Identify the three major pre-Columbian civilizations that existed in Central and South America (Maya, Aztec, and Inca) and their locations. Describe their political structures, religious practices, and use of slaves. (H, G, E)

Be sure to include the following key names events and terms in this page

Land Bridge
Sioux, Pawnee, Pueblo, Iroquois

How They Came

The Native American’s sojourn across the Bering land bridge was made possible by the end of the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. Prehistoric humans followed mammoths and other prey across the bridge and into modern day Alaska and eventually down into other parts of America. Tribes split apart depending on nomadic traditions or the movement of prey sought after by hunters. Many Native American tribes can be traced back to the prehistoric humans who made the daunting trek across the Bering land bridge (

The Mayans

The Mayans were located in the Yucatan Peninsula. This peninsula was separated into 18 different Mayan states with a multitude of smaller towns and cities under the rule of a capital city. Nine of these states were ruled by a sole leader called a halach uinic. The other 9 states were ruled by elite nobles with a prestigious lineage. The halach uinic’s power was limited by the council, or the holpop, and special military or foreign advisors. The halach uinic was still seen to be the most powerful person in the state and he was required to be from a prestigious lineage. Rulers were followed by their sons or brother and if there was none then a suitable candidate was elected by the priest and council. The Ancient Mayans had a very similar political structure to that of the Aztecs. The only difference was that the Mayans were divided into political states that were brought together through trade, political alliances and tribute obligations. Initially, the Mayans were run by simple chiefdoms but by the Classic Period, the Mayans were governed by legitimate leaders who gained power through political connections and their divine lineages. Any person who decided to disobey their rulers faced severe punishment because the Mayans believed that following the orders of their leader was critical to keeping the Mayan universe in a state of homeostasis.



Mayans, much like the Aztecs revered many different Gods, but they saw Gods as forces of nature. They believed the heavens, underworlds and earth were connected by a vast tree with its branches in the heavens and roots in the underworlds. Another accepted myth was that the world was on the back of a giant crocodile or turtle. Mayans believed they could communicate with their Gods through prayer, sacrifices, and visions. The Mayan’s also believed that each person was born with an animal spirit counterpart and believed that they could change into their counterpart; kings always had a jaguar as an animal companion, and shamans could have more than one or two Animal counterparts. Sacrifices were often made to the Gods through offerings of food, a human sacrifice from a person captured in combat, or “bloodletting;” Mayans would cut themselves with the belief that the blood would nourish and please the Gods. Kings often presided over the sacrificial ceremonies. The Mayans were adamant in the belief that the kings and priests were the main connection to the “world tree” (

Slaves In the Mayan CultureIn the Mayan society, slaves were the lowest tier of the totem pole. They were made up of orphans, criminals, prisoners of war, other enemies and the children of slaves. These slaves were not treated badly but, they enjoyed no privileges and they were the main source of manual labor and human sacrifice.(

external image aztec-mayan-map.jpg

The Aztecs

The Aztec tribe is believed to have come from a mythological city called “Aztlan,” which seven Aztec tribes abandoned because of oppression. The tribes settled in what is now modern day central Mexico ( The Aztecs eventually broke into three major cities, Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopan.


Political structures in Aztec society shared some similarities with that of the great roman empires. The foundation of Aztec government began with the family unit, which had little power and no land individually, but a group of families would form a “Calpulli.” Each Calpulli would have leadership that provided land and sustenance for the members of the Calpulli. The Calpulli’s answered orders from city councils made up of four members; there was one city council for each of the three major cities. The city councils mirrored the Roman senate in many ways, such as electing priesthood and nobility to the councils, and holding much of the power of the Aztecs. A “Huey Tlatcani” or Great speaker would be elected by the city councils. The Great Speaker was worshipped as a God and had absolute power, but the Huey Tlatcani was elected in a semi-democratic fashion, and could be removed from power. The Aztec empire was a conquering nation, but although it forced tributes from conquered lands the reigning Great Speaker would often allow a certain amount of freedom toward conquered foes (


