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Top 10 Ancient American Civilizations

Archaeology of American Civilizations


The continents of North and South America were 'discovered' by the European civilizations in the late 15th century AD, but their civilizations were vast and thriving long before the first European landed. Sample a taste of the complexity of the civilizations of ancient America.

1. Caral Supe Civlization (3000-2500 BC)

The oldest known civilization in the American continents was discovered only a few years ago. Located on the coast of central Peru, the civilization included at least seventeen connected villages, and an urban center at Caral, with monumental architecture, platform mounds and a plaza.

2. Olmec Civilization (1200-400 BC)

Cascajal Closeup: Earliest Writing in Americas?
Science (c) 2006
The Olmec civilization flourished on the gulf coast of Mexico, and constructed the first pyramids in the North American continent as well as the big stone 'baby-faced' head monuments. The Olmec built pyramids,  played the Mesoamerican ballgame, and invented the earliest writing in the Americas.

3. Maya Civilization (500 BC - 800 AD)

The ancient Maya Civilization occupied much of the central North American continent based on the gulf coast of what is now Mexico between 2500 BC and AD 1500, and are known for their amazing complex artwork, particularly murals, and graceful pyramids.

4. Zapotec Civilization (500 BC-750 AD)

Zapotec Urn
John Weinstein © The Field Museum
The capital city of the Zapotec Civilization is Monte Alban in the valley of Oaxaca in central Mexico. Monte Alban is one of the most intensively studied archaeological sites in the Americas, and one of the very few 'disembedded capitals' in the world. The capital is also known for its astronomical observatory Building J and Los Danzantes, a stunning carved record of captive and slain warriors and kings.

5. Nasca Civilization (AD 1-700)

Ed Nellis
The Nasca civilization of the south coast of Peru were best known for huge geoglyphs: geometric lines and drawings of birds and another animals using the varnished rock of the vast arid desert, to which the German mathematician dedicated her life's work.

6. Tiwanaku Empire (AD 550-950)

The capital of the Tiwanaku Empire was situated on the shores of Lake Titicaca on the border of what today is Peru and Bolivia. Their distinctive architecture is best known for the clear evidence of construction by work groups. During its heyday, Tiwanaku (also spelled Tiahuanaco) controlled much of central South America.

7. Wari Civilization (AD 750-1000)

In direct competition with Tiwanaku was the Wari (also spelled Huari) state. The Wari state was located in the central Andes mountains of Peru, and their impact on the succeeding civilizations is remarkable, seen at sites such as Pachacamac.

8. Inca Civilization (AD 1250-1532)

The Inca civilization was the largest civilization in the Americas when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the early 16th century. Known for their unique writing system (called the quipu), a magnificent road system, and the lovely ceremonial center called Machu Picchu, the Inca also had some pretty interesting burial customs and an amazing ability to build earthquake proof buildings.

9. Mississippian Civilization (AD 1000-1500)

The Mississippian culture is a term used by archaeologists to refer to cultures inhabiting the length of the Mississippi River, but the highest level of sophistication was reached in the central Mississippi River valley of southern Illinois, near present-day St. Louis Missouri, and the capital city of Cahokia. We know quite a bit of the Mississippians in the American southeast, because they were first visited by the Spanish in the 17th century.

10. Aztec Civilization (AD 1430-1521)

The best known civilization in the Americas, I'll wager, is the Aztec civilization,largely because they were at the height of their power and influence when the Spanish arrived. Warlike, intractable, and aggressive, the Aztecs conquered much of central America. But the Aztecs are so much more than simply warlike...

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