The Peoples And Civilizations Of The Americas

Author:      Adas, Michael

Date:        1992 




The Archaic Cultures


     By about 9000 B.C. small bands of hunters were widely dispersed over the

American continents. Changes in climate with the ending of the last Ice Age

may lay behind changes in diet and ways of life. The disappearance of large

game animals, whatever the cause, was probably met with the less-specialized

hunting of smaller game, fishing, and an increased dependence on gathering

wild fruits and other plant foods. The culture of these early populations is

usually called the Archaic period. It represented an adaptation to the

changing environment and possibilities of subsistence. People made baskets and

used stone grinding tools to prepare the roots and plants they collected for

food. They used a wide range of animals and plants. As the seacoasts

stabilized between 5000 and 4000 B.C., populations concentrated around lagoons

and river mouths to exploit fish and shellfish. Enormous debris mounds or

shell middens found in Chile and Tierra del Fuego indicate long human

dependence on these maritime resources. In Brazil, the middens indicate

intensive use of these resources and permanent occupatien sites.


Agriculture In The Americas


     The move toward agriculture was a natural extension of a process in which

a wide range of animal and plant resources was used with less dependence on

the hunting of big game. Agriculture may thus have been brought about first by

women, since in many simple hunting societies women are responsible for

gathering plant foods. There is early evidence from Guitarrero caves in

highland Peru of cultivation as early as 7000 B.C., and by 5000 B.C. plant

domestication had taken place in a number of regions in the Americas.


     The introduction of agriculture, the American version of the Neolithic

revolution, was not so complete and drastic a change as we once thought, and

many peoples continued to practice hunting and gathering along with some

cultivation. In many places agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers eventually

lived in close contact with each other as a result of different adaptations to

environments and opportunities and of social choices. The movement from

hunting to agriculture did not always happen. In a particularly rich

environment on the seacoast or where game was plentiful, peoples might avoid

agriculture and the regimentation of life it could represent.


     Eventually, however, agriculture was practiced all over the Americas from

the woodlands of eastern North America to the tropical forests of the Amazon

basin. American Indians eventually cultivated over 100 different crops from

peppers, squash, and tomatoes to amaranth and quinoa. Some crops, particularly

maize, potatoes, and manioc, became essential sources of food to dense

populations. As in Asia earlier, agriculture imposed restrictions on human

behavior and the patterns of human action; as American societies depended

increasingly on agriculture, a series of processes were sometimes set in

motion that resulted in complex social, economic, and political systems.


Maize, Manioc, And Potatoes


     By about 4000 B.C. the domestication of maize had taken place in central

Mexico and along with it came the cultivation of peppers, squash, and beans.

These expanded and more dependable food resources resulted in population

growth (although some scholars argue that the growth of populations may have

stimulated the search for new food sources and the domestication of plants).

The cultivation of maize spread far and wide. By 2000 B.C. it was grown in

Peru, along with the potato and other crops native to that region. Maize

spread northward to the present southern United States, and by about A.D. 1000

it was grown by groups such as the Iroquois in Canada.


     In the tropical forests of the Orinoco and Amazon basins, people had

developed an agriculture based on varieties of manioc or cassava, a root that

could be made into a flour. The introduction of maize in areas that had

depended only on manioc probably resulted in population growth and, with it,

the rise of more complex societies. While varieties of potatoes were the

staple in highland South America, and manioc was the principal crop of peoples

of the lowlands of South America and the islands of the Caribbean, maize

cultivation spread in all directions and was often practiced in those areas in

conjunction with other staples. In Mesoamerica, the area from north central

Mexico to Nicaragua, maize dominated the diet of agricultural peoples.


     It seems clear that, in most casls, agriculture is a major feature in

determining the ability of societies to achieve the surplus production and

complexity needed for those elements usually associated with civilization.

With the adoption of agriculture and a sedentary way of life, the process of

civilization was set in motion in the Americas.


Cultural Hearths And Social Systems


     Traditionally, archeologists have seen two major cultural hearths in the

Americas: Mesoamerica and the Peruvian orbit, including the coastal areas of

Ecuador and Peru and the Andean highlands. In these two areas, processes of

development, based on intensive agriculture and including most of the features

usually associated with Old World civilizations, could be seen. In both areas

a number of cycles of cultural advance and, sometimes, of empire-building took

place long before the rise of the Incas and Aztecs, who were in power when the

Europeans arrived. Artistic styles flourished and declined, and states rose

and fell over thousands of years.


     Some scholars have suggested that the area between these cultural

hearths, including present-day Panama and Colombia, also contained a number of

advanced societies with considerable cultural achievements (especially in

metallurgy and goldworking) that differed only in that they did not build

large stone buildings. Thus the whole region from central Mexico southward to

Chile formed a continuous nucleus of American civilizations. On the

peripheries of this nucleus, due to influence and imitation, other Indian

peoples adopted features characteristic of the civilizations.


Types Of American Indian Societies


     The idea of a relatively contiguous area of cultural development makes

more sense than the previous concept of independent centers. That earlier

concept produced an image of the Americas in which isolated civilizations and

cultural traditions developed along parallel lines with little contact or

interchange. Emphasis on artistic variation and regional diversity contributed

to this view, but scholars are increasingly beginning to examine the broad

similarities among ancient American cultures. While many differences and

variations existed, there were also uniformities of organization, subsistence,

technology, and belief that made them more alike than any one of them was to

civilizations of the Old World.


     To some extent we can make distinctions among ancient American societies

on the basis of their economic and political organization. Sedentary

agriculture, and with it population density, was a key. Hunters and gatherers,

living much as the early migrants to the Americas, continued to occupy large

portions of the continents, dividing in small bands and moving seasonally to

take advantage of the resources. These peoples sometimes were organized in

larger tribes and might recognize a chief, but generally their societies were

organized around family groups or clans and there was little hierarchy or

specialization of skills. With some exceptions, the material culture of these

people tended to be relatively simple.


     Peoples who had made a partial transition to agriculture lived in larger

and more complex societies. Here the village of 100 or 200 rather than the

band of 25 was more common. Men often continued to hunt or make war, but women

tilled the fields. Agricultural techniques tended to be simple and often

necessitated periodic migration when soils played out. The villages of these

tribes of semisedentary farmers and hunters have been found on the Brazilian

coast and in the woodlands of eastern North America.


     It was among peoples who had made a full transition to sedentary

agriculture that the complex societies emerged most clearly, for it was here

that surplus production was most firmly established. These populations could

reach the millions. Men shifted into agriculture, forming a peasant base for a

hierarchical society that might have included classes of nobles, merchants,

and priests. Strong states and even empires could result, and the extraction

of tribute from subject peoples and redistribution by central authority formed

the basis of rule.


Chiefdoms And States


     Sedentary peoples and hunters often lived near each other and shared

mutual hostility and disregard, but, in fact, the categories of sedentary,

semisedentary, and hunter-gatherers were never clear-cut and many aspects of

life were shared by them all. To some extent the large imperial states with

highly developed religious and political systems and monumental architecture

(which we call civilizations such as Teotihuacan in Mexico or Chimor in Peru)

were variants of a widely diffused pattern, the chiefdom.


     From the Amazon to the Mississippi valley, populations - sometimes in the

tens of thousands - were governed by hereditary chieftains who ruled from

central towns over a large territory, including smaller towns or villages that

paid tribute to the ruler. The predominant town often had a ceremonial

function, with large temples and a priest class. Beautiful pottery and other

goods indicate specialization.


     The existence of social hierarchy with a class of nobles and commoners

was also a characteristic of many of the chiefdoms. It is sometimes argued

that in the state-building societies ceremonial centers became true cities,

and clan or family relations were replaced by social classes. The scale of the

society was greater, but the differences are not always so obvious. Both the

Aztecs and the Incas with their complex social hierarchies maintained aspects

of earlier clan organization. In fact, in terms of social organization,

warfare, and ceremonialism there seems to be little that differentiates the

Maya city-states from some of the chiefdoms in South America or southeastern

North America. Cahokia near St. Louis, an important town of the Mississippian

culture (c. A.D. 1050-1200) with its great earthen mounds covering an area of

five square miles, probably supported a population of over 30,000, as large as

the great cities of the Maya civilization.


     A distinction between sedentary agriculturists and nomadic hunters may be

more useful than the distinctions between "civilized" and "uncivilized."

Building and carving in stone, and thus the ability of archaeologists to

reconstruct a culture, seem to have become a major feature in determining the

difference between a state or chiefdom - and by extension between

"civilizations" - and societies that do not seem to merit the title. At the

same time, we should recognize that the settled peoples and the hunters

recognized the difference between their ways of life, and when they were in

contact, they often shared a mutual jealousy and a hostility toward each

other. The Incas looked down on the peoples of the Amazonian rain forest and

referred to them as chunchos, or barbarians, but they could never conquer

these peoples. They traded with them from time to time, and sometimes used

them as mercenaries. The Aztecs called the nomads who lived to the north

chichimecs, which came to mean "uncivilized," but the Aztecs themselves may

have originated as one of these groups, which were constantly pushing in on

the wealthier and better-fed settled areas. To some extent the pattern of

tension between the nomad and the "civilized" Old World was reproduced in the





     Geographically, the region of Mesoamerica is a complex patchwork of zones

that is also divided vertically into cooler highlands, tropical lowlands and

coasts, and an intermediate temperate zone. These variations created a number

of environments with different possibilities for human exploitation. They also

created a basis for trade, as peoples sought to acquire goods not available

locally. Much trade flowed from the tropical lowlands to the cooler central



     The long slow process of change by which the hunters and gatherers of

Mexico began to settle into small villages and domesticate certain plants is

poorly known. Human beings were probably in Mesoamerica by 20,000 B.C. with

men hunting the large game animals and, most likely, women involved in the

gathering activities. Beginning around 5000 B.C. gathering and an increasing

use of plant foods eventually led to the domestication of certain plants.

Beans, peppers, avocados, squash, and eventually maize served as the basis of

agriculture in the region. Later innovations such as the introduction or

development of pottery took place around 2000 B.C., but there was little to

differentiate one small village from the next.


     As the Shang dynasty ruled in China, permanent sedentary villages based

to some extent on agriculture were first beginning to appear in Mesoamerica.

These were small and modest settlements. The lack of elaborate burials

indicates that these were societies without much hierarchy or social

differentiation, and the uniform and simple nature of pottery and other

material goods indicates a lack of craft specialization. But the number of

these Archaic period villages proliferated, and population densities rose.


The Olmec Mystery


     Quite suddenly a new phenomenon appeared. On the southeastern coast of

Mesoamerica (Veracruz and Tabasco), without much evidence of gradual

development in the archeological record, a cultural tradition emerged that

included irrigated agriculture, monumental sculpture, urbanism, an elaborate

religion, and the beginnings of calendrical and writing systems. The origin of

the Olmecs remains unknown, but their impressive sites at La Venta and Tres

Zapotes attest to a high degree of social organization and artistic skill. The

major Olmec sites at San Lorenzo (1200-900 B.C.) and La Venta (900-500 B.C.)

are in the wet tropical forests of the Gulf coast of eastern Mexico, but Olmec

objects and art style spread to the drier highlands of central Mexico and

toward the Pacific coast to the south.


     The Olmecs have been called the "mother civilization" of Mesoamerica.

Maize cultivation, especially along the rivers, provided the basis for a state

ruled by a hereditary elite and in which the ceremonialism of a complex

religion dominated much of life. At about the time that Tutankhamen ruled in

Egypt, the Olmec civilization flourished in Mesoamerica.


     The Olmecs remain a mystery. Some of their monumental sculptures seem to

bear Negroid features; others appear to be representations of humans with

feline attributes. They were great carvers of jade and traded or conquered to

obtain it. They developed a vigesimal numerical system - based on 20 - and a

calendar that combined a 365-day year with a 260-day ritual cycle. This became

the basis of all Mesoamerican calendar systems. What language they spoke and

what became of their civilization remain unknown, but some scholars believe

that they were the ancestors of the great Maya civilization that followed.


     Olmec objects and, probably, Olmec influence and religious ideas spread

into many areas of the highlands and lowlands, creating the first generalized

culture in the region. By 900 B.C. Olmec style and symbols were widely

diffused in Mesoamerica.


     During this preclassic period (c. 2000-300 B.C.), other civilizations

were developing elsewhere in middle America. At Monte Alban in the valley of

Oaxaca, the Zapotec people created a large hilltop center based on terraced

and irrigated agriculture in the surrounding valley. A writing system and

calendar are also apparent here, perhaps borrowed from the Olmecs, as is

considerable evidence of warfare and conquest. By about A.D. 500 Monte Alban

had become a chief ceremonial center covering over 15 square miles and

including some 30,000 people. Farther to the south, some early Maya centers

began to appear. In the central valley of Mexico, Olmec artistic influence

could be seen in expanding communities.


