Pre-Columbian Civilization

From New World Encyclopedia
History by time period
Prehistory 200000 B.C.E. - 3500 B.C.E. and later
*Three-age system Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age
Ancient history 3500 B.C.E. - 476 C.E.
*Pre-Columbian 14,000 B.P. - 1492 C.E. and later
*Classical Antiquity 7th century B.C.E. - 476 C.E.
Middle Ages 476 - 1517
Modern history 15th century - present

The term pre-Columbian is used to refer to the cultures of the Americas in the time before significant European influence. While technically referring to the era before Christopher Columbus, in practice the term usually includes indigenous cultures as they continued to develop until they were conquered or significantly influenced by Europeans, even if this happened decades or even centuries after Columbus first landed, in 1492.

The term "pre-Columbian" is used especially often in discussions of the great indigenous civilizations of the Americas, such as those of Mesoamerica (the Aztec and Maya) and the Andes (Inca, Moche, Chibcha). Pre-Columbian civilizations independently established, during this long era, characteristics and hallmarks which included permanent or urban settlements, agriculture, civic and monumental architecture, and complex societal hierarchies. Many of these civilizations had long ceased to function by the time of the first permanent European arrivals (c. late fifteenth-early sixteenth centuries), and are known only through archaeological evidence. Others were contemporary with this period, and are also known from historical accounts of the time. A few (such as the Maya) had their own written records. However, most Europeans of the time largely viewed such text as heretical and few survived Christian pyres. Only a few hidden documents remain today, leaving modern historians with only a glimpses of ancient culture and knowledge.

From both indigenous American and European accounts, American civilizations at the time of European encounter possessed many impressive feats, such as the most populous city in the world as well as modern theories of astronomy and mathematics.

Where they persist, the societies and cultures which are descended from these civilizations may now be substantively different from that of the original. However, many of these peoples and their descendants still uphold various traditions and practices which relate back to these earlier times, even if combined with those more recently-adopted.

An image of one of the pyramids in the upper level of Yaxchilán


Asiatic migration

The Americas are thought to have been first inhabited by Asian nomads who crossed the Bering Land Bridge, now the Bering Strait. Over the course of millennia, people spread to all parts of the continent. Exactly when the first group of people migrated into the Americas is subject to much debate. One view is that the earliest people were of the Clovis culture, with sites dating from some 13,500 years ago. However, older sites dating back to 20,000 years ago have been discovered, and genetic studies estimate the colonization of the Americas dates from between 40,000 to 13,000 years ago. Also, not just one, but multiple waves of immigration have been suggested.

In any case, artifacts have been found in both North and South America which have been dated to about 10,000 B.C.E., and humans are thought to have reached Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America by this time. All theories agree that the Inuit and related peoples arrived separately and at a much later date, probably around the sixth century, moving across the ice from Siberia into Alaska.


After the migration, or migrations, it was several thousand years before the first complex civilizations arose, at the earliest emerging around 5000 B.C.E. The inhabitants of the Americas were hunter-gatherers, and even after the emergence of advanced civilizations, such societies inhabited most of the continents' area until the eighteenth century. Numerous archaeological cultures can be identified with some of the classifications including Early Paleo-Indian Period, Late Paleo-Indian Period, Archaic Period, Early Woodland Period, Middle Woodland Period, and Late Woodland Period.

Agricultural development

Early inhabitants of the Americas developed agriculture, breeding maize (corn) from ears 2-5 cm in length to perhaps 10-15 cm in length. Potatoes, tomatos, pumpkins, and avocados were among other plants grown by natives. They did not develop extensive livestock because there were few suitable species; however the guinea pig was raised for meat in the Andes. By the fifteenth century, maize had been transmitted from Mexico and was being farmed in the Mississippi embayment, but further developments were cut short by the arrival of Europeans. Potatoes were utilized by the Inca, and chocolate was used by the Aztec.

