About 2,800 years ago, people known as the Maya lived in farming villages on the Yucatan Peninsula
and the highlands to the south. From about A.D. 250 to A.D. 900, they built city-states in Central America
that included great pyramid temples and public plazas featuring huge stone columns that recounted their
history. Excavations at Tikal, Guatemala, one of the greatest and oldest Maya centers, have revealed
thousands of structures and artifacts. The findings include temples, pyramids, ball-playing courts,
stone monuments, tools, ceremonial objects, and a great many pottery fragments.
The limestone of the Yucatan Peninsula was easily quarried and used for building and tool making.
In the south, volcanoes stretched over the highlands and yielded valuable resources. The fertile
volcanic soil allowed the people to grow crops.
The Inca began settling in the Valley of Cuzco in the Andes Mountains of central Peru around the year
1200. Between 1440 and 1500, they expanded their empire until it extended nearly 2,500 miles from north
to south and included as many as 16 million people. The lands they occupied included mountains, coastal
desert, and low-lying jungle.
The Incan central government at Cuzco maintained a strong military and passed laws to create official customs and an official language and calendar. The Inca engineered 14,000 miles of roads, including tunnels and bridges, and built the great fortress of Sacsahuaman. They also developed highly advanced terracing and irrigation methods to allow farming in difficult mountain terrain.
The center of the Aztec civilization was in the Valley of Mexico, a huge high-elevation basin in the
Sierra Madre Mountains. This valley had a mild climate that was good for agriculture. The surrounding
lowlands offered a hotter, wetter tropical climate and an abundance of natural resources.
Around 1325, the Aztecs settled on an island in Lake Texcoco, where they built their capital and largest city,
Tenochtitlán. They called themselves the Mexica (pronounced me-shee-ka) and became accomplished corn farmers,
warriors, and temple builders. The ceramic shown here is one of a pair of life-size statues discovered during the
recent excavation of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlán. The statues stood guard at the doorway of the meeting
room of the Aztec warriors. The aggression and warrior skill of the Aztecs allowed them to conquer neighboring people.
Eventually, the empire stretched over most of central Mexico and included millions of people.
Civilizations Measure Time and Record Information
The Maya built their great cities between A.D. 250 and A.D. 900. Their accomplishments included the development
of complex writing and mathematical systems and impressive advances in astronomy. They used two calendars. One
calendar was based on a solar year, while the other was a kind of sacred almanac. A sophisticated three-symbol
numerical system allowed the Maya to record numbers into the millions.
The Aztec civilization, which emerged beginning in the 1200s, is considered the greatest of the civilizations
that developed in Mesoamerica, the area extending from central Mexico to Honduras. Settling first on an island
in Lake Texcoco, the Aztecs expanded their control to most of central Mexico. Like the Maya, the Aztec used
a sacred calendar and a 365-day agricultural calendar. The Aztec writing system was based on glyphs, symbols
that stand for sounds or words. The few remaining Aztec books, called codices, provide rich depictions of Aztec
legends, beliefs, and daily life.
At about the same time that the Aztecs flourished in Mexico, the highly developed Incan Empire flourished in
the Andes Mountains and along the west coast of South America. The vast Incan Empire had a central government
that established laws, developed a complex road system, planned cities, and created farmlands along the sides
of mountains. Unlike the Aztecs and the Maya, the Inca did not develop a writing system. Records of inventories
were kept on bundles of knotted cords called quipus.