Social studies combines a lot of different topics in a variety of content areas. So much so that some topics get lost or cut from some social studies curricula. One topic that has tragically been cut from many curricula that needs to be brought back is the ancient Latin American civilizations of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec.
When I was a student, we learned about the ancient Mayan, Incan, and Aztec civilizations. These were a part of the social studies standards in my home state. However, when I became a teacher, teaching these civilizations had been removed from the state standards in favor of other domains. This shocked me, as these ancient empires are not only important to social studies in general, but world history, science, and Latin American culture as a whole. The Mayan, Incan, and Aztecs made great accomplishments and advancements in science and culture that are still used and celebrated today! Teachers can use these ancient civilizations and take a multidisciplinary approach to their curriculum to ensure these empires are recognized in the classroom.
The Maya, Inca, and Aztec civilizations made significant scientific accomplishments during their respective periods. Here are some notable achievements for each civilization:
- Calendar System: The Maya developed a highly sophisticated calendar system. They had both a solar calendar (Haab) and a ritual calendar (Tzolk’in), which combined to form a calendar round.
- Mathematics: The Maya made advancements in mathematics, including the use of zero and a positional numerical system. They also had a sophisticated understanding of astronomy.
- Astronomy: The Maya were skilled astronomers and built observatories to study celestial bodies. Their astronomical observations helped in the development of their calendar system.
- Engineering and Architecture: The Inca were renowned for their advanced engineering and architectural skills. They built intricate road systems, such as the famous Inca Road, and constructed massive stone structures like Machu Picchu.
- Agricultural Terracing: The Inca developed extensive terraced farming systems in the mountainous regions. These terraces allowed for efficient agriculture in challenging landscapes.
- Medicine: The Inca had a knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs, and their healers (curacas) practiced rudimentary surgery and medical treatments.
- Agriculture: The Aztecs implemented innovative agricultural techniques, including the use of chinampas (artificial islands) for farming in the marshy areas of the Valley of Mexico.
- Technology: The Aztecs created an island city for their capital, called Tenochtitlán (modern day Mexico City).
- Astrology: The Aztecs were skilled in observing celestial events and incorporated astrological elements into their religious and societal practices.
These civilizations made significant contributions to science, mathematics, astronomy, engineering, and medicine, showcasing their intellectual and practical achievements.
In addition to their scientific achievement, these groups are still known for their cultural impacts. Many people in Latin America can trace their heritage all the way back to the Maya, Inca, or Aztecs. Art such as statues, paintings, weaving, massive temples, and so much more. There are so many visual tools that teachers can use to bring these groups to life for their students. Virtual Field Trips, Image Archives, and even a simple Google Image search will yield hundreds of results of impressive and simply magnificent art. Some
- The Mayans made statues and carvings out of stones and mastered the art of fabric weaving
- The Mayans used hieroglyphics in their writing system
- Music and dance were a key part of Aztec culture
- The Inca used gold to make jewelry and masks
- Incan music consisted of things like drums and rattles
- The Inca had an official language called Quechwah
- Approximately 10 million people in South America still speak it
The cultural impacts of these civilizations extended beyond their time, influencing subsequent indigenous cultures and leaving a lasting imprint on the history and identity of the regions where they thrived.
These listed achievements and impacts only scratch the surface of what the Maya, Inca, and Aztec accomplished. However, there is a more sinister side that encompasses these civilizations mark on world history. What I am referring to is how each empire was brutally conquered and ultimately overtaken.
Spain was seeking to expand its empire, and it set its sights on Latin America, where these three civilizations were located. The Spanish then proceed to brutally murder, pillage, and plunder countless villages and people, not to mention bring diseases that the populations had never been exposed to, such as smallpox. What resulted was a devastation and downfall of entire civilizations. This needs to be taught just as much as the accomplishments. The conquest of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec is one of the most poignant and foremost examples of the brutality of European Imperialism. That is something that still must be explained to students so that it is never forgotten. Here is just some of the impact to the Maya, Inca and the Aztec civilizations:
- Over 100,000 Aztecs were killed when Tenochitlan fell in 1521
- 5-8 million people were killed by Smallpox alone (this is just a rough estimate)
- Dozens of temples, religious artifacts, and cultural spots were destroyed or appropriated by the Spanish
- Millions of Inca were killed during the 30 year Spanish conquest
- Most of the cultures of all three civilizations have been lost to time as a result of Spanish conquest
Loss of culture is loss of history. When history is lost, students lose out on potential knowledge. If the Maya, Inca, and the Aztecs continue to be removed from social studies curriculum, the memory of these civilizations could be lost forever. When we lose the memory of the past, history tends to repeat its mistakes. That is part of why we teach social studies, so that students will always have a memory and knowledge of the past.
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Brendan King is a blog contributor for Social Studies School Service. He loves the study of history and reading any historical work he can get his hands on. More importantly, he is passionate about teaching history and social studies in fun and unique ways. He earned his B.A. in History at the University of West Georgia and currently teaches sixth-grade social studies. His hobbies include reading, playing video games, watching movies, and exercising.