What was civilization like in America before the Europeans arrived?

The advanced civilizations of pre-Columbian(1) America were not as old as the ancient cultures of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Homo erectus [humans who walked upright and could use basic tools] first lived in Africa as early as 1.8 million years ago. The earliest records we have of the homo erectus in North America are only 18,000 years old. However, some historians think the complexity of native American languages indicates Homo erectus were walking the continents as early as 50,000 years ago.

By the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the Indians, as he called them, had accomplished remarkable architectural, technological, and artistic advances with rich and complex mythological and religious traditions.

The Mayans

Maya is a term that refers to a collection of cultures. Their civilization lasted more than 2,000 years. Excavators have uncovered ruins from 1800 BCE. At its peak, the population was near two million. Their empire extended from southern Mexico to northern Central America and included the Yucatán peninsula and parts of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. During the 600 years between 300 and 900 CE, known as their Classic Period, they achieved high technological advances in agriculture, astronomy, engineering, and communications.

The Mayans communicated with one of the world’s first written languages. They measured time using two complicated calendar systems: the Calendar Round and the Long Count. The Long Count was developed in about 236 BCE. Besides solar eclipses, they could predict astrological cycles that aided in planting and harvesting their crops.

This mid-American culture vulcanized(2) rubber to make it more durable three thousand years before the industrialist Charles Goodyear received the patent to do the same in 1843. Mayan rubber was used to make glue, binding for books, figurines, water-resistant cloth, and large rubber balls for a ritualistic game called pokatok.

The Mayans built remarkable pyramids without the use of the wheel, metal, or modern day cranes. They developed an arch that allowed for multi-story and clear span structures. They devised complicated looms to weave cloth using glittery yarns intertwined with the mineral mica. They fashioned chisels, axes, hoes, adzes, and gouges out of a specialized jade, or jadeite, that was harder than iron. Their highly developed water management methodologies allowed them to survive in a seasonal desert. They formulated a recipe for hydraulic concrete and built elevated roads with it.

However, by 900 CE, the Mayan civilization had declined, and its abandoned cities were buried under rain forest. Scientists and archaeologists are still trying to figure out why. Perhaps the Mayans drained their natural resources. Perhaps they suffered from internal fighting.

It is commonly believed that European contact first occurred when Spanish survivors from a shipwreck landed on the shores of the Yucatán peninsula in 1511. By then, the Mayans lived in small villages. Even so, the Spanish did not succeed in conquering them until after the culture was further weakened by internal disputes and European diseases. Spain took possession of the Mayan capital at Chichen Itza in 1570.

The Aztecs

One of the more sophisticated American cultures was that of the Aztecs. They dominated Central America from the 14th to 16th centuries. Like the term Maya, Aztec refers to a mixture of Mesoamerican [middle American] tribes and people, not just one culture. In 1325, they began building their capital at Tenochtitlán on raised islets in Lake Texcoco – where Mexico City sits today. The empire had only just reached its height, between 1486 and 1502, when, in 1519, the Spanish conquistadors arrived led by Hernando Cortez.(3)

Aztec technology included sophisticated mathematics, a highly specialized calendar, the canoe [which could travel thousands of miles on the open ocean], and helpful forms of medicine that employed over 180 trees and plants to treat ailments. They had no iron or bronze. They had copper, which was not as strong, but they valued it more than gold. Drills were made from bones. Axes were formed out of copper and the hard, black, volcanic stone, obsidian. A tool called an atlatl made it easier to throw a spear and aided in fishing. Besides bows and arrows, Aztecs created a weapon called a macuahuitl – a club in which were embedded chards of sharp obsidian, like pieces of glass. The macuahuitl could disable a victim without killing him or it.

The Aztec’s written and spoken language, Nahuatl, is still used by over a million people in parts of Mexico today. You might recognize some of their words: coyote, avocado, chili, and chocolate. At the time the Spanish arrived, only priests knew how to read and write. Records were kept on animal skins and plant fibers similar to the parchment and papyrus used in Europe.

To support a growing population in the swampy area of their capital, Tenochtitlán, the crafty Aztecs built floating gardens called chinampas. Areas about 98 feet by 8.25 feet(4) were staked out in the lake. The stakes were joined by poles intertwined with reeds, twigs, and branches. Heaps of mud and decaying plant matter raised the garden above the water. Willow trees – that were kept trimmed, so as not to block out the sun – lined the borders to help anchor the garden to the lake. The utilization of human waste to fertilize the plants helped keep the city clean.

Education was compulsory for both boys and girls. The girls learned domestic skills, while boys learned their fathers’ trades. From ages twelve to fifteen, both sexes went to school during the day to learn ceremonial songs and the history of their people. At fifteen, boys left home to live at their schools, where, until they were twenty, they learned such things as architecture, mathematics, painting, and history. As part of their warrior training, young men were exposed to extreme temperatures. This helped them develop a heart of stone, known as yolteotl.

