The history of ancient cultures in America is known to a much lesser extent than the long-studied ancient civilizations of the East or Europe: Greece and Rome. From time to time, scientists announce that the cultures of America had not developed to the level of a civilization because they had no agricultural irrigation, metallurgical technologies, land and maritime communication means. There was no wheel and sail, as well as no developed scientific knowledge (Kuiper, 2010). However, the pre-Columbian civilizations are an amazing example of high achievements in the fields of technical and economic skills, arts, and social structure developed without the use of means familiar to the modern people. In the light of the ancient history study, the civilizations of ancient America are of particular interest to the researchers because they were at the same level of development with the outstanding civilizations of the Ancient East: Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. Therefore, pre-Columbian America is one of the most important stages and interesting examples of the world civilization development.
Indeed, ancient cultures of America differed by considerable originality since they had been evolving in another natural geographical environment. The main crop was maize, cultivation of which did not require significant labor. Hunger and malnutrition, which caused epidemics and mortality in the Old World, were overcome with the maize gum (Confer, 2008). The only large domestic animal that was known to the inhabitants of America was the lama, which could neither give milk nor be used for riding or transportation of goods. Therefore, there were no cavalry and corresponding privileged class in pre-Columbian America.
Speaking of the long-term dominance of the stone tools, war, and slow development of the metallurgy, it should be noted that the Andes and the Cordillera had unique deposits of metals in a molten state. These deposits did not require invention and creation of complex melting furnaces (Kuiper, 2010). In addition, limited cultural space and lack of the inland seas did not require further development of land and sea communications.
The first known American civilization was the Olmec. The Olmecs inhabited the area of the State of Tabasco in the territory of present-day Mexico. They had built settlements and practiced the developed agriculture already in the second millennium BC. The stone processing technology was brought to perfection. The Olmecs were the first among the American tribes to start using marks for recording the numbers (Confer, 2008). They have also created an ideographic script and calendar. They were distinguished by rare knowledge in astronomy and homeopathy. The origin and mysterious extinction of the Olmec people, who inhabited the vast expanses of southern Mexico, still remains a major question for all researchers studying the pre-Columbian history of the New World.
The first major civilization in Central America was the Mayan civilization. The Maya belonged to the Mayan language family and occupied most of the territory of the present-day Mexico. They had created a strong centralized state already by the 8th century. Agriculture was the basis of their economy. The cities, especially the port ones, were the centers of craft and trade. They had well-developed appliances despite the fact that the Maya learned to process copper, gold, and silver relatively late – in the 8-9th century (Sharer, 2006). The Maya had succeeded in the construction of elaborate aqueducts (often subterranean ones), drainage tanks, and other hydraulic structures, which allowed them to regulate the river floods and to condense the rainwater.
The Maya used vigesimal counting system, borrowed from the Olmecs; they knew the number of zero. They developed a perfect calendar, which took into account the cycles of the Sun, Moon, and Venus. The bright sight of the Mayan culture was the theater. Theater venues, surrounded by the rows for spectators, survived to the present day.
The Mayan civilization has faced vast external invasions in the 10th century. Chichen Itza, the political and cultural center of the Maya, had been occupied by the Nahua tribes since 917. In 987, this cult center was taken over by the Toltecs (Demarest, 2004). The Maya, in turn, were relegated to the status of non-free citizens. The disappearance of the Mayan civilization is a matter of dispute until now.
Another major civilization in South America was the Incas. The Incas belonged to the group of the Quechua languages and occupied the territory of Peru, part of Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia, and Ecuador. They had created the state that reached its highest peak in the 14th-15th centuries. The Incas had known a codified law. A set of the Inca laws was compiled around the middle of the 15th century (Confer, 2008). The Inca society was characterized by a well-developed hierarchy. Their economy was of the same character as the Mayan one: there was no private property and no money. Instead of money, they had a developed barter trade. The Incas made reed boats and rafts covered with masts and square sails. The civilization had developed the two types of writings. Today, more than 400 characters of the Inca’s letters are known. Much attention was paid to the education and science, the development of which was possible due to the developed writing. The Incas studied elocution, rituals, law, astronomy, and music. Eventually, the Inca civilization had lasted until the 20’s of the 16th century, the conquest by the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro (Kuiper, 2010).
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The Toltec-Aztec civilization had started with the history of the Toltec ancient tribe. The Toltecs, who belonged to the Nahuatl language family, came from the north to Mesoamerica in the 9th century at the sunset of one of the most flourishing cultures of ancient Mexico – Teotihuacan. Sometimes, the Toltecs are even considered the destroyers of this culture. The Toltec civilization was highly developed; they melted metals, and their stone works were carried out very efficiently. The polytheistic religion of the Toltecs in the later period was concentrated around the character of Quetzalcoatl. The end of the Toltec dominion was put by the Aztecs in the second half of the 12th century (Confer, 2008). The Toltec culture has had a significant influence on shaping the culture of the Aztecs. The Aztec civilization, in turn, had a rich mythology and cultural heritage. The Aztec Empire was invaded by the Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortes in 1519. The last Aztec ruler, Moctezuma II was captured by the Spaniards and then executed in 1520. It was the end of the Toltec-Aztec civilization, which have become the last major civilization of pre-Columbian America.
The people of the pre-Columbian civilizations in America have never made iron tools. They used neither draft animals nor the wheel. They have never cultivated any agricultural crop among the known in the Old World. They did not use complex equipment for the construction of their magnificent pyramids and palaces. Nevertheless, their achievements seem amazing and surprising among the contemporaries. The first Europeans that reached the American continent got acquainted with the local civilizations at the peak of their development. Unfortunately, these unique corners of the ancient world were wiped out by the conquistadors. However, this fact does not negate the fact that the pre-Columbian civilizations of America represent a unique, original, and unusual example of cultural development.