Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Lesson 4: The First American Empires – The Mexica and Incan Empires

Expand All


Long before the Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, sophisticated empires thrived in the Americas. The devastation wrought by Old World diseases and policies caused civilizations to collapse and populations to dramatically decline. However, the legacy left behind by these native civilizations helped to shape the culture of Latin America. This lesson asks students to act as Spanish historians who attempt to record the achievements, history, and fall of the Mexica and Inca Empires.

Main Tasks

  • Acting as an early Spanish historian who could communicate with Montezuma of the Aztecs or Atahualpa of the Incas, write a narrative from one of the emperors' perspectives about the greatness of his civilization and its quick fall to the Spanish.
  • Compare the accomplishments and the decline of both civilizations.


  1. Explain to the students that the Americas as the Spanish found them were not desolate or unpopulated. Great empires experienced significant political and financial success. If possible, show the Discover the great cultures of the New World video clip. Discuss why it is important to study and understand these empires today.
  2. Outline the required elements of the project, including:
    • A short history of the empire, including how it formed and how the emperor gained power.
    • A description of the main accomplishments of the empire.
    • An explanation as to why and how the empire fell to the Spanish.
    • Creative elements that show the fictional author had access to the deposed emperor of the empire being discussed.
  3. Assign individual students or small groups the Incas or Mexica.
  4. Provide time to for students to research and write their histories. Encourage students to break their history into several parts. A blog (e.g., Edublogs, or Blogger) could be used for each part or as if the Spanish author were recording his findings each day.
  5. After the projects are completed, hold a discussion about the accomplishments and contributions of the Inca and Mexica empires.


Video Clip
Discover the great cultures of the New World
Related Links:
Outside Resources
  • Inca
  • The Conquistadors from PBS (Incas and Aztecs/Mexica)

Optional Extension

Break the project into two parts.

  1. Have students complete the project as described above, but just giving the history of their assigned empires until the arrival of the Spanish.
  2. For the second part, have the students describe the fall of the empire from both the native and the Spanish perspectives. As the historian, the students should write about the main events using indigenous and Spanish sources

PDF File
Comments powered by Disqus
Support provided by:

For more classroom resources,
visit PBS Teachers.