Early River Valley Civilizations in the Americas

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Americas were already full of complex civilizations. But which ones came first? In this lesson we'll talk about the development of settled civilizations in the Western Hemisphere.

Early River Civilizations of the Americas

It's easy to take the idea of civilization for granted. We are pretty used to the concept of a highly-organized, complex, and completely sedentary society featuring political and social organization. But, as with everything else, at some point this style of society had to be invented. Around the world, we find places where the first civilizations popped up, independently of anything else, and inspired changes throughout that region. We've also noticed that most of these first civilizations tend to have one thing in common: access to fresh water and fertile soil. It makes sense: you need water and food to build a large, non-mobile society, and so we call these the Early River Valley Civilizations. The official Early River Valley Civilizations are in Mesopotamia, India, Egypt, and China, but what about the Americas? The Western Hemisphere was full of advanced civilizations too, and those came from somewhere. Not all of these societies were necessarily river valley based, but they were the first, and that's worth looking at.

First Civilizations of South America

South America is home to the most diverse ecosystems in the world, and across history had some of the greatest cultural and ethnic diversity. However, only some of these cultures decided to form what we would call settled civilizations. The oldest can be found in the Supe Valley along Peru's Pacific coast. In this river valley is a site called Caral, which researchers only began to really appreciate as of 2001. This site is still rather new to us, but it's evident that there was a major civilization here, with monumental pyramids and complex urban centers. What's really exciting about the Caral-Supe civilization, however, are the dates. This site has been dated back to 2600 BCE. That's about the same time the Great Pyramids were built in Egypt, and makes this the oldest settled civilization in the Western Hemisphere by over a millennium.

The city of Caral as possibly the first in the Americas

Peru is generally treated as the home to South America's first civilizations, and that's largely thanks to the Andes Mountains. This mountain range is full of rich soil and deep valleys full of water. So, it's not surprising that many of the oldest civilizations of the continent appeared throughout here. The oldest settled societies within the Andes themselves (the Caral-Supe were mostly coastal) were found in the Lake Titicaca Basin, 12,000 feet above sea level. From roughly 1200 BCE, settled societies developed around the lake, building up some complex civilizations. Some of these would later stretch across the Andes into the Urubamba River Valley, including the famous Inca Empire by the 15th century CE.


Moving north, we enter Mesoamerica, the narrow but fertile strip of land connecting the two continents of the hemisphere. This region was home to diverse groups of hunter-gatherer societies for millennia, then one day a group called the Olmec sort of appeared around 1200 BCE and built a major settled civilization. Okay, it wasn't quite that simple, but the Olmec's history is still largely a mystery. We don't know exactly where they came from, but their cities first appear along the coast by what is now Veracruz, Mexico.

Olmec civilization is often remembered through distinctive scultpures
Olmec statue

After the Olmec, the region we now call Mexico started filling up with settled civilizations. The Maya inhabited the jungles, relying on the abundant resources of Mesoamerica's rainforests, but the first societies to really grow around a river valley were in central Mexico, and, just like the people of Peru, seemed to like high elevations. The Valley of Mexico ranged from 7,200 to 16,000 feet above sea level, and holds the massive Lake Texcoco. The first major city to be built here was called Teotihuacan around 200 BCE. Teotihuacan featured some of the most advanced irrigation and engineering in the world. Other cities would soon fill the Valley of Mexico, such as one in the 14th century called Tenochtitlán. It was from this city the Mexica people launched the famous Aztec Empire.

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