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Early Empires of Mesoamerica
of the great feats of pre-historical man. The Clovis culture disappears dramatically from
the archaeological record 12,900 years ago. There is widespread speculation about what
caused their disappearance. Theories range from the extinction of the mammoth, to sudden
environmental changes caused by a comet impacting the earth, or flooding caused by the
break of a massive freshwater lake, Lake Agassiz.
There is considerable controversy about Pre-Clovis settlement of North and South America.
Comparisons of culture and linguistics ofer evidence of the influence of early America by
several diferent contemporary cultures. Some genetic and time-dating studies point to the
possibility that ancient Americans came from other places and arrived earlier than at the
Clovis sites in North America. Perhaps some ancient settlers to the hemisphere traveled by
boat along the seashore, or arrived by boats from the Polynesian islands.
As time went on, many of these first settlers settled down into agricultural societies, complete
with domesticated animals. Groups of people formed stable tribes and developed distinct
languages of their own, to the point that more distant relatives could no longer understand
them. Comparative linguistics -- the study of languages of diferent tribes -- shows fascinating
diversity, with similarities between tribes hundreds of miles apart, yet startling diferences
with neighboring groups.
At times, tribes would gain regional importance and dominate large areas of America.
Empires rose across the Americas that rivaled the greatest ones in Europe. For their time,
some of these empires were highly advanced.
When referring to these empires, historians have difculty, as the native people did not have
a unified name for themselves. At first, Europeans called natives "Indians". This term came
from the belief by Christopher Columbus that he had discovered a new passage to India.
Despite Amerigo Vespucci ascertaining that the Americas were not actually India, Indian
continued to be used as the de facto name for native inhabitants until around 1960. Starting
in the 1960s, the term "Native American" was used. One concern critics have with this
term is that anyone who is born in America can be considered a Native American, making
it too vague to use as a descriptor for a particular group of people. In addition to Native
American, there is also "American Indian". It may be still ofensive to some to lump every
person from diferent tribes in with one term like "Native American", even from the entire
continent, because they had, and still have, very little in common other than skin tone and
a non-european language. In Canada, the term "First People" is used. All these terms for
the native people of America show just how diverse Pre-Columbian America was and the
disagreement continues between scholars today about this period.
3.2 Early Empires of Mesoamerica
Meso-American civilizations are 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.
Pre-Columbian America (before 1492)
The aboriginal Americans settled in the Yucatan peninsulas of present-day Mexico around
10,000BCE. By 2000BCE, the Mayan culture had evolved into a complex civilization. The
Mayans developed a strong political, artistic and religious identity amongst the highly
populated Yucatan lowlands. The classic period (250-900AD) witnessed a rapid growth of
the Mayan culture and it gained dominance within the region and influence throughout
present-day Mexico. Large, independent city-states were founded and became the political,
religious, and cultural centers for the Mayan people.
Mayan society was unified not by politics, but by their complex and highly-developed religion.
Mayan religion was astrologically based, and supported by careful observations of the sky.
The Mayans had a strong grasp of astronomy that rivaled, and, in many ways, exceeded
that of concurrent European societies. They developed a very sophisticated system for
measuring time, and had a great awareness of the movements in the nighttime sky. Particular
significance was attached to the planet Venus, which was particularly bright and appeared
in both the late evening and early morning sky.
Mayan art is also considered one of the most sophisticated and beautiful of the ancient New
The Mayan culture saw a decline during the 8th and 9th century. Although its causes are
still the subject of intense scientific speculation, archaeologists see a definite cessation of
inscriptions and architectural construction. The Mayan culture continued as a regional
power until its discovery by Spanish conquistadores. In fact, an independent, non-centralized
government allowed the Mayans to strongly resist the Spanish conquest of present-day
Mexico. Mayan culture is preserved today throughout the Yucatan, although many of the
inscriptions have been lost.
The Aztec culture began with the migration of the Mexica people to present-day central
Mexico. The leaders of this group of people created an alliance with the dominant tribes
forming the Aztec triple alliance, and created an empire that influenced much of present-day
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.
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 happened