Discovering Our Past: Medieval and Early Modern Times
During the Ice Age, much of the earth's water was frozen into glaciers. This exposed a land bridge that scientists call Beringia. Scientists and historians believe that people in Asia crossed this bridge while hunting animals. They became the first people to inhabit the Americas. The first Americans were hunter-gatherers, but the people of Mesoamerica discovered farming. This important discovery led to the rise of civilizations in the Americas. The Mesoamerican civilizations included the Olmec, Maya, and Toltec. South of these Mesoamerican civilizations, the Moche and Inca thrived.
The Maya thrived in Guatemala's dense rain forests and took advantage of their homeland's large system of underground rivers and streams. The Maya organized into city-states and built a culture based on their religious beliefs. They made many contributions to society, developing a 365-day calendar, a system of mathematics based on the number 20, and a written language using a system of hieroglyphics.
The Aztec were nomadic warriors who moved into the Valley of Mexico and created an empire based on conquest. A council of warriors, priests, and nobles chose a king to rule the empire. The glories of war and civic duties were very important to the Aztec.
In South America the Inca built a large empire. To unite it, Incan rulers set up a highly organized government and society. The Inca built large works of stone to please their gods. In order to build these structures, they used knotted rope called a quipu to perform mathematical calculations.
An Italian explorer named Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered the Americas while trying to find a sea route to Asia. He landed on an island in the Caribbean in 1492. Columbus's success inspired others to explore the world outside of Europe and seek fortune in the Americas. Hernán Cortés invaded Mexico and defeated the Aztec using guns, horses, and disease. Another Spanish explorer named Francisco Pizarro found and conquered the Inca in Peru. These and other Spanish conquistadors built an empire for Spain in Florida, Mexico, Central America, and South America.