The first wave of human migrants into the Americas took place about 13,000 B.C.E. over a land bridge between present day Siberia and Alaska. Known as the Bering land bridge among historians today, it is also believed that some of these migrants may have traveled by watercraft, sailing, or drifting with the currents.
Hunting and gathering was a way of life for these early migrants. However, around 8,000 B.C.E., evidence suggests that they began to settle into agricultural lifestyles and communities. This involved growing beans, squashes, peppers, avocados, and gourds. Definitive evidence suggests that villages were firmly reliant on a agricultural lifestyle in the Americas by 3,000 B.C.E. Large ceremonial centers also arose toward the end of this millennium, with structures such as monumental pyramids, temples, and palaces that were constructed in accordance with ruling elites and priests.
The first real civilization in Mesoamerica were the Olmecs, or the ‘Rubber People,’ who appeared along the present day Gulf of Mexico near the modern day Mexican city of Veracruz. The Olmecs are believed to have emerged here as an organized civilization around 1200 B.C.E. In addition to constructing ceremonial centers, the Olmecs also developed elaborate drainage and irrigation systems that remain intact today.
The Olmec ceremonial centers feature temples, pyramids, altars, tombs of rulers, and stone sculptures. One of the most distinctive constructions of the Olmecs were the colossal human heads sculpted from basalt rock, with the largest standing almost ten feet tall and weighing 20 tons. The Olmecs were skilled tool builders, as well as expert masons, based on archaeological evidence. The disappearance of the Olmecs remains largely unknown with unanswered questions as to why they deliberately destroyed their ceremonial centers. Perhaps there were internal divisions or civil wars among factions. By 400 B.C.E., the Olmecs were gone, but many of the emerging Mesoamerican societies adopted their traditions and belief systems in similar ways. The most fascinating of these were the Maya who occupied present-day southern Mexico and Guatemala around 300 B.C.E.
The peak of Mayan culture and civilization occurred from 300 to 900 C.E., when more than eighty large ceremonial centers were constructed that featured palaces, temples, and pyramids. These ceremonial centers remain visible and standing to this day. One of the most impressive architectural structures is the Temple of the Giant Jaguar, which rose to a height of 154 feet in the center of their city: Tikal. The population is believed to have been as high as 40,000 at one time. However, there were many other smaller cities that also had elaborate ceremonial centers, such as Palenque and Chichen Itza. In recent years, it has been found that the Mayan civilization was significantly shaped by warfare and prestige gained on the battlefields.
The Mayan civilization began to rapidly decline by 800 C.E., as people left the cities and migrated elsewhere. Experts believe that a variety of problems plagued this civilization, ultimately leading to its decline. Civil conflict and invasions from outsiders are a likely contributing factor. However, the Mayans did generate some incredible achievements during its era. Building on its Olmec predecessors, the Mayans were able to devise a sophisticated calendar and writing system. Additionally, the Mayans developed the concept of zero and are considered to be advanced astronomers and mathematicians for this time period.
Other successors of the Olmecs were the Teotihuacans, who occupied the highlands of Mexico, close to present-day Mexico City. The city center, Teotihuacan, was about 31 miles northeast of modern Mexico City, which was one of the most sophisticated and advanced Mesoamerican settings around 100 C.E. The city’s two monuments, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, were dominant features of the city, which was home to roughly two hundred thousand people. A variety of people lived here, such as cultivators, artisans, and merchants. A thriving city, there were a number of temples, residences, small apartments, and extensive marketplaces between 400 and 600 C.E. Evidence indicates that the Teotihuacans were also very religious, as a result of its many pyramids and worshipping centers. The priests were prestigious and highly esteemed members of this society, as they maintained the calendar system, which was responsible for dictating harvest and planting times.
The Andean Society comprises present day South America in the modern day states of Peru and Bolivia. It is believed that this culture arose between 2500 and 2000 B.C.E. One of the most notable developments in this civilization was the Chavin cult, which emerged around 1000 B.C.E. Although little information is available about this cult group, it greatly emphasized agricultural success by promoting fertility rituals. Stone carvings have been found that represent certain deities, such as jaguars, hawks, eagles, and snakes. The Oceania societies emerged approximately 60,000 years ago and the migrations have only continued throughout the millenniums, extending across from New Guinea and Australia to the islands in the Pacific Ocean.