North America

When the Europeans arrived, many natives of North America were semi-nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers; others were sedentary and agricultural civilizations. Many formed new tribes or confederations in response to European colonization. Well-known groups included the Huron, Apache, Cherokee, Sioux, Mohegan, Iroquois (which included Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca, Cayuga, Onandaga, and later the Tuscarora tribes), and Inuit. Although not as technologically advanced or politically complex as the Mesoamerican civilizations further south, there were extensive pre-Columbian sedentary societies in what is now the United States of America.

Mississippian Culture

The Mississippian culture dominated much of the area along the Mississippi River in Pre-Columbian history. One of the distinguishing features of this culture was the construction of large earthen mounds, leading to their nickname, the Moundbuilders. They grew maize and other crops intensively, participated in an extensive trade network, and had a complex stratified society. The Mississippians first appeared around 1000 C.E., following and developing out of the less agriculturally intensive and less centralized Woodland period. The culture reached its peak in c. 1200-1400, and in most places it seems to have been in decline before the arrival of the Europeans.

The largest site of this people, Cahokia—located near modern East St. Louis, Illinois—may have reached a population of over 20,000. At its peak, between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Cahokia was the most populous city in North America, although far larger cities were constructed in Mesoamerica and South America. Monk's Mound, the major ceremonial center of Cahokia, remains the largest earthen construction of the prehistoric New World.


Atlantes at Tula, Hidalgo

Mesoamerica is the region extending from central Mexico south to the northwestern border of Costa Rica which gave rise to a group of stratified, culturally related agrarian civilizations spanning an approximately 3,000-year period before the European discovery of the New World. Mesoamerican is the adjective generally used to refer to that group of pre-Columbian cultures. This refers to an environmental area occupied by an assortment of ancient cultures that shared religious beliefs, art, architecture, and technology in the Americas for more than three thousand years.

Between 1800 and 300 B.C.E., complex cultures began to form in Mesoamerica. Some matured into advanced pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Olmec, Teotihuacan, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, Huastec, Purepecha,Toltec, and Mexica (Aztecs), which flourished for nearly 4,000 years before first contact with Europeans.

These indigenous civilizations are credited with many inventions: Building pyramid-temples, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, writing, highly accurate calendars, fine arts, intensive agriculture, engineering, an abacus calculation, a complex theology, and the wheel. Without any draft animals, the wheel was used only as a toy. They used native copper and gold for metalworking.

Archaic inscriptions on rocks and rock walls all over northern Mexico (especially in the state of Nuevo León) demonstrate an early propensity for counting in Mexico. The counting system was one of the most complex in the world, with a base 20 number system. These very early and ancient count-markings were associated with astronomical events and underscore the influence that astronomical activities had upon Mexican natives before the arrival of Europeans. In fact, many of the later Mexican based civilizations carefully built their cities and ceremonial centers according to specific astronomical events.

The biggest Mesoamerican cities, such as Teotihuacan, Tenochtitlan, and Cholula, were among the largest in the world. These cities grew as centers of commerce, ideas, ceremonies, and theology, and they radiated influence outwards onto neighboring cultures in central Mexico.

While many city-states, kingdoms, and empires competed with one another for power and prestige, Mesoamerica can be said to have had five major civilizations: The Olmec, Teotihuacan, the Toltec, the Mexica, and the Maya. These civilizations (with the exception of the politically fragmented Maya) extended their reach across Mexico—and beyond—like no others. They consolidated power and distributed influence in matters of trade, art, politics, technology, and theology. Other regional power players made economic and political alliances with these four civilizations over the span of 4,000 years. Many made war with them, but almost all peoples found themselves within these five spheres of influence.

