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Pre-Columbian Civilizations of America

The phrase “Pre-Columbian civilization” refers to the various different native American civilizations which rose, flourished and fell in the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492.

This event marked the beginning of the end for these civilizations, as European conquests, diseases and the settlements of the Western Hemisphere led to the complete transformation of society and culture in the Americas.

The Two Heartlands of Pre-Columbian civilization

Two regions in particular of America developed great Pre-Columbian civilizations. Central America produced several major Pre-Columbian civilizations, including the Olmec (fl. c. 1500-500 BCE), the Maya (c. 100-1000 CE) and the Aztec.

In South America, the Pacific coast and Andes highlands of Peru, and later Ecuador, Columbia and western Venezuela, were the setting for the development of another group of civilizations. Here, civilizations and empires arose which included the Moche (fl. c. 100 CE-750 CE), Wari and Tiwanaku (c. 500-1000), Chimor (c. 900-1470), and Inca (15th and 16th centuries).

Developments towards civilization were by no means limited to these two regions. Large-scale states, complex societies and at least proto-urban settlements developed in the Amazonian region in the first millennium CE. Similarly, large towns such as Cahokia grew up in the Mississippi valley, the center of a network of trade routes which spanned North America.

However, it was Peru and Central America (or Mesoamerica, which is the term historians use for this region) which produced the clearest examples of Pre-Columbian civilizations in America, and it is to these that we will now turn.

Peru, the cradle of Pre-Columbian civilization in South America

On the Pacific coast of South America, in the region of present-day Peru, are two parallel environments. Firstly, just inland from the coast is the second highest mountain range on the world, the Andes. Secondly, on a narrow strip of land between the mountains and the ocean, is a dry coastal plain.

It was in the latter of these two environments where the origins and early movement towards civilization in Pre-Columbian South America lay. Carving their way through this plain are a series of small rushing rivers, dry for most of the year but bringing plentiful rainfall from the high Andes in the spring. They form short but fertile coastal valleys, with fertile floors created by the rich mud brought down from the mountains.

Early cultures

These valleys acted as the cradles of South American agriculture. Farming, based on the cultivation of squashes, gourds and chilis, began to develop along the Pacific coast of Peru around 6000 BCE.

To channel and preserve the spring floodwater required for cultivation in this arid landscape, dykes, ponds and canals had to be constructed. Co-ordinating this activity (and no doubt organizing the defenses needed to protect the new farming settlements) led to the rise of strong rulers, who created the earliest states in South America. Abundant harvests gave rise to population growth; trade routes grew up with the mountain regions.

In the Andes highlands, farming appeared sometime after 3000 BCE, specializing in hardy crops like the potato and quinoa, and herding llamas.

Urban settlements

Back on the coast, populations have been expanding, boosted by the spread of maize cultivation to the region.  Small towns were starting to appear by around 2000 BCE. A thousand years later many features of later Peruvian civilization had appeared, most notably the flat-topped pyramid. Pottery and weaving had been invented, and had metalwork using copper.

Over the centuries the trading networks created a unified cultural area embracing both coastal and mountain regions.

Highland developments

During the first millennium BCE there seems to have been a shift inland from the coast, perhaps associated with religious and cultural developments which created important ceremonial centers in the highlands. Another factor was the introduction of irrigation into the highland areas, using lakes as water sources. The systems around Lake Titicaca would continue to thrive and grow into historic times.

It was here, in the Andean highland region rather than in the coastal valleys, that the earliest Pre-Columbian civilization in South America emerged.

The Chavin culture

About 900 BCE the great ceremonial center of Chávin de Huántar was built. This gives its name to the archaeological period known as the “Chavin Horizon”, a cultural area covering both highlands and coast.  It included large stone temples and its inhabitants produced fine metalwork – including high quality craftsmanship on gold and silver – pottery and textiles. All this testifies to the presence of a religious-political elite able to command the labour of peasants and craftsmen over a wide area.

After c. 200 BCE the Chavin Horizon started to fragment into several localized cultures. One of these was the famous Nazca culture, famous for the “Nazca Lines”, drawings of vast geometric shapes and stylized animal figures in the desert.

The Moche: city-state on the coast

In the early first millennium CE another cultural area, the “Moche Horizon”, emerged. This lasted from c. 100 CE to c. 750 CE, and represented a major cultural shift back to the coast.

Although the Moche Horizon saw the second of the South American Pre-Columbian civilizations flourish, it was the period when the first true cities appeared in the region. The Moche Horizon was centered on the city of Mochica, on the coastal plain, and embraced other substantial urban settlements as well.

The Moche were a warlike culture, and practiced human sacrifice on a large scale; however, they also excelled in the arts of peace: they produced some of the finest sculpture, metalwork and pottery of all the Pre-Columbian civilizations of America. Moche art is marked by its striking realism, and vivid shapes.

Two highland empires: Wari and Tiwanaku

Moche civilization vanished in the second half of first millennium, and in the next phase of South American Pre-Columbian civilization, the center of gravity again shifted to the highlands. Two new cultures emerged: the Wari (Spanish ‘Huari’) and Tiwanaku.

