4.1 Civilizations of Middle America

The Americas refers to two continents, North America and South America. Within these two regions is a cultural region that historians call Middle America or Mesoamerica, which is made up of Mexico and Central America. Some of the earliest civilizations in the Americas developed in Mesoamerica.

Illustration of three ancient men organizing and moving baskets of corn.

Maize was an important staple for early Native Americans, who ate it, made it into flour, and used it for ceremonial purposes.


  • Explain when and where people first settled the Americas.
  • Analyze the rise of the Olmec civilization.
  • Describe the major developments of the Maya and Aztec civilizations.
  • Explain how prior civilizations influenced the Maya and Aztec.

Key Terms

  • Mesoamerica
  • maize
  • Olmec
  • stela
  • Valley of Mexico
  • Tenochtitlán
  • chinampa
  • tribute
  • Teotihuacán

Civilizations Develop in the Americas

Scholars disagree about exactly when and how the first people reached the Americas. A common theory held that between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, Paleolithic people reached North America from Asia. This migration took place during the last Ice Age, which lasted from about 100,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago. At the time, so much water froze into thick ice sheets that the sea levels dropped, exposing a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska in the area that is now the Bering Strait.

Early evidence supported the theory that bands of hunters and food gatherers followed herds of bison and mammoths across the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. They slowly moved south through North America, Central America, and South America. Recent evidence suggests that people may have reached the Americas much earlier. They may have paddled small boats and fished along the coasts. As archaeologists have discovered new evidence, they have modified their theories. Researchers now base the dates of migration into the Americas mostly on evidence found at prehistoric sites.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments