Welcome back to our history lessons. Today’s lesson takes over to the other side of the Bering Land Bridge and other similar bridges to visit ancient peoples in Mesoamerica and Oceania. When we last touched base with the Americas, prehistoric peoples were getting super adventurous and crossing land bridges left by the shallow seas at the time. These peoples spread as far and as wide as they could, going from the top of North America to the bottom of South America. In their way were mountains, rivers, forests, and even oceans. How these peoples interacted with the environments they chose to inhabit shaped history.
The earliest humans to enter North America from the Bering Land Bridge found their way to the south of the world by 7000 BCE at the latest, and their hunting and gathering efforts met similar fates to those of Europe and Asia, and they were forced to farm.
The Olmecs were the true original inhabitants of Mesoamerica. These peoples grew beans, squash, avocados, and gourds, but it wasn’t until maize entered the picture that agriculture really took off. Mesoamerica was a bit late to the game, with maize joining them in 5000 BCE, as compared to modern day Europe and Asia, whose peoples had mastered agriculture by 8000 BCE. They also did not domesticate many animals. There were horses in North America, but they were hunted into extinction and would not reappear until the sixteenth century with the Spanish conquistadores. As a result, humans did all the farming and they had no need for the wheel, which is really only used if there are animals to pull things.
Something that set early Mesoamericans apart from the rest of the world was that most of the ceremonial gathering places did not have a large permanent population of commoners. The ceremonial centers constructed beginning in the 2nd century BCE were inhabited by priests, nobles, and their attendants, but after ceremonies, most went back home to their villages.
The Olmecs are the first of the great Mesoamerican societies to make up Central and South America before the arrival of the Spanish. Their first ceremonial site appeared in 1200 BCE, with two other sites taking its place. The Olmec homeland was rich in rainfall, making it so that they didn’t have to do much to farm. They took after their cousins across the world, the members of the IVC, and built huge drainage systems that blew everyone else’s away.
The Olmec society is mostly a mystery. Many questions historians have asked since beginning to study it nearly 80 years ago remain unanswered. We believe, then, that Olmec society was centralized and authoritarian, and the state employed laborers to do things for it that would not have gotten done otherwise. One of these projects was the creation of the Olmec heads, massive sculptures that possibly depict rulers. The largest sculpture weighs 20 tons. Without draft animals or the wheel to haul the stone, moving the stone is a massive accomplishment in and of itself.
Two of the great mysteries of the Olmecs are why their civilization declined and how it did so. Historians generally agree that they destroyed their own ceremonial sites deliberately, and ultimately it fell to other people in the area.
After the Olmecs came the Maya, who were heirs to the Olmecs in many ways. The Mayans inherited the Olmec calendar, which contains an agricultural year of 365.242 days (around 17 seconds shorter than how we know the year to be now) and a ritual year that is shorter than that. The years match up every fifty-two cycles, and each day’s position was important with respect to rituals.
The Mayans also invented the concept of zero (not the Arabs) and had a complex system of writing. Writing was very important to them, and it’s an unfortunate fact that we have only just now begun to decipher it recently. The best Maya written work we have is the Popol Vuh, a creation myth that laid out instructions for the Maya religion.
This religion was big on shedding human blood – not just the blood of enemies, but their own blood, as well. It was believed that this bloodshed would cause the gods to send rain and water the crops.
While the Maya were running their societies in the lowlands, the citizens of Teotihuacan were starting to thrive in the Mexican highlands.
Teotihuacan is 31 miles away from modern day Mexico City. Its Pyramid of the Sun is the largest structure in Mesoamerica. By 100 CE, this massive pyramid was part of the cityscape and the population of the city was greater than 50,000. At its peak, it is thought to have housed 200,000 people.
They were heirs to the Olmecs and the Maya – they used the Olmec calendar and writing system and played a ball game that the Maya played, and their culture is believed to have been governed by a strong theocracy.
It is believed that the inhabitants wrote prolifically, but most of the knowledge that was kept in books died with the city. They were known for their obsidian tools, which were comparable in sharpness and quality to the iron tools of Europe and Asia.
Now, there were more in the Americas than just the Mesoamericans. There was a sort of sibling society that grew up right next door at the exact same time – the Andeans. Things like crops and knowledge spread slowly due to the obstacles we have discussed in the beginning, but Andean civilization made great use of what they had – sometimes better than the Mesoamericans did.
Andean civilization took root between 2500-2000 BCE when the Andeans began to grow peanuts, sweet potatoes, and cotton, supplementing the harvest with seafood from the Pacific. Then there was the Chavin cult. Nobody knows the Chavin cult’s proper name or even where it came from, but we do know that society grew more complex as it entered South America around the same time as maize. People everywhere liked it, as seen by archaeological finds from the Andes.
After the Chavin cult died out, cities began to form. The state that we perhaps know the most about is the Mochica state, which formed in a valley along the Moche River. We know the most about the Mochica because they left behind incredibly valuable art that shows a lot of their culture and daily life.
In Oceania, people geographically advanced more slowly after they reached Australia some 60,000 years ago. Australia was connected to New Guinea by a land bridge that is now the Torres Strait, and people could walk between them. Oceania was settled by people building huge outrigger canoes and setting sail for thousands of nautical miles, reaching Hawaii before the end of the first millennium CE.
Most places except for Australia practiced agriculture, including some islands in the Torres Strait. Australia never got the memo, and the Aboriginal people would not be reintroduced to agriculture until the Europeans showed up.
Their societies were ruled by chiefs that passed rule down to their eldest sons. Hawaii became very complex, so complex that some chiefs went down in history as somewhat godlike beings that could not be gazed upon directly by mere mortals.
That’s all, folks! Until next time…