History of Precolonial Meso/South America


Migration to the New World

During the Upper Paleolithic period (ca. 50,000-10,000 BC), humans migrated to Alaska via the Bering land bridge and colonized the Americas. Genetic research has shown that all indigenous peoples of the Americas are descended from the same ancestral group except for the Arctic peoples (the Eskimo and Aleut), who descend from a second migrant wave.2


The Americas can be divided into four major regions: North America, Central America, the Caribbean (aka the West Indies), and South America. Although Central America and the Caribbean are both part of North America, they are often discussed as separate regions. Central America denotes the part of mainland North America south of Mexico, while "the Caribbean" denotes the islands of the Caribbean Sea.

Major Regions of the Americas

The Americas consist chiefly of sovereign nations; the largest exception is Greenland, a Danish territory. Numerous Caribbean islands are also overseas territories (namely British, French, Dutch, and American).

The term Mesoamerica covers a similar-sized territory as Central America, but lies somewhat farther north; specifically, Mesoamerica includes much of Mexico but excludes the southernmost Central American countries. While "Central America" is used in discussion of the present-day Americas, "Mesoamerica" is an historical term that covers the region in which the pre-colonial Mesoamerican civilizations (including the Aztec and Maya) flourished.

Impact of Colonialism

The colonial age began in 1492, with the arrival of Columbus in the Bahamas (see European Colonialism). Through a combination of violence and disease, the indigenous peoples of the Americas were decimated by the European invaders, who often formed alliances with some tribes in order to destroy others. Although the two mightiest indigenous American states (the Aztec and Inca Empires) fell within a few decades, the ensuing colonization of the Americas involved staggering violence against native peoples up to the early twentieth century.6,7

Even when the killing finally stopped, vicious persecution continued, as social and economic roadblocks prevented many indigenous Americans from sharing in the prosperity of the nations erected upon their soil. Indigenous culture endured a massive assault, in the form of direct efforts at cultural assimilation (e.g. prohibition of traditional languages and beliefs, forced education at boarding schools) and the tides of urbanization and modern technology. Despite significant progress in rectifying these historical cruelties, the dark legacy of colonialism persists.1,2,6


The pre-colonial Americas can be roughly divided into three zones according to subsistence method.

Lifestyles of the Pre-colonial Americas

In the Americas, settled agricultural life first emerged ca. 2000 BC, in Mesoamerica and Peru (see The Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages). Over the next two millennia, it spread across the pink and green regions noted on the above map. It did not spread to the blue regions, where hunter-gatherer life continued up to modern times.15,28,29

Urban life (civilization) developed in two regions: Mesoamerica and the central Andes (the pink regions on the above map). In regions characterized by non-urban agricultural life (the green regions), settlements did not grow large enough to be considered cities. While the populations of non-urban agricultural settlements were relatively small, the populations of hunter-gatherer groups (which dwelt in the blue regions) were usually even smaller. (The size of a hunter-gatherer group is primarily determined by the difficulty of finding food in the land it inhabits.)

Hunter-gatherer life has taken diverse forms throughout human history. Groups of hunter-gatherers may be nomadic (constantly on the move), semi-nomadic (shifting between seasonal settlements), or even permanently settled (if food is sufficiently abundant). Some hunter-gatherer societies supplemented their diets with small amounts of farming.

Culture Areas

Historical discussion of pre-colonial Mesoamerica and South America tends to be dominated by the urban civilizations of these regions (which covered the pink areas in the right-hand map provided below). For the purposes of Essential Humanities, this "urban-centric" approach is considered appropriate. Nonetheless, two general observations will be made about non-urban Meso/South America (the green and blue regions in the right-hand map).

