The chapter begins with a description of a bloodletting ceremony practiced by the Mayans in 683 C.E. It then describes how the early societies of Mesoamerica. After the waters receded between Asia and the Americas, there was a narrow stretch of land in the Bering Strait. The first large group of migrants is believed to have crossed around 13,000 BCE. However, there is evidence that groups existed in the Americas as early as 15,000 BCE. These groups were hunters and gatherers, rather than agricultural communities. However, between 8,000 and 7,000 BCE, there was some movement towards farming. By 2,000 BCE, agriculture was a serious aspect of Mesoamerican culture.
There was also a movement towards ceremony, which included the building of temples and pyramids. The Olmecs or “rubber people” were an early group that focused on ceremony. The society was likely an authoritarian government. There are multiple relics of the culture around Central America. It is now known why the society failed; however, other Mesoamerican communities adopted their ideas and practices. This included growing maize (an early form of corn) and also using the same calendar as the Olmec priests.
The Mayans, a more well-known group, are the heirs to the Olmecs. In this period, written language developed, and societies became more complex. It is believed that the societies rise followed that of other societies in the world. The Mayans grew into a powerful force and arranged themselves into small city-kingdoms, like a city-state. While scholars originally believed these were peaceful groups, new evidence suggests otherwise. They were often at war with each other. Captives were brought back from the battles and eventually sacrificed. However, they may have served as slaves for a number of years before their deaths. Around 800 CE., Mayans began to desert their cities and a decline in the society occurred. Historians do not agree on the reason; it may have been political, natural, or economic. During their time though, Mayans were known for elaborate religious rituals and calendars. The priests accurately determined the solar year as 365.25 days, nearly exact to what we currently use.
The Mayans also worked to further develop the written language. Eventually, this became an intricate, yet flexible form of writing. The records left behind by the Mayans included history, poetry, and mythology. However, there were more practical records, such as administrative ones. The writings are found on both monuments and early forms of paper, such as tree bark and deer skin. Tragically, when the Spanish arrived in the Mayan lands in the 16th Century CE., they destroyed many of the writings of the Mayans. They wanted to undermine the religious beliefs of the indigenous peoples. Only four books survive to date. These books focus on the Mayan calendar and astronomical writings.
The Mayans were not the only society in Mesoamerica though. The Teotihuacan developed in the modern region of Mexico. By 500 BCE, this group had developed into an agricultural community. They built the Pyramid of the Sun, a massive tribute to the sun. Their society included priests, scholars, artisans, merchants, and farmers. Clearly, they were a diverse group of people. They also established significant trade routes and networks to trade with nearby communities. They did not have any form of military organization until 500 CE. Their power came from their ability to trade goods. However, they eventually needed to establish some military strength. Their society was a strong one until approximately 650 CE. By the 8th Century CE, they were ransacked and did not survive.
South America followed similar patterns in growth and development. However, the Andeans developed completely independently of Central American societies. The region of the Andes produced maize, but also produced large amounts of precious metals. Other important crops included beans, peas, and even cotton. Cotton was made into fishing nets, which provided a useful source of protein. Around 1800 BCE, they had also developed a system of canals to irrigate the arid inner lands. By 1000 BCE, a cult, The Chavin cult, developed. No information exists about this cult. However, at the same time, the society became more complex. Artisans developed new techniques, including pottery and weaving. The precious metals were also made into elaborate types of jewelry. However, it is not believed that this culture resulted in any political or civic groups for the society.
The chapter also discusses early groups in Oceania. These include groups in Australia and New Guinea. Most of these groups were hunters and gatherers. However, approximately 10,000 years ago, the peoples of New Guinea developed into an agricultural society. The aboriginals of Australia continued in their lifestyle. The Aboriginals lived in small migratory groups. They mostly had a plant-based diet, but did use tools and weapons to kill animals for food. In New Guinea, about 5,000 years ago, exposure to individuals with sea-faring skills changed the society. These sea-faring individuals brought foods such as yams, chickens, and pigs to the people. The indigenous groups began to cultivate the foods and to raise animals for food.
It is important to recognize that the early peoples of the Americas, Australia, New Guinea, and other regions were distinct groups of people. While most began as hunters and gatherers, some developed into agricultural communities. All of them used the resources available to them to strengthen their communities. However, many of the communities still fell due to various influences. These influences may have included natural disasters, famine, plague, war, or economic factors.