The Peoples and Civilizations of the Americas summary



The Peoples and Civilizations of the Americas summary


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The Peoples and Civilizations of the Americas summary

Chapter 9   The Peoples and Civilizations of the Americas

  1. Introduction

What took place in the Americas had little connection to the civilizations of Eurasia and Africa, although there were some parallels. The timing of civilization development in the Americas was different due to American separation from other core regions. American civilizations lacked horses and cattle and relied on a completely different range of agricultural crops. Although American civilizations developed great empires, they did so with limited technology.

  1. Origins of American Societies
    1. Introduction

During the last Ice Age, peoples from Asia moved across a land bridge to the Americas. The expansion of the ice sheets lowered water levels in the oceans and made the migration possible. Hunters possibly followed game animals across the land bridge. About 10,000 years ago, increases in temperature melted the ice sheets and ended the period of migration.

    1. The Ancient Hunters

The migrations took place between 20,000 and 8,000 B.C.E. The length of time needed to populate the Americas is unknown. Early stone technology was limited to scrapers and crude knives. Hunting spear points appeared about 12,000 years ago. The warming of the climate coincided with the disappearance of the great mammals that had also migrated from Asia. Successful hunting techniques may account for the elimination of large animal species. Early migrants probably lived in small bands based on kinship with little social stratification or economic specialization.

    1. American Diversity

The earliest migrants to the New World represented different genetic types, including Caucasoid, Australoid, and Mongoloid peoples. Despite genetic difference, genetic and physical similarities among American Indian populations indicate a high degree of common ancestry. Variations in language and culture can be attributed to adaptation and localization of settlement patterns.

    1. The Question of Outside Contacts

Various cultural patterns and some biological origins have suggested contacts between the Americas and Asia. Despite apparent similarities, there is no concrete evidence for contact prior to the fifteenth century. The cultural aspects of civilization agriculture, domestication of animals, weaving, ceramics, social stratification, urbanism, religious ideas, and numerical systems were developed independently in the New World. Although independent development made American cultures durable, there were certain drawbacks. American cultures lacked the wheel, iron technology, and large mammals. Pastoralism was largely absent in the earliest American cultures. American peoples also lacked resistance to the diseases of Eurasia and Africa.

    1. The Archaic Cultures

The earliest peoples in the Americas depended on hunting and gathering. Agriculture may have developed by 7000 B.C.E. in the Andes and by 5000 B.C.E. elsewhere. Initially, agricultural societies intermingled with intensive hunting and gathering groups. The most important crops were maize, potatoes, and manioc. Agricultural societies developed economic specialization and social stratification. The development of maize in central Mexico by 4000 B.C.E. led to population growth that, in turn, stimulated the development of new crops. Maize cultivation spread throughout North and South America. Maize introduction, even in areas where manioc and potatoes had previously been cultivated, resulted in population growth and more complex societies.

    1. Cultural Hearths and Social Systems

Civilizations developed in two regions of the Americas Mesoamerica and the Peruvian highlands. The entire region from central Mexico to Chile formed a continuous nucleus of developing civilizations called hearths. From these regions, the cultural features of American civilizations spread to neighboring groups.

    1. Types of American Indian Societies

The idea of a central hearth region accounts for basic similarities in American cultural features. Distinctions among American groups were based on economic and political organization with adoption of sedentary agriculture as the key. Hunting and gathering groups continued to occupy large regions of the Americas. These groups existed in bands organized along lines of kinship with little formal political organization. Those groups which had made partial transitions to sedentary agriculture lived in larger groups organized in villages. Only among peoples who converted entirely to sedentary agriculture did the most complex societies develop. Social stratification and economic specialization were typical of the latter groups.

    1. Chiefdoms and States

Chiefdom was a common form of social and political organization among the more sedentary peoples of the Americas. Chiefdoms were typified by government of hereditary chieftains who ruled from central towns which paid tribute to the central administrators. Central towns often had a priestly class who organized ritual. Chiefdoms were socially stratified into groups of nobles, priests, and commoners. States may have emerged from these chiefdoms, although in many ways the two forms of political structure were similar. Distinctions were observed between the residents of the chiefdoms and the less sedentary populations that surrounded them. Thus the tension between civilization and more mobile populations typical of the Old World was replicated in the Americas.

