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7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 11 - Civilizations of Middle America

What will we be learning in this unit?
  • How did geography affect the development of cultures in Middle America?
  • What were the main features of the Olmec and Mayan civilizations?


Geographies of America
  • Perhaps as early as 30,000 years ago, according to some scholars, small family groups of Paleolithic hunters and food gatherers reached North America from Asia. This great migration took place during the last ice age. At that time, so much water froze into thick ice sheets that the sea level dropped, exposing a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, in the area now known as the Bering Strait. Many historians believe that hunters followed herds of bison and mammoths across this land bridge. Other migrating people may have paddled small boats and fished along the coasts.


   Geographies of America

  • About 10,000 b.c., the Earth's climate grew warmer. As the ice melted, water levels rose, covering the land bridge under the Bering Strait. The global warming or worldwide temperature increase - along with the hunting skills of the first Americans, may have killed off large game animals like the mammoth. People adapted by hunting smaller animals, fishing, and gathering fruit, roots, and shellfish. These nomadic hunter-gatherers slowly migrated eastward and southward across the Americas.

 


Geographies of America
  • What lands did the first Americans explore and settle? The Americas are made up of the two continents of North America and South America. Within these two geographic regions is a cultural region that historians call Middle America. Middle America includes Mexico and Central America and was home to several early civilizations.
  • Great mountain chains form a spiny backbone down the western Americas. In North America, the Rocky Mountains split into the East and West Sierra Madre of Mexico. The towering Andes run down the length of South America. The continents are drained by two of the world's three longest rivers, the Amazon of South America and the Mississippi of North America.


Geographies of America
  • The first Americans adapted to a variety of climates and resources. Far to the north and the south, people learned to survive in icy, treeless lands. Closer to the Equator, people settled in the hot, wet climate and thick vegetation of the Amazon rain forests. Elsewhere, hunters adapted to deserts like the Atacama of Chile, woodlands like those in eastern North America, and the fertile plains, or rolling flatlands, of both continents.


  Geographies of America
  • In the Americas, as elsewhere, the greatest adaptation occurred when some people learned to cultivate plants and domesticate animals. Archaeologists think that farming was partly a response to the disappearance of the large mammals. With fewer animals to hunt, people came to depend more on other food sources. In Mexico, or perhaps farther south, Neolithic people began cultivating a range of crops, from corn and beans to sweet potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and squash. These changes took place slowly between about 8500 b.c. and 2000 b.c.


Geographies of America
  • Early American farmers learned to domesticate animals. In South America, domesticated animals include the llama and other creatures valued for their wool. However, the Americas had no large animals such as oxen or horses that were capable of bearing heavy loads or pulling wagons. This lack of draft animals would limit development in some areas. 
  • In the Americas, as in Africa and Eurasia, the agricultural revolution helped to cause other changes. Farming people settled into villages. Populations expanded. Some villages grew into large religious centers and then into the great cities of the first American civilizations


Legacy of Olmecs
  • The earliest American civilization emerged in the tropical forests along the Mexican Gulf Coast. The Olmec civilization lasted from about 1400 b.c. to 500 b.c.
  • Archaeologists know very little about the Olmecs. However, rich tombs and temples suggest that a powerful class of priests and aristocrats stood at the top of Olmec society. The Olmecs did not build true cities. Rather, they built ceremonial centers made up of pyramid-shaped temples and other buildings. People came from nearby farming villages to work on the temples or attend religious ceremonies.


Legacy of Olmecs
  • The most dramatic remains of the Olmec civilization are the giant carved stone heads found in the ruins of a religious center at La Venta. No one knows how the Olmecs moved these colossal 40-ton stones from distant quarries without wheeled vehicles or draft animals. 
  • Through trade, Olmec influence spread over a wide area. The grinning jaguars and serpents that decorate many Olmec carvings appear in the arts of later peoples. The Olmecs also invented a calendar and used carved inscriptions as a form of writing. But their most important legacy may have been the tradition of priestly leadership and religious devotion that became a basic part of later Middle American civilizations.