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Major Indian Civilizations – Some archaeologists and anthropologists use the term “nuclear” America. “Nuclear,” a common misconception among most individuals including weapons of mass destruction, what is truly intended for the meaning is the ancient cultural centers of America. The term nuclear America refers to the areas of the three great Indian civilizations – the Maya, the Aztec, and the Inca.

Nuclear America included two areas. One area was in the part of Middle America that today makes up the southern half of Mexico and northern Central America. The other area covered most of the Andes Mountains on the west coast of South America. Find the two areas on the map.

The Maya – The Maya once ruled the lands in Middle America now make up the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, and the western parts of Honduras and El Salvador. The earliest traces of a Maya village have been dated at 2500 BC By around AD 250, the Maya had created a civilization with cities and temples as well as active trade and productive farms in the rain forests of the tropical lowlands.

The Aztecs – The Aztecs first settled in the area of Middle America that is now Mexico City about AD 1200, a little over 300 years before the Spanish conquest. They built a great city called Tenochtitlan and carried on active trade with the Maya and other Indian groups. Aztec agriculture supported a very large population. The Aztecs had huge armies that conducted wars of conquest.

The Incas – The largest and richest empire in nuclear America was created by the Incas in the fifteenth century. An empire is all the territories and people under the control of a powerful nation. The Inca Empire extended from the southern part of the present South American country of Colombia to northern Chile and Argentina, a distance of over 3,000 miles (4,827 km). That empire included the entire central part of the Andes region and the nearby coastal parts of Peru.

The ancient Maya people were a group of Native Americans who primarily in Central America. Their civilization thrived in the jungles of this region from 300 – 900 AD. Protected by rough landscape and heavy vegetation, the ruins of few Maya cities were known before the 19th century. Since that time, archaeologists have been able to learn a great deal about these people.

Around 900 AD the Maya seem to have abandoned most of their cities and returned to simpler lives. Archaeologists are not certain why this happened. They have a number of theories. Perhaps their world was disrupted by warfare with the Toltecs. Perhaps there were prolonged droughts or over-farming of the land, which resulted in crop failure. Overpopulation, disease and natural disasters could also have played a droughts or over-farming of the land, which resulted in crop failure. Overpopulation, disease and natural disasters could also have played a role in the collapse of the Mayan empire.

The Maya developed a system of pictures and symbols to record their history. These writings are known as hieroglyphic inscriptions. For the most part they were carved into stones, but the Maya also wrote books. The books were made of folded pieces of paper made from the bark of the wild fig tree. Very few of these books have survived. Most of the surviving records of Maya writings can be found on stelae. These are stone slabs that would be placed around the cities. In the Maya civilization, only the rulers and specially trained scribes could read and write. They would record the lives and deeds of rulers and nobles. They would also record the positions of the heavenly bodies, particularly the moon, Venus and Jupiter. Elaborate hieroglyphics would also be found on pottery and buildings. The Maya would record their mythology, and keep track of rituals and offerings that took place that year. In addition, the history of the kings was also inscribed. It has taken many years for archaeologists to discover the meaning of their writings. There is still more to learn.

The Maya are most remembered for their contributions in math and science. They developed a calendar system based on the observations of the earth’s relationship to the sun with amazing accuracy. In fact, it is more accurate than the calendar we use today. They kept track of the solar and lunar years and the cycles of the visible planets. They were able to calculate the summer and winter equinox. They determined the spring planting and fall harvest time from their observations of the earth’s rotation around the sun. Astronomers studied the heavenly bodies, charting the movement of planets and other heavenly bodies. The Maya had a number system which used a base 20. Numbers were written with dots for ones and bars for fives. They would write their numbers vertically rather than horizontally. Their number system also used a placeholder that functioned like zero, which allowed them to calculate enormous sums. They were the first civilization to use a placeholder for zero. The zero looked somewhat like a football.