  1. Spread of Civilization in Mesoamerica
    1. Introduction

The Olmec civilization was the foundation for the civilizations of Mesoamerica. The region was typified by geographical diversity which gave rise to various environments requiring different human adaptations. Environmental variations created different products and enhanced trade between regions. The transition to more complex societies began around 5000 B.C.E. in Mesoamerica. Pottery was first used around 2000 B.C.E. Sedentary villages based on agriculture first appeared in the region about contemporary with the emergence of the Shang dynasty in China.

    1. The Olmec Mystery

Olmec civilization appeared suddenly around 1200 B.C.E. without much evidence of gradual development. The Olmecs possessed irrigation systems, monumental architecture, calendrical and writing systems, religion, and urbanism. The earliest Olmec sites were located in the tropical forests of the Gulf coast of eastern Mexico, but Olmec culture spread inland to the highlands.
Maize cultivation provided the basis for a state ruled by a hereditary elite dependent on the maintenance of organized religious ceremonialism. Olmec culture seems to have influenced other developing centers of civilization, such as the Zapotecs of Oaxaca and the Mayas of the Yucatan. Olmec art and symbols appear in many places in Mesoamerica, but it is difficult to interpret the significance of their distribution.

    1. The Classic Era of Mesoamerican Civilization

Between 150 and 900 C.E., the classic period in Mesoamerica followed the Olmec era. The two main centers of development were in the high valley of central Mexico and the tropical lowlands of the Yucatan and Guatemala. In central Mexico an important ceremonial center developed in the city of Teotihuacan. Surrounded by irrigated agricultural systems, Teotihuacan seems to have been able to command huge numbers of workers to support the massive monumental structures and the elite of the city. There is evidence for economic specialization and social stratification. The rulers of Teotihuacan were probably able to extract tribute from a wide region extending as far south as Guatemala. The lack of martial artwork in the city of Teotihuacan has led to the assumption that the city was able to establish a long period of peace.
At approximately the same time as Teotihuacan dominated the central Mexican highlands, Mayan civilization was developing in southern Mexico and Central America. Mayan culture included monumental architecture, a written language, a calendrical and mathematical system, religion, social stratification, and economic specialization. The political structure of the Mayans was based on city-states. To support themselves, Mayan religious centers depended on elaborate irrigation systems and intensive cultivation. Mayan cities varied in size, but all included monumental architecture devoted to religious ceremonialism. Two of the great Maya accomplishments were the creation of a sophisticated system of mathematics used, in part, to create a calendar based on recurring cycles and the development of a writing system. Mayan writing was used in both religion and more secular records.
Mayan religion featured a complex cosmology of thirteen heavens and nine underworlds. The religion was dualistic with good and evil, male and female, night and day all balanced. Inscriptions on public stelae are historical records of individual dynasties and records of the constant warfare between city-states. Priests and scribes assisted powerful rulers in the administration of the city-states. Maya rituals included mutilation and human sacrifice. Although there were artisans who lived in the cities, the majority of the population consisted of peasant farmers. Captives in war were enslaved. Family structure among the Maya was patrilineal, although elite women retained some rights.

    1. Classic Collapse

Between 700 and 900 C.E., the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica began to collapse. Nomadic peoples from northern Mexico destroyed Teotihuacan around 650 C.E. The Zapotec civilization based on Monte Alban went into slow decline at the same time. By 900 C.E., most Maya centers had been abandoned. Constant war between Mayan city-states may have led to collapse. It has also been proposed that the intensive system of agriculture on which the Maya depended could no longer support the Mayan population. Cultural achievements of the classic period were not maintained in the aftermath of the collapse, although some Mayan cities continued to flourish with considerable influence from the highlands. After 1000 C.E., the Toltecs assumed control over the region of central Mexico. From their capital at Tula, the Toltecs established a military empire based on classical cultural foundations. The Toltec empire collapsed around 1200 C.E.

  1. The Peoples of the North
    1. Introduction

In the Mississippi basin and in the American southwest, complex societies emerged based on sedentary agriculture.

