GED Social Studies Practice Test: The Culture of the Americas

About 40,000 years ago, peoples of Asia entered North America by way of the Bering Land Bridge. The first peoples were hunter-gatherers. Eventually, humans migrated throughout North America and South America. Connecting the two continents is Central America (sometimes known as Mesoamerica). The two continents contain a wide variety of climates, physical features, and resources, and thus a wide variety of cultures arose.

The first cultures of Mesoamerica were settled about 1000 B.C.E. The area is warm and has an abundance of rainfall, and farming was possible. The most important crop grown was corn (maize) [which would not be known to Europe until Europeans explored the Americas in the late 1400s and early 1500s]. The early peoples of this region also grew squash, peppers, and fruits. The did not have horses (which were brought to the New World by Europeans), but did domesticate some small animals.

Most of the early civilizations of Mesoamerica had short lives . For our purposes, the two most important Mesoamerican cultures are the Mayan (in modern-day Mexico and Guatemala) (approximately 600 B.C.E. to the late 1300s or 1400s) and two empires that were destroyed by Spanish invaders: The Aztec (1200s – 1519) and the Inca (1200s – 1532).

 

The Mayan Empire

The Mayans were not a true empire in that power was concentrated in city-states. However, most communities shared value systems and religions (which were polytheistic). Human sacrifice was believed to please the gods and keep natural forces in balance. They built elaborate tombs and temples, and farmed in the hot, moist climate. The high point of the Mayan Empire ran from about 250 to 900, which enormous and complex cities being constructed in modern-day Guatemala and Mexico.

The Mayans understood the concept of zero and developed astonishingly complex calendars and astronomical observations. Their writing system was based on pictorial representations, but is still not fully understood today. Pottery and objects made of jade were used to store goods and were also traded.

For reasons that are still not understood, some Mayan settlements began to be abandoned in the ninth century. War between city-states furthered weakened the Mayan people, and by the time Spanish conquistadores arrived in the region in the early 1500s, the culture was largely extinct. To this day, no one can say exactly why the Mayans disappeared, although their descendants are scattered through the region and traces of the language are still used today.

 

The Aztec Empire

The Aztecs arose in the 1200s on the foundations of earlier Mesoamerican civilizations. They settled in the central valley of modern-day Mexico. Their first settlement was on the shores of Lake Texcoco (modern-day Mexico City) and began to conquer surrounding territory. With its superb and well-disciplined army, the Aztec Empire grew in power and prominence and reached its apex in the 1400s. The capital, Tenochtitlán, was a large and surprisingly modern city. The Aztecs used a system of landfill and engineering to create artificial islands in Lake Texcoco, and the city had more than 100,000 inhabitants.

The Aztecs had a highly developed culture than encompassed art (made from gold, silver, and precious stones), a polytheistic religion (involving human sacrifice, usually of slaves captured in battle), a social hierarchy with nobles and priests at the highest levels. The emperor was considered to be a god on earth, but did consult with his noblemen.

The Aztec Empire did not die off; it was killed. When Hernando Cortés and his Spanish warriors arrived on the coast of Mexico in 1519, they marched on Tenochtitlán, took the emperor prisoner, and completely destroyed the city and carried off a fortune in gold and silver.

 

The Inca Empire

To the south of the Mayan and Aztec Empires, along the Pacific coast of South America, lay the Incan Empire (encompassing modern-day Ecuador, Peru, and Chile). Of the three empires, it was the most populous, with over 10 million people, and the most heterogeneous, encompassing over 100 ethnic groups.

The emperor was considered a representative of the sun god and his power was total. All men were subject to military service or service to the state. The empire had a superb network of roads and bridges, and gold and silver were mined in numerous places.

All of the different peoples of the empire were required to learn about the Incan way of life, its language, and its theology. Interestingly, the Inca did not have a writing system. A complex network of government officials controlled most aspects of everyday life. Farmers were required to give a portion of their crops to the government, women had cloth quotas, and the government maintained storehouses of food in case of famine. The potato was a staple crop of the Inca. To farm the hillsides and rugged territory, they dug terraces into the mountainsides.

Like the Aztec Empire, the Inca Empire was conquered and destroyed by Spanish explorers. In 1532, Spanish soldiers captured the emperor and looted the cities of their silver and gold. By the late 1500s, Spain had conquered all of the former empire’s vast territory.

 

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