History of the Early Americas

History of the Early Americas

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The history of the early Americas began with the arrival of ancestors of living Native Americans in North America at least 15,000 years ago, and probably much earlier. They came from Asia via the land strait that then spanned the Bering Strait. This migration gave rise to a vast array of societies and cultures. Starting with the arrival of Columbus in 1492, Europeans brought a host of new diseases. This resulted in a precipitous decline in indigenous populations from some 115 million at the time of contact to just several millions when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock 100 years later.

The Andean civilizations mainly developed in the river valleys along the coastal deserts of Peru. Despite a challenging environment, they domesticated a wide variety of crops, some of which migrated globally in the Columbian Exchange. The Inca were known for their engineering, architecture, quipu knot record-keeping, textiles, and the character of their societies. Arising in the city of Cuzco, the Inca absorbed many Andean cultures into a polyglot empire of diverse languages, cultures and peoples. But Spanish rule ended the civilizations of the Andean civilizations and their unique ways of life.

Mesoamerica ranges through southern North America and most of Central America. Here, pre-Columbian societies flourished for more than a thousand years before the first Spanish conquistadores arrived. The diseases they brought proved devastating to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Having no immunity, the pre-contact population of some 115 million was soon decimated. When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock just 100 years later, only a few million indigenous people remained throughout the Americas.

Mesoamerican civilizations raised a number of crops including cacao, corn, beans, tomatoes, avocados, vanilla, squash, and chilies, as well as the turkeys and dogs, as they formed sedentary agricultural communities. Agriculture and a complex mythological and religious tradition began in the Formative Period. Mesoamerican societies developed a numeric system based on the number 20, a complex calendar system, games using rubber balls, and a distinct monumental architectural. Villages became socially stratified chiefdoms, and large ceremonial centers were built. A network of trade routes exchanged luxury goods like obsidian, jade, cacao, cinnabar, shells, and ceramics.

The Olmec were one of the earliest Mesoamerican civilizations, which developed along the Gulf Coast of Mexico and inland across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Their frequent trade and cultural interchange with other cultures in Mexico and Guatemala laid the basis for cultural interchange. This was facilitated by well-developed communication networks, especially along the Pacific coast.

During this Formative Period their distinctive religious and symbolic traditions spread, as did a variety of artistic and architectural complexes. In the Pre-Classic period that followed, urban civilizations arose among the Maya at centers in Mexico and Guatemala. The first true Mesoamerican writing was developed, and reached its zenith in Classic Maya hieroglyphics. In fact, Mesoamerica is one of only three regions of the world, along with Sumer and China, where writing developed independently.

In Central Mexico, the city-state of Teotihuacan ascended at the height of the Classic period. It became a military and commercial empire whose influence stretched south into Mayan lands and northward into Mexico. Its collapse around 600 AD brought a power vacuum and strife among contending political centers in central Mexico. Central Mexico remained dominated by the Toltec and Mixtec civilizations. Later, the Aztec of Central Mexico built an empire that covered most of central Mesoamerica.

The distinct Mesoamerican cultural tradition ended with the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Over the next centuries, Mesoamerican civilizations were subjugated and absorbed into Spanish colonial rule. But some of the Mesoamerican cultural heritage still survives in its ancestral languages and traditions.

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Early Americas Index | Society: Origins | Power | Amerindians: Adena and HopewellInuit and AleutIroquoisMississippian CultureMogollan, Hohokam, Anasazi, and FremontNavajo, Apache, and Mandan | Inca: SocietyCultureReligionPower: Governance | Economy | Olmec: SocietyCulturePower | Toltec: Society | Maya: SocietyCulturePowerEconomy | Aztec: Society: ClassCommunities | Power

Early Americas

Early Americas: Index


Society: Origins


Amerindian Civilizations


Amerindians: Adena and Hopewell

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Amerindians: Aleut and Inuit

Amerindians: Iroquois

Amerindians: Mississippian Culture

Amerindians: Mogollan, Hohokam, Anasazi, and Fremont

Andean Civilizations


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Inca: Society

Inca: Culture

Inca: Religion

Inca: Power

Power: Governance

Inca: Economy

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Mesoamerican Civilizations

Olmec: Society

Olmec: Culture

Olmec: Power


Toltec: Society


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Maya: Society

Maya: Culture

Maya: Power

Maya: Economy


Aztec: Society

Society: Class

Society: Communities

Aztec: Power

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