Andean Peoples

Numerous other peoples in the Andes were influenced by Chavin culture. Among its contemporaries were the Paracas, who lived on the southern coast between 1100 and 200 B.C., and who apparently practiced mummification. Another coastal group were the Moche or Mochica people, a nation of warriors who controlled an area about the size of modern Vermont. They flourished between 200 B.C. and A.D. 700, producing fine ceramics and some of the most advanced metal objects in ancient America.

Still another coastal people influenced by the Chavin culture were the Nazca. The Nazca flourished between 200 B.C. and A.D. 600. Their most famous works of art are the “Nazca Lines.” The lines are representations of spiders, birds, and other creatures, made out of rock formations and grooves cut into the earth. The representations are so large they can be seen only from a great height. Naturally, this fact has long perplexed archaeologists. If the Nazca possessed no flying machines—not even hot-air balloons—why and how did they create the designs? There is much dispute over this question, though scientists have shown that it would be possible to create the drawings with the technology available to the Nazca.

Another impressive site near Chavin de Huantar is Tiahuanaco, in the Andean highlands of what is now Bolivia. It was to the Andes what Teotihuacan was to Mesoamerica: a great city, much more than a ceremonial center, which served as a focal point for the peoples all around it. Like Teotihuacan, it was the site of impressive achievements in architecture and engineering, including the massive Gateway of the Sun, cut from a single stone. Yet one feature distinguished Tiahuanaco from Teotihuacan or virtually any other major city, then or now.

Whereas Denver, Colorado, boasts of itself as the “Mile-High City,” Tiahuanaco had an altitude of 13,125 feet, meaning that it was actually two and a half miles (4 kilometers) high. Though it flourished between 200 B.C. and A.D. 600 (making it contemporary with the Moche and Nazca civilizations, as well as Teotihuacan), Tiahuanaco continued to exert an influence over an area from southern Peru to northern Argentina until about A.D. 1000.

Medieval Americas

During much of the period between A.D. 500 and 1500, European civilization was at a low point, but in the Americas, those centuries saw the triumph of pre-Columbian civilization. In Mesoamerica, the Maya reached their zenith, or highest point, between A.D. 250 and 1000. Teotihuacan flourished from A.D. 300 to 750. The same period saw the rise of civilizations such as the Huari and, after 1200, the Chimu in the Andes. Meanwhile, on the heels of the peaceful Maya came the militaristic Toltecs, also a great civilization, though not as great as the Aztec, who rose to prominence in about A.D. 1400. This made the Aztec Empire contemporary with that of the Inca in the Andes.

These were brilliant, splendid civilizations, as magnificent as they were in many ways cruel. Many of them practiced human sacrifice, yet they also produced extraordinary triumphs. The Mayans, for instance, used the concept of zero in their number system long before Europeans discovered it. The Inca conquered an enormous empire along the Pacific coast of South America and placed their people under an extraordinarily organized system of rule. The Aztec, like other notable civilizations of ancient America, used complex hieroglyphics for writing. Yet less than forty years after the first Europeans arrived in 1492, the Aztec and Inca, with all their riches and glory, were gone.

Ironically, it took the Europeans much longer to conquer the less advanced groups of Native Americans. The United States did not gain full control over the so-called Plains Indians in the West until about 1890. No one ever subdued the peoples of the Amazon river valley in what is now Brazil, many of whom are even today at a Stone Age level of technological development. (They have, however, been threatened ever since Brazil began cutting down the rain forest in the 1960s.)

The Europeans conquered the Inca and Aztec first partly because these groups had the most wealth; also, by being most civilized, they represented the greatest threat. Yet their civilizations had not prepared the Native Americans to defend themselves. They did not possess firearms, nor did they know how to smelt the iron from which firearms were made. They had not ventured out to explore the world around them, which was precisely what the Europeans were doing when they arrived in America. Had the Aztec and Inca been aware of one another, they might have organized an allied force to repel the invaders.

The Europeans had other factors in their favor. There were more of them; they just kept coming and coming. They brought with them diseases such as smallpox, to which Native Americans had never been exposed. Millions of Native Americans died as a result.

By the end of the twentieth century, the majority ethnic groups in North America were British, Irish, and German in origin. Although there were plenty of other groups, Native Americans did not form a sizable part of the population. The reason why was simple: particularly in the United States, the Europeans destroyed the peoples already living there.

