The first Americans faced a variety of environments in which they could settle. For example, great mountain chains—the Rockies, the eastern and western Sierra Madre, and the Andes—dominate the western Americas. In addition, through the continents flow three of the world's five longest rivers, the Amazon of South America and the Missouri and Mississippi rivers of North America.
Far to the north and south of the continents, people learned to survive in icy, treeless lands. Closer to the Equator, people settled in the hot, wet climate and dense vegetation of the Amazon rain forest. Elsewhere, hunters adapted to deserts like the Atacama of Chile, woodlands like those in eastern North America, and the fertile plains of both continents.
In the Americas, as elsewhere, the greatest adaptation occurred when people learned to domesticate plants and animals. These changes took place slowly between about 8500 B.C. and 2000 B.C. In Mesoamerica, Neolithic people cultivated a range of crops, including beans, sweet potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, squash, and maize—the Native American name for corn. People in South America cultivated crops such as maize and cassava and domesticated llamas and other animals valued for their wool. By 3000 B.C. in parts of South America and 1500 B.C. in parts of Mesoamerica, farmers had settled in villages. Populations then expanded, and some villages eventually grew into the great early cities of the Americas.
Many scholars consider the Olmec the first American civilization; it emerged in the fertile coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico and lasted from about 1200 to 400 B.C. Compared to other civilizations such as the Maya, Aztec and Inca, archaeologists know little about the Olmec. We do not even know what they called themselves. In fact, Olmec is the name the Aztecs later used for these people. But rich tombs and temples suggest that they had a powerful class of priests. The Olmec did not build true cities, but rather priests and other leaders may have lived in ceremonial centers, while the common people lived in surrounding farming villages.
Ceremonial centers had large pyramid-shaped temples and other important buildings. Much of Olmec art is carved stone. The smallest examples include jade figurines of people and gods. The most dramatic remains are 14 giant stone heads found at the major ceremonial centers of San Lorenzo and La Venta.
Early people are thought to have crossed the Bering Strait from Asia to the Americas either on foot or in small boats. What might have been one of the biggest geographic influences on Mesoamerican civilizations?