    1. The Mound Builders

The valleys of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers supported the development of sedentary agricultural societies. The Adena culture featured the construction of large earthen mounds used for defense and for burials. The Adena society appears to have traded with other regions of North America. Adena culture may have spread along trade routes to regions of New York and Maryland.
The Hopewell culture, which arose around 200 C.E., replaced the Adena in Ohio. The Hopewell people were also mound builders who established networks of trade. The Hopewell culture declined by 500 C.E.
Mississippian culture was also based on mound building and flourished between 800 and 1300 C.E. It is possible, although not known, that the Mississippian culture was a centralized chiefdom. Its ruler may have governed a society divided into four classes. Mississippian culture was more heavily dependent on sedentary agriculture than its two antecedents. Mesoamerican civilizations may have influenced the Mississippians.

    1. The Desert Peoples

By 300 B.C.E., irrigated agriculture supported settled communities in the desert region of the American southwest. Early groups lived in pit houses, which later developed into full stone structures.
The most famous of the early southwestern cultures was the Anasazi. As a means of defense, the Anasazi constructed large complexes of stone structures built into the sides of cliffs. Characteristic of these dwellings was the use of a circular pit for religious ceremonies. The Anasazi traded with the civilizations of Mesoamerica. A long period of drought in the late thirteenth century probably accounts for the decline of the Anasazi.

  1. The Andean World
    1. Introduction

Civilization in South America shared many traits with Mesoamerica. Chavin civilization was followed by a number of regional variations. After Chavin, a new civilization horizon centered on the upland states of Huari and Tihuanaco. The rapid rise from the Pacific coast of South America to the Andean highlands created numerous microregions, each with its own ecology. Andean population clustered on the more arid coastal regions or on the uplands between the two major chains of the Andes. To the east of the Andes lay the tropical rain forests in the basins of the Amazon and La Plata rivers. The establishment of irrigated systems of agriculture and roads required social complexity and political organization. Communities attempted to control a number of ecological zones from the coastal plain to the highlands in order to provide for varied resources. Successful control of various regions determined political organization, settlement, and growth.

    1. Early Developments and the Rise of Chavin

Andean history is often divided between periods in which strictly regional cultures dominated and eras typified by more centralized state control over the entire area. Sedentary agricultural communities were established in the Andes between 3000 and 2000 B.C.E. Maize and pottery were introduced by 2700 B.C.E. Between 1800 and 1200 B.C.E., ceremonial centers featuring monumental architecture appeared on the coast and in the highlands. The most important of the centers was Chavin de Huantar in the highlands. The jaguar was a common motif in Chavin art. Chavin-style art was widely disseminated, a fact that suggests broad political control over the entire region. It is unknown whether Chavin culture was spread as a result of military conquest.

    1. Regional Cultures and a New Horizon

The political unity imposed by Chavin was lost by 300 B.C.E. In its wake arose regional centers with indigenous cultures, such as those at Nazca and Moche. In the Mochica state (200- 700 C.E.), monumental structures were constructed of brick. Moche expanded its control over the region by military conquest. The period of regional organization was brought to an end by the growth of two larger states, Tihuanaco and Huari. The religious symbols and artistic motifs associated with these two states were widely disseminated, possibly suggesting the creation of a second horizon. Tihuanaco extended its control over the southern Andes region, while Huari controlled the northern region. The period of dominance of these two states ended in the ninth century C.E., about the same time as the end of the classic period in Mesoamerica. The decline precipitated another round of regional development, as at Chimu on the coast.

    1. Andean Lifeways

The control of various ecological niches located at different altitudes was the objective of states, families, and communities. Despite ethnic and linguistic variations, Andean communities were most often composed of kinship groups, or ayllus. Marriage was most often within the ayllu. Each kinship group assigned land and water rights to families within the kindred. Each ayllu was directed by a chief, or curaca. Labor and military conscription were based on ayllus. Related kinship groups could, on occasion, be bound together in larger political confederations. Much of Andean society was suffused with the concept of reciprocity in return for labor and tribute, states were to manage public works projects for the benefit of the community. The principle of reciprocity even extended to religion.

  1. Conclusion: American Civilizations

Contact between Mesoamerica and the Andes led to parallels in cultural development and the chronology of the emergence of more complex political systems. Much of this was probably funnelled through intermediate cultures in Central America. There were important differences. Peruvian cultures used metallurgy more fully than their Mesoamerican counterparts. The existence of the llama in the Andes allowed the development of a form of pastoralism there unknown in Mexico. Unlike the Maya, the cultures of the Andean highlands never developed a system of writing.


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