Quite a different situation prevailed in Latin America, which takes its name from the development of main languages— Spanish and (in Brazil) Portuguese—from Latin. The elite in many Latin American countries are almost purely Spanish. Yet many in the population are either Native Americans or a mixture of Spanish and Native American.

Half the population of Peru, for instance, are descendants of the Inca and speak the language of that ancient empire, Quechua. The spirit of Mesoamerica is alive and vibrant in the murals, or large wall paintings, of Mexico as well. And on the site of the old Aztec capital, just 30 miles (48 kilometers) southwest of Teotihuacan, a new metropolis has arisen: Mexico City, home to more than 16.5 million people. In the mid-1990s, it was the world’s second-largest city after Tokyo, Japan, and just ahead of two other American cities, Sao Paolo in Brazil and New York in the United States.

Exploration and Colonization

The Americas had been home to many indigenous societies long before the first Europeans arrived. In North America, many were nomadic peoples who followed animal migrations to sustain themselves. In Central and South America, urban centers had developed. The Aztec, who occupied much of present-day Mexico for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, had developed an economic and political system of interdependent city-states. In South America, the Inca had extended their empire along the west coast from present-day Colombia to Chile in the south.

During the fifteenth century, advances in European seafaring technology brought the native population of the Americas into contact with foreign peoples. The results of these meetings would prove catastrophic for indigenous societies. A combination of nonnative diseases and European military aggression quickly brought the great societies of Central and South America to an end. By the end of the sixteenth century, neither the Inca nor the Aztec civilization was intact.

The Spanish were the first to explore and claim lands of the new continents. Christopher Columbus, an Italian seaman on a commission by the Spanish royalty, arrived in 1492 and claimed an island he would name San Salvador (in the present-day Bahamas) for the crown. On subsequent voyages, he took other islands, such as Cuba and Hispaniola, for Spain.

Those who followed Columbus were called conquistadors, or conquerors. In 1521, Hernán Cortés and his men subjugated the Aztecs of present-day Mexico, who were already weakened by civil war. Francisco Pizarro soon oversaw the dismantling of the Incan Empire in South America. Other parts of North America not claimed by Spain were explored by the French and English during this early period. Sailing for France, Giovanni da Verrazzano traveled the eastern seaboard, from Florida to Newfoundland, and Jacques Cartier explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Merchants and missionaries followed the explorers to the new continents. In the north, French missionaries lived with the native peoples, seeking to convert them to Roman Catholicism. In western North America and South America, a vast system of missions was established by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries. Many missionaries not only sought converts in the native population, but also attempted to protect them from violence and exploitation at the hand of colonists.

The British were latecomers to colonization. In 1607, Jamestown in Virginia became the first permanent British settlement in North America. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the British claimed more than one-half of the North American continent. The thirteen original British colonies, which would become the first thirteen states of the United States of America, proved profitable holdings.

American Revolution

During the mid-eighteenth century, the British colonies participated in the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War against both French and Native American forces (the French and Indian War). Following their victory in 1763, the British sought to refill their depleted coffers by imposing increased taxes upon the colonists. This move angered many in the colonies, which had no vote in Parliament, and led to the revolutionary rallying cry of “no taxation without representation.” The most famous reaction to this taxation, and the act that is generally portrayed as the immediate precursor to the revolutionary war, was the Boston Tea Party, during which colonists flung crates of highly-taxed tea into Boston Harbor.

The American Revolution began in New England in 1775, and the rebel forces, which were made up of militias mustered from throughout the colonies, were outmanned and suffered many early losses. Still, the militias were often able to regroup and redeploy against the British. This determination was rewarded in 1777 by the outcome of the Battle of Saratoga, New York, a major turning point in the revolution. The British sought to cut off New England from the other colonies, but an expected force of troops failed to show up and the colonists defeated the troops of General Burgoyne at Saratoga. This victory convinced the French and other European allies to join the colonists in their war for independence.

Though the colonists’ forces had been augmented by foreign aid, the British continued to make advances. The southern front seemed vulnerable, as the British won important battles in the Deep South. With a victory at Cowpens in South Carolina, however, momentum finally swung to the colonists. The surrender of General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, brought the American Revolution to an end. The thirteen British colonies were the first European colonies to successfully revolt. In 1783, Great Britain acknowledged their sovereignty.

