The First People of the Americas
hen the Europeans came to the Americas in the 15th century, there were about thirty million people living in this hemisphere. These people were of very different cultures and lived in varied and separate societies. Some societies were as complex as the Aztecs, whose large cities were supported by innovative agricultural methods; or the magnificent mountain cities of the Incas, who practiced terrace cultivation.
The first inhabitants of the Americas appeared about 50,000 years ago. At that time the Bering Strait between Asia and North America was not covered by water. Scientists believe that over a period of several thousand years people from Asia travelled east over this passage. In their search for food, they probably followed herds of animals to what is now the Americas.
These newcomers were the ancestors of the indigenous people of the Americas. Their descendants slowly travelled south, making homes all over the continent. After thousands of years they adapted to their different environments, learned new skills, created new traditions and developed diverse cultures. By the time the Europeans came, various peoples occupied different areas of the Americas - for example, the Iroquois in the northeast, the Navahos in the southwest and the Cherokees in the southwest of what is now the United States of America.
We know these people had many skills which they used to survive and communicate. They knew how to use fire and they made tools out of bone, wood and stone. They were good hunters and made clothing from the skins of animals.
Farming and Settling
Some of the early settlers in the Caribbean and Central America were the Arawaks and Caribs. They were skilled hunters and fishermen who caught birds, fish, turtles and other animals.
The Arawaks were also farmers. Like other groups in the Americas, they learned how to farm about 9,000 years ago. It was an important development when they learned not only the different uses of wild seeds, fruits, and roots, but also how to cultivate them. Some of the crops grown by the early peoples of the Caribbean were yam, cassava, maize, tobacco and cotton.
In what is today Central America and Mexico, the Maya developed complex civilizations. This took place thousands of years before the Europeans came and called this continent a "new world".
The Maya lived in the area that is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize. The peak of the Maya civilization was between 250 A.D. and 900 A.D. But it took thousands of years to develop.
The Maya grew corn, beans, squash, cocoa and chile peppers. They learned to make clay pots, hardened by fire, that were both useful and beautiful. They cultivated cotton and learned to dye and weave cloth in bright patterns. They constructed buildings and created sculptures from stone. They made jewelry and ornaments from jade, and traded gold, silver, copper and bronze with other peoples.
The earliest known settled community in the Maya world is Cuello in the Orange Walk District. Cuello existed as long ago as 2,000 B.C. The Maya of Cuello were great pottery makers and farmers.
Eventually many communities in the Maya world grew and became more complex. Great cities flourished. The Maya built grand temples, palaces and public buildings, plazas and ball courts, and created sculptures that showed the lives of their gods and heroes. Many people came to these cities to trade and worship. This period of development between 250 A.D. to 1,000 A.D. became known as the Classic Period of the Maya. Among the communities that became powerful civic centres at this time in Belize were Altun Ha, Lubaantun, El Pilar, Xunantunich and Caracol.
Religion, mathematics and astronomy played an important role in the culture of the Maya. All these were closely connected. The priests were also astronomers and very active in public affairs. Many of their most important buildings were devoted to these activities. With these combined skills, the Maya were able to make calendars that were far more complicated than those we have today, and just as accurate.
The Maya had a system of writing. They recorded important events on big slabs of stone called stela. These writings are still visible 2,000 years later and are helping us to discover more about their culture.Writing was also set down in books made from bark. Very few of these pages have survived to this day. Most of the books were burned when the colonizers arrived because the symbols and their meanings seemed evil to the Spanish priests.
There is still much we do not know about Maya society, but every year archaeologists make new discoveries among the ruins of the ancient cities. We do know that each city was largely independent but often they would go to war to expand their control and influence to other cities. Maya society was divided into strictly ranked groups. Each group had its own rights and duties. At the top were the supreme rulers who inherited their position. The merchants were also important to Maya society. They traded by sea and by land. They traded salt, cotton, cocoa, fish, honey, feathers, shells and precious stones. Cocoa beans were used as money. Belize was an important trading centre for the entire Maya area. Some major trading centres were Moho Caye, Santa Rita, Ambergris Caye and Wild Cane Caye.
The majority of the Maya were farmers. They lived in simple thatched houses surrounded by forest gardens. They ate tortillas, beans, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables. The rich had a more elaborate diet of turkey, fish and game meat, and a chocolate drink made of cocoa and chile. Most Maya wore simple cotton clothes and occasionally sandals. The rulers and merchants wore jewelry and feathered headbands.
All civilizations have periods of growth and decline. By the middle of the 10th century, Maya society began to decline rapidly. Although the causes are not certain, archaeologists believe this may have happened because the land was no longer able to produce enough food for the people. Changes in climate, wars and scarcity of products to trade may have further contributed to weaken Maya society. As temples and public buildings were abandoned they began to decay. Many people moved to other areas. The population became smaller. Yet there were still many Maya in Belize by the 16th and 17th centuries. They had been there since ancient times, and survived the decline of their great civilization. But when the Europeans arrived and began to colonize the land, Maya civilization was dealt yet another blow.
Today the indigenous Maya live in areas of Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. They speak twenty-four Maya languages that evolved from the Classic times.