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Lesson Plans from Ancient America: Overview - Part 3

Example of Mesoamerican Ingenuity: Aztec’s Discovery of Concrete

Concrete was discovered and used in the ancient city of Teotihuacan, one of the most significant and largest urban centers in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Located northeast of modern-day Mexico City, Teotihuacan was at its peak between the 1st and 7th centuries AD.

Teotihuacan and the Use of Concrete

1.      Construction Techniques:

  • The inhabitants of Teotihuacan used a form of early concrete in their construction practices. This concrete was made by mixing volcanic rock, known as tezontle, with lime and other aggregates. The mixture was then poured into molds to create large blocks.

  • This technique allowed the builders of Teotihuacan to create durable and robust structures that have withstood the test of time. The use of concrete facilitated the construction of the city's monumental architecture, including pyramids, temples, and apartment complexes.

2.      Monumental Structures:

  • Pyramid of the Sun: One of the largest pyramids in the world, the Pyramid of the Sun, is a prime example of the use of concrete in Teotihuacan. The core of the pyramid is made from a concrete-like material, covered with stone slabs.

  • Temple of the Feathered Serpent (Quetzalcoatl): This temple also features concrete construction techniques, contributing to its enduring stability and grandeur.

3.      Urban Planning:

  • The use of concrete enabled the planners of Teotihuacan to design and construct extensive urban infrastructure, including residential areas, plazas, and a complex drainage system. The durability of the concrete helped maintain the city's layout and structural integrity over centuries.

Importance of Concrete in Mesoamerican Architecture

  • Durability and Longevity: The use of concrete in Teotihuacan contributed to the city's longevity and the preservation of its structures. The material's durability allowed the city's monumental buildings to survive for centuries, providing valuable insights into Mesoamerican architecture and urban planning.

  • Engineering Innovation: The discovery and application of concrete in Teotihuacan demonstrates the engineering prowess and innovative spirit of its builders. This advancement allowed them to create complex and large-scale constructions that were both functional and aesthetically impressive.

  • Influence on Later Cultures: The techniques developed in Teotihuacan influenced subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Maya and the Aztecs, who adopted and adapted these construction methods in their own architectural endeavors.

The discovery and use of concrete in Teotihuacan marked a significant technological advancement in Mesoamerican architecture. This early form of concrete played a crucial role in the construction of the city's monumental structures and urban infrastructure, contributing to the city's enduring legacy. The innovative use of concrete in Teotihuacan highlights the ingenuity and engineering skills of its builders, leaving a lasting impact on Mesoamerican architectural practices.

Life Lessons from Studying Ancient American History

Studying ancient American history offers more than just an understanding of the past; it provides valuable life lessons that are relevant even in today's fast-paced world. The civilizations that flourished in the Americas before European contact—such as the Olmec, Maya, Aztec, Inca, and various Native American cultures—demonstrate remarkable resilience, ingenuity, and wisdom. Here are some essential life lessons we can learn from these ancient societies:

1. Adaptability and Resilience - The ability to adapt to changing environments and circumstances is a hallmark of ancient American civilizations. The Ancestral Puebloans built intricate cliff dwellings to protect themselves from invaders and environmental challenges, while the Inca developed sophisticated agricultural terraces to farm on steep mountain slopes. These examples teach us the importance of resilience and the ability to adapt creatively to adversity.

2. Sustainable Living - Many ancient American civilizations practiced sustainable agriculture and resource management. The Maya developed advanced farming techniques, such as raised fields and terracing, to prevent soil erosion and maintain fertility. The Iroquois Confederacy practiced the "Three Sisters" agricultural method, growing corn, beans, and squash together to enhance soil health and yield. These practices highlight the importance of living sustainably and caring for our environment.

3. Community and Cooperation - Ancient American societies often placed a strong emphasis on community and cooperation. The Inca empire's success was partly due to its efficient labor system, where communities worked together on public projects like road building and agriculture. Similarly, the communal living arrangements of the Ancestral Puebloans and the Iroquois Confederacy's cooperative political system underscore the value of working together for the common good.

4. Cultural Identity and Preservation - The rich traditions and cultural practices of ancient American civilizations remind us of the importance of cultural identity and preservation. The Maya, for example, developed a complex writing system and recorded their history and knowledge in codices. Preserving cultural heritage and respecting diverse traditions is crucial for maintaining a sense of identity and continuity in our globalized world.

5. Innovative Problem Solving - The ingenuity of ancient American civilizations in overcoming challenges offers lessons in innovative problem-solving. The Nazca people created an extensive network of underground aqueducts called Puquios to ensure a reliable water supply in their arid environment. The Inca's construction of the expansive Road Network and suspension bridges demonstrates their engineering prowess. These examples encourage us to think creatively and innovatively when faced with obstacles.

6. Respect for Nature and Spirituality - Many ancient American civilizations had a deep respect for nature and spirituality. The connection between the natural world and spiritual beliefs is evident in the religious practices of the Maya, who built their cities in harmony with celestial events, and the Plains Indians, who held sacred the buffalo and natural elements. This respect for nature and the spiritual dimension of life encourages a holistic and mindful approach to living.

