Bruce Morrison » People and Empires in the Americas, 500–1500

People and Empires in the Americas, 500–1500

Societies in the Americas range from small tribal bands to the vast empires of the Maya, the Aztecs, and the Inca.


Section 1: North American Societies

Section 2: Maya Kings and Cities

Section 3: The Aztecs Control Central Mexico

Section 4: The Inca Create a Mountain Empire


Section 1: North American Societies

Complex North American societies are linked to each other through culture and economics.


Complex Societies in the West


Regional Differences

  • North American cultures less complex than other American cultures


Cultures of Abundance

  • Pacific Northwest—from Oregon to Alaska—rich in resources
  • People rely on both sea and land resources for food
  • Plentiful resources lead to society with differences in wealth
  • In potlatch ceremony, wealthy people give gifts to demonstrate status


Accomplished Builders

  • Desert Southwestis harsher environment than that of Pacific Coast
  • Hohokamof central Arizona use irrigation to grow corn, beans, squash
  • Use of pottery shows contact with Mesoamerica
  • Anasazi,to the north, build pueblos—villages of stone, adobe, clay
  • Pueblos abandoned around 1200; descendents of Anasazi—Pueblo peoples
  • HopiandZuni continue Anasazi customs; create trade goods


Mound Builders and Other Woodland Cultures


The Mound Builders

  • Peoples who live east of Mississippi River in woodland areas
  • Adena and Hopewell peoples build mounds for burials, ceremonies
  • Mississippian—lastMound Builder culture, from 800 to 1500s
  • Cahokia, leading city, has as many as 30,000 people


Northeastern Tribes Build Alliances

  • Iroquois—five allied tribes of eastern Great Lakes
  • Goals of Iroquois League: joint defense and cooperation


Cultural Connections


Trading Networks Tie Tribes Together

  • Mississippian trade network: Rockies to Atlantic, Great Lakes to Gulf




Religion Shapes Views of Life

  • Most Native Americans believe in many sacred spirits
  • Beliefs also include respect for land as source of life


Shared Social Patterns

  • Family is basis for social organization; some organize into clans
  • Totems—natural object that person, family, or clan identifies with
  • Totem is symbol of unity of family, clan, or group


Section 2: Maya Kings and Cities

The Maya develop a highly complex civilization based on city-states elaborate religious practices.


Maya Create City-States


The Land of the Maya

  • Mayalive in southern Mexico and northern Central America
  • Land, vegetation of this region varies
  • Maya culture influenced by Olmec civilization


Urban Centers

  • In Classic Period (250 to 900) Maya build spectacular cities
  • Cities, likeTikal, have pyramids, temples, palaces, stone carvings
  • Each has a court where ritual ball game is played


Agriculture and Trade Support Cities

  • Cities linked by alliances, trade
  • Farmingmaize, beans, squashis foundation of Maya life
  • Maya use different farming techniques


Kingdoms Built on Dynasties

  • Farming success leads to rise of social classes
  • King is leader, holy figure; priests, warriors at top of social class
  • Middlle class: merchants, artisans; bottom: peasants


Religion Shapes Maya Life


The Importance of Religion

  • Maya believe in many gods, who could be good, evil, or both
  • Each day is a god whose behavior could be predicted with calendars


Religious Practices

  • Many ways of worshiping: prayer, offerings, giving blood
  • Maya also make human sacrifices to please gods and balance world


Math and Religion

  • Religion leads to advances in calendar, math, astronomy
  • Maya use two calendars: one religious (260 days), one solar (365 days)
  • Use calendars to find best days for life activities



Written Language Preserves History

  • Writing system has 800glyphs—symbols
  • Use writing to record history in acodex—bark-paper book
  • Popul Vuh—famous codex that contains Maya story of creation


Mysterious Maya Decline


The End of the Maya

  • In late 800s, Maya abandon cities; cause for abandonment unknown
  • Signs of social problems:

-In 700s, fighting among many Maya city-states

-Population growth, over-farming might have hurt environment

-By 1500s, Maya live in small, weak city-states


Section 3: The Aztecs Control Central Mexico

Through alliances and conquest, the Aztecs create a powerful empire in Mexico.