Indigenous Culture Areas of Meso/South America

Firstly, while large villages flourished throughout the Caribbean and southern Andean regions, the Amazonian region was home to relatively small villages; this was largely due to the difficulty of rainforest farming, which requires constant slash-and-burn agriculture to enrich the nutrient-weak soil. The Caribbean region encompasses the islands of the Caribbean Sea, as well as some territory around the coast (including the northern Andes). The Amazonian region, which covers Brazil plus some neighbouring territory, included pockets of hunter-gatherers (many of whom fished the Amazon river).16

Secondly, South America's Far South region is a harsh, food-scarce land of desert and plains. Survival was therefore difficult, and social organization was limited to small bands of hunter-gatherers.16

The culture area of Mesoamerica consists mainly of central and southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. The Andean culture area spans the central Andes (Peru and western Bolivia) and southern Andes (Chile and western Argentina). Pre-colonial cities emerged throughout Mesoamerica and the central Andes; urbanization did not spread to the northern Andes (which, as noted above, form part of the Caribbean culture area) or southern Andes (which nonetheless do belong to the Andean culture area).

Main Article

Mesoamerican Civilization

Mesoamerica can be divided into four regions. The largest civilizations emerged in central Mexico, the northernmost part of Mesoamerica. The southernmost part is the Maya region, which consists mainly of the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, and Guatemala; as the name indicates, this is the land of the Maya people.

The land between central Mexico and the Maya region can be divided into two strips. The southern strip may be referred to as Oaxaca, since it corresponds roughly with the modern Mexican state of that name. The northern strip (which corresponds with the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco) may be termed the Olmec region, as this land was home to the Olmec culture.

Regions of Mesoamerican Civilization

The history of Mesoamerican civilization can be divided into three periods: Formative (ca. 1500 BC-100 AD), Classic (ca. 100-900), and Postclassic (ca. 900-1520).

The Formative period began with the Olmec age (ca. 1500-500 BC), during which the Olmec culture flourished (in the Olmec region). Although the Olmec started out as a non-urban people, they bloomed into an urban society at some point during the Olmec age, thus initiating urban life in the Americas. Their culture diffused widely, becoming the foundation of all subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations; consequently, they are referred to as the mother culture of Mesoamerica. Olmec culture included a distinct style of sculpture, a calendar, a pantheon of gods, ball courts (to play the famous Mesoamerican game), an early form of writing, and the practice of centring a settlement around a plaza lined with pyramids.A262,B45,H555,7,11

Timeline of Mesoamerican Civilization
Formative age
1500 BC-100 AD
Classic age
Postclassic age
1 2 3 4
1 Olmec age ca. 1500-500 BC
2 rise of the Classic civilizations ca. 500 BC-100 AD
3 Classic age ca. 100-900
4 Postclassic age ca. 900-1520

Although the Olmecs faded away ca. 500 BC, the remainder of the Formative age (ca. 500 BC-100 AD) witnessed the rise of the Classic civilizations.11 The three dominant Classic civilizations were the Teotihuacanos of central Mexico, the Zapotecs of Oaxaca, and the Maya of the Maya region.

Dominant Mesoamerican Civilizations
Classic age Postclassic age
central Mexico Teotihuacan Toltecs > Aztecs
Oaxaca Zapotecs Mixtecs
Maya region Maya (decline of Maya)

The Teotihuacanos ruled central Mexico from the great city of Teotihuacan. (They are referred to simply as "Teotihuacanos" because their language is unknown.) Meanwhile, the kingdom of the Zapotecs, with their magnificent capital of Monte Alban, dominated Oaxaca.11 Maya civilization flourished throughout the Maya region (especially in the south) in the form of numerous independent city-states, the largest of which included Tikal, Copan, and Palenque.7


Each of these three peoples experienced their great flourishing during the Classic period. Teotihuacan was the mightiest, exerting political dominance throughout the Mesoamerican world.11 Yet the Maya are the most famous Classic civilization, for they were the foremost scholars and artists of Mesoamerica (see Mesoamerican Art). The Maya excelled particularly in astronomy, architecture, and sculpture.10

In the Postclassic period, the Toltecs conquered central Mexico and succeeded Teotihuacan as the strongest Mesoamerican state.11 The Toltecs, whose capital city was Tula, were in turn conquered by the Aztecs, whose capital was Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs, also known as the Mexica (from which the word "Mexico" is derived), are infamous for their obsession with human sacrifice.7,10

