Cultures of the Americas, 1200 BC–AD 1600

Mound Builders

(Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River)

Key Groups: Adena (500 BC), Hopewell (100 BC)

Religion and Culture: Known as mound builders because they buried the dead in large earth mounds, these groups lived in small farming villages, which were likely run by leaders of clans (relatives). The villages grew and became increasingly complex, building trade networks and creating elaborate artwork using materials from as far away as the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes. Adena culture was absorbed by the Hopewell in about 100 BC.

Agriculture: Adena and Hopewell societies were highly organized farming communities, and the Adena are credited with introducing agriculture to the Ohio River Valley.

Mississippian Culture

Key Groups: Cahokia (AD 1100), Moundville

Religion and Culture: The Mississippians built towns with large temple-mounds and central plazas. The rulers’ and nobles’ homes stood on pyramids surrounding the central square.

Agriculture: The Mississippian Culture’s most significant contribution to agriculture is their introduction of the hoe as a farming tool. They were the most advanced farming society north of Mexico.

Central and South America


Key Groups: Olmec (1200 BC), Maya (400 BC), Aztec (AD 1400), Inca (AD 1400)

Religion and Culture:

  • The Olmec were the first major Mesoamerican society, and their religion, art, agriculture, and social organization influenced later civilizations. They are best known for their engineering and artistic skills, due to the survival of huge sculpted heads carved from black volcanic rock. They are also the first known Mesoamerican society to develop a writing system.
  • The Mayan civilization developed religious centers that grew into huge city-states with thousands of people. They are also known for their writing system and a number system that used the concept of zero.
  • The Aztecs were a warlike group and built an elaborate capital (Tenochtitlán) on an island in a shallow lake. They conquered many neighboring groups, demanding regular payments of tribute and taking slaves and captives, who often became sacrifices in religious ceremonies.
  • The Incas held a vast empire (including as many as twelve million people at its peak), which was connected by roads and bridges. Incan religious beliefs were varied, consisting of several different polytheistic religions.

Agriculture: The Olmec used the “slash and burn” technique of farming, which was also used by the Mayans. The Aztecs devised elaborate farming systems such as floating gardens (chinampas), as well as irrigation, fertilization, and terrace systems. Like the Aztecs, the Incas used terrace farming.


Key Groups: Hohokam (200 BC), Anasazi (200 BC), Zuni, Hopi, Acoma, Apache, Navajo

Religion and Culture: Early cultures in the Southwest probably developed around 2,000 years ago, and were linked with cultures in Mexico through trade. Anasazi culture grew eastward, spreading their multistory adobe buildings (named pueblos by the Spanish) to other cultures. The Zuni, Hopi, Acoma, Apache, and Navajo peoples also adopted pueblos, which were governed by religious elders. The Zuni, Hopi, and Acoma tribes are also known for their distinctive baskets and pottery. The Apaches and Navajos later took up weaving.

Agriculture: The Hohokam people dug irrigation ditches and grew corn, beans, and squash. The Zuni, Hopi, and Acoma cultures farmed in river and creek bottoms in the desert. The Apaches and Navajos were originally nomadic hunters, but began farming after coming into contact with the Pueblo cultures.

West Coast

Key Groups: Kwakiutl, Haida, Pomo, Hupa, Yurok

Religion and Culture: The American Indians on the northwest coast (Kwakiutl and Haida) were skilled woodworkers and carved elaborate totem poles and masks after being introduced to iron tools. They had access to rich resources and held feasts where they would provide guests with valuable gifts. The Pomo, Hupa, and Yurok peoples, in addition to many other groups in present-day California, lived in small communities of 50 to 300, with over 100 different languages spoken.

Agriculture: The Kwakiutl and Haida hunted wild game, salmon, and whales in the Northwest. Neither group farmed due to the difficult terrain, though Kwakiutl women did collect shellfish, berries, and seaweed. The Pomo, Hupa, and Yurok groups in California did not farm because of the variety of food sources available year round.

Great Basin and the Plateau

Key Groups: Ute, Shoshone, Nez Percé

Religion and Culture: As a result of the challenges of living in the dry Great Basin, the Utes and Shoshones had rather small populations, but were exceptional artists, creating elaborate religious and ceremonial beadwork. Like their neighbors in the Great Basin, the Nez Percé created elaborate beadwork.

Agriculture: The Utes and Shoshones were hunter-gatherers, due to the difficult climate in the Great Basin (little rain, few trees, no large rivers, and little wild game). The main food sources were small animals, roots, and seeds. The Nez Percé, living in the less-arid Plateau region had more rain and forests, as well as large rivers for fishing. Like the Utes and Shoshones, the Nez Percé were hunter-gatherers, though they had access to large game.

Far North

Key Groups: Inuits, Aleuts

Religion and Culture: There are few archeological artifacts from these cultures, most likely because of rising sea levels after the Ice Age, which covered settlements on the coast. Aleut culture is based heavily on the sea, and they are known for their basketry. Inuits lived in an icier area, and were more mobile than the Aleuts. The Inuits made tools and weapons for hunting and fishing.

Agriculture: Because most of the far north is treeless and frozen for most of the year, Inuits and Aleuts did not farm, and lived mainly by hunting seals, seabirds, and whales on the coast and caribou, beaver, and bear inland.

Great Plains

Key Groups: Sioux, Pawnee, Cheyenne

Religion and Culture: The cultures of the Great Plains were largely migratory, following the movement of the bison, which the tribes depended on for survival. Because of the constant movement, they needed portable homes, and invented the tepee, which could be easily put together and taken down. They believed in many gods, and that these gods showed themselves in the form of the sun, moon, stars, or anything that was strong or strange. Men would also go to lonely places for several days without food or water to receive visions.

Agriculture: Farming was difficult due to the tough roots of the prairie grasses, so these groups depended on hunting buffalo. In the southern plains region, farming was more feasible, and descendants of the Mississippian culture brought new crops and built new villages in the fertile valleys of the Mississippi River.

Eastern Coast and Woodlands

Key Groups: Iroquois (included the Mohawks and Oneidas), Chippewa, Fox, Sauk

Religion and Culture: The Iroquois lived in longhouses, which were large wooden buildings with a central hall with living spaces on either side, clusterd in large villages. The longhouse was central to Iroquois culture, and they often called themselves “people of the longhouse.” All woodland groups made the best of their abundant natural resources, making flour from bitter acorns, hunting for both food and fur, and fishing.

Agriculture: Farming was a possibility in the area, and women grew corn and squash and harvested wild rice.


Key Groups: Choctaw

Religion and Culture: Some groups continued Mississippian practices into the 1500s and beyond, and another group created elaborate carved shells, which archaeologists believe had religious meaning.

Agriculture: A warm climate, fertile land, and plenty of rain made several crops a year possibly for American Indians of the Southeast.

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