Religion was a major cornerstone of the Aztec society, which worshipped nearly 1,000 different Gods and Goddesses. The Aztecs believed that the Gods would be pleased by sacrifice and chose many sacred days to sacrifice chosen people, volunteers, or slaves to Gods in need of pleasing. One major religious event was the “O’Nothing Days,” in which

Priests would get dressed up like gods and go to an extinct volcano to perform human sacrifices. These sacrifices would occur when the evening star rose high in the sky. The captive would be placed over either a stone chosen just for this purpose or an altar. The victims' hearts would be set on fire and torn out of their chests. Once removed from their bodies, it would be lifted toward the sun and placed in a dish that was believed to be sacred. The bodies of the sacrificed would be pushed down the stairs of the temple. It may be surprising to learn that many of the sacrificed were happy to give up their bodies, as they believed that it was their instant ticket to heaven”(

Aztecs had a strong belief in afterlife, they believed in a series of nine hells and thirteen heavens. Unlike many western religions, Aztecs believed that you were sent to a heaven or hell depending on the way one died, not the deeds prior to one’s death. Men killed in combat and women who passed away in child birth were granted eternal paradise with the sun God, Huizilopochtlid. Others would first have to go through the underworld to reach their paradise. The Aztec religion mainly revolved around appeasing blood thirsty Gods, and killing tens of thousands a year in holy sacrifices.

Slaves in Aztec Society

Slavery in Aztec society was much different from the modern concept of slavery. There were four ways to become a slave in Aztec Societies one could be taken in battle, commit certain crimes, sell themselves into slavery, or be sold into slavery by a parent. The latter two were often because of outstanding debts. Slaves had two major uses, they could either be used as sacrifices (which often pleased the slave), or they could be used for menial labor. Although the slaves were indentured to their owners slaves could work to buy their freedom; they were also allowed to marry and have children who would be born free. Slavery in Aztec society was nothing like the harsh strictures of the modern application of indentured workers (

The Incas

The largest pre-Columbian civilization to rise in South America was the Incan Empire. It stretched down the Pacific Coast of South America, encompassing parts of modern day Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. They began as a small tribe which built the city of Cuzco, in what is now Southern Peru. The Incan tribe did not begin to expand its territory until 1438 under the rule of Pachakuti. They expanded for the next 100 years, until the Spanish conquistadors came. The Incas, like many other native American tribes, were not immune to European diseases, and were plagued by small pox. In 1527, the Sapa Inca, who was the leader of the empire, died without naming a successor. This caused a civil war, adding to the problems the Inca faced. To make matters worse, in 1532 a conquistador named Francisco Pizzaro landed in Incan territory, took the Sapa Inca who had managed to regain some form of control hostage, and captured the capital city of Cuzco. When the Sapa Inca paid a ransom in gold and silver, he was executed as an enemy of Pizzaro and a heretic. The Inca were never able to recapture their capital, and continued resistance until 1572, when they were, for the most part, wiped out(Collier).


The Incan political system consisted of an emperor, as well as governors who were established to rule the different regions of the Incan Empire. The emperor, known as the Sapa Inca, was part of the original Incan tribe, and was believed by his followers to be a descendent of the Sun God, which was named Inti. Because of the King’s divine lineage, only his descendents were permitted to hold the throne. Below the Sapa Inca were the royalty, which consisted of his family members. Below them came the nobility, which consisted of governors, the priests, and the wealthy. The governors were not generally Incan, but were native to the province they governed. When the Incans captured territory, they generally kidnapped the former ruler’s son, raised him and taught him themselves, and reinstated him to rule the province. The reason for this is that the conquered people would be obedient to one of their own, and the Incan tribe was to completely oppress conquered people and still maintain a functioning society. The conquered people were generally integrated into Incan society, instead of being oppressed. (Alam, Lambert)


(Left) Portrait of Atahualpa, the Sapa Inca when Pizarro and the Conquistadors attacked.

