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Aspects of America's past

Aztec & Inca Empires
The pre-history

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
(Contact the Project Coordinator)




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The term "Indian" or "Red Indian" was until recently generally used to connote the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas. The name was given by the Spaniards who sailed with Christopher Columbus, when he attempted to find Japan and China.

After arriving at the Caribbean Islands and finding dark skinned inhabitants, the Spaniards mistakenly believed they had reached India and so they called the people "Indians", a name which stuck.

The Native Americans originated in Asia (possibly Siberia) and crossed the Bering Strait to Alaska sometime about 30 000 years ago.

It was probably during the last Ice Age, when the level of water over the Bering Strait dropped considerably, thereby joining North America and Asia and making a narrow overland crossing possible.

Alternatively, a series of islands would have been exposed, rendering it possible to hop across the strait in small boats.

They then migrated southward, creating settlements throughout North and South America, reaching as far south as the frozen Tierra del Fuego.

In time they evolved into the different tribes (e.g. Apache, Pontiac, Pawnee) which existed at the time of European colonization, some of whom (Aztec and Inca) had advanced into great civilizations comparable to those which existed in Europe at about the time of the Reformation.

The term "Meso-America" refers to the area around the isthmus of Panama, and stretching north to modern Mexico. The territory has two basic geographic and climatic zones.

First there are the coastal forests which would support small groups of people using the slash-and-burn system of cultivation but making use of the rich flood plains for continuously fertile land.

Then there are the Mexican highlands, much drier but containing rich soils which could be cultivated the year round and therefore able to support larger groups of population.

The Andean region to the south also presents two distinct geographic and climatic zones. There is the coastal region, largely desert but intercrossed with rivers which flow down from the mountains.

The banks of these rivers have rich soil which can be cultivated by irrigation and are therefore able to support a relatively large population. These inhabitants also rely on the myriads of fish in the cold Humboldt Current for sustenance.

A short distance inland are the cold but moist highlands which rise to some 20 000 feet but can support large populations in the basins at about 10 000 feet, such places as around Lake Titicaca.

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