Pre-Columbian Culture & Development

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  • 0:02 Major Agricultural Areas
  • 1:55 Social Organization
  • 3:01 Large Works
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Pre-Columbian civilization in the Americas was much more than tipis and friendly natives. Native Americans built empires connected by roads, performed massive controlled burns, and changed the course of the Mississippi River.

Major Agricultural Areas

During the time before the opening of the New World to European exploration by Columbus in 1492, the Americas were full of indigenous civilizations that were often shockingly similar, and shockingly different, from their counterparts in Eurasia. While some cultures in the Americas were still hunter-gatherers, especially those in the far north, a shocking number of them were settled and agricultural. In the American East, societies thrived off the produce of fields that included beans, corn, and squash. Further to the south, in Mexico and the American Southwest, even more elaborate societies placed a great emphasis on these same crops, especially corn, while famously in the Andes Mountains, the Inca and others prospered from multiple varieties of potatoes.

Yet there were societies that toed the line between agricultural and not agricultural. The most intriguing of these were found in the Amazon region. Here, small fields grew a few staple crops in the shadow of the jungle canopy, but early observers said that much of the food came from gathering. However, more anthropological evidence has pointed to something truly extraordinary. It seems that many natives in the region may have encouraged the growth of certain plants, for both medicinal and food purposes, along the scattered trails that linked the small settlements that dotted the forest.

Even hunter-gatherers worked to perfect their environments for their own purposes. Ever wonder why the Great Plains have such rich agricultural soil, yet few forests? Again, we can thank the first Americans in this region, who without the benefit of Spanish horses, needed a way to move quickly across the region without trees, and wanted to encourage large populations of the animals they hunted. Their solution was simple: controlled burnings that limited the growth of thick forests.

Social Organization

Needless to say, all this effort took considerable social organization. Among the smaller societies, namely those in the Great Plains and the Amazon, this was often passed along as simply a cultural practice, much like a way to best construct a pot or tend a field. This complemented the decentralized nature of these territories. However, as the level of settlement increased, so did the level of centralization and complexity of society. The settlements of Eastern North America featured structures that resembled many Greek city-states with regards to either a king with a very powerful council, or the placement of power in the hands of an assembly.

Not surprisingly, the larger empires of the Inca and Aztec featured the most complex societies, including many similarities to European societies. Again, a king was paramount; however a number of ministers surrounded the king, providing constant advice on all subjects. Additionally, a highly-structured system of priests, not at all dissimilar to that used by the Catholic Church, intertwined politics and faith, again, not a foreign concept for Europeans.

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