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The Mayan empire

North of present-day Panama and extending into what's now southern Mexico, the Mayas (800 CE) built temple cities with tall pyramids surrounding wide plazas in the mountains and rain forests. About 700 miles south of what's now Mexico City, the Mayan were a Mesoamerican civilization noted for having the only fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas. They were also known for their intricate art, building techniques, and mathematical and astronomical developments. Mayan civilization continued until the arrival of the Spanish.

Mayan writing used a system similar to that of the early Egyptians and Chinese. Mayan scribes had picture words, called glyphs, that could stand for a noun or a syllable sound. The Mayan were productive farmers who grew early corn variants, called maize, in raised fields. The Mayan people never disappeared, neither with the rise of other powerful American Indian kingdoms nor with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores.

Today, the Mayan and their descendants form sizable populations throughout the Mayan area and maintain a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs that are the result of the merger of pre-Columbian and post-conquest ideas. The Mayan may seem to worship in Christian churches, but many of their beliefs are thousands of years old.

The Incan empire

The Incas (1400) are the latest pre-Columbian civilization based in the Andes of South America. Their empire began about 1,200 CE. At its height, the Incan empire stretched for 2,500 miles, a distance almost as long as the distance across the continental United States. From 1438 to 1533, the Incas used both conquest and peaceful assimilation to influence a large portion of western South America. The center of their empire was in the Andean mountain ranges, including modern Ecuador, Peru, western and south-central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and north-central Chile, and southern Colombia.

Incan palaces were surrounded by high walls made of huge, closely fitted stones. Like their Aztec empire neighbors to the north, the Incan people connected their vast holdings with paved roads. Their mountain towns include the stunning Machu Picchu. To allow farming in the mountains, the Incas developed a system of terraced agriculture fed by canals and aqueducts; they gave the world the tomato and the potato. Incan government and agriculture were well developed by the time the conquistador Francisco Pizarro (1532) managed to defeat them.

With just 180 men, 27 horses, and 1 cannon, Pizzaro often had to talk his way out of potential fights that could have easily wiped out his little band. The main type of battle in the Andes consisted of siege warfare, in which large numbers of drafted men were sent to overwhelm opponents.

Along with material superiority in the form of armor, weapons, and horses, the Spaniards acquired tens of thousands of native allies only too glad to end the Incan control of their territories. Combined, a few weapons and lots of Indian allies allowed the Spanish to capture the Incan emperor and subsequently throw the Incan ruling classes into a political struggle. The Spanish kept increasing their native allies until they had enough people and resources to launch a successful attack on the Incan capital city.

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