Because of the uniformity in design and construction of their heavily fortified settlements, many archaeologists consider these to have been large political states – empires in fact – with conquest playing a part in their formation. The Wari in particular seem to have brought a large territory under their control, including the area formerly covered by the Moche culture. Wari administrative centers have been identified by their distinctive architectural remains, and a network of roads have been uncovered. The Wari also seem to have developed terraced farming over a wider area than previously.

Tiwanaku, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, as well as being a center of government, seems also to have been a major ceremonial center which functioned as a focus of religious pilgrimage.

The Wari and Tiwanaku states both broke up into smaller fragments in the early centuries of the second millennium.

Chimor: coastal city-state and empire

By this time, however, a revival of states along the coastal plain had taken place. The largest and most advanced of these was the Chimor kingdom (or Chimú empire), centered on the city of Chan Chan. It emerged, in the same region as the earlier Moche culture had flourished, around 900 CE and lasted until it was conquered by the Incas in c. 1470; the archaeological record shows strong links between Moche and Chimor cultures.

Chimor covered a much larger area than the Moche had done. Nevertheless it seems to have been a highly centralized state. Its economy was based on the largest and most sophisticated irrigation system pf all the Pre-Columbian civilizations. This linked the water management systems of a number of river valleys by means of canals.

The Inca Empire: the largest state in Pre-Columbian America

Meanwhile, in the Andean highlands, amongst the multitude of small states which had succeeded the Wari empire, a new state was rising, that of the Inca. This inaugurated the final phase of Pre-Columbian civilization in South America.

The Incas’ original location was around the present-day city of Cuzco, but during the 15th century, they expanded their territory dramatically. Moving out from their homeland, they first took over the Lake Titicaca region, with its well-developed irrigation agriculture. They then expanded into the coastal plain to conquer the powerful Chimor kingdom. They followed this by pushing out their borders in all directions to cover an enormous area along the Pacific coast of South America.

One of the challenges thrown up by the administration of such a large state was that of keeping records. The Inca solved this by means of quipu, a system of knotted strings which could embody comparatively complex information. Although the surviving examples have not been deciphered, it is clear that this served as a form of writing and notation system.

Probably related to this was the development of an empire-wide courier service, whereby relays of runners carried messages along thousands of miles of roads from the capital at Cusco to the four corners of the empire. Sometimes their routes crossed steep ravines, which they did by way of rope bridges.

In the early 16th century, this enormous empire fell with astonishing rapidity to the tiny forces of the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro. Pizarro’s achievement was made possible by a civil war which was dividing the Inca empire at the time he arrived there – a war, incidentally, caused by the death of members of the royal family by epidemics sweeping down from the north, brought to the Americas by the Europeans.

Mexico and Central America: Pre-Columbian civilization in Mesoamerica

Central America is formed by the isthmus which links North and South America. It lies between the Gulf of Mexico to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west.

This region forms the second heartland of Pre-Columbian civilization. It is often labelled “Mesoamerica” (literally, Greek for “Middle America”) by archaeologists and historians, in recognition that it represents a unified cultural area in which many features are shared between the different civilizations located there.

Highlands and lowlands

The region includes several environmental zones. However, it can broadly be divided into highlands and lowlands. The highland zones are mostly inland, and are characterized by mountain ranges interspersed by plateaus and steep valleys. The climate in the highland plateaus is mostly arid, especially in the north; however in the central area of Mexico they are framed by high mountains and volcanoes. These provide water and fertile volcanic soil which make the area, when properly managed, able to support intensive farming and large populations. The Valley of Mexico has been home to some of the major civilizations of central America, Teotihuacan, the Toltec and the Aztec.

The lowland areas lie along the east and west coasts, and take up most of the Yucatan peninsula, which juts out from the main land bridge connecting the two great continents to north and south. Being in the tropics, they are, in their natural state, covered by savannah to the north and rain forests to the south. Where rivers bring down mud from the highland regions the soil is very fertile; this was the case in the homeland of the first major Pre-Columbian civilization of central America, the Olmec. The Yucatan peninsula, with its dense forest cover, has few rivers, but large sinkholes provide good water sources. these allowed the great cities of the Maya to develop.

The Olmec culture: the mother-civilization of Mesoamerica

Farming gradually developed in the region from around 4000 BCE. It only slowly displaced the hunter-gatherer lifestyle which had prevailed previously. However, in the eastern coastal lowlands north of the Yucatan peninsula, the fertile soil allowed large populations to grow, and it was here that the Olmec culture developed from about 1500 BCE. It had reached maturity by the start of he first millennium BCE, and by 500 BCE, trade networks had developed which spanned much of Central America and spread Olmec cultural influences far and wide throughout the region.

Olmec culture was centered on large ceremonial centers, characterized by large, flat-topped earthen pyramids on which simple temple shrines were constructed. At the major centers, massive, finely carved heads made of stone were erected. Smaller carvings of jade and serpentine were also present. The Olmec evolved artistic features which would be repeated by successive Pre-Columbian civilizations in Mesoamerica, down to the Aztec, just prior to European times. These included the snarling Jaguar and other deities, which suggest that there was a common stock of religious beliefs and practices shared by these societies. Other shared cultural traits were the ceremonial ballgames with rubber balls, ritual human sacrifice on a large scale, pyramid temple architecture, and a complex dual calendar system.

