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EARLY AMERICAN INDIAN EMPIRES

For the AP U.S. History exam, you need to know about the three great American Indian empires that existed hundreds of miles south of the current U.S. border: the Mayan empire, the Incan empire, and Aztec empire. The reason they're important is because these southern American Indian superstates influenced the development of the United States, both directly and indirectly.

The riches that the American Indian empires amassed with the gold and silver they discovered attracted the Spanish conquistadores. Easy conquests of large civilizations emboldened Europeans armed with guns and swords. Spanish riches sped the development of the New World and provided rich plunder for the buccaneers of other European nations.

The American Indian empires funded the Spanish empire. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada by England in 1588, other nations started colonies in the New World in hopes of finding similar riches. Many of these colonies were financed by private investors — undertakings that wouldn't have found support were it not for the Spanish experience with rich American Indian empires. There is more information on the colonial period in Chapter 7.

Tales of cities of gold eventually led explorers overland into what's now the American Southwest. Accounts of distant civilizations and hopefully rich new worlds to discover stirred European adventurers into action.

Note: The Maya, Inca, and Aztec empires were the three large American Indian empires encountered by Spanish explorers. In Mesoamerica, predecessor civilizations dated back as far as 2,000 years before the Spanish arrived but started some of the traditions common to later American Indian empires.

Tip

Don't confuse the Big Three American Indian empires. Just remember this:

- "I'm not confused, AM I?" From north to south, the first letter of each of the three empires, in order from north to south, spell AM I. The Aztecs are in Mexico, the Mayans are in Central America, and the Inca are in South America.

- In terms of age of the empires, they run MIA, as in "missing in action." Mayans are the oldest, followed by the Incas, and then the Aztecs. Both the Incas and the Aztecs got to rule for only a short time before the Spanish arrived. The Mayans had thousands of years to enjoy the limelight and were in serious decline when the Spanish arrived to end Mayan rule.

Example

Question: What were the major American Indian empires encountered by Spanish explorers in Mesoamerica?

Answer: The Mayan, Incan, and Aztec empires.

 
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