Traditions offer chance to share global history

October 14, 2005|by Lisa Tedrick Prejean

Harvest decorations are popping up in stores, on houses and over classroom walls. In just a few weeks, parents will be attaching fringe on American Indian costumes or helping their children make Pilgrim hats.

Studying the first Thanksgiving and the traditions that were created from it are important parts of U.S. history.

Yet as we try to teach our children to think globally, it's interesting to help them learn about early civilizations built by native people in other parts of the world.

This year in fifth-grade geography we're studying the Western Hemisphere - North America, Central America, South America and the islands in the Caribbean Sea.

There are many early native groups that had civilizations in the Western world. Perhaps the three most intriguing for children are the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas.


The Aztecs lived in Mexico, the Mayas in Central America and the Incas in South America.

Children tend to mix up the locations of the three groups, so it might help to give them the acronym AMI - such as a girl's name, Amy, only spelled with an "i" - to help them remember that if you're looking south of the United States, you'd come to the land of the:

Aztecs first

Mayas second

Incas third.

All three empires were conquered by Spanish invaders.


The Aztecs built a powerful capital city, Tenochtitlan, which means "place of the cactus." Its foundation was laid around 1250. This city was about where Mexico City is today.

The Aztecs were a people of war. They conquered other tribes, taking the best warriors and prettiest maidens to be sacrificed to their gods. Without their strongest warriors, neighboring tribes were forced to be subject to the Aztecs.

Yet there was a civilized side to this society. The Aztecs had two calendars, one solar and one sacred. A year on the solar calendar had 18 months, each of which had 20 days - for the number of fingers and toes a person has. The sacred calendar was used for prophecies and fortune-telling.

When Hernn Corts and a small band of Spanish explorers arrived in 1519, they were amazed to see how advanced this civilization was. Likewise, the Aztecs where amazed to see the Spaniards riding "four-legged monsters." The Aztecs had never seen horses before.

The fall of the Aztec empire in 1521 was due in part to the Spanish invasion and to the amount of enemies they had made among neighboring tribes.


The Mayas had one of the most advanced early civilizations of the Western Hemisphere. The Mayan city of Chichen Itza, built in the center of the Yucatan Peninsula, became an important commercial center.

Mayas built massive, beautiful temples for worship and were advanced in arithmetic and astronomy. Their hieroglyphic inscriptions provide a record of births, wars, marriages and deaths of the Mayan kings.

The Mayas were conquered by Spanish armies, and the diseases the Spanish brought with them, in 1542.


The Incas settled in the Andes Mountains, on the Pacific coast of South America. By 1500, the empire included more than 10 million people and covered nearly 2,500 miles. The Incas excelled in working with metals - silver, copper and gold.

Because farming was difficult, the Incas used terracing to turn steep hillsides into steps that supported flat fields. They also dug canals so they could irrigate their crops.

Incan doctors used a variety of herbal medicines to cure illnesses. One of the most effective was quinine, which was used to dress wounds and cure fever.

Criminals were punished harshly. Those found guilty of serious crimes, such as laziness, were executed by being pushed off cliffs.

That would be a motivator to finish homework, wouldn't it?

Some of the information contained in this article came from the following books, which are available at Washington County Free Library:

· "Aztec, Inca and Maya" by Elizabeth Baquedano

· "The Incas" by Tim Wood

· "The Aztecs" by Tim Wood

· "Montezuma and the Fall of the Aztecs" by Eric A. Kimmel

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

The Herald-Mail Articles