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Lesson Plans from Ancient America: Overview - Part 2

Influential Figures in Ancient American History

The ancient civilizations of the Americas were home to many influential figures who played pivotal roles in shaping their societies and leaving lasting legacies. Here are some of the most notable figures from both North and South America:

North America

  1. Pakal the Great (603-683 AD) - Pakal the Great was a prominent ruler of the Maya city-state of Palenque. His reign is noted for significant architectural and cultural achievements, including the construction of the Temple of the Inscriptions, which houses his elaborate tomb. Pakal's leadership brought prosperity and stability to Palenque, and his legacy is evident in the city's enduring monuments.

  2. Moctezuma II (1466-1520 AD) - Moctezuma II was the ninth emperor of the Aztec Empire, ruling from 1502 until his death in 1520. His reign saw the expansion of the empire to its greatest extent, as well as increased tribute from conquered territories. However, his rule ended with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés, which marked the beginning of the end for the Aztec Empire.

  3. Sequoyah (c. 1770-1843 AD) - Although postdating the ancient period, Sequoyah was a significant figure in Native American history. A member of the Cherokee Nation, he invented the Cherokee syllabary, a writing system that enabled the Cherokee people to read and write in their language. This innovation played a crucial role in preserving Cherokee culture and promoting literacy among the Cherokee.

  4. Hernán Cortés (1485-1547AD) - Hernán Cortés, born in 1485 in Spain, was a Spanish conquistador who led the expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire. Settling first in Hispaniola and then Cuba, he ventured to Mexico in 1519, forming alliances with indigenous groups. By capturing Tenochtitlan in 1521, he toppled the Aztec Empire. Appointed governor of New Spain, Cortés later faced political challenges and returned to Spain in 1541, where he died in 1547.

South America

  1. Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (1438-1471 AD) - Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui was the ninth Sapa Inca (emperor) of the Kingdom of Cusco, which he transformed into the vast Inca Empire. His reign marked the beginning of the empire's expansion, including the construction of Machu Picchu and other significant architectural projects. Pachacuti's administrative and military reforms laid the foundation for the empire's success and longevity.

  2. Viracocha (c. 1400s AD) - Viracocha, named after the Inca creator god, was the eighth Sapa Inca. He is credited with initiating the empire's first major expansion and establishing a more structured administrative system. His policies and conquests set the stage for his successors, particularly Pachacuti, to further expand and consolidate the empire.

  3. Huayna Capac (1493-1527 AD) - Huayna Capac was the eleventh Sapa Inca and presided over the empire at its zenith. Under his rule, the Inca Empire extended its boundaries to the north into present-day Ecuador and Colombia. His reign was marked by significant military campaigns and infrastructure projects, including the expansion of the road network. However, his death led to a civil war between his sons, which weakened the empire just before the Spanish conquest.

Other Notable Figures

  1. Lady K'abel (c. 7th century AD) - Lady K'abel was a powerful Maya queen of the Wak Kingdom, also known as Calakmul. She was titled the "Supreme Warrior" and played a crucial role in her kingdom's military and political affairs. Her reign is one of the few examples of significant female leadership in Maya history, highlighting the role women could play in ancient American societies.

  2. Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl (c. 10th century AD) - Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was a legendary Toltec ruler and priest who promoted the worship of the god Quetzalcoatl (the Feathery Serpent). His reign is often associated with peace and cultural flourishing. The legend of Quetzalcoatl significantly influenced later civilizations, including the Aztecs, who believed in the return of this deity-king.

The influential figures of ancient American history played crucial roles in shaping their civilizations through leadership, innovation, and cultural development. From rulers like Pakal the Great and Pachacuti to cultural icons like Sequoyah, these individuals left enduring legacies that continue to influence the cultural heritage and historical understanding of the Americas. Their stories offer valuable insights into the complexity and richness of ancient American societies.


Archaeological Studies of Ancient American Civilizations: Methods and Resources

The study of ancient American civilizations has been profoundly enriched by the meticulous work of archaeologists. Through various methods and approaches, archaeologists have uncovered the secrets of past societies, revealing their complexity, achievements, and everyday lives. This article explores the methods archaeologists use to study these cultures and highlights good sources for studying the major civilizations of the Americas.

Methods Used by Archaeologists

1. Excavation

  • Definition: Excavation involves systematically digging at archaeological sites to uncover artifacts, structures, and other physical remains. Process:

  • Surveying: Archaeologists first survey potential sites using methods like aerial photography, satellite imagery, and ground-penetrating radar to identify promising locations.

  • Digging: Teams then excavate these sites in layers, carefully recording the context of each find.

  • Analysis: Artifacts are cleaned, cataloged, and analyzed to understand their use and significance.

2. Radiocarbon Dating

  • Definition: Radiocarbon dating measures the decay of carbon-14 in organic materials to determine their age.

  • Application: This technique is crucial for establishing timelines for ancient civilizations, dating everything from building remains to pottery and bones.

3. Comparative Analysis

  • Definition: Comparative analysis involves comparing artifacts and structures from different sites to identify cultural connections and influences.

  • Application: By comparing pottery styles, architectural features, and burial practices, archaeologists can trace interactions between civilizations and cultural diffusion.