To what extent the Olmec were an urban society is the subject of debate, but it is hard to believe that the great ceremonial centers stood alone. The ruling class of priests and warriors who ran them, the traders who managed the exchanges with distant societies, and the professional artists and craftsmen who created the ritual objects, must have been served by a sizable local population of farmers and laborers who, if not living in an attached settlement, must have lived in villages nearby. The perishable materials from which their dwellings were made, however, have left no trace in the archaeological record.

New civilizations emerge in Mesoamerica: Zatopec and Maya

By the late first millennium BCE, Olmec culture was in decline, and the next phase of Pre-Columbian civilization in the region was beginning. In several locations within Mesoamerica, other cultures, building on Olmec foundations, were emerging. The Zatopec and Maya were the outstanding examples. With their appearance, Pre-Columbian civilizations characterized by true cities and literacy have arrived in the region.

The Zatopec, located on the Pacific coast of southern Mexico, lived in a city-state which expanded outwards to cover a sizable area. The outlying districts were brought into the Zatopec culture, which suggests that a process of colonization as well as conquest was taking place.

The Mayan civilization, on the other hand, established numerous city-states within their homeland in the lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula. The competition between them helped generate a striking cultural flowering which made the Maya into the most advanced of all the Pre-Columbian civilizations, both in central and South America. They were home to sophisticated urban societies which registered remarkable achievements in science, mathematics, engineering, architecture and the arts.

Teotihuacan: the largest city in Pre-Columbian America

Though the best known, these were by no means the only centers of urban civilization to appear in the post-Olmec centuries. A network of small city-states appeared, particularly in the central Valley of Mexico. In due course these were merged, probably forcibly, into a great city. This was Teotihuacan, which had taken shape by 200 CE, and by 500 was one of the largest cities in the entire world. It was certainly the largest city which any Pre-Columbian civilization, either in Central or South America, produced. It exerted a strong cultural influence over a wide area, including into the Yucatan peninsula of the Mayans.

Late Maya: the height of Pre-Columbian civilization in Mesoamerica

After Teotihuacan was violently destroyed in the 6th century CE, the Mayan civilization continued to thrive and develop, and did not begin its decline until the 9th century. At that time, there was a catastrophic collapse in material civilization, accompanied by the depopulation of the Yucatan lowlands.

Linked to this in some way was a large-scale migration to the Yucatan highlands, and the Mayan city-states there continued to flourish, albeit not on the scale that the Classic Mayan cities of the lowlands had done. These lingered on until the Spanish arrived, and indeed the last Mayan city did not fall until the late 17th century. By then, however, the great days of the Maya, and of all Pre-Columbian civilization, was long in the past.

The Toltec

After the destruction of the great city of Teotihuacan, civilization in the Valley of Mexico fragmented as local city states vied with one another for dominance. Eventually the city of Tula, home to the Toltec people, assumed a pre-eminent position. Their political reach seems to have been more expansive than any other Pre-Columbian civilization of Mesoamerica.

The Aztec empire and the end of Pre-Columbian civilization in Mesoamerica

The 12th and 13th centuries saw migrants from the north settle the Valley of Mexico, disrupting the way of life of the long-established city-states in the area. Tula was sacked in the 12th century and the other city-states fell to fighting with one another. This allowed a group of the newcomers, the Aztec, to emerge as a leading power in the region. Their state was centered on the city of Tenochtitlán, which was as large or larger than Teotihuacan had been.

The rise of the Aztecs occurred in the 15th and early 16th centuries. This period marked the final phase of Pre-Columbian civilization in Mexico, and indeed Mesoamerica as a whole. The Aztec empire was still in its expanding phase when it met sudden catastrophe at the hands of newcomers to America, the Spanish conquistadors. Henan Cortés and his small band, allied with numerous Mexican peoples intent on overthrowing their masters, destroyed the great Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Aztec dominance swiftly collapsed, and the Spanish aggressively filled the power vacuum thus created.

As we have noted above, Pre-Columbian civilization hung on in the Yucatan peninsula for some time longer, but it had no chance of surviving for long. By the end of the 17th century the entire region of Central America was controlled by the Spanish.


Related TimeMaps articles:

Mayan civilization

The Inca empire

Aztec civilization

Latin America: the Colonial Era (deals with the conquest period)

History of the World (Pre-Columbian civilization in the context of world history)

External links:

New York’s Metropoltian Museum of Art has a great picture gallery on Pre-Columbian Art with many different examples drawn from all the major cultures.

This page on Human sacrifice in Pre-Columbian America: separating fact from friction represents a brief but useful summary of the topic.

Archaeoastronomy in the Ancient Americas is an academic article on Pre-Columbian astronomy. It is not for the fainthearted, but is the best treatment on the subject I have come across on the net, and shows the centrality of astronomy in ancient Americans (in fact, all pre-modern) societies. If you don’t want to read all 27 pages of it (!) go straight to the summation on slide 25.