The Maya were a deeply religious people. They believed in many gods. All events centered around their religious beliefs. They wanted to stay in favor with the gods. In their belief system, the gods would bring the rain, heal the sick, bring plentiful harvests, and ensure the health and safety of the people if they were honored. If the gods were angry, they would send drought, famine and disaster to the people.

In order to keep the gods happy, they believed that a daily sacrifice of blood was necessary. Blood was voluntarily offered by community members. They would open a wound and let the blood drip onto a paper. The paper would then be burned in an offering to the gods. It was believed that the priests could see the spirits in the smoke. Kings would also give blood offerings. These, of course, were considered very sacred offerings and would please the gods. There are some records which suggest that human sacrifice was occasionally practiced.

The Maya had a strong belief in the afterlife. When a king or nobleman died, the Maya people believed that he became one with the gods and would go to live in the sky with them. The Maya worshiped their ancestors and therefore worshiped the gods. Like many early peoples, the Maya believed that death was a journey to another life. Therefore the dead were buried with food, tools, clothing, and whatever would be needed for their journey. Magnificent tombs were built to bury their rulers, and sacrifices and special funeral rituals were performed there.

The commoners lived in simple stone platform homes that were covered by a thatch roof. Generally, the homes were one room huts which were built outside the city.

The kings and priests would occupy more important dwellings within the city. Great temples and monuments were built of stone. The Maya would scout the jungle, bringing back heavy stones to

carve for these buildings. They had no wheels to transport these heavy stones. They would tend to build buildings on top of each other. When one would collapse, or was determined to not be useful anymore, the Maya would cover the building with stone and build on top of it. They had great columns and palaces with private patios.

Temples were built on the top of many steep steps, whose shape looked a lot like pyramids. They also constructed domed buildings which they used as observatories, to observe the heavenly bodies. Sculptures and paintings have been found among the ruins left by the Maya. They recorded important events of the people. They show scenes of bloodletting, warfare and play in a ball game. They also show the elaborate celebration and installation of an heir to the throne. Many fine carvings were found on small jade pieces, shells and stones. Few paintings survive. Efforts are being made to preserve what remains.

The ancient Maya people were farmers. They adopted and developed an agricultural lifestyle that used advanced techniques. For example, they dug canals around their fields to bring water to the crops. This made them less dependent on natural rainfall. They also formed terraces on steep hillsides to keep the soil from washing away. Corn and beans were their main life supporting crops, and they also planted tomatoes, peppers, fruits. Some hunting was done to supplement the crops. The corn was called maize, which came to signify food itself. The maize god was honored throughout the Maya history. The Maya also grew cocao plants from whose beans they made a chocolate drink. The beans were so highly valued that they also served as money.

The Maya were also weavers. The women would teach their daughters how to weave at a very young age. Most all of the Maya peoples clothes were woven with important symbols of the city, family and of the weavers themselves. Today’s Maya carry on this tradition.

The upper class people spent much of their time in scholarly pursuits. They were astronomers, mathematicians, sculptors, painters, or priests. There is evidence that the Maya were also warriors. Battle scenes were recorded in their paintings and sculptures.

Today there are over 2,000,000 Maya in Central America. Specifically, they live in Guatemala, E1 Salvador and the Honduras. They have their own language. Farmers, artists and weavers, these people sell their wares on the open market, and use it to support their lifestyle. Their religion is a blend of traditional beliefs and Catholicism. They sometimes have disputes with the local governments over land rights and other issues.

A Large Maya Area – The Maya were at the height of their power from approximately A.D. 600 to A.D. 900. They expanded throughout a large area that included almost all of present-day Guatemala and Belize, substantial portions of Honduras and El Salvador, and the Yucatan section of southeastern Mexico. That area includes both highlands and lowlands. It was in the lowlands, however, that the Maya made some of their outstanding advances.

Maya Achievements – The fame of the Maya does not rest on conquest. Instead, the Maya are remembered for their achievements in astronomy, mathematics, and the arts. The remains of their graceful pyramids and temples still excite wonder and command respect today. Imagine how grand they must have been at the height of their glory so many years ago!