Aztec Empire

Meanwhile, the Postclassic age witnessed the decline and deurbanization of most of the Maya region (for reasons unknown). The primary concentration of Maya cities shifted to the northern Maya region. In Oaxaca, the Zapotecs were supplanted by the Mixtecs as the dominant people.A265,H565,K210-11,10

With some 400,000 inhabitants, Tenochtitlan was the most populous of all pre-colonial American cities.14 The Aztec Empire succeeded the Toltecs as the leading power of Mesoamerica, and was still expanding when the Spanish arrived in the New World.7 Within a few decades, the Empire was destroyed by forces under the command of Hernan Cortes; Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) subsequently became the capital of Spanish America.


Andean Civilization

South American civilization flourished in the Andes, the world's longest mountain range, which runs down the continent's western coast. The extreme elevations of this region, which cause it to have soils of limited fertility and wide daily temperature fluctuations (hot days and cold nights), make it an unlikely home for urban settlement. Farmland, which was quickly exhausted, was painstakingly cultivated with terracing and underground channels.7,11

One incentive for mountain life was the llama, which thrives at high elevations. The llama was the only large domesticated animal in the entire pre-colonial Americas. Consequently, of all the indigenous cultures of the New World, only the Andean peoples could obtain animal products (namely meat and clothing) through raising (rather than hunting) large animals.11,30

Another Andean advantage was the ability to preserve food simply by leaving it outside. In much of the Andes, temperatures fluctuate between scorching days and freezing nights; exposing food to these conditions will preserve it for years. The English word "jerky" derives from a native Andean word for meat preserved in this manner (ch'arki).7,11

Andes Mountain Range

The Andes can be divided into three zones: northern Andes (Colombia and Ecuador), central Andes (Peru and Bolivia), and southern Andes (Chile and Argentina). Andean culture spanned the central and southern Andes, while Andean civilization (i.e. urban Andean culture) was limited to the central Andes. (The northern Andes region is grouped with the Caribbean culture area.)

Indigenous Culture Areas of Meso/South America

Andean civilization thus flourished in the region of modern-day Peru and western Bolivia. It spanned two sharply contrasting environments: the highlands (the Andes mountains proper) and the coastal lowlands (the foothills and desert that lie between the Andes and the coast). Food was obtained in the coastal lowlands via farming alongside rivers or springs, as well as fishing in the Pacific.D351,G391

Andean cities were generally smaller than those of Mesoamerica. Moreover, the civilizations of the Andes never developed mathematics, writing, or a calendar. They did, however, surpass the Mesoamericans in the field of metallurgy, which allowed the Inca to reach the Bronze Age.7

Pre-colonial Andean history can be divided into five ages. The first, third, and fifth ages are known as "horizons". A horizon is a period of strong political and cultural unity throughout the Andean region. The second and fourth ages are called intermediate periods. During these ages, unity was much weaker, such that the Andean region was heavily fractured into various states and cultures.

At a broader level, Andean history can be divided into ancient and medieval periods. The ancient period (ca. 1000 BC-500 AD) contains the Early Horizon and Early Intermediate ages, while the medieval period (ca. 500-1530) contains the Middle Horizon, Late Intermediate, and Late Horizon ages. Note that the Late Horizon was quite short (roughly half a century).

Timeline of Mesoamerican Civilization
ancient Andean region
1000 BC-500 AD
medieval Andean region
1 2 3 4 5
1 Early Horizon Chavin period
2 Early Intermediate Moche/Nazca period
3 Middle Horizon Tiwanaku/Wari period
4 Late Intermediate Chimu period
5 Late Horizon Inca period
Summary of Andean History
primary ancient Andean cultures
ca. 1000 BC-500 AD
Chavin culture > Moche and Nazca cultures
primary medieval Andean cultures
ca. 500-1530
Tiwanaku/Wari civilization > Chimu civilization > Inca civilization

Each age features one or two primary cultures. A "primary culture" may be defined as the strongest and most influential culture of its age.

