Aztec, Inca & Maya

Ancient America

Regions of the Aztec, Maya and Inca civilizationsRegions 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.


Early settlers in South America hunt a GlyptodonEarly settlers in South America hunt a Glyptodon

First settlers

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 CaralThe terraced slopes of a pyramid at Caral

Norte Chico

Some of our words probably came from the Mayan group of languages. They include shark, which comes from the Yucatec word xoc/xook (pronounced SHOK) for “fish”, and cocoa, from the Mayan word kakaw.

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