7. The Impermanence of Power - The rise and fall of great civilizations such as the Aztec and Inca empires illustrate the impermanence of power and the cyclical nature of history. These stories remind us that no matter how powerful or advanced a society becomes, it is subject to change and decline. This lesson fosters humility and the understanding that progress must be balanced with awareness and preparation for future challenges.

Studying ancient American history provides profound insights into human ingenuity, resilience, and the importance of community and sustainability. These civilizations teach us that adaptability, cooperation, and respect for nature are essential for thriving in any era. By learning from the successes and failures of the past, we can apply these life lessons to build a more sustainable, cooperative, and innovative future. The wisdom of ancient American societies continues to resonate, offering timeless guidance for navigating the complexities of modern life.


Vocabulary Words in Ancient American History

Studying ancient American history requires understanding key vocabulary that helps illuminate the complexities and achievements of these diverse civilizations. Here are 20 essential words, their definitions, and their significance in the context of ancient American history.

1. Mesoamerica

Definition: A region that extends from central Mexico through Central America. Significance: Mesoamerica was home to several advanced civilizations, including the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec, which developed complex societies, sophisticated writing systems, and monumental architecture.

2. Terrace Farming

Definition: An agricultural method that involves creating stepped levels on hillsides. Significance: Used extensively by the Inca, terrace farming allowed for efficient crop cultivation on mountainous terrain, helping sustain large populations.

3. Codex (plural: Codices)

Definition: A manuscript book, especially one written by many Mesoamerican cultures. Significance: Codices recorded important historical events, religious texts, and astronomical data, providing valuable insights into the cultures and knowledge of these civilizations. Most were destroyed when new leadership would take over a civilization.

4. Chinampas

Definition: Floating gardens created by the Aztecs to increase agricultural production. Significance: This innovative technique maximized arable land in the swampy region around Tenochtitlan, supporting the city's large population.

5. Quipu

Definition: A system of knotted strings used by the Inca for record-keeping. Significance: Quipus served as a sophisticated tool for managing the vast Inca Empire, tracking everything from census data to resource distribution.

6. Glyph

Definition: A symbolic figure or character used in writing systems. Significance: The Maya used glyphs in their hieroglyphic script to write complex texts, which remain crucial for understanding their history and culture.

7. Huaca

Definition: A sacred object or place in Andean cultures. Significance: Huacas were central to the religious practices of the Inca and other Andean societies, symbolizing natural features, deities, or ancestors.

8. Stela (plural: Stelae)

Definition: A stone slab or pillar with carvings or inscriptions.Significance: Stelae were used by the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures to commemorate significant events, rulers, and achievements.

9. Mit'a

Definition: A labor tax system used by the Inca. Significance: Mit'a required subjects to perform labor on public works projects, which was essential for building the empire's infrastructure, including roads and terraces.

10. Tlatoani

Definition: The title for the ruler or king of an Aztec city-state. Significance: The tlatoani wielded significant political and religious power, overseeing administration, warfare, and ceremonies.

11. Kiva

Definition: A ceremonial underground chamber used by the Ancestral Puebloans. Significance: Kivas played a central role in the religious and social life of Puebloan communities, used for rituals and gatherings.

12. Sarcophagus

Definition: A stone coffin, typically adorned with sculptures or inscriptions. Significance: Sarcophagi were used to house the bodies of important individuals, reflecting burial practices and beliefs about the afterlife.

13. Calpulli

Definition: A social and administrative unit in Aztec society. Significance: Calpulli were clans or neighborhoods that organized labor, education, and religious activities, forming the backbone of Aztec society.

14. Ballgame

Definition: A ceremonial sport played by Mesoamerican cultures, involving a rubber ball and often associated with religious rituals. Significance: The ballgame had significant cultural and religious implications, symbolizing cosmic battles and often featuring in myths and ceremonies.

15. Sapa Inca

Definition: The emperor of the Inca Empire. Significance: The Sapa Inca was considered a divine ruler, holding ultimate political and religious authority and playing a crucial role in the expansion and administration of the empire.

16. Popol Vuh

Definition: A sacred text of the K'iche' Maya, recounting their mythology and history. Significance: The Popol Vuh is one of the most important sources of Maya mythology and cosmology, providing deep insights into their beliefs and traditions.


Significant Geography:

17. Teotihuacan

Definition: An ancient Mesoamerican city located near present-day Mexico City. Significance: Teotihuacan was one of the largest cities of its time, known for its monumental pyramids, urban planning, and influence on surrounding cultures.

18. Tikal

Definition: A major city of the ancient Maya civilization. Significance: Tikal was a political, economic, and military center with impressive temples and palaces, showcasing the architectural and cultural achievements of the Maya.

19. Machu Picchu

Definition: An Inca citadel located in the Andes Mountains. Significance: Machu Picchu is a testament to Inca engineering and architectural skills, reflecting their ability to adapt to and manipulate their environment.

