In 1491, two great civilizations ruled large parts of the New World: the Incas in the Andes Mountains of Peru and the Mexica, or the Triple Alliance, in Mesoamerica, a region running from Central Mexico south to Honduras. These cultures both had strong leaders driven to expand their empires, had swiftly conquered neighboring lands, and had built large, beautiful capitals to reflect their power and grandeur.
But as dominant as the Incas and the Mexica were in 1491, they had only become pre-eminent in the century before Columbus. They were the latest in a 4000-year long line of cultures that arose, reached their peaks, and declined or disappeared as a result of conquest, changes in climate and weather conditions, destruction of their environments, or internal divisions. From Norte Chico, the first urban complex in the Americas, begun around 3000 BC, to the Olmecs (1200 - 200 BC) who created the first cities in North America and the Zapotec (600 BC - 800 AD) who developed writing around 600 BC , a number of civilizations were long gone by the time the Spanish landed. In their wake, these societies left tantalizing clues to their lifestyles and belief systems: great pyramids, enormous earthen mounds, and ruins of sophisticated aqueducts and ritual centers that would not be discovered or begin to be scientifically analyzed until the 20th century.
The Heartland of Invention
Since 1800 BC, Mesoamerica was the homeland of a series of developing cultures responsible for significant advances in agriculture, architecture, and communications. The Olmecs, Zapotecs, Toltecs, and Teotihuacan were just a few of the civilizations that flourished there as people abandoned pure hunter/gatherer lifestyles and began to live communally in villages and cities. They created pottery, artwork, and spiritual belief sets; developed intricate political and religious structures; established markets and trade; and domesticated plants and cultivated crops. They also invented writing, one of only two indisputable times in human history that writing was invented independently. In fact, the people of Mesoamerica created many systems of pictorial writing and at least two full writing systems.
In the Valley of Mexico, Teotihaucan was the first great Central American civilization. Here, the people built a vast city, the first true urban civilization in the region, and constructed huge pyramids rivaling those of Egypt and Babylonia. The great pyramid of the sun built in 200 - 300 AD is the third largest pyramid in the world. Their trading empire extended throughout Central America.
Later came the Mayas, the New World's most advanced pre-Columbian culture, renowned for their calendars, writing system, mathematics, astrology, and enormous temples and buildings. At their peak (200 - 900 AD), their cities, filled with temples, ball courts, and artwork, and home to hundreds of thousands of people, dotted the Yucatan peninsula. Their city Kaan (also called Calakmal), with a downtown area of 6,000 masonry structures laced together with canals and reservoirs, housed as many as 50,000 people, with up to 575,000 living in the surrounding areas. At one time, between 3 and 14 million Maya lived in the Central Peten region, now in Guatemala, but by the time the Spanish arrived, the Mayan world was well past its peak with fewer than 30,000 left in that area.
In the 14th century, the Mexica settled near Lake Texcoco, in the Valley of Mexico. On the lake's fertile shores, the Mexica allied with two other groups to form the Triple Alliance, which grew in strength as they conquered neighboring tribes to acquire needed resources. This brilliant culture, skilled in the arts, engineering, textiles, and poetry, also performed human sacrifice on a huge scale to provide life-force to their gods. The victims were most often their unfortunate prisoners-of-war.
By the time Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés reached the region in 1519, the Triple Alliance was Mesoamerica's greatest civilization, with an empire numbering more than 4 million people. When Cortés' army rode into the capital city of Tenochititlan, they entered a city with more than 300,000 inhabitants, making it far larger than Europe's biggest city, Paris. The Spaniards were astonished. The Mexica had built their city on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco and constructed three large causeways linking it to the mainland. With its clean, wide streets, markets, canals filled with boats, aqueducts bringing water from the distant mountains, ornately carved buildings, immense temples, and botanical gardens (there were none at the time in Europe), they thought the city was even more beautiful than Venice.
Yet, in less than two years, Cortés was able to capture the great Mexica leader Montezuma II and conquer Tenochititlan. True, Cortés had access to guns, horses, and steel swords. But his stunning victory was largely due to his alliance with Native American tribes who despised the Mexica and provided thousands of fighters, a smallpox epidemic that swept through Tenochititlan in September 1520, and his own good luck. With the fall of the Mexica and the death of their last emperor, Cuahtemoc, the Spanish destroyed Tenochititlan and rebuilt a new capitol, Mexico City, in its place. For the next 300 years, Spain would rule Mexico.
Mesas to the Mississippi
The Southwest region of the United States was once home to a number of tribes including the Anasazi, who had constructed stone buildings by about 1100 AD that would remain North America's tallest structures until steel girder buildings were erected in Chicago in the 1880s. For 600 years, the Anasazi thrived in the Chaco Canyon area, in what is now New Mexico. Their dense population managed to survive by figuring out how to irrigate and grow crops in a forbidding desert environment. Like many other southwestern cultures, the Anasazi ultimately declined when their population grew larger than their environment could support. Subsequent tribes that settled in this region, including those living there in 1491, survived by farming and living in smaller groups.
To the east, Cahokia, the greatest city and the only city at the time north of the Rio Grande River, reached its apex between 950 and 1250 AD. Located across the Mississippi River from present day St. Louis, Cahokia housed at least 15,000 people, making it comparable in size at the time to London. Cahokia's people lived around a ceremonial center featuring an enormous public plaza and a four-story earthen mound larger than the Great Pyramid at Giza. In time, the city was torn apart by floods, mudslides, and a massive earthquake that unsettled the population and led to civil war. By 1350, when Cahokia was mostly abandoned, the largest indigenous community that ever lived north of Mexico was irreparably fractured.
The Greatest Empire on Earth
Complex societies began to form in South America around 3200 BC when people began living in more than two dozen large communities in the Norte Chico region, located more than 100 miles north of modern-day Lima, Peru. In the city of Caral, people built the first large platform mounds (or pyramids), ceremonial plazas, and residential structures found in the Americas, to date. That Caral housed about 3000 people at one time during its peak from 2627 to 2020 BC puts the date of early urban civilizations in the New World on par with the Old World.
A series of other peoples including the Nazca (300 BC - 600 AD), the Moche (0 - 600 AD), and the Chimu (1000 - 1470 AD) later arose along the Pacific coastal areas, while the Huari (500 - 900 AD) and Tiahuanaco (500 - 650 AD) lived in the highlands. But the greatest empire assembled in South America belonged to the Incas, one that they conquered with startling speed between 1438 and 1527 AD.
When Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1532, the Incas ruled the largest empire in the world. Without the wheel, metal tools, or a written language, they were able to construct terraces, canals, and stone cities rivaling those built by the Romans. In their capital, Cuzco, they built a monumental plaza ringed on three sides by temples and villas constructed of stone and plated in sheets of polished gold—most fitting for the place they considered the center of the universe.
The Incan empire's downfall came about even more quickly than their rise. Weakened by smallpox, which reached them before the Spanish had entered their territory, the Incas were woefully ill-equipped to battle Pizarro's small force of 168 men and 60 horses. Pizarro was able to exploit lessons learned from Hernán Cortés' battle against the Mexica and the divisions and rivalries among Incan leaders. With the help of his guns, horses, and steel swords, which indigenous Americans had never seen, Pizarro quickly captured, ransomed, and eventually executed Incan leader Atahuallpa.
The Spanish victory over the Triple Alliance and the Incas and the natural decline of the great Mayan civilization was not the end of these cultures. Today, millions of their descendants live in Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, and other parts of Central America where they still speak the languages of the Incas and the Mayas and maintain their traditional beliefs, clothing, food, and music.