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Mattie Moon


by Melinda Beck

The Tikal temple in the jungles of GuatemalaIn his explorations of the New World, Columbus found only primitive inhabitants-"a very poor people ... without weapons or laws." He didn't go far enough. In Mexico there were towering temples and a teeming city as big as any in Europe. 
Peru stretched the vast Incan empire, resplendent in silver and gold. In the Guatemalan jungles-and in the great plains of America-lay the ruins of other civilizations that had thrived centuries before.

These ancient cultures lacked many inventions crucial in the Old World. There were no iron and steel tools, no beasts of burden, no keystone arches or domes. Still, indigenous Americans constructed huge buildings, devised accurate calendars and speculated about the solar system. They also practiced some of the bloodiest religions the world has known. Many societies had vanished for mysterious reasons long before the Europeans landed. Those that still flourished soon fell prey to the conquerors. Here is a brief look at some of the lost worlds of ancient America.


By the time Europeans reached North America, it was inhabited by perhaps 2 million people grouped into hundreds of small tribes. They represented vastly different cultures and traditions, ingeniously adapted to their environments. The Haidas, Kwakiutls and Tlingits of the Pacific Northwest built elaborate dwellings and giant canoes from felled evergreens. Far to the north, the Inuit thrived in their universe of ice. In the cliffs and mesas of the Southwest, the Anasazi constructed multistoried apartments of sandstone and mortar, beginning about A.D. 700. There were at least 800 rooms and ceremonial kivas in Pueblo Bonito, part of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. By A.D. 1300, the cliff dwellers had been driven out, probably by drought. But their descendants still live nearby: they are the Pueblo.

Mound Builders.

omething in man's nature compels him to erect monuments to the unknown, even when food is scarce and survival uncertain. So it was with the ancients who built Poverty Point 3,000 years ago in Louisiana. The concentric earthen ridges spanning a square mile form a New World Stonehenge: stand at a particular spot during the spring and fall equinoxes and one can see the sun rise directly over the central plaza. Before the Europeans arrived, other native Americans built immense mounds of earth as temples and burial places. Thousands of such earthworks dot the landscape from Florida to Wisconsin; some were as high as 10 stories; others were hundreds of feet long and shaped like birds, serpents and humans. Until the 1890s archeologists refused to believe the "savage hordes" were capable of such undertakings. Some scholars thought they were built by stray Vikings, even a lost tribe of Israel. But they were indeed the work of people Who settled beside them to form North America's earliest communities. By the 13th century, Cahokia, across the river from St. Louis, supported a population of 10,000. The six-square-mile boasted 100 mounds; the largest was broader at its base than the Great Pyramid of Egypt.


To place them in a Western context, the Maya and the Aztecs were the Greeks and the Romans of the New World, empire builders surrounded by other remarkable, if less powerful, cultures. They inhabited what archeologists call Mesoamerica, which stretches from north of Mexico down through Nicaragua. At its zenith, it was home to 25 million people who, despite local differences, shared a common cultural tradition that first flourished with the Olmec.


Sometimes called the mother culture of Mesoamerica, the Olmec arose along Mexico's Gulf Coast about 1500 B.C. (150 years before Tutankhamen in Egypt) and spread throughout the region. They devised a crude writing system and erected elaborate ceremonial centers. But it is the basalt heads for which they are still famous-colossal, multi-stone carvings of their 
Rulers’ faces, terrifying and enigmatic. The Olmec were also fond of a ball game similar to soccer, played on a specially made court by teams in protective gear. In post-game ceremonies, the losers were sometimes decapitated.


The first city -states emerged in central Mexico about 500 B.C. The grandest was Teotihuacan, covering eight square miles, larger than imperial Rome. It was organized into neighborhoods and contained the workshops of more than 500 potters, weavers and sculptors. Home to more than 200,000 people in A.D. 600, Teotihuacan was burned, looted and abandoned 150 years later.


Dozens of great temple-crowned pyramids rising above the jungle, from Tikal in Guatemala to Chichan Itzi in the Yucatan, stand as chilling evidence of this formidable culture, which dominated Mesoamerica during the first millennium A.D. The Classic Period collapsed about A.D. 900, probably from overcrowding and internecine warfare. Master astronomers, the Maya devised precise calendars, and their numerical system used the concept of zero- 1,000 years before the Europeans adopted it from the Orient. They also developed the only true writing system in ancient America, a complex system of hieroglyphs which they used to record their history in bark-paper books and on tombs and buildings. Recent breakthroughs in deciphering the glyphs have revealed some startling Mayan traits: they were intensely war- like, and their rulers practiced self-mutilation-kings pierced their penises with stingray spines and queens ran barbed ropes through their tongues.


Initially a small band of mercenaries, the Aztecs emerged as the most powerful people in Mesoamerica in the 14th century, exacting tribute from hundreds of surrounding towns. To appease their gods, Aztec priests tore hearts still beating from the chests of living victims. According to legend, more than 5,000 people were sacrificed to celebrate the coronation of Montezuma II in 1502. The Aztec capital , Tenochtitlan (on the site of modern Mexico ), was several times larger than London when Hernan Cortes arrived in 1519. The Spaniards were dazzled by its glimmering spires, raised gardens and canals rivaling those of Venice. The Aztec: leader at first welcomed Cortes, believing he was the god Quetzalcoatl, prophesied to return in that year. But Cortes soon imprisoned Montezuma. Aided by enemy tribes and a smallpox epidemic, the Spaniards destroyed the Aztec empire in two years.


As states took shape in Mesoamerica, a similar development occurred in the Andean region of Peru, notably with the Moche on the north coast and the Nazca to the south.


The vast geometric lines running for miles across the Peruvian desert have long been a subject of speculation. One pulp writer even suggested they were runways for UFOs. But scholars trace them to the Nazca, who lived there from 200 B.C. to A.D. 600. Some lines relate to the summer and winter solstices and may have marked dates for planting. Others, in the images of animals and humans, may have been shaped for the eyes of sky-dwelling gods. Similar figures appear in the still highly prized Nazca ceramics and metalwork.


Arising at the dawn of the Christian era, the Moche never developed a writing system, but they left rich records of their lives on astoundingly realistic pottery, depicting battle scenes, afflictions like leprosy and pre-Columbian sex (which appears to have been strikingly similar to post-Colombian sex). Mochican artisans never had time to record whatever calamity befell them; their artifacts disappear from the archeological record about A.D. 750.


Headquartered high in the Andes, the Incan empire was larger than Ming China or the Ottoman Empire, extending from Ecuador to Chile, in the 15th century. The of Machu Picchu, 7,000 feet above sea level, contained more than 100 acres of temples, plazas, barracks and homes; suspension bridges of braided-fiber cable spanned great gorges along the empire's superb highway system. The Inca had abundant silver and gold, which lured Francisco Pizarro in 1532. Weakened by smallpox and civil war, the Inca were easy prey for the conquistadors, who hauled off storehouses of treasure. Legend has it that the Inca buried still more gold to hide from the Spanish. But none has ever been found.

  • An Aztec idol

    The eagle was the emblem of the Aztec war god

  • A mask of a human face

    Mosaic mask from Teotihuacan

  • A sculpture of a baby

    Olmec baby

  • A copper mask

    A Nasca mouth mask

  • A woman holds up a knotted rope

    The Inca kept records on knotted strings called "quipu"

  • Three golden idols

    The Inca were renowned for their gold artifacts

  • A timeline of the dates different tribes existed in the Americas between 1500 BC and 1500 AD

    The Moche told their story through realistic pottery (left) Figurines were often buried with the Mayan elite (right)

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