The Aztecs learned a game from the Mayans called ollama that was a precursor to soccer. They played it on a field called a tlachtli. A small rubber ball that represented the sun, moon, or stars, was knocked through rings by the players’ hips, knees, or elbows. Often for the half-time show, they presented a human sacrifice ceremony.

Almost as valuable to the Spanish as gold was a bug the Aztecs’ used to make a bright red fabric die. The tiny cochineal beetle lived on prickly pear cacti. It took 70,000 insects to produce a pound of dye. The Spanish immediately sent samples of the dye to Spain, trying to keep their source of the pigment a secret. Sales of the dye remained a staple for Spain’s economy for 300 years. It colored the robes of Catholic cardinals. It was so expensive that the British Army used it only for the red coats of its officers; lesser ranks wore coats dyed with a paler tint known as madder red [because fumes from the dye made textile workers go mad].

Between 1520 and 1521, smallpox, brought to Mexico by the Spanish from as early as 1519, swept through the Indian population, killing from 10 to 50 percent of them. To make their suffering worse, in 1521, the Spanish lay siege and then destroyed Tenochtitlán. The Valley of Mexico would suffer additional epidemics of smallpox and typhus years later. Some historians estimate that the population declined by as much as 80 percent within the first sixty years of Spanish occupation.

The Incas

The Incas in Peru were the largest empire at the time the Spanish arrived. The civilization arose some time in the early 13th century, 300 years earlier. They controlled modern day Peru and Bolivia, as well as most of Ecuador and Columbia, and a large portion of Chile.

Inca technology was as broad as that of their neighbors, the Aztecs. They used a communication device called the quipus [or khipus] that employed a system of colored strings and intricate knots. The strings were woven from llama and alpaca wool, or from cotton. On this device they could tell stories as well as calculate mathematical formulas using a decimal system. Incan runners carried the messages from one end of the empire to the other. Only a few people, probably the priests, could read and write using the quipus. Today’s linguists are still trying to unraveled the code for reading the ancient devices.

The Inca’s nearly earthquake-proof stone masonry skills have never been beaten. The walls of buildings were slightly inclined inward and the stones had rounded corners. Small earthquakes barely disturbed them. During large earthquakes, the stones “danced” in place and then fell back into their original position. The blocks, like a jigsaw puzzle, were held together without mortar. Some have so little space between the stones that a person today can not insert the thinnest of blades, not even a sewing needle.

To maximize the limited space on the sheer hillsides of the Andes Mountains around them, the Incas cut out terraces that climbed the cliffs like steps. The flat part of the step provided space for farm fields. The terrace walls helped control the erosion and landslides so common in the area.

The Inca’s elaborate road system amazed the Spanish. The highways linking the empire from north to south, known as the Capac-Nan, were reserved for government officials. Smaller roads connected the larger network from east to west. The pathways cut through deep valleys and crested the highest mountains. They skirted turbulent rivers and sliced through rock. Everywhere, they were kept clean and provided lodging, storage, and temples dedicated to the sun.

Experts at weaving natural fibers, the Incas spanned the mountain chasms with rope suspension bridges that conveyed both man and beast. Like the strings of the quipus, the ropes were woven of llama and alpaca wool as well as cotton and grass. Stone structures anchored the bridges at both sides of the chasm. Two ropes were suspended to serve as handrails, and two more created the sides of the floor, which was then crossed with wooden stick slats. Some bridges were as long as 150 feet. But the materials wore out quickly. All of them had to be replaced every year by the local residents.

Another invention of the Incas is what we would today call freeze-drying. Many of their people lived in the altiplano [high planes] of the Andes, 8000 to 10,000 feet above sea level, where the weather often reached the freezing point. Taking advantage of their natural refrigerator, the Indians placed potatoes under a cloth and let them freeze over night. In the morning, the Incas walked on the cloth over the potatoes, squeezing the moisture from the potato into the cloth. The repeated process created a lightweight, durable, dried potato pancake they called chuño. Chuño lasted for years, even in warm weather. It allowed the Incas to survive through cold winters or years of crop failure. It was light enough for soldiers to take with them on the war path.

The Spanish conquistadors, led by Francisco Pizarro and his brothers, reached Inca territory by 1526. When Pizarro returned in 1532, with instructions from King Charles V of Spain to take possession, the Incas were involved in a war between two brother rulers. Their people had already been infected with the smallpox spreading from Central America.

Pizarro began his crusade with 168 Spanish soldiers, one cannon, twenty-seven horses, and the support of tens of thousands of native neighbors who sought to end Incan domination. It was enough to start the campaign, but the Spanish would not take the last Incan stronghold until 1572, forty-six years later. Smallpox, typhus, influenza, diphtheria, and measles would claim from 60 to 94 percent of their population.

Next Article: The North American Native before Columbus


  1. Before the arrival of Columbus.
  2. Combined rubber with other materials to make it more durable.
  3. His formal name was Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, First Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca.
  4. Measurements from Wikipedia article “Chinapas”