Map of Pre-Columbian Civilizations
Pre-Columbian Maps & Diagrams
North & South America
Let us use this map to note the dates and homelands of the great Pre-Columbian cultures that we will discuss in this lesson. We will interweave a discussion with a consideration of the sources of our information about them and the techniques used by scholars such as archeologists, anthropologists, ethnobonanists, and others to learn more about them. A consideration not only of what we know, but how we know it, is very important in any field, but is particularly important in the study of a field that is changing as rapidly as is our knowledge of the Pre-Columbian world.
The first division is into the Mesoamerican and the Andean civilizations. The primary chronological divisions which refer to both areas are as follows:
FORMATIVE PERIOD 2000/1500 BCE-300 CE
CLASSIC PERIOD 300-900
POST-CLASSIC PERIOD 900-1521/32 (Spanish conquest)
MESOAMERICA comprises central and southern Mexico and Central America. While made up of diverse cultures and cultural groups Mesoamerican civilization is united by a number of shared characteristics which are identified by Bray, Swanson and Farrington (The New World):
1. a ritual ball game played on an I shaped court
2. the use of hieroglyphic writing
3. temples on stepped pyramids
4. books made from bark or leather folded like a screen 5. a complex calendar based on interlocking cycles
5. similar myths about the creation of the universe
6. similar gods worshipped under different names
7. blood sacrifice (both human sacrifice and self mutilation
Many of these features originated with the OLMEC whose culture flourished on the Gulf Coast of Mexico from before 1200 BCE until approximately 400 BCE. Since a survey like this must be limited, in addition to the Olmec we will confine our discussion of later Mesoamerican groups to the following:
TEOTIHUACAN: Valley of Mexico. 150 BCE-750 CE
MAYA: Southern Mexico and Central America. 250-900
TOLTEC: Valley of Mexico. 900-1200
AZTEC: Valley of Mexico. 1350-1521 (conquored by CORTÉS)
The dates are approximate and indicate when the cultures were at their height.
While the Andean civilizations of South America share many features with those of Mesoamerican they differ by having no system of writing. The culture equivalent to the Olmec was the Chavín which flourished from approximately 1000-200 BCE. Scholars used to agree that the Chavín was the formative group in South America, but recent explorations have put that hypothesis in question.
After the decline of Chavín influence a period of regional groups with their own unique styles developed. These small groups were amalgamated into ever larger groups, culminating in their conquest by the Inca. We will touch on the following:
TIAHUANACO: Alteplano, Bolivia 300 BCE-600 CE
NAZCA: South Coast, Peru 100 BCE-600 CE
MOCHE: North Coast, Peru 200-700
CHIMU: North Coast, Peru 1000-1400
INCA: Empire stretching more than 2500 miles from the southern border of modern Columbia down the coast of Peru and Bolivia down to the Maule River in central Chile. 1400-1532 (conquored by PIZARRO)
The physical features of the land occupied by the Andean cultures are unique, combining arid coastal plains, watered only by a few rivers coming down from the Andes, with mountains that rise over 20,000 feet high. Below the Andean peaks are rich fertile valleys which rise to the cold and thin-aired Alteplano or high plain which stretches from Peru into Bolivia.
On the far side of the Andes, the terrain falls precipitously into the torrid jungle flatlands of the Amazon basin. Contrary to earlier view of Pre-Columbian scholars, recent explorations of the Amazonian jungle have indicated remains of very early cultures, but the difficult conditions have not encouraged excavation.
Early peoples on the coast lived primarily on the resources of the sea. However, groups like the Moche and the Paracas developed elaborate irrigation systems that allowed intensive farming. Wealth increased as groups were able to organize themselves vertically to combine the resources of the coastal plains with those from the mountains. Extensive trade networks developed in which shells from the sea, cotton from the coastal plains, feathers from the jungles were traded for wool of llamas and alpacas and flint from the high mountains. Boats plied up and down the coast to Central America and most likely into Mesoamerica. Although there has been a tendency for scholars to treat each area separately, more information about their connections will undoubtedly be available in the future.
The influence of Mesoamerican cultural ideas was felt in North America, probably as the result of traders who crossed the Gulf of Mexico and went up the Mississippi and its tributaries. Engraved triton shells from the gulf were found in burials as far north as Ohio and Illinois, and in many places mounds were constructed that seem to have been influenced by the pyramids of Mesoamerica.
Three cultures from this area are:
Adena: Ohio 600-200 BCE
Hopewell: Ohio 200 BCE-200 CE
Mississippian: Illinois 800-1500
Map of Pre-Columbian Civilizations