Olmec civilization

The earliest known civilization is the Olmec. This civilization established the cultural blueprint by which all succeeding indigenous civilizations would follow in Mexico. Olmec civilization began with the production of pottery in abundance, around 2300 B.C.E. Between 1800 and 1500 B.C.E., the Olmec consolidated power into chiefdoms which established their capital at a site today known as San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, near the coast in southeast Veracruz. The Olmec influence extended across Mexico, into Central America, and along the Gulf of Mexico. They transformed many peoples' thinking toward a new way of government, pyramid-temples, writing, astronomy, art, mathematics, economics, and religion. Their achievements paved the way for the later greatness of the Maya civilization in the east and the civilizations to the west in central Mexico.

Teotihuacan civilization

The decline of the Olmec resulted in a power vacuum in Mexico. Emerging from that vacuum was Teotihuacan, first settled in 300 B.C.E. Teotihuacan, by C.E. 150, had risen to become the first true metropolis of what is now called North America. Teotihuacan established a new economic and political order never before seen in Mexico. Its influence stretched across Mexico into Central America, founding new dynasties in the Maya cities of Tikal, Copan, and Kaminaljuyú. Teotihuacan's influence over the Maya civilization cannot be understated: It transformed political power, artistic depictions, and the nature of economics. Within the city of Teotihuacan was a diverse and cosmopolitan population. Most of the regional ethnicities of Mexico were represented in the city, such as Zapotecs from the Oaxaca region. They lived in apartment communities where they worked their trades and contributed to the city's economic and cultural prowess. By 500, Teotihuacan had become the largest city in the world. Teotihuacan's economic pull impacted areas in northern Mexico as well. It was a city whose monumental architecture reflected a monumental new era in Mexican civilization, declining in political power about 650 B.C.E.—but lasting in cultural influence for the better part of a millennium, to around 950.

Maya architecture at Uxmal

Maya civilization

Contemporary with Teotihuacan's greatness was the greatness of the Maya civilization. The period between 250 C.E. and 650 C.E. was a time of intense flourishing of Maya civilized accomplishments. While the many Maya city-states never achieved political unity on the order of the central Mexican civilizations, they exerted a tremendous intellectual influence upon Mexico and Central America. The Maya built some of the most elaborate cities on the continent, and made innovations in mathematics, astronomy, and calendrics. The Mayans also evolved the only true written system native to the Americas, using pictographs and syllabic elements in the form of texts and codices unscripted on stone, pottery, wood, or highly perishable books made from bark paper.

Aztec/Mexica civilization

With the decline of the Toltec civilization came political fragmentation in the Valley of Mexico. Into this new political game of contenders for the Toltec throne stepped outsiders: The Mexica. They were also a proud desert people, one of seven groups who formerly called themselves "Azteca," in memory of Aztlán, but they changed their name after years of migrating. Since they were not from the Valley of Mexico, they were initially seen as crude and unrefined in the ways of Nahua civilization. Through cunning political maneuvers and ferocious fighting skills, they managed to become the rulers of Mexico as the head of the "Triple Alliance" (which included two other "Aztec" cities, Texcoco and Tlacopan).

Latecomers to Mexico's central plateau, the Mexica thought of themselves as heirs of the civilizations that had preceded them. For them, highly-civilized arts, sculpture, architecture, engraving, feather-mosiac work, and the invention of the calendar came because of the former inhabitants of Tula, the Toltecs.

The Mexica-Aztecs were the rulers of much of central Mexico by about 1400 (while Yaquis, Coras, and Apaches commanded sizable regions of northern desert), having subjugated most of the other regional states by the 1470s. At their peak, 300,000 Mexica presided over a wealthy tribute-empire comprising about 10 million people (almost half of Mexico's 24 million people). The modern name "Mexico" comes from their name.

Their capital, Tenochtitlan, is the site of modern-day Mexico City. At its peak, it was one of the largest cities in the world, with population estimates of 300,000. The market established there was the largest ever seen by the conquistadors, when they arrived.

South America

By the first millennium after migration, South America’s vast rainforests, mountains, plains, and coasts were the home of tens of millions of people. Some groups formed permanent settlements. Among those groups were the Chibchas (or "Muiscas" or "Muyscas") and the Tairona. The Chibchas of Colombia, the Quechuas of Peru, and the Aymaras of Bolivia were the three most important sedentary Indian groups in South America. In the last two thousand years, there may have been contact with Polynesians across the South Pacific Ocean, as shown by the spread of the sweet potato through some areas of the Pacific, but there is no genetic legacy of human contact.