     Much of what we know about these cultures must be interpreted from their

architecture and art and the symbols these contain. Art, and especially public

art, was both decorative and functional. It defined the place of the

individual in society and in the universe. It had political and religious

functions; in the Americas, as in many civilizations, these aspects were

usually united. Interpreting artistic styles and symbols presents a variety of

problems in the absence of written sources. The diffusion of Olmec symbols is

a good example of the problem. Did the use of these symbols among other

peoples in distant places indicate trade networks, missionary activity,

colonies, conquest, or aesthetic appreciation? We do not know, but clearly

Olmec influence was widely felt throughout the region.


The Classic Era


     After the Olmec initiative, the period from about A.D. 150 to 900 was a

great age of cultural achievement in Mesoamerica. Archeologists refer to it as

the classic period, and during it great civilizations flourished in a number

of places. The two main centers of civilization were the high central valley

of Mexico and the more humid tropical lands of southern Mexico, Yucatan, and



The Valley Of Mexico: Teotihuacan


     In central Mexico the city of Teotihuacan, near modern Mexico City,

emerged as an enormous urban center with important religious functions. It was

supported by intensive agriculture in the surrounding region and probably by

crops planted around the great lake in the central valley of Mexico.

Teotihuacan's enormous temple pyramids rival those of ancient Egypt and

suggest a considerable state apparatus with the power to mobilize large

numbers of workers. Population estimates for this city, which covered nine

square miles, are as high as 200,000. This would make it greater than the

cities of ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia and probably second only to ancient

Rome of the cities of classical antiquity.


     There were residential districts for certain trades and ethnic groups,

and there is considerable evidence of wide social distinctions between the

priests, nobles, and the common folk. The many gods of Mesoamerica, still

worshiped when the Europeans arrived in the 16th century, were already honored

at Teotihuacan. The god of rain, the feathered serpent, the goddess of corn,

and the goddess of waters are all apparent in the murals and decorations that

adorned the palaces and temples. In fact, almost all Teotihuacan art seems to

be religious in nature.


     The influence of Teotihuacan extended as far to the south as Guatemala,

and tribute was probably exacted from many regions. Teotihuacan objects, such

as pottery and finely worked obsidian - and Teotihuacan artistic style - are

found in many other areas. Teotihuacan influence was strong at Monte Alban in

Oaxaca. Warriors dressed in the style of Teotihuacan can be found far to the

south in the Maya region.


     Teotihuacan represented either a political empire or a dominant cultural

and ideological style that spread over much of central Mexico. The lack of

battle scenes on the walls of Teotihuacan have led some scholars to believe

that the dominance of Teotihuacan led to a long period of peace maintained by

the authority and power of the great city. Internally, the fact that the later

buildings tend to be secular palaces rather than temple pyramids perhaps

indicates a shift in power and orientation from religious to civil authority.


The Classic Maya


     Between about A.D. 300 and 900, at roughly the same time that Teotihuacan

dominated the central plateau, the Maya peoples were developing Mesoamerican

civilization to its highest point in southern Mexico and Central America.

While the Tang dynasty ruled China, Charlemagne created his domain in Europe,

and Islam spread its influence from Spain to India, after the classical period

had ended in the Old World, a great civilization flourished in the American

tropics. The American classic period, launched as the Old World classical

civilizations were coming to an end, lasted well into the next period of world

history. Because of the richness of the archeological records and because Maya

peoples still retained many aspects of the classic period when the Spanish

arrived and observed them, it is possible to reconstruct the world of the

classic Maya in some detail. We can use the Maya as an example of the classic

period in Mesoamerican development, for while their civilization was

distinctive it was based on some principles common to the area.


     The Maya culture extended over a broad region that now includes parts of

five different countries (Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El

Salvador). It included a number of related languages, and it had considerable

regional variation as can be seen in its art styles. The whole region shared a

common culture that included monumental architecture, a written language, a

calendrical and mathematical system, a highly developed religion, and concepts

of statecraft and social organization. With an essentially Neolithic

technology in an area of dense forests plagued by insects and often poor

soils, as many as 50 city-states flourished.


     How did the large classic Maya urban-religious centers, such as Tikal,

Copan, Quirigua, and Palenque, with populations between 30,000 and 80,000,

support themselves? Slash-and-burn agriculture as practiced today in the

region was not enough. The classic Maya used a number of agricultural systems.