4. Paleoenvironmental Studies

  • Definition: These studies examine ancient environments to understand how people interacted with their surroundings.

  • Application: Techniques like pollen analysis, sediment cores, and dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) help reconstruct past climates and environmental conditions, shedding light on agricultural practices and settlement patterns.

5. Ethnoarchaeology

  • Definition: Ethnoarchaeology studies contemporary cultures to gain insights into ancient practices.

  • Application: By observing modern Indigenous communities, archaeologists can infer how ancient peoples might have made and used tools, constructed buildings, and organized their societies.

Good Sources for Studying Major Civilizations

1. Academic Journals and Books


  • American Antiquity: A leading journal in the field of archaeology that publishes research on ancient American civilizations.

  • Journal of Archaeological Science: Offers scientific analyses and findings related to archaeological discoveries.

  • "The Maya" by Michael D. Coe

    • Definition: A comprehensive book on the history, culture, and achievements of the Maya civilization.

    • Significance: This book is widely regarded as a seminal work in Maya studies, offering detailed insights into the society, politics, and daily life of the Maya.

  • "Aztec Archaeology and Ethnohistory" by Frances F. Berdan

    • Definition: A scholarly book that combines archaeological evidence and historical records to explore the Aztec civilization.

    • Significance: This book provides an in-depth analysis of Aztec society, including its political structures, economy, and cultural practices, making it a valuable resource for understanding this ancient civilization.

2. Museum Collections


  • Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian: Houses extensive collections of artifacts from various Native American cultures.

  • Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology: Offers a vast collection of artifacts and research on ancient American civilizations.

3. Online Databases and Resources


  • Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR): An online repository of archaeological data, including reports and images from excavations.

  • Project Gutenberg: Offers free access to historical texts and archaeological reports, such as the works of early explorers and archaeologists.

4. Field Schools and Archaeological Programs


  • University Field Schools: Programs like those offered by the University of Arizona and Harvard University provide hands-on archaeological training and access to ongoing research projects.

  • Archaeological Institutes: Organizations like the Archaeological Institute of America offer resources, publications, and opportunities for involvement in archaeological research.

The study of ancient American civilizations has been greatly advanced through the dedicated efforts of archaeologists employing a variety of methods. Excavations, radiocarbon dating, comparative analysis, paleoenvironmental studies, and ethnoarchaeology have all contributed to a deeper understanding of these complex societies. For those interested in delving further into this field, academic journals, museum collections, online databases, and field schools provide invaluable resources. By utilizing these sources, students and researchers can continue to uncover the rich history and cultural heritage of the Americas.


Examples of the Destruction of Codices in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

The rich tapestry of Mesoamerican history is intricately woven with the achievements of various civilizations such as the Maya, Aztec, Toltec, and Mixtecs. Central to understanding these civilizations were the codices—manuscripts made from materials like bark paper, deerskin, and even stone containing invaluable records of history, religion, astronomy, and daily life. However, the history of these codices is marked not only by their creation but also by their destruction, often at the hands of new regimes and conquerors. This article explores the instances and motivations behind the destruction of these precious documents before the arrival of the Spanish.

Toltec and Aztec Transitions

  • The Toltecs, who dominated central Mexico from around the 10th to the 12th centuries, were highly influential in the region. They left behind a significant cultural and religious legacy.

  • Destruction by the Aztecs: When the Aztecs rose to power in the 14th and 15th centuries, they viewed themselves as successors to the Toltec legacy. While they revered Toltec culture, they also sought to assert their own dominance. As part of this process, they likely destroyed many Toltec records and artifacts. This was done to consolidate their power and eliminate any remnants of rival claims to legitimacy.

Maya City-State Conflicts

  • The Maya civilization, which flourished in what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, was composed of numerous city-states that often engaged in warfare with each other.

  • Destruction of Rival Records: Victorious city-states sometimes destroyed the codices, stelae, and other records of their defeated rivals. This practice served multiple purposes: it demoralized the vanquished, erased their historical and cultural identity, and legitimized the authority of the conquerors. The destruction of these records ensured that the history and achievements of the conquered city-state would be forgotten, and the narrative could be controlled by the victors.

Aztec Political and Religious Reforms: Tlacaelel’s Reforms

  • Tlacaelel, an influential advisor and general to several Aztec rulers, played a pivotal role in shaping the Aztec Empire's ideology and religion during the 15th century.

  • Religious Purges: As part of his reforms, Tlacaelel promoted the worship of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, above other deities. To solidify this new religious order, older codices that contained records of other gods and religious practices were destroyed. This deliberate act of destruction was aimed at rewriting history to fit the new state-sponsored religion and to legitimize the ruling dynasty.

Mixtec and Zapotec Conflicts: Regional Dominance

  • In the region of Oaxaca, the Mixtec and Zapotec civilizations often competed for dominance. These conflicts sometimes resulted in the destruction of each other's records.

  • Cultural Suppression: When one group conquered the other, they would often destroy the codices and records of the vanquished to suppress their culture and assert their own dominance. This destruction was a way to eliminate the historical narrative of the defeated and reinforce the authority of the conquerors.

Significance of Codex Destruction

1.      Loss of Knowledge

  • Irreplaceable Records: The destruction of these codices resulted in the irreversible loss of historical, religious, and scientific knowledge. Each codex was a repository of unique information that offered insights into the civilization's achievements, beliefs, and way of life.

  • Historical Gaps: The deliberate erasure of these records created significant gaps in the historical understanding of Mesoamerican civilizations. Modern scholars must rely on surviving codices, archaeological evidence, and oral traditions to piece together the fragmented history.

2.      Historical Revisionism

  • Control of Narrative: The destruction of codices allowed new regimes to control the historical narrative. By erasing the records of previous rulers and cultures, conquerors could rewrite history to legitimize their rule and suppress dissent.

  • Cultural Domination: This practice of historical revisionism was a powerful tool for cultural domination. It ensured that the history and identity of the conquered peoples would be overshadowed by the narrative of the victors.

The destruction of codices in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica was a common practice during times of political upheaval and regime change. From the Toltec-Aztec transitions to the inter-city conflicts of the Maya and the regional dominance struggles between the Mixtec and Zapotec, the deliberate destruction of records was a strategic move to erase the past and consolidate power. These acts of destruction not only resulted in the loss of invaluable knowledge but also shaped the historical narrative that has come down to us today. Understanding these dynamics provides a deeper appreciation for the surviving codices and the rich, albeit fragmented, history they represent.


Major Archaeological Discoveries in Ancient American History

The study of ancient American civilizations has been greatly enriched by numerous archaeological discoveries. These findings have provided invaluable insights into the lives, cultures, and achievements of the peoples who inhabited the Americas long before European contact. Here are some of the most significant archaeological discoveries:

North America

1. Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde (Colorado, USA) - The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, built by the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi), are some of the most remarkable architectural structures in North America. Discovered in the late 19th century, these dwellings include multi-story houses built into the cliffs, such as the famous Cliff Palace. The site provides insight into the social organization, daily life, and architectural skills of the Ancestral Puebloans.

2. Cahokia Mounds (Illinois, USA) - Cahokia, the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico, was the central hub of the Mississippian culture. The site features more than 100 earthen mounds, including Monks Mound, the largest earthwork in the Americas. Excavations have revealed complex social structures, extensive trade networks, and sophisticated agricultural practices.

3. Serpent Mound (Ohio, USA) - Serpent Mound, a large effigy mound built by the Adena culture (and later used by the Fort Ancient culture), is one of the most intriguing prehistoric earthworks in North America. The mound, which depicts an undulating serpent, aligns with celestial events such as solstices and equinoxes, indicating a deep understanding of astronomy among its builders.


1. Temple of the Inscriptions (Palenque, Mexico) - The Temple of the Inscriptions is one of the most significant discoveries in Maya archaeology. This pyramid in the ancient city of Palenque houses the tomb of the great ruler Pakal the Great. Discovered in 1952, the tomb contains an intricately carved sarcophagus (like large stone coffin) and rich burial offerings, providing valuable information about Maya funerary practices and beliefs.

2. The Great Pyramid of Cholula (Cholula, Mexico) - The Great Pyramid of Cholula, also known as Tlachihualtepetl, is the largest pyramid by volume in the world. Built by the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Cholula, it was a major religious center. Excavations have revealed multiple layers of construction, murals, and artifacts, offering insights into the cultural and religious practices of the region.

3. The Nazca Lines (Nazca Desert, Peru)

The Nazca Lines are a series of large geoglyphs etched into the desert floor by the Nazca culture. Discovered in the 1920s, these lines depict various animals, plants, and geometric shapes. The purpose of the lines remains a mystery, but they are believed to have had astronomical, religious, or social significance.

South America

1. Machu Picchu (Peru) - Machu Picchu, the iconic Inca city perched high in the Andes Mountains, was brought to international attention by Hiram Bingham in 1911. The site includes well-preserved terraces, temples, and residences, showcasing Inca architectural prowess. Machu Picchu offers a glimpse into the daily life and religious practices of the Inca Empire.

2. The Royal Tombs of Sipán (Peru) - The tombs of Sipán, discovered in 1987, belong to the Moche culture and are considered one of the richest archaeological finds in the Americas. The tomb of the Lord of Sipán contained an abundance of gold, silver, and turquoise artifacts, along with intricately crafted ceramics. These discoveries have provided detailed information about Moche social hierarchy, burial practices, and craftsmanship.

3. Tiwanaku (Bolivia) - The ancient city of Tiwanaku, located near Lake Titicaca, was the center of the Tiwanaku civilization. Excavations at the site have uncovered impressive stone structures, such as the Akapana pyramid and the Gateway of the Sun. The site provides insights into the architectural techniques, religious practices, and societal organization of the Tiwanaku people.

These archaeological discoveries have been instrumental in piecing together the history and culture of ancient American civilizations. From the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde to the grand city of Machu Picchu, these findings highlight the ingenuity, complexity, and diversity of the peoples who once inhabited the Americas. They offer a profound appreciation for the achievements of these ancient civilizations and continue to inspire further research and exploration.

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