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

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.
  • 3000–1800 BC
    The Norte Chico civilization grows up in Peru.
  • 1400–300 BC
    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.
  • AD 100–800
    The Moche civilization flourishes in northern Peru.
  • 250–900
    The Maya build stone cities and temples in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.
  • c.1200
    The Inca capital of Cusco is founded in Peru.
  • 1325
    The Aztecs found their city of Tenochtitlán in Mexico.
  • 1521
    The Aztec Empire is defeated by the Spanish, led by Hernán Cortés.
  • 1542
    The Maya fall under Spanish control.
  • 1572
    The final Inca resistance to Spanish rule is crushed.

See also in Prehistoric

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.

Most Mayan children were named according to the day they were born. Every day of the year had a specific name for both boys and girls.

The Incas had a type of postal system where messengers ran across mountain paths and rope bridges to carry the message to the next relay runner. Messengers lived in pairs, with one person sleeping and the other on alert to run messages.

The Aztecs used human manure as fertiliser on their fields. This provided nutrients for the crops—and helped to keep the city clean of smelly waste.

Punishments for Aztec children failing to obey rules were severe. They included being pierced with cactus spines, being forced to inhale smoke from burning chillies, or being forced to lie on a cold wet mat.

It was illegal for Aztecs to drink alcohol and the punishment for drinking was the death penalty. After the age of 70, however, people were allowed to drink a little in private or on special occasions.

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