With what Eurasian civilizations might the Maya be compared?
When comparing, consider factors (you don’t have to utilize all of them) such as politics, social organization, economics, culture, religion, and societal downfall.
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At the broadest level, human cultures evolved in quite similar fashion around the world. All
were part of that grand process of human migration that initially peopled the planet. Almost
everywhere, gathering, hunting, and fishing long remained the sole basis for sustaining life
and society. Then, in various parts of the three supercontinents — Eurasia, Africa, and the
Americas — the momentous turn of the Agricultural Revolution took place independently, as
noted in Chapter 1, and subsequently generated in all three regions those more complex
societies that we know as civilizations, featuring cities, states, monumental architecture, and
great social inequality, as described in Chapter 2. In these ways, the historical trajectory of
the human journey has a certain unity and similarity across quite distinct continental regions.
These commonalities provide the foundation for a genuinely global history of humankind.
The world’s human population was then distributed very unevenly across the three giant
continents, as Snapshot: Continental Population in the Second-Wave Era and
Beyond indicates. Eurasia was then home to more than 85 percent of the world’s people,
Africa about 10 percent, the Americas around 5 percent, and Oceania less than 1 percent.
That unevenness in population distribution, a pattern that has persisted to the present, is part
of the reason that world historians focus more attention on Eurasia than on these other
Another continental difference involved the absence in the Americas of most animals
capable of domestication. This meant that few pastoral societies developed in the Western
Hemisphere, and only in pockets of the Andes Mountains based on the herding of llamas and
alpacas. No animals were available in the Americas to pull plows or carts or to be ridden into
combat. Metallurgy in the Americas was likewise far less developed than in Eurasia and
Africa, where iron tools and weapons played such an important role in economic and military
life. In the Americas, writing was limited to the Mesoamerican region and was most highly
developed among the Maya, whereas in Africa it was confined to the northern and
northeastern parts of the continent. In Eurasia, by contrast, writing emerged elaborately in
many regions. Furthermore, civilizations in Africa and the Americas were fewer in number
and generally smaller than those of Eurasia, and larger numbers of people in those two
continents lived outside the confines of any civilization in communities that did not feature
cities and states.
A final continental comparison distinguishes the history of Africa from that of the
Americas and Pacific Oceania. Geography placed Africa adjacent to Eurasia, while it
separated the Americas and Oceania from both Africa and Eurasia. So parts of Africa were
joined with Europe and Asia in a larger zone of Afro-Eurasian interaction. Early Christianity,
for example, spread widely across North and Northeast Africa. Camels, probably originating
in Arabia, enabled a trans-Saharan commerce that linked interior West Africa to the world of
Mediterranean civilization. Bananas brought from Southeast Asia by Austronesian voyagers
greatly enriched the diets of many African peoples. The Americas and Oceania, by contrast,
developed almost wholly apart from this Afro-Eurasian network until that separation was
breeched by the voyages of Columbus and later European explorers from 1492 on.
This chapter examines first the civilizations that emerged in sub-Saharan Africa and the
Americas. Then our historical spotlight turns to those regions on both continents and Pacific
Oceania that remained outside the zone of civilization. They remind us that the histories of
many peoples unfolded without the cities, states, and empires that were so prominent within
Civilizations of Mesoamerica
Westward across the Atlantic Ocean lay an altogether separate world, later known as the
Americas, which housed two major centers of civilization — Mesoamerica and the Andes.
Together, they were home to the vast majority of the population of the Americas. But unlike
the Egyptians and Mesopotamians or the Persians and the Greeks, these civilizations had
little if any direct contact with each other. They shared, however, a rugged mountainous
terrain with an enormous range of microclimates as well as great ecological and biological
diversity. Arid coastal environments, steamy lowland rain forests, cold and windy highland
plateaus cut by numerous mountains and valleys — all of this was often encompassed in a
relatively small area. Such conditions contributed to substantial linguistic and ethnic
diversity and to the development of many distinct and competing cities, chiefdoms, and
states. It also meant that states, and sometimes individual families, sought “ vertical
integration,” an effort to control a variety of ecological zones where a number of different
crops and animals could flourish. The remarkable achievements of these early American
civilizations occurred without the many large domesticated animals or ironworking
technologies that were so important throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. In the Andes, an
important exception to this generalization involved the domestication of the llama and
alpaca, which offered food, fiber, and transport for the civilizations of that region and in a
few places provided for a time the basis for largely pastoral communities.
Mesoamerican civilizations stretched from central Mexico to northern Central America.
Despite its environmental and ethnic diversity, Mesoamerica was also a distinct region,
bound together by elements of a common culture. Its many peoples shared an intensive
agricultural technology devoted to raising maize, beans, chili peppers, and squash and based
their economies on market exchange. They practiced religions featuring a similar pantheon
of male and female deities, understood time as a cosmic cycle of creation and destruction,
practiced human sacrifice, and constructed monumental ceremonial centers. Furthermore,
they employed a common ritual calendar of 260 days and hieroglyphic writing. During the
first millennium B.C.E, the various small states and chiefdoms of the region, particularly the
Olmec, exchanged various luxury goods used to display social status and for ritual purposes
— jade, obsidian tools, ceramic pottery, shell ornaments, stingray spines, and turtle shells.
As a result, aspects of Olmec culture, such as artistic styles, temple pyramids, the calendar
system, and rituals involving human sacrifice, spread widely throughout Mesoamerica and
influenced many of the civilizations that followed.
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