Evidence of irrigation, swamp drainage, and a system of artificially

constructed "ridged fields" at river mouths (where intensive agriculture was

practiced) has now appeared and seems to explain the Maya ability to support

large urban centers and a total population of perhaps five million. While some

authorities still believe that the Maya centers were essentially ceremonial

and were occupied primarily by rulers, artisans, and an elite, it seems clear

that populations concentrated in and around these centers to create a densely

occupied landscape. The Maya cities vary in size and layout but almost all

include large pyramids surmounted by temples, complexes of masonry buildings

that served administrative or religious purposes, elite residences, a ritual

ball court, and often a series of altars and memorial pillars. These memorial

monuments, or stelae, were erected to commemorate triumphs and events in the

lives of the Maya rulers or to mark ceremonial occasions. The stelae were

usually dated and inscribed with hieroglyphic script. A complex calendar and a

sophisticated writing system were two of the greatest Maya achievements.


Religion, Writing, And Society


     The calendar system and sophisticated astronomical observations were made

possible by a vigesimal system of mathematics. The Maya knew the concept of

zero and used it in conjunction with the concept of place value or position.

With elegant simplicity and only signs for one, five, and zero, they could

make complex calculations. As among all the Mesoamerican peoples, the Maya

calendar was based on a concept of recurring cycles of different length. They

had a sacred cycle of 260 days divided into months of 20 days, within which

there was a cycle of 13 numbers. This ritual calendar meshed with a solar

calendar of 365 days, or 18 months of 20 days with a remainder of 5 "dead" or

inauspicious days at the end of the year. The two calendars operated

simultaneously so any day would have two names, but the particular combination

of those two days would reoccur only once every 52 years. Thus among the Maya

and most Mesoamericans, cycles of 52 years were sacred.


     The classic Maya, however, differed from their neighbors in that they

also kept a "long count" or a system of dating from a fixed date in the past.

This date, 3114 B.C. by our calendar, probably marked the beginning of a great

cycle of 5200 years since the world was created. Like other Mesoamericans (and

the ancient Peruvians) the Maya believed in great cycles of creation and

destruction of the universe. The long count enabled the Maya to date events

with precision. The earliest recorded Maya date that survives is A.D. 292 and

the last is A.D. 928.


     A second great Maya accomplishment was the creation of a writing system.

The Maya "wrote" on stone monuments, murals, and ceramics, and in books of

folded bark paper and deerskin, only four of which survive. Scribes were

honored and held an important place in society. Although we still cannot read

many inscriptions, recent advances now permit the reading of many texts. The

Maya written language was, like Chinese and Sumerian, a logographic system

that combined phonetic and semantic elements. With this system and about 287

symbols they were able to record and transmit complex concepts and ideas. The

few remaining books are religious and astronomical texts, and many

inscriptions on ceramics deal with the cult of the dead and with the complex

Maya cosmology.


     The Maya view of the universe was a flat earth, whose cardinal points and

center were each dominated by a god who supported the sky. Above the sky

extended 13 levels of heavens and below nine underworlds, each dominated by a

god. Through these levels the sun and the moon, also conceived as deities,

passed each day. A basic concept of Mesoamerican dualism - male and female,

good and bad, day and night - emphasized the unity of all things, similar to

that found in some Asian religions. Thus each god often had a parallel female

consort or feminine form and often an underworld equivalent as well. In

addition, there were patron deities of various occupations and classes. Thus

the number of deities in the inscriptions seems overwhelming, but these should

be understood as manifestations of a more limited set of supernatural forces,

much like the avatars, or incarnations, of the Hindu gods.


     While the few surviving books are religious in character, the majority of

inscriptions on monuments are historical records of the ruling families of the

Maya cities. The major Maya centers were the cores of city-states that

controlled outlying territories. There was constant warfare, and rulers, such

as Pacal of Palenque (who died in A.D. 683), expanded their territories by

conquest. Pacal's victories were recorded on his funerary monuments and in his

lavish tomb discovered inside a pyramid at Palenque.


     The rulers exercised considerable civil and probably religious power, and

their rule was aided by an elite that exercised administrative functions. A

class of scribes or perhaps priests tended to the cult of the state and

specialized in the complex calendrical observations and calculations. The

ruler and the scribes organized and participated in rituals of self-mutilation

and human sacrifice that among the Maya, as in much of Mesoamerica, formed an

important aspect of religion. Also, as a form of both worship and sport, the

Maya like other Mesoamerican peoples wagered on and played a ritual ball game

on specially constructed courts in which players moved a ball with their hips

or elbows. Losers might forfeit their possessions or their lives.


