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Ancient New World Civilizations: The Big Picture

Activity: Native cultures have existed in the Americas for thousands of years. Introduce some of the major ancient cultures to your students by creating a time line and a map of the early civilizations of North, Central, and South America.

Background: Talk with your students about the long history of Native American cultures. People lived on this continent long before the early European settlers established colonies on American soil — even long before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. Civilizations have existed in North, Central, and South America for thousands of years. As the Egyptians have their great pyramids, the Maya also built complex temples and pyramids.

Anthropologists believe people were living in the Americas as long as 20,000 years ago. According to one popular theory, the Americas were first populated by peoples who had migrated to this continent by crossing the Bering Strait (between what is now Alaska and Russia) when it was frozen over during an ice age. Over thousands of years, people gradually moved south - down through North America, Central America, and some as far as South America. For many years, people hunted and foraged for food. Between 5000 and 3000 B.C., early Americans first began to farm the land.

  1. The first known civilization was the Olmec. They flourished from about 1300 to 400 B.C. in Central America. In the centuries to follow, other civilizations would form in the Americas, including the:

    •Maya
    •Aztec
    •Inca
    •Anasazi

  2. Begin this unit by telling your students that one of these early societies — the Anasazi — existed from 100 B.C. to A.D. 1600. Help your students to understand these dates, explaining the meaning of B.C. and A.D. Ask them to figure out how many centuries the Anasazi flourished. Then, challenge your students to find the dates for the Maya, Aztec, and Inca by visiting the timeline Web sites listed below.

  3. Give your students a piece of draft paper four or five feet long to create their own time line of early American societies. Ask them to begin the time line with 3000 B.C. and end with the current year 2000, marking every 500 years. Using colored lines, mark the period of each early American culture. You may want to have them include significant dates of other ancient cultures for comparison: e.g., ancient Egypt, 3000–30 B.C. (Pyramids completed around 2500 B.C); ancient Greece (Athens and Sparta), 500 to 300 B.C.

  4. Next, use a world map or print one of the online maps suggested below to locate these ancient American civilizations geographically. Place colored labels or use colored pencils to indicate the locations of the Maya, Aztec, Inca, and Anasazi. (For example, the Anasazi lived in the "Four Corners," the place where the borders of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet.)

  5. Hang your time line and world map in a prominent place in the classroom to use as a reference throughout this unit.
 

Sites:

Here are some Web sites where you can find time lines:

Mesoamerica Time Line
www.mesoweb.com/resources/timelines/crystal_timeline.html

Central and South American Chronology campus.northpark.edu/history/WebChron/Americas/Americas.html

Here are some Web sites where you can find maps:

American Civilizations
http://library.thinkquest.org/C006206F/?tqskip1=1&tqtime=0613
(The home page is the map.)

World Map
www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/main.html?main=atlas
(Hint: Use one of the printable page-size formats.)