(Right) Map of the Incan Empire


The Incans had a polytheistic religious system. They believed that there was a single creator, Viracocha, and this deity created the sun, moon, oceans, mountains, etc. They looked upon the sun as god, named Inti. With the understanding that the sun was essential to life, they focused their worship on the sun god. This is why the Incan emperor had to be a descendent of the sun god. Like many early religions in the eastern Hemisphere, such as those of the Greek, Egyptian, and Roman civilizations, the gods the Incans worshipped represented different aspects of and occurrence in nature. Cultures like the Aztecs were known to practice human sacrifice. In the case of the Incas, this was rare, and was only believed to follow serious natural events such as serious earthquakes or droughts. (Alam, Lambert)

Slaves in the Inca Society

Slaves were not a class in Incan society. All Incans were required to serve their emperor, and in lieu of slavery, could be called upon for civil service. This was looked upon as a sort of tax. When the Incas conquered a land, they would not enslave a people. They would re-divide the lands, leaving portions for the indigenous population, for the Emperor, and for the sun god. The conquered people, most notably the conquered peasants, would be required to make tributes in resources and civil service to the emperor and sun god. In return for cooperation, they would be allowed to maintain their farms and serve their own gods and governments, although the Incas were known to select and instate whomever they deemed fit to lead of that region’s government. There were no designated slaves in Incan society because the Emperor was able to amass sufficient wealth through taxes and mandated civil service. (Metreaux)

Other Tribes

Native American tribes were not only prevalent in Central and South America. There were also many tribes in North America. One example of these tribes was the Sioux. This was a nomadic Indian tribe that roamed the interior plains of America, following the buffalo. Another group of Indians was the Pawnee. The Pawnee actually consisted of four sub-tribes, which are the Chaui, the Kitkehahki, the Pitahauerat, and the Skidi, although the Chaui were the dominant tribe. The Pawnee Indians made a living through agriculture, and were settled in what is now Nebraska. Another tribe of Indians are the Pueblo Indians, whose name comes from the Spanish word for village. Spanish explorers who saw these Indians gave them this name because they built stone houses, and were not nomadic. They resided in the land of what are now Arizona and New Mexico. Another group of Indians is the Iroquois League. The Iroquois League consisted of five tribes; the Iroquois, the Mohawks, the Oneida, the Seneca, and the Cayuga. The Iroquois lived in longhouses in what is now New York. All of the North American Indian societies were dwarfed in comparison to the Aztec, Incan, and Mayan Empires. While certain tribes, such as the Pueblos, built cities, these were dwarfed in comparison to the cities of the Aztecs, Incans, and Mayans. The word village, rather than city, is more representative of the average Native American establishment. They did not build large, long lasting temples to their gods, and did not work to conquer all the territory they could. They skirmished with other tribes, but they generally did this because of rivalries and other political disputes, not because they were seriously expanding. They did not have the resources to expand and construct vast empires. (American Indian Heritage Foundation)


American Indian Heritage Foundation. “Sioux Indians.” . 2011.

American Indian Heritage Foundation. “Pawnee Indians.” . 2011.

American Indian Heritage Foundation.“Pueblo Indians.” . 2011.

American Indian Heritage Foundation. “Iroquois Indians.” . 2011.

Alam, Shoeb.”Inca Society.” . 2009.

Alam, Shoeb. “Inca Religion.” 2009.

Lambert, Tim.”The Incas.” 2008.

Metreaux, Alfred. “Incan Life and Society- The Peasants/ Slaves.” 1999.

Collier, P.F. Newfield Publications. “The Incas.” 1996.

"Ancient Aztec Government." Aztec History. Web. 30 Aug. 2011.

Aztec History. Web. 30 Aug. 2011.

"Aztec Religion." Aztec History. Web. 30 Aug. 2011.

"Aztec Slavery." Historic Clothing: Expanded Site. Web. 30 Aug. 2011.

"Land Bridge Migration Theory Finally Debunked." Manataka American Indian Council. Web. 30 Aug. 2011.

Tarlton Law Library. Web. 30 Aug. 2011. <>.

Maps and Pictures

Map of Incan Empire

Portrait of Atahualpa

Aztec Section by: Kevin W
Inca Section by: Steven A
Maya Section by: Kory