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Latin America Civilization

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Land and Climates of Latin America

The name Latin America is an anachronism for describing the era before colonization, but historians tend to use it for convenience, rather than writing out “Mexico and Central and South America.” The name Latin America comes from the fact that the entire area speaks the Latin languages Portuguese and Spanish, Spain and Portugal being the conquering powers throughout the region.

Latin America has three main geographical features: its mountains, its plains, and its rain forest. Mexico is covered by highland plateaus that lie between the eastern and western ranges of the Sierra Madres. The Andes Mountains run the length of South America’s west coast. The highest peaks of the Andes are in Peru; they are among the highest mountains in the world. The southern plains of South America provide land for farming and raising cattle. The rain forest, which occupies most of the Amazon River Basin, is the largest in the world. The Amazon River begins in the Andes and flows four thousand miles eastward to the Atlantic Ocean.

Human beings are not native to the Americas; they migrated there from somewhere else. Scholars believe that nomadic Asian peoples crossed a land bridge (long since underwater) from Siberia to Alaska, probably migrating in search of food. Some of these ancient immigrants settled in Alaska, while others continued to move south and east, eventually settling all the habitable areas of the Americas. This may have happened as early as 40,000 BC or as recently as 15,000 BC; the oldest human remains yet discovered in North America date from about 14,000 BC.

Early Civilizations of Mexico

American civilization became possible around 2700 BC, with the cultivation of maize, or corn; the ability to grow a staple crop eventually led to a surplus of food, a rise in population, and the organization of a society. The first known civilization in the Americas, the Olmec, developed along the Gulf Coast of Mexico around 1200 BC. This was an ideal area for farming because rivers frequently flooded, thus providing irrigation. The Olmecs also supplemented their diet with fish. They were a relatively sophisticated people, developing a calendar and carving giant stone heads, some of which weighed several tons. They built large stone courts on which to play ball games; the Olmec made their balls from rubber, which grew in abundance in the region.

The Zapotecs settled in southern Mexico, in the present-day state of Oxaca. They had developed a writing system by 500 BC. Monte Alban, their capital city and home to thirty thousand people, featured stone buildings, large plazas, and ceremonial pyramids.

Teotihuacán was an even larger city than Monte Alban. Located just north- east of modern Mexico City, Teotihuacán was home to one hundred twenty- five thousand people at its height. From about 100 BC to AD 750, this city flourished as the most important political, religious, and economic power in Mexico. At the city’s center was a broad boulevard called The Street of the Dead; prominently located along this central avenue was what we would today call the central business district. It featured the city’s administrative building (the Ciudadela), its religious temples (the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon), and its largest market. The residential areas were stone apartment buildings surrounding the city’s center.

Society was divided into three ranks. The largest group was the farmers, who went outside the city every day to work their land. The next group included artisans, builders, merchants, and warriors. The highest rank comprised the priest-rulers who governed the city.

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