Like Mesoamerica, the Andean region features a mother culture: the Chavin culture, which diffused widely and served as the foundation of subsequent Andean cultures. This culture is named after its main settlement, Chavin de Huantar, which consists of a temple complex surrounded by a town. The temple complex features an abundance of imaginative stone sculptures, which combine elements of humans, cats, birds, and reptiles (see Andean Art).11,19,21

Early Horizon: Chavin culture

Early Intermediate: Moche and Nazca cultures

Middle Horizon: Tiwanaku and Wari civilization

Late Intermediate: Chimu civilization

Late Horizon: Inca civilization

While the Chavin culture spanned both coastal desert and mountains, the two primary cultures of the Early Intermediate period were limited to the coastal desert. The Moche flourished along the northern coast of Peru, the Nazca along the southern coast.11 Andean pottery reached its culmination in these two cultures.

During the Middle Horizon, Andean civilization was united by two great powers: the Wari Empire in the north and the Tiwanaku Empire in the south.11 (This period marks the rise of the first cities in South America; thus, Andean civilization was born during the Middle Horizon.) The cultures of these empires were similar, such that one can speak of an overall "Tiwanaku-Wari culture".

Cultural and political fragmentation returned, however, in the Late Intermediate period. The mightiest culture of this age was the Chimu civilization, which flourished along the northern Peruvian coast.11 The scale of Chimu achievement in both engineering (e.g. buildings, roads, irrigation systems) and administration was unprecedented in the Andean region.24 The Chimu capital was the vast city of Chan Chan.

The term "Late Horizon" denotes the age of the Inca Empire as the dominant power of the Andes. Although quite short (about half a century), a small Inca state had existed for centuries prior to the Late Horizon. The Inca's dramatic success was based largely on the absorption of Chimu expertise in engineering and administration. The Inca capital was Cuzco, Peru.11

The Inca made the transition from stone tools to bronze tools (e.g. axes, knives, hoes), thereby becoming the only pre-colonial American civilization to achieve the Bronze age (see The Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages). Although they lacked a writing system, the Inca developed an intricate method of recording numbers with colour-coded knotted cords. They also maintained a network of running messengers along the empire's thousands of miles of roads, allowing news to be swiftly delivered between any two points.A264,11

Ca. 1530, the Inca Empire fell to forces under Francisco Pizarro. As noted in the previous section, the Aztec Empire fell to the Spanish ca. 1520. In order to avoid mixing up these two dates, it may be helpful to remember that the Andes region, being farther away from Europe than Mesoamerica (from the perspective of westward-sailing Europeans), was predictably conquered at a somewhat later date than Mesoamerica.

1 - "North American Natives", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed June 2010.
2 - "Eskimo", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
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4 - "Aleut", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
5 - "Native American Languages", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed June 2010.
6 - "Native Americans of North America", Encarta 2004.
7 - "Native Americans of Middle and South America", Encarta 2004.
8 - "South American Natives", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed June 2010.
9 - "Middle American Natives", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed June 2010.
10 - "Mesoamerican civilization", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
11 - "Pre-Columbian civilizations", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
12 - "Mixtec", Encarta 2004.
13 - "Inca Empire", Encarta 2004.
14 - "Tenochtitlan", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
15 - "Native American", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
16 - "South American Indian", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
17 - "Origins of agriculture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
18 - "Native American art", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
19 - "Chavin", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
20 - "Huari", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
21 - "Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture", Encarta 2004.
22 - "Goldwork", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed June 2010.
23 - "Cahokia Mounds", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
24 - "Chimu", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
25 - "Mississippian culture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
26 - "Effigy mound", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
27 - "Mound builders", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed June 2010.
28 – “Archaic culture”, Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
29 – “Stone Age (anthropology)”, Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
30 – “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies”, Jared Diamond. W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.