Many Important Cities – Unlike the Aztecs, whose power centered in the single city of Tenochtitlan, the Maya had many important centers. Their largest city was Tikal, in the far north of modern-day Guatemala. The city covered only around 6 square miles, but it may have had a population of around 10,000 people. It served as the center for a larger area with a total population that may have reached 45,000.

Temples and Pyramids as Places of Power

The Fame of Tikal – Every year, tourists flock to Tikal, rising high out of the tropical growth, they see five magnificent pyramids. Two stand at either end of the Great Square, or public plaza. Perched at the very tops of these stone structures are temples. These were used only by priests or rulers. The tallest of Tikal’s pyramid temple structures towers some 212 feet (65 m) above the ground. Cylinder shaped stones, many of them with elaborately carved bases, are found throughout the city.

Restored Ruins in Chichen Itza – In the Yucatan, the city of Chichen Itza, which was mentioned in Chapter 1, was a particularly sacred place. Among the restored ruins of this ancient city are one enormous ball court and eight smaller ones. Courts of this type appear throughout the Aztec and Maya areas. Exactly what type of game was played on such courts remains unclear. Archaeologists believe that the game had religious importance.

At Chichen Itza also is a round building called El Caracol. In Spanish, caracol means “snail.” Inside is a spiral stairway which curves like a snail’s shell. The shape of this building is very unusual for a Maya temple. Archaeologists believe it was an observatory. An observatory is a place for studying the sky.

Ceremonial Centers – It appears that Maya cities were ceremonial centers. Not many people actually lived in them. People went to these cities only for religious celebrations and to trade goods. Priests and their assistants were the main full-time residents.

Archaeologists digging at a site in northern Yucatan, however,believe that they have found at least one Maya city that actually had a large number of permanent residents. They have uncovered ruins of what look like dwellings for ordinary people. It seems that this city may have had as many as 50,000 different structures and a population even larger than that of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.

Collapse of the Classic Maya

After about 1,000 years the Maya civilization collapsed. Though not every Maya ceremonial center fell at once, by around A.D. 900, all those places of power had been abandoned. The rain forest soon crept forward and covered the pyramids and temples.

What happened to the Maya? Why did they abandon their cities? Many answers have been suggested. Problems related to food supply may have been the reason. Perhaps plagues of locusts ruined harvests. Natural disasters, such as earthquakes, may have destroyed some Maya centers. Some people say that warlike invaders from central Mexico broke the Maya civilization. All ot these are possibilities. In the area of northern Yucatan, the Maya remained. From a city known as Mayapan, the Maya established control over a wide area. Their civilization seemed more warlike than that of the earlier Maya, and they made no great advances in science or art. Mayapan fell to invaders in 1441. When the Spanish arrived, there no longer was a centralized Maya state.


The Aztecs were a warring people who came to the central valley of Mexico around 1200 AD from what is now the southwestern United States. For years they had been nomads. According to legend, a special sign from the gods would show them the site for their new settlement. This would be an eagle with a serpent in its mouth, perched on a large cactus. Sometime around1325, they saw such an eagle on an island in the middle of a lake and settled there. This site, where Mexico City is located today, became the center of the Aztec world. There, they built a magnificent city that they called Tenochtitl?n.

Tenochtitl?n was a beautiful, well-run city with a ceremonial plaza paved with stone. The Aztecs used building techniques from other cultures to construct Tenochtitl?n. They built extravagant temples which were designed like the Mayan pyramids with terraced steps. Two of the temples in Tenochtitll?n were dedicated to their most important gods – the sun god, who was the god of war, and the rain god. The city itself was built in the middle of a shallow lake called Texcoco. It was built on five islands that were connected to the mainland by three causeways, or raised roads. Instead of streets there were canals, and people went from place to place by canoe. When the Spanisch conquerors saw Tenochtitl?n they called it “The Venice of the New World”. At the height of Aztec civilization, around 1300-1500 AD, more than 200,000 people lived in Tenochtitl?n. It was bigger than any city in Europe at the time.

