Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and other European colonizers, civilizations thrived in Central and South America for thousands of years. They built huge cities, massive temples, and vast networks of roads and bridges. They had advanced methods of irrigation, agriculture, and engineering. They practiced religions, were adept at astronomy and math, had languages, created art, and played games! The Maya, Aztec, and Inca Civilizations are often taught in conjunction with each other, though each has their own unique culture and contributions to the world.
The Maya Civilization was one of the most prominent pre-Columbian civilizations in Mesoamerica. It was located around modern-day southern Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula as well as Belize, Guatemala, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras. The Maya civilization began early as 2000 BCE and continued to thrive for about 3000 years until Spanish conquest in 1519 CE. The Maya were a collection of city-states, each ruled by kings and priests. They built massive step pyramids out of limestone that served as temples to their gods. Religion was at the center of their culture and dictated every aspect of daily life. They practiced sacrifices in the temples to appease the gods, including human sacrifices! The cities also included palaces, homes, markets or plazas, and game courts for their favorite game "Pok-a-Tok". This game was popular throughout Mesoamerica and was played with a rubber ball on a large court with stone hoops.
Surrounding the cities were farmland with sophisticated methods of irrigation to produce crops such as maize (corn), beans, squash, tomatoes, chili peppers, cacao (chocolate), and avocado. The Maya had tools made from wood, stone, and obsidian, a volcanic rock. They also farmed cotton, which they used to weave textiles for blankets and clothing. They used vegetable dyes to make their clothing colorful and also decorated with fringe, feathers, and jewelry. In addition to elaborate clothing, the Maya created beautiful art in the forms of sculptures, relief carvings, and wall paintings (frescoes). They used jade and obsidian in carvings and beadwork.
The Maya had a written language using pictographs as early as 300 BCE. Their system of writing contained more than 800 characters. They wrote on stone slabs (or stele) as well as sculptures, pottery, and in codices. A codex was a type of book that was made of paper folded like an accordion. Unfortunately, there are only a few codices remaining, as most were destroyed by Spanish conquistadors and Catholic priests during their conquest of the region in the 1500s.
The Maya also excelled in astronomy. They could record the precise positions of the Moon and Venus and accurately predict solar eclipses. Their observations of the planets and stars allowed the Maya to create one of the most accurate calendars in history with 365 days a year. Their calendar predicted every year until 2012. The end of the Maya calendar was thought to coincide with the end of civilization but luckily for us, the world didn't end in 2012!
By the time of the Spanish arrival in 1519, the Maya civilization had been in a period of decline. Some historians suspect due to years of drought or war. The Spanish found only a collection of Mayan city-states that they set to conquer. By the end of the 17th century, Spain had complete control of the region. Despite their conquest, the Mayan people continued and still exist today. There are about six million descendants of the Maya that still live in Central America in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and parts of Mexico. In fact, about 40% of Guatemalans are of Mayan descent.
The Aztec Civilization was located east of the Maya, in central Mexico. They were at their height from 1428-1521 when they were conquered by the Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortes.
The Aztecs were a diverse set of city-states similar to the Maya. The largest city-states, Tlacopan, Tenochtitlan, and Texcoco banded together in 1428 to form what would become the Aztec empire. They shared a language, Nahuatl, which is still spoken today. In time, the Mexica conquered the other tribes and city-states to bring them under one rule with Tenochtitlan as the capital. The empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico in central and southern Mexico. Tenochtitlan was a vast city on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. There were massive temples and an urban center. The Aztec built aqueducts, canals, dams, causeways, and roads that connected the entire empire. These roads allowed for trade of goods and customs across thousands of miles. By the early 1500s, the Aztec empire had 5-6 million people!
The Aztecs were advanced in agriculture and irrigation and grew crops such as maize, beans, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, and avocados. They even built floating gardens, or Chinampas, around Tenochtitlan so that there would be more area to grow food, as the land around the island was swampy. Chocolate and popcorn were widely eaten, the same as they are today!