20. Tenochtitlan

Definition: The capital city of the Aztec Empire, located on an island in Lake Texcoco. Significance: Tenochtitlan was a marvel of urban planning and engineering, with its complex system of canals and causeways supporting a large population.

These vocabulary words are essential for understanding the rich tapestry of ancient American history. By familiarizing themselves with these terms, students can gain deeper insights into the complex societies, innovative practices, and profound cultural achievements of the civilizations that once flourished in the Americas. This foundational knowledge enhances their appreciation of the past and its enduring impact on the present.


Engaging Activities for Students Learning About Ancient American History

Studying ancient American history can be a dynamic and immersive experience for students of all ages through hands-on activities that bring the past to life. Here are several recommended activities, tailored for different age groups, to enhance the learning experience:

1. Creating Clay Artifacts

Recommended Age: 6-10 years

Activity Description: Students can create replicas of ancient artifacts using clay, such as Olmec heads, Maya glyphs, or Inca pottery. This activity helps them understand the artistic styles and cultural significance of these items.


·         Provide students with clay and basic sculpting tools.

·         Show images of artifacts from various ancient American civilizations.

·         Encourage students to sculpt their interpretations of these artifacts.

·         Once the clay models are dry, students can paint them to add details.

Learning Outcome: Students gain a tactile understanding of ancient American art and craftsmanship while learning about the cultural significance of the artifacts they create.

2. Constructing a Model of a Cliff Dwelling

Recommended Age: 8-12 years

Activity Description: Students can build a model of Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings using materials like cardboard, clay, and paint. This activity helps them understand the architectural ingenuity and living conditions of the Ancestral Puebloans.


·         Provide students with cardboard, clay, paint, and glue.

·         Show examples of cliff dwellings from sites like Mesa Verde.

·         Guide students in constructing a multi-level model with rooms and ladders.

·         Discuss the purpose and advantages of cliff dwellings.

Learning Outcome: Students learn about the architectural techniques and environmental adaptations of the Ancestral Puebloans while developing their spatial and creative skills.

3. Recreating a Mesoamerican Ballgame

Recommended Age: 10-14 years

Activity Description: Students can recreate a simplified version of the ancient Mesoamerican ballgame, learning about its rules, significance, and the physical skills required.


·         Explain the historical significance and basic rules of the ballgame.

·         Set up a makeshift court in a gym or outdoor space.

·         Use a rubber ball and encourage students to use their hips to keep the ball in play.

·         Discuss the cultural and religious importance of the game.

Learning Outcome: Students gain a physical appreciation of the game, understanding its role in Mesoamerican culture and the athleticism it required.

4. Creating a Quipu

Recommended Age: 12-16 years

Activity Description: Students can make their own quipu, an Inca record-keeping device made of knotted strings, to learn about the Inca's administrative techniques.


·         Provide students with strings of different colors and lengths.

·         Show examples of quipus and explain their purpose.

·         Guide students in creating their quipu, using knots to represent numbers or information.

·         Discuss how quipus were used for census data, resource management, and more.

Learning Outcome: Students understand the complexity of Inca record-keeping and the ingenuity behind this non-written form of data management.

5. Maya Glyph Writing

Recommended Age: 10-14 years

Activity Description: Students can learn about the Maya writing system by creating their own messages using Maya glyphs.


·         Provide students with a chart of Maya glyphs.

·         Explain how the Maya writing system worked and its uses.

·         Encourage students to write simple messages or their names using the glyphs.

·         Create a classroom display of their glyph writings.

Learning Outcome: Students appreciate the sophistication of the Maya writing system and gain insight into how ancient civilizations recorded their history and knowledge.

6. Building a Scale Model of Machu Picchu

Recommended Age: 14-18 years

Activity Description: Students can construct a detailed scale model of Machu Picchu to understand Inca architecture and urban planning.


·         Provide materials such as foam board, clay, paint, and reference images.

·         Divide students into groups to tackle different sections of Machu Picchu.

·         Guide them in creating terraces, temples, and other structures.

·         Present the completed model and discuss the significance of Machu Picchu.

Learning Outcome: Students develop a deep understanding of Inca engineering, architecture, and the societal importance of Machu Picchu through collaborative, hands-on learning.

7. Interactive Timeline Creation

Recommended Age: 10-14 years

Activity Description: Students can create an interactive timeline of major events and achievements in ancient American history.


·         Provide materials like poster boards, markers, and images.

·         Assign different periods and civilizations to groups of students.

·         Have students research and illustrate key events, adding them to the timeline.

·         Present the timeline and discuss each group's contributions.

Learning Outcome: Students enhance their research skills and chronological understanding of ancient American history, seeing how different civilizations and events interconnect.


Incorporating hands-on activities into the study of ancient American history makes learning engaging and memorable for students. These activities, tailored to different age groups, allow students to explore the ingenuity, culture, and achievements of ancient American civilizations in a fun and interactive way. By actively participating in these projects, students gain a deeper appreciation for history and the skills to think critically about the past.

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