Agriculture and Trade

Good farming practices helped to support the large population of Tenochtitl?n. For example, the Aztecs built irrigation systems, constructed terraces on nearby hillsides, and enriched the soil with fertilizer. They developed a completely new agricultural technique for making more farmland out of the swampy land around the city by creating artificial islands, called chinampas, or “floating gardens”. The chinampas were made by piling rich earth from the bottom of Lake Texcoco onto rafts made of weeds. After awhile, the roots of plants and trees grew down to the lake bottom, anchoring the rafts. These island gardens covered most of the southern part of the lake and were planted with crops that produced large amounts of food. Their crops included corn, which was their principal crop, various kinds of vegetables (such as beans, squash, tomatoes, and peppers), and flowers. The Aztecs also planted corn and other crops in the irrigated fields around Lake Texcoco. They raised ducks, geese and turkeys, which were eaten by the rich nobles and merchants. They had dogs, but did not use work animals or plows. Instead, they used pointed sticks to poke holes for planting seeds in the soft soil.

The Aztecs produced a variety of goods, some for the ruler and his noblemen, and some that were sold in markets. Gold ornaments, brightly colored woven cloth and salt harvested from the lake bed were luxury items that were traded with distant peoples to the south. They were traded for other luxury items, such as tropical bird feathers and jaguar skins (used for ceremonial garments), cotton, rubber, and cacao beans (for making chocolate). Trading goods were carried by canoe and by long caravans of porters, since the Aztecs had no wheeled vehicles or pack animals. Aztec warriors traveled with the caravans and the merchants who led them to protect them in dangerous areas.

Aztec Lifestyle and Beliefs

The Aztecs carried on constant wars with neighboring peoples. They fought with wooden swords that had sharp stone blades. They also used bows and arrows as well as spears. Their armor was padded cotton made into suits fitted to the body. The Aztecs warred in part because they believed the gods had given them all Mexican lands. They also warred to obtain more goods and land to meet the needs of their growing population. And they warred in order to have victims to sacrifice to the gods.

Captives were brought to Tenochtitl?n. There they were led up the steps of a great pyramid on the top of which stood a temple. In front of the temple stood the sacrificial altar. While drums boomed, each unlucky captive was held down on the altar. The sharp knife of an Aztec priest flashed in the sun, and in an instant the victim’s chest was opened. The priest then reached in, grabbed the heart, and held it aloft for all to see. In this manner, the Aztecs sacrificed thousands of people each year.

What was the reason for all these sacrifices? The Aztecs thought their gods would turn against them if they were not given human sacrifices. For example, they believed that if the sun god were not fed human hearts and blood, the sun would not rise and the world would end in disaster. The Aztecs believed that their special purpose in life was to delay that destruction. They sacrificed to the gods to avoid destruction for as long as possible. The number of victims to the gods was enormous. During one famine, the Aztecs sacrificed over 10,000 people. Most of them had been captured in war.

Like most agricultural people, the Aztecs worshiped gods whom they believed controlled the forces of nature. In addition to the all-powerful sun god, they worshiped the god of rain and the plumed serpent, Quetzalcoatl, who was the god of wind and resurrection.

Artistic and Scientific Contributions

Archeologists have learned about the Aztec gods and religious ceremonies from the artwork found in the ruins of their cities. The images of the gods are represented in stone sculptures and carved wall scuptures on the walls of the temples. The inside walls of the buildings have remains of brilliantly colored paintings showing ceremonial events, such as the human sacrifices. An especially famous Aztec sculpture is the enormous calendar stone, a carved

stone circle 12 ft. in diameter. The calendar represents the Aztec universe with the face of the sun god in the center. He is surrounded by designs that symbolize the days and months and the locations of heavenly bodies at different times of the year.