The Aztecs were progressive in the sense that they were one of the first civilizations to provide for every child (regardless of social status) to attend school. They had a written language and, similar to the Maya, wrote books called codices. Much of what we know about the Aztec civilization comes from these codices. Similar to the Maya, they played a game with a rubber ball and stone hoops named tlachtli. The Aztecs used herbs as medicines and methods such as steam baths to cure sicknesses. They even developed the use of splints for broken bones.The Aztecs also adapted the Maya calendar and were similarly adept at astronomy and mapping the stars. They had a religious calendar of 260 days and a timekeeping calendar of 365 days. Religion was very important to the Aztecs and they believed in making sacrifices to the gods in their temples, including human sacrifices, in order to maintain peace and avoid disaster. They believed in many gods that represented different aspects of the natural world such as Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun, and Quetzalcoatl, the god of the sky. The Aztecs believed that these gods sacrificed themselves to create humankind. Therefore, they believed they should sacrifice humans to repay the debt. Most human sacrifices were prisoners.
When the Spanish arrived in 1519, the Aztecs were ruled by Montezuma II, and there was much unrest. Many tribes were unhappy with the tribute system (paying taxes) and the requirement of human sacrifices. Hernan Cortes and his 100 soldiers exploited these weaknesses and made allies with local tribes to help them overthrow Montezuma II. Cortés and his men marched to the capital city. They destroyed the Aztec holy city of Cholula on the way. When they arrived at Tenochtitlan, at first Montezuma II welcomed them with gifts trying to keep the peace. However, fighting broke out and Montezuma II was captured and killed. After three months of fighting, Cortés, his men, and his indigenous allies took control of the city and conquered the Aztec empire in 1521. Over time, the indigenous groups died of Spanish diseases like smallpox and were killed or enslaved by the brutal conquistadors until about 80% of the indigenous population perished. However, there is evidence of the Aztec people, culture, and architecture throughout Mexico. Today, descendants of the Aztecs are called Nahua, and there are more than a million living in Mexico along with 60 other indigenous groups.
Unlike the Maya and the Aztec, the Inca Civilization was not located in Mesoamerica, but in South America. The Inca developed along a long strip of the western side of South America along the Pacific Ocean. It included the rugged mountains and high plateaus of the Andes as well as the coastal deserts and the Amazon jungle. At its height, the Inca Empire stretched from the border of Colombia to Santiago, Chile! This massive empire had more than ten million people and included modern-day Peru, western Ecuador, western and south central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, and northern Chile. The capital of the empire was in Cuzco, established in the 12th century, and still a major (and beautiful!) city in Peru.
The Inca developed an extensive network of roads to connect all the conquered peoples in their empire. They built roadways along the coast and through the mountains. They were masters at building suspension bridges to span the deep canyons and cliffs. The Inca also built aqueducts to bring water from the mountains through the hills and valleys to the people. One aqueduct was 360 miles long! Like the Maya and the Aztec, the Inca build massive palaces, temples, and fortifications. They used a "dry stone" technique that fit the stones together so perfectly that they did not need mortar. The city of Machu Picchu built high on top of a mountain is a famous example of Inca architecture that remains a popular tourist destination.
The Inca language is Quechua, which is still spoken by millions in Peru today. However, the Inca did not have a writing system. They did keep records of events and transactions using a complex system of knotted and colored strings called quipu. The Inca created art in the form of sculptures and reliefs. They mined copper, gold, and silver to create elaborate jewelry, headdresses, and sculptures.
The Inca were ruled by an emperor, the Sapa Inca, who was advised by a high priest, usually his brother. Religion was a major part of Inca culture and daily life. They believed in many gods like the Maya and Aztec. Their primary god was Inti, the sun god. They believed that the Sapa Inca was a descendant of Inti and therefore, he too, was worshipped like a god.
Despite their massive empire, the Inca fell to the Spanish when Francisco Pizarro, a conquistador, arrived in 1532. Pizarro had a few hundred soldiers along with guns, swords, and horses. They killed thousands of Incas and captured the emperor, Atahualpa. Despite the Spanish conquest, descendants of the Inca are still around today. These are Quechua-speaking people, many of whom are traditional farmers and herders. They make up about 45% of the population of Peru.
With the activities in this lesson plan, students will demonstrate what they’ve learned about the civilizations and empires of the Maya, Aztec, and Inca. They’ll become familiar with their environment, resources, technologies, achievements, traditions, and culture.