Monday, May 19, 2014

Chapter 2 The Earliest Americans: Agriculture in the Americas

Sleepy Hollow is still on hiatus but the updates will resume on Friday.  It has been a goofy week for Sleepy Hollow.

A Great Discovery
Leel the Clever One was the first to notice.  First, you put seeds from plants into holes in the ground.  Then, when spring came, plants like the ones the seeds came from grew from the earth.  It was a great discovery because it allowed people to settle in one place.  On this discovery was based the rise of civilization in the Americas.

The Ice Age had ended.  Animals of the late Ice Age had become extinct.  Early Americans had lived by killing these animals and eating their flesh.  Human beings in the Americas might have become extinct, too, had it not been for an important fact.  Human beings are omnivorous--that is, they can eat plants as well as meat.  They do not have to depend on meat alone.  In the centuries following the end of the Ice Age, prehistoric Americans turned more and more to plants for food.

Agriculture Develops
Even during the Ice Age, hunters had probably learned that many roots, berries, and nuts were good to eat.  As the large animals vanished, tribes continued to move about.  Their members lived by gathering these wild foods and by eating the flesh of such small animals as they were able to trap and kill.  This was probably the time that Leel--or someone like her--began the practice of agriculture.

Agriculture is the planting of seeds and the care of growing plants.  It also involves saving the very best of the plant seeds to improve the next year's crop.  It is believed that agriculture was first practiced in Asia and Africa.  Leel and her tribe may have brought this practice to the Americas and then taught it to others.  Or clever people may have started practicing agriculture in the Americas on their own.

Where and when agriculture began in the Americas have been matters for debate.  Most scholars now believe, however, that agriculture was first practiced in the Andes Mountains of South America.  Crops were grown there at least 4,000 years ago.  Some