Early American Culture

There were many developed civilizations in the Americas that predate Columbus’s arrival, some of which have been found to have been active 3,000 years before his arrival. Most of these civilizations were dependent on water-supported agriculture, which grew the following crops: Maize; Beans; Squash; Tomatoes; as well as Peppers. These civilizations knew of the wheel and the use of metals, but did not actively use the technologies associated with these things. Because of the lack of technology among these civilizations, trade was vital for survival. Many of these civilizations used a hieroglyphic writing system, were polytheistic, and believed in sacrifice and self-mutilation. Two important civilizations were the Olmecs and the Chavín culture. The Olmecs were best known for their artwork. Many of their “colossal head” statues can still be found in Central and South America. The Chavín culture is best known for their pyramids, which were innovative for their times due to the use of metallurgy and drainage systems which allowed for protection and longevity of their constructions.


American Civilizations: Early Cultures
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American Civilizations: Early Cultures


Mesoamerica, which is present day Central and South America, was home to many developed civilizations 3,000 years before the arrival of Columbus. Christopher Columbus sailed from Europe to the Americas in 1492, and he discovered America for Europe, but there were lots of civilizations developed there over 3000 years before he got there. Whenever he did get to America, he found people there.


There were civilizations that lived there before Europeans got there. These early civilizations were very dependent on water-supported agriculture. This is similar to cultures throughout the world. Most of them developed in a place where there was water that could support agriculture. That way, they could settle down in one spot and they wouldn’t have to have the hunter/gatherer lifestyle anymore.


They’d be able to stay in one place and slowly build up that community. They grew maize, which is corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, and peppers. They grew other things, too, but these are some of the items that the early cultures of Mesoamerica are known for having domesticated. They learned how to grow them well and keep them growing in one place. They grew them annually so that they would have these foods as a staple for their diet.


They could slowly build up surpluses and keep them for if there was a year where they didn’t grow very much. They lacked large animals for domestication, such as horses, donkeys, and oxen. Where, in other areas of the world, people were able to domesticate these large animals and use them to help with agricultural work, the people in Mesoamerica were not able to do so.


The work in the field that they did was mainly done by human hands instead of by humans directing large animals to do the work. However, these early cultures were able to domesticate some animals for food purposes, such as turkeys, dogs, ducks, and deer. They may have domesticated something else as well, but these are the ones that scientists found hard evidence that they have they had domesticated.


They found these present in large numbers around these early cultural sites. They also ate fruit, hunted, and fished if they lived near water. While the early cultures in Mesoamerica were stabilized in one spot, they had their water-supported agriculture and they were living in one place, weren’t doing the hunter/gatherer living anymore, they did still eat things that grew outside of what they domesticated.


They did still hunt to add to their food supply and they fished if they lived near water and had that opportunity. Most early cultures knew of the wheel and basic metallurgy, but neither became culturally important. The wheel was most often used with these large animals so that the large animals could carry big loads around in a cart on wheels or using different tools in the field that used wheels. Since these early cultures didn’t have domesticated large animals, they didn’t have this large of a need for the wheel.


They knew about it. They knew how it worked. They may have used it some, but it wasn’t culturally important to them, because they didn’t have these large animals that would have made it so. As far as metallurgy goes, they knew how to work metals, but, while Europe was going through an Iron Age, the people in Mesoamerica weren’t as culturally dependent or concerned with metal working, because they were using other things.


Trade was important, because most cultures lived in regions where they couldn’t be entirely self-sufficient. That’s not to say they couldn’t have fed themselves and lived a basic lifestyle. As these cultures were able to settle down in one spot and grow up and have more and more of an urban center kind of develop, more people in one place meant that people were going to be able to specialize what they did, and they were going to want to make artistic things, and learn more, and write.


Some of the things that they wanted weren’t going to be found in their one region. They would trade for them. They may have said, “Oh, I want this particular jewel from over there, so I’m going to trade for it,” or “I may want this particular stone type from overhear, so I’m going to have to trade for that.” Where they would have had all the food, water, and shelter that they needed for basic survival, they didn’t have everything they wanted in one region.


The regions that have to trade with each other. Trade was very important between these early cultures. A calendar was developed to use with agriculture, which included four seasons, two solstices, and two equinoxes. Later cultures did add to this calendar and did make it much more detailed, more tailored to their particular culture, both religiously or with culturally significant events incorporated into it, but the first calendar was developed with agriculture.