     Builders, potters, scribes, sculptors, and painters worked in the cities

for the glory of the gods and the rulers. Most people, however, were peasant

farmers whose labor supported the elaborate ritual and political lives of the

elite. Captives were enslaved. Patrilineal families probably formed the basis

of social life as they did among the Maya of later days. The elite, however,

traced their families through both their fathers and mothers. Elite women are

often represented in dynastic monuments in positions of importance. State

marriages were important and elite women retained considerable rights. Among

the common folk, women took over the preparation of food and domestic duties,

including the production of fine cloth using the backstrap loom. The division

of tasks by gender was probably supported by religious belief and custom if

present-day Maya pracEices are a guide.


Classic Collapse


     Between about A.D. 700 and 900, the Mesoamerican world was shaken by the

cataclysmic decline of the great cultural centers. The reasons for this

collapse are not fully understood, but the phenomenon was general. In the

central plateau, Teotihuacan was destroyed around A.D. 650 by outside

invaders, probably nomadic hunters from the north perhaps with the

collaboration of some of the groups under the dominance of Teotihuacan. The

city may have already been in decline due to increasing problems with

agriculture. Whereas the fall of Teotihuacan seems to have been sudden, Monte

Alban, the Zapotec center, went into a phase of slow decline and eventual



     The most mysterious aspect of the collapse was the abandonment of the

Maya cities. During the 8th century A.D. Maya rulers stopped erecting

commemorative stelae and large buildings; population sizes dwindled. By A.D.

900 most of the major Maya centers were deserted. Scholars do not agree

whether this process was the result of ecological problems and climatic

change, agricultural exhaustion, internal revolt, or foreign pressure. The

collapse took place at different times in different places and seems to be the

result of a number of processes, of which increasing warfare was either a

cause or symptom. The warfare may be related to the decline of Teotihuacan and

the attempt of Maya city-states to position themselves to control old trade



     Chief among the explanations for the Maya collapse has been agricultural

exhaustion. The Maya ability to create a civilization in the dense rain forest

of the Peten in Guatemala and in the Chiapas lowlands had been based on a

highly productive agricultural system. By the 8th century, the limits of that

system, given the size and density of population, may have been reached. Tikal

had an estimated density of over 300 people per square mile. Maintaining the

great population centers was an increasing burden. Epidemic disease has also

been suggested as a cause of the collapse, perhaps indicating some unrecorded

contact with the Old World. Others believe that the peasantry simply refused

to bear the burdens of serving and feeding the political and religious elite

and that internal rebellion led to the end of ruling dynasties and their



     The reasons for the collapse of the classic civilization remain unclear,

but the period was clearly ending, and while a few centers continued to be

occepied by squatters and some traditions persisted, the cultural achievements

of the classic period were not attained again. Long-count dating ended, the

stelae cult ceased, and ceramic quality and architectural accomplishments

declined. But as the great Maya centers of the southern lowlands and highlands

were abandoned or declined, Maya cities in the Yucatan and in the Guatemala

highlands expanded and carried on some of the traditions, along with

considerable cultural influences from central Mexico. Mexicanized ruling

families established themselves at Chichen Itza and other towns in Yucatan,

and Mexicanized Maya groups from the Gulf coast penetrated into the southern

Maya areas. The northern Maya area was able to accommodate these influences

and create a new synthesis of Maya and central Mexican culture. In the great

southern Maya cities, such as Tikal, Palenque, and Quirigua, no such

adjustment was made and the rain forest soon overran the temples and palaces.


     After A.D. 1000 one of the new groups that occupied the central plateau

after the fall of Teotihuacan, the Nahuatl-speaking Toltecs, established

political control over a large territory and eventually extended their

influence into Maya territory. Their genius seems to have been military, and

much of their culture derived from classic traditions. From their capital at

Tula in central Mexico, Toltec influence and trade may have spread as far as

the American Southwest, where the cliff-dwelling Anasazi people, the ancestors

of the Pueblo Indians, produced beautiful ceramics and cultivated maize in the

desert valleys. In Yucatan, ruling families claimed descent from Toltec

invaders. Even when the Toltec empire fell around A.D. 1200, the cultural

traditions of Mesoamerica did not die, for imperial states and civilization do

not necessarily go together. Eventually, however, a new power, the Aztecs,

rose in the central plateau of Mexico. The Aztecs initiated yet another cycle

of expansion based on the deep-rooted ways of life and thought of Mesoamerica.


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