The Valley of Mexico



  • Mountain basin 7,500 feet above sea level, large lakes, fertile soil
  • Teotihuacán and Toltec settle in valley, develop civilizations


An Early City-State

  • Teotihuacáncity-state rises in first century A.D.
  • At peak, in 500s, city has up to 200,000 people
  • Serves as center of trade, especially ofobsidian—volcanic glass
  • City quickly declines; by 750 is abandoned


Toltecs Take Over

  • About 900,Toltecsrise to power; rule for about 300 years
  • A warlike people, they rule by conquest
  • They worship fierce war god and offer human sacrifices
  • Toltec ruler Topiltzin tries to change religion, end human sacrifice
  • Encourages worship ofQuetzalcoatl—“Feathered Serpent”—a new god
  • He is exiled toYucatán Peninsula; by early 1200s, Toltec rule ends


The Aztec Empire


Arrival of the Aztecs

  • Aztecs (or Mexica) arrive around 1200, begin working as soldiers
  • By own legend, a god leads them to found city ofTenochtitlán


Aztecs Grow Stronger

  • Triple Alliance—1428 agreement of Aztec and two other city-states
  • By early 1500s, Aztecs have large empire and rule 5–15 million people
  • Power comes from tribute resulting from conquests


Nobles Rule Aztec Society

  • Noble class—military leaders, officials, priests—rules Aztec society
  • Nobles own vast estates, live life of wealth and luxury
  • Commoners: merchants, artisans, soldiers, farmers
  • Lowest class: enslaved people
  • Emperor’s power is absolute, lives in palace, is revered


Tenochtitlán: A Planned City


Extraordinary Urban Center

  • Causeways connect island city to mainland areas
  • Canals enable people to carry goods to city and its huge main market
  • Chinampas, floating islands, used to grow crops
  • Central area has palaces, temples, government buildings


Religion Rules Aztec Life


Many Gods

  • Religion includes 1,000 gods, many adopted from other peoples


Religious Practices

  • Center of religion is public ceremonies to win gods’ favor
  • Many religious festivals throughout year


Sacrifices for the Sun God

  • Most important rituals are for sun god, Huitzilopochtli
  • He needs human sacrifices to be strong
  • Aztecs engage in war to provide captives for these sacrifices


Problems in the Aztec Empire


A New Ruler

  • In 1502,Montezuma IIbecomes emperor; he calls for more tribute
  • These sacrifices lead to revolt in outlying areas
  • Emperor tries to make life easier, but Aztecs worry about future


Section 4: The Inca Create a Mountain Empire

The Inca build a vast empire supported by taxes, governed by a bureaucracy, and linked by extensive road systems.


The Inca Build an Empire


Incan Beginnings

  • Incalive first in high plateau of Andes Mountains
  • By 1200s, they have a kingdom inValley of Cuzco
  • Inca believe that their ruler is descended from sun god, Inti


Pachacuti Builds an Empire

  • Pachacuti, a powerful and ambitious emperor, takes control in 1438
  • Under Pachacuti, Inca conquer lands holding 16 million people
  • Inca use diplomacy and military force to achieve conquests


Incan Government Creates Unity


Organized Rule

  • Inca divide conquered lands into smaller units to govern easily
  • Make Quechua official language of entire empire


Incan Cities Show Government Presence

  • Inca build cities with same architecture for government buildings
  • Capital is Cuzco, which has temples, plazas, palaces
  • Inca are very skilled builders


Incan Government

  • Inca government controls economy and society
  • Useayllu—extended family group—to control how people live, work
  • Divides society into groups of 10; 100; 1,000; 10,000
  • Chain of command stretches from central government to smallest unit
  • Demandsmita—requirement that people work for state
  • Cares for the aged and disabled


Public Works Projects

  • Government creates public works, including 14,000-mile road network
  • Runners carry messages along the roads to different places


Government Record-Keeping

  • Inca do not develop system of writing
  • Usequipu—set of knotted strings—as accounting device
  • Might also have had elaborate two-calendar system


Religion Supports the State


Inca Gods

  • Inca have fewer gods than Aztecs
  • Creator god and sun god are most important


Religious Practices

  • Priests draft young women to assist in ceremonies
  • Some young men also become specialized religious workers


Great Cities

  • Cuzco has magnificent Temple of the Sun decorated in gold
  • Other cities might have had religious importance as well


Discord in the Empire


Problems Arise

  • In early 1500s, Inca Empire reaches its height under Huayna Capac
  • Capac dies, perhaps of smallpox, while touring newly conquered Ecuador
  • In 1520s, his sons Atahualpa and Huascar split empire
  • Atahualpa wants control of whole empire and begins civil war
  • This war weakens Inca state just before Spanish arrive