In general, it is believed that the first group of humans began migrating over to the North American continent using an exposed land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska sometime around 13,000 BCE. Now existing only beneath the ocean surface, this bridge is known among historians as the Bering land bridge and is located, not surprisingly, beneath what is now known as the Bering Straights. However, even when the bridge was available, it is also possible that some migrants could have reached the continent using various forms of watercraft which may have been accomplished deliberately through sailing or rowing or might have been the result of accidental drifting with the currents. This idea is supported by the existence of the Oceana societies which seem to have emerged sometime around 60,000 years ago. Oceana group migrations continued throughout the millenniums as people spread across from New Guinea and Australia to the islands in the Pacific Ocean. Like other parts of the world at that time, most people seemed to have lived a hunting and gathering lifestyle. In the Americas, this lifestyle seemed to start changing around 8,000 BCE as people began to settle into communities of farmers. Clear evidence exists that these early settlers were busy growing beans, squash, gourds, peppers, and avocados. This agricultural way of life had spread through much of the American continents by 3,000 BCE. By the end of the millennium, they had constructed amazing structures intended for various forms of social or religious ceremonies or as governmental dwellings for leaders such as pyramids, palaces, and temples indicating a high level of social development and a clear social hierarchy.
One of the earliest known settlements in South America is thought to have come under cultivation sometime between 2500 and 2000 BCE in the area of modern day Peru and Bolivia. Termed the Andean society, not much is known about these people other than they gave rise to what is known as the Chavin cult sometime around 1000 BCE. Again, not much is known about the Chavin cult other than that they performed fertility rituals in order to guarantee the success of their agricultural efforts. Stone carvings of deities in the shape of jaguars, hawks, snakes, and eagles have been found, but little is known about how they were understood or worshipped.
Historians generally agree that the first identifiable complex civilization in the Americas were the Olmecs of Mesoamerica. Also termed the ‘Rubber People,’ the Olmecs developed along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico near the area today known as Veracruz. Their civilization is thought to have become organized sometime around 1200 BCE, constructing cities and major features that can still be seen today. These include some of the major ceremonial centers containing pyramids, temples, elaborate tombs, stone sculptures, and altars as well as complex draining and irrigation channels. The remaining evidence illustrates that the Olmecs were skilled tool builders and stone masons. In addition to their buildings and statues, the Olmecs created gigantic human heads carved out of basalt. The largest of these has been measured at about 10 feet tall and weighs about 20 tons. Given their high level of skill and organization, it remains a mystery as to what happened to the Olmecs. They deliberately destroyed their ceremonial centers and vanished by 400 BCE. Theories as to the reasons for this point to internal civil war between various factions, but there is no proof or evidence of what happened. Fortunately, some of their traditions and beliefs were preserved among the other civilizations then emerging within Mesoamerica, such as the Maya.
The Mayan culture emerged sometime around 300 BCE in the area now known as southern Mexico and Guatamala. During the approximately 1200 years during which this culture thrived, they created monumental works that continue to draw visitors today. Like the Olmecs, they created palaces, temples, and pyramids adorned with elaborate carvings whose mysteries continue to unfold. The Temple of the Jaguar was created in one of the more than 80 ceremonial centers constructed by these people. This temple rose to a height of about 154 feet in the center of the city of Tikal. To require such an impressive structure and the city around it, historians estimate the city’s population to have been somewhere near 40,000. Other, smaller, cities in the surrounding area, such as Palenque and Chichen Itza also contained elaborate structures that continue to amaze. Recent evidence uncovered suggest the Mayan civilization was characterized by war, with individuals gaining prestige only through their accomplishments in battle. Despite this emphasis on violence, the Maya were also able to achieve some amazing things. For example, they developed a written language and a sophisticated calendar system that spawned the relatively recent cultural phenomenon regarding the year 2012. In making their calculations, the Maya also made the impressive development of the concept of zero, an important leap in mathematical ability that helped them with their intricate understanding of astronomy and mathematics. With all of their achievements, however, this civilization also began a rapid decline sometime around 800 CE. Evidence suggests people started leaving the cities in increasing numbers, migrating elsewhere. Historians believe the cause of this was due to a number of factors including disease, internal civil conflict, and external invasions from neighboring peoples. By 900 CE, the Maya were no longer identifiable as a cohesive civilization, although Mayan people continue to live in their old territory even today.
The Teotihuacans were another civilization that owes some of what it became to their predecessor Olmecs. The Teotihuacans occupied the highlands of Mexico. Their primary city, Teotihuacan, was only about 31 miles northeast of modern day Mexico City and was one of the most sophisticated cities in Mesoamerica in 100 CE. The two most prominent monuments in this city were the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon, creating perhaps the first city skyline in the ‘new world’. It is estimated the city housed somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 people. Huge marketplaces, scores of temples, single family residences as well as apartment complexes have been discovered dating back to sometime between 400 and 600 CE. Based on the number and placement of temples, it appears this culture was deeply religious and supported a number of artisans, merchants and cultivators as a part of supporting its massive population. Priests occupied a prestigious position in the social hierarchy because of their mathematical knowledge and as keepers of the calendar system. Because of this, they were also the individuals responsible for determining when it was time to plant and when it was time to harvest. Again, the city seemed to have lost its power suddenly, perhaps in an internal civil war as evidence suggests mostly it was just the buildings of power that were burned and people, including the later Aztecs, continued to live in the city until the advent of the Spanish invasion. Upon contact with the Europeans, the population suffered devastating loss from disease and warfare and the civilization died.