Rise of the United States

The newly formed nation was full of national fervor. Its first governing document, the Articles of Confederation, which had been adopted during the War of Independence, established a federal government that was too weak to impose any economic or governmental order on the various state governments. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the ratification of the Constitution by the states the following year established the basic tenets and structure of the government that exists today.

In 1803, the area of the United States was more than doubled by the Louisiana Purchase. Settlers began moving west and new states were added to the union through the nineteenth century. As settlers expanded the country’s frontiers, countless Native Americans were displaced and killed by war and disease. This was the era of “Manifest Destiny,” the belief that the United States was destined to extend from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

In the late nineteenth century, conflict stalled the growth of the country. Political differences between northern and southern states, primarily over the question of slavery, led to the secession of eleven southern states to form the Confederate States of America. The central government reacted, and the Civil War, from 1861 until 1865, was fought between the northern and southern states, claiming countless lives. In its aftermath, slavery was abolished, but the South was economically devastated.

Central and South American Independence Movements

Mexico was the second major European colony to gain its independence. Miguel Hidalgo, a priest who sought to improve the conditions of the poor in his region by casting off colonial rule, inspired the Mexican independence movement. Hidalgo’s initial efforts and those of his close successors did not achieve their ultimate goal, and the independence movement remained fractured until Agustín Iturbide was able to form a cohesive rebellion. In 1821, Mexico finally gained its sovereignty.

In the same year, Venezuela and Peru secured their independence, and Spain recognized the sovereignty of Argentina. Many other South American nations struggled for independence throughout the nineteenth century, and some, such as Guyana, were not freed from foreign rule until the twentieth century.

Twentieth Century and Today

Following World War II, socialist movements gained strength and popularity in many Latin American countries. The Cold War with the Soviet Union caused the United States to take a more active role in the politics of the region.

In the United States, a cultural revolution occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. African Americans, who had faced segregation and general discrimination in many quarters since the days of slavery and its abolition in 1865, made many strides toward obtaining the equal rights guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, although many people believe full equality has yet to occur. The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s sought to redefine the role of women in modern society.

The 1960s and 1970s were marked by the coming-of-age of the “baby boom” generation (those born from about 1946 to 1964). As a group, they defined themselves by opposition to the conservative generation preceding them. College students and professors were very much involved in political, social, and cultural debates. During this period, the exploration of space highlighted the achievements of technology but also began to put into perspective the increased exploitation of our environment. In addition, a deep discontent with the Vietnam War fueled convulsive changes in U.S. society and culture. Many countercultural ideas of the 1960s became mainstream activities in the 1970s. The 1980s saw the emergence of the “me generation” and a shying away from active involvement in social and political affairs.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War—a period of intense rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union—came to an end, and the United States emerged as the world’s sole superpower. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the United States sought to develop stronger relationships with its neighbors in the Americas. The United States, Canada, and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Other nations in the Americas also established agreements to increase free trade in the Western Hemisphere.

On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the United States, hijacking four airplanes—crashing two into the World Trade Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. In an attempt to root out terrorism, American troops entered Afghanistan in October 2001 to crush the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime said to be harboring al-Qaeda. In March 2003, the United States led an invasion of Iraq, toppling the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein but embarking on what became an increasing unpopular war.

In Latin America, several nations, including Venezuela, Bolivia, and Brazil, elected left-leaning governments. The United States grew concerned that these nations would ally themselves with Communist Cuba and thwart the ongoing movement to democracy that had begun in the late 1990s.

Modern lives in the early part of the twenty-first century are marked by the innovations and consequences of the preceding decades. An examination of the events that brought us here is a necessary key to understanding the future.


  1. Dijkstra, Henk, ed. History of the Ancient & Medieval World, Volume 11: Empires of the Ancient World. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1996, pp. 1447-88.
  2. Due, Andrea, ed. The Atlas of Human History: Civilizations of the Americas: Native American Cultures of North, Central and South America. Text by Renzo Rossi and Martina Veutro. New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1996.
  3. Leonard, Jonathan Norton. Ancient America. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1967.
  4. Martell, Hazel Mary. The Kingfisher Book of the Ancient World. New York: Kingfisher, 1995, pp. 124-37.
  5. Sattler, Helen Roney. The Earliest Americans. Illustrated by Jean Day Zallinger. New York: Clarion Books, 1993.
  6. Waldman, Carl. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. Illustrations by Molly Braun. New York: Facts on File, 1988.

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