Regions of the Aztec, Maya and Inca civilizations The civilizations of the Aztecs, Incas and Maya were the towering achievements of the peoples that arrived in Central and South America thousands of years earlier. The Olmecs created the first great civilization in what historians call Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America), around the coast of the Gulf of Mexico from about 1400 to 300 BC. They built pyramid temples and played the ball game, later adopted by both the Maya and the Aztecs. The Maya flourished from 300 BC to 900 AD. The Aztecs dominated what is now central Mexico from 1200 to 1519. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Incas ruled over a vast empire that stretched more than 2000 kilometres (1200 miles) in the Andes Mountains of South America.
People first crossed into North America from Asia during the Ice Ages, between 35,000 and 15,000 years ago. Because so much water was frozen in icecaps, the sea levels were much lower than they are today. What is now the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia was then dry land.
About 12,000 years ago, the ice melted and sea levels rose, cutting America off from Asia. The American settlers gradually spread southwards across the continent, all the way to the tip of South America.
In parts of modern-day Mexico, Central America and Peru, people learned to farm, and started to settle down to work the land. Villages grew up, some eventually becoming the centres of civilization, such as that of the Olmecs in Mesoamerica and the Norte Chico people of Peru.
The terraced slopes of a pyramid at Caral
Around 3000 BC some settlers began to create a complex irrigation system in the desert valleys of the Norte Chico region of Peru. They also constructed stone pyramids (some as high as 26 metres / 85 feet) at sacred sites, such as Caral. Some archaeologists think it was probably the first civilization to emerge in the Americas.
The people grew cotton in their irrigated fields, which their coastal neighbours used to make fishing nets. The settlements were abandoned from about 1800 BC as the people went off to live in other parts of Peru.
Consultant: Philip Parker
Ancient America Timeline
35,000–15,000 years ago
The first people cross the land bridge from Asia into North America.
10,000 years ago
The earliest farmers learn to grow crops in the Americas.
The Norte Chico civilization grows up in Peru.
The Olmec civilization thrives in Mexico.
200 BC–AD 600
The Nazca culture flourishes in southern Peru.
200 BC–AD 750
The city of Teotihuacán is powerful in Mexico.
The Moche civilization flourishes in northern Peru.
The Maya build stone cities and temples in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.
The Inca capital of Cusco is founded in Peru.
The Aztecs found their city of Tenochtitlán in Mexico.
The Aztec Empire is defeated by the Spanish, led by Hernán Cortés.
The Maya fall under Spanish control.
The final Inca resistance to Spanish rule is crushed.
See also in Prehistoric