The Cañaris were the indigenous natives of today's Ecuadorian provinces of Cañar and Azuay. They were an elaborate civilization with advanced architecture and religious belief. Most of their remains were burned, and destroyed by attacks from the Inca. Their old city was replaced twice; first, by the Incan city of Tomipamba, and later by the Colonial city of Cuenca. The city was also believed to be the site of El Dorado, the city of gold from the mythology of Colombia. The Cañaris, notably, repelled the Incan invasion with fierce resistance for many years until they fell to Tupac Yupanqui. Many of their descendants are still present in Cañar, with the majority not having mixed, and reserved from becoming Mestizos.


The Chavín, a South American preliterate civilization, established a trade network and developed agriculture by 900 B.C.E., according to some estimates and archaeological finds. Artifacts were found at a site called Chavín, in modern Peru, at an elevation of 3,177 meters. The Chavín civilization spanned from 900 to 300 B.C.E.


The Chibcha linguistic communities were the most numerous, the most territorially extended and the most socio-economically developed of the pre-Hispanic Colombians. By the third century, the Chibchas had established their civilization in the northern Andes. At one point, the Chibchas occupied part of what is now Panama, and the high plains of the Eastern Sierra of Colombia. The areas that they occupied were the Departments of Santander (North and South), Boyacá, and Cundinamarca, which were also the areas where the first farms and first industries were developed, and where the independence movement originated. They are currently the richest areas in Colombia. They represented the most populous zone between the Mexican and Inca empires. Next to the Quechua of Peru and the Aymara in Bolivia, the Chibchas of the eastern and north-eastern Highlands of Colombia were the most striking of the sedentary indigenous peoples in South America. In the Oriental Andes, the Chibchas were composed of several tribes who spoke the same language (Chibchan). Among them: Muiscas, Guanes, Laches, and Chitareros.


Holding their capital at the great cougar-shaped city of Cusco, the Inca civilization dominated the Andes region from 1438 to 1533. Known as Tawantin suyu, or "the land of the four regions," in Quechua, the Inca civilization was highly distinct and developed. Inca rule extended to nearly a hundred linguistic or ethnic communities, some 9 to 14 million people connected by a 25,000 kilometer road system. Cities were built with precise, unmatched stonework, constructed over many levels of mountain terrain. Terrace farming was a useful form of agriculture. There is evidence of excellent metalwork and even successful brain surgery in Inca civilization.


The Caral Supe valley was the site of the first known urban center in the Americas, which acted as the hub for a series of settlements extending to the Peruvian coast. Caral is thought to have been occupied between 3000 B.C.E. and 1600 B.C.E.

Norte Chico

On the northern coast of present-day Peru, Norte Chico was a cluster of large-scale urban settlements which emerged around 3000 B.C.E., contemporary with urbanism's rise in Mesopotamia.


The Moche thrived on the north coast of Peru 1,500–2,000 years ago. The heritage of the Moche comes down through their elaborate burials, recently excavated by UCLA's Christopher Donnan in association with the National Geographic Society.

As skilled artisans, the Moche were a technologically advanced society, who traded with faraway peoples, like the Maya. Almost everything we know about the Moche comes from their ceramic pottery with carvings of their daily lives. Archaeologists know from these records that they practiced human sacrifice and had blood-drinking rituals.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Mair, Victor H. Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World: Perspectives on the Global Past. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006. ISBN 9780824828844
  • Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. New York: Knopf, 2005. ISBN 9781400040063
  • Wright, Ronald. Stolen Continents: 500 Years of Conquest and Resistance in the Americas. Mariner Books, 2005. ISBN 9780618492404

External links

All links retrieved November 30, 2022.


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