The Aztec developed a writing and counting system based on pictographs in which each picture represented an object or the sound of a syllable. Their counting system was based on the number 20, in which one picture represented 20 items, another 20 x 20 ( = 400) items and so on. Archaelogists have learned to decode some of their writings, which talk about historical events and provide records of supplies and items for trade.

The Spanish Conquest

In 1521 Hernando Cort?s, a Spanish Conquistador, or conqueror, defeated the Aztecs. With just 500 soldiers and a few cannons, he overthrew thousands of mighty Aztec warriors. The Spanish had firearms. No Aztec weapon made from stone or bone could compete with cannon and gun. The second reason was that Cort?s received help from thousands of Aztec enemies. For many years, the fierce Aztecs had been warring. They forced conquered nations to pay high taxes. They made slaves of many. Worst of all, they sacrificed thousands to the gods. Conquered tribes were vengeful indeed. Willingly, they joined the Spanish to destroy their captors. With 500 Spanish soldiers and 10,000 Indian allies behind him, Cort?s charged the Aztec capital. The Spanish cannons and guns proved too much for the Aztecs and in the summer of 1521 they were defeated and their last king was executed.

The Aztecs’ Arrival in the Central Valley of Mexico

Mexicas, the Early Aztecs – The Aztecs, known around AD 1200 as the Mexicas (ME tree kahs), began a long, wandering journey from northern Mexico toward the central valley. They carried with them their tribal god, whose name meant “Humming Bird of the South.” He was god of war and the sun. They believed that this god would lead them to a special place.

An Aztec Legend

According to Aztec legend, the god told them to make their home on the spot where they saw an eagle perched on a cactus with a serpent in its mouth. Again according to legend, the Aztecs saw the eagle on an island in Lake Texcoco in Mexico’s central valley. There they stopped and made their home, building the city of Tenochtitlan. Today the eagle and serpent are shown on the flag of Mexico.

A Rise to Power

Tenochtitlan, the Central City – At its height, the Aztec Empire included millions of people. Even though no one knows exactly how many people there were, it seems clear that the Aztec Empire had a population equal to the large European countries at the time! Tenochtitlfin alone, which may have had as many as 200,000 people, was larger than any European city. Along the shores of Lake Texcoco were other cities. These cities were connected to Tenochtitlfin by a system of causeways, or raised earthen roads, built across the lake. Bridges on the causeways allowed canoes to go from one part of the lake to another.

Island Gardens, or Chinampas – A productive agriculture helped support the large population of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs planted corn and other crops in irrigated fields around Lake Texcoco. They built more islands from layers of reeds, other plants, and mud in the shallow water of the lake. The islands covered most of the southern part of the lake and were planted with crops that produced large amounts of food. These island gardens were called Chinampas. One Aztec crop was tomatoes. The English word tomato comes from the Aztec word tomatl, meaning “the swelling fruit.”

Aztec Warfare

The Aztec Conquerors – The Aztecs carried on constant wars with neighboring peoples. They fought with wooden swords that had sharp stone blades. They also used bows and arrows as well as spears. Their armor was padded cotton made into suits fitted to the body. This armor worked well against the weapons of other Indians. However, it was little protection against the steel swords, arrows, muskets, and cannons of the Spaniards.

The main purpose of the Aztec wars was to capture enemy soldiers so that thousands could be sacrificed, or offered, to the gods. Captives were brought to Tenochtitlan. There they were led up the steps of a great pyramid on the top of which stood a temple. In front of the temple stood the sacrificial altar. While drums boomed, each unlucky captive was held down on the altar. The sharp knife of an Aztec priest flashed in the sun, and in an instant the victim’s chest was opened. The priest then reached in, grabbed the heart, and held it aloft for all to see. In this manner, the Aztecs sacrificed thousands of people each year.

Cycles of Creation and Destruction

Religious Beliefs among the Aztec had a number of important beliefs. In common with other groups in Middle America, the Aztecs believed that the world had been created and destroyed several times. Ultimately, they believed their world would again end in disaster. The Aztecs thought that their special purpose in life was to delay that destruction. They sacrificed to the god of war and the sun to keep the sun in the sky and avoid destruction for as long as possible.