It showed them when the solstices and equinoxes being marked out on it, showed them when the seasons were changing, it told them when they could plant certain crops, when they should harvest certain crops, and when they could expect food to come in. That’s what was important to them. While the calendar was definitely added to later on, the first calendar that these early cultures viewed was primarily for agriculture.


They developed writing systems mainly based on hieroglyphics. A lot of their histories were still passed down orally, so there’s not always a great written history with these early cultures, but they did have writing systems. Early cultures believed in multiple deities, many based in nature. They didn’t say there was just one God. They believed there were lots of gods, many of them based on items in nature that they depended on for survival.


Religion also included shamanistic elements, as well as human sacrifice and self-mutilation. People would cut themselves to tell a god that they were making this sacrifice or they would kill themselves to make the sacrifice. An example would be if they hadn’t had rain in a while. People may think, “Oh, the rain gods are asking for a sacrifice,” so people would cut themselves to make themselves bleed and that blood would be their sacrifice via self-mutilation, or they would just kill themselves and say, “I’m sacrificing my whole self so that my community will get rain and can continue going on.” That was one aspect of the religion.


The shamanistic elements let you know that these early cultures believed that their Shamans, certain people chosen in their culture, were able to communicate with the spirit world. The Sharmans may have even said, “Oh, the rain god is demanding a sacrifice.” Then someone would either volunteer themselves or be volunteered by a leader. Religion during that time in Mesoamerica for these early cultures did involve many deities, shamanistic elements, and human sacrifice and self-mutilation were common as well.


The ball game was something that was played by most early civilizations. There is evidence of courts and supplies for this game through most of the early cultures. It involves keeping a rubber ball in motion. Different cultures used different ways to do that. Some would hit it with their hips, some would hit it with the hand, some had racquets, some hit it with their head, but the basic goal was to keep the ball in motion.


And it was played often for fun, even by children. It was something people grew up playing and it was fun for them. However, there were formal games that had ritual significance. Sometimes, they would have a ball game that would be a formal game. The losers of this game were going to be a human sacrifice. These formal games also had a religious significance, as well as being something that was supposed to be fun.


Again, most people will still played it for fun, but there were times where it was used as a religious ritual instead of just a game. Two important early civilizations in Mesoamerica were the Olmecs and the Chavín culture. The Olmecs were the first complex civilization in Mesoamerica, existing from around 1400 B.C. to 400 B.C. There were other civilizations before now, but this is the first one considered a complex civilization.


They had the water-supported agriculture. They were staying in one spot. They were developing writing. They were domesticating animals. They had religion, and of course they played the ball game. They were best known for their artwork. Once a civilization gets to settle down in one spot and have some free time, that’s usually when they start developing artwork. The Olmecs were best known for this artwork. Theirs involved large and elaborate stone carvings, including the colossal heads.


These were giant heads that had almond-shaped eyes and downturned mouths, and they were much larger heads than would normally be proportionate on a body. They were very intricately carved. Different stones were used. Sometimes they used Jade. Sometimes they used green stones. Sometimes they just used whatever clay, anything that they had around, but some were done very intricately and polished and had different jewels embedded in them.


Their artwork was very impressive, and the colossal heads are something unique to the Olmecs. The Chavín culture developed in the Andes Mountain region in present day Peru. Where the Olmecs were more in central Mesoamerica, the Chavín culture was along the western coast in the Andes Mountains, if you think about where present day Peru is, and then along the nearby coastline. They actually were a civilization that was going to have access to water and be more involved with fishing.


They existed from around 900 B.C. to 200 B.C. The Chavín built intricate temples and pyramids using metallurgy to add gold to their design. While this wasn’t a culturally important thing where they just depended on the gold, they did find a way to use it and incorporate it into their temples and pyramids. They also developed drainage systems to keep their temples from flooding and being destroyed.


They knew they were going to have a rainy season, and when that happened water got really high, because it rained for so long. They built drainage systems underneath their temples, so all the water would drain down underneath the temple, preserving it, letting it not flood and slowly be destroyed. The water just drained away. That was something that was unique to the Chavín culture at that time. There were many early cultures in Mesoamerica.


Two of the best known early cultures were the Olmecs and the Chavín culture. Different characteristics of all the early cultures were water-supported agriculture, a writing system based on hieroglyphics, and religion based on multiple deities, as well as the ball game, which was found in most early civilizations.



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Last updated: 08/10/2018

 

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