Priestly Powers

Many other Aztec gods controlled natural forces. For example, there was a god of rain and a god of wind. These gods also required attention, although they might not have demanded human sacrifice. Life was very insecure, since the gods could cause all sorts of problems if they became unhappy. It was important, therefore, to know what the gods wanted. The priests supposedly had the ability to interpret signs of the gods’ pleasure or unhappiness. Priests had enormous power in the Aztec society.

The priests also understood the great ceremonial calendar. It told of holy days that called for happy celebrations with song and dance. It also told of other days that were solemn and required fasting. The Aztecs believed that the calendar, if properly understood, could foretell the future.

Nobles and Commoners

You may recall that civilization and the importance of specialization were mentioned earlier. Aztec priests are an example of specialization. The priests were supported by the efforts of other people. They did not grow their own food or make their own clothes. Priests enjoyed power and privilege. The priests formed part of the upper class.

Aztec society, like all complex societies, had different social classes. People at the top – nobles, high priests, and people important in the military and government – had lives of luxury, with fine houses, clothing, and jewelry. The largest class was made up of commoners, such as farmers, servants, and craftspeople. In Aztec society, commoners were organized into clans, or groups, made up of many different families. Each clan joined people together throughout their lives. Members of a clan all lived in the same district. Merchants formed yet another class in Aztec society, separate from the commoners.

The Aztecs carried on a great deal of trade with other Indian nations. Traders, or pochtecas, also acted as spies when they went to other Indian cities. They brought back not only goods but also valuable information, such as any signs of unrest in the Empire or possible danger to the Aztec traders. Like the commoners, traders lived in their own district. However, traders were prosperous.


The ancient Inca civilization thrived in an area that stretched along the west coast of South America from 1100 AD to early in the 1500’s, when they were conquered by the Spanish. The Incas were originally a warlike tribe from the Andes Mountains, who moved down into the valley below. From this convenient location, they began to conquer other tribes in the surrounding area. By 1500 the Incas were the largest and richest of the ancient empires of the Americas. The Inca empire eventually extended some 2500 miles from their capital city of Cuzco along the western coast of Latin America. Their territory was very diverse both in climate and in terrain, for it included the high peaks and fertile valleys of the Andes mountains, the tropical forests on the eastern edges of the mountains and a long strip of drought-stricken desert along the western coast. The Incas ruled over hundreds of different tribes who spoke may different languages.

Inca Society

The Incas used a large army to maintain control and could quickly defeat any tribes that rebelled. They also instituted a strictly organized social structure, ruled by a god-like, all powerful ruler, called the Inca. Beneath the Inca were the royal family, several levels of nobility, priests, the administrators and government experts, and the large mass of common people – craftsmen, farmers and soldiers. People’s lives were strictly controlled, but the government protected them and made sure that they were well fed and had what they needed to live and work.

The Incas also invented very advanced agricultural, building and engineering methods. They are remembered as great builders. One of their most important creations was the elaborate system of stone roads and bridges they built to connect all the parts of the country. They had no horses, but used trained runners to deliver their messages to surrounding areas. Running in relays, the runners could cover as much as 250 miles per day so that messages and reports could be quickly delivered across great distances. And since the Incas forced all the conquered people to learn their language, having a common language also helped people communicate throughout the empire. Unlike the Maya and Aztec cultures, the Incas did not develop a written language. However, the Incas did have a number system that used knotted strings, called a quipu. They used quipus to keep accurate records of troops, supplies, population data, and agricultural inventories. Thus, they could plan which crops to plant to meet future needs, and they could assign people with particular skills to work on specific tasks, such as road building, hauling materials, tending crops, serving as soldiers, making pottery, or constructing houses and temples.

The Incas were also skilled farmers. Government experts taught the farmers new techniques for irrigating their crops, for draining marshlands, and for terracing the land to plant on steep hillsides. The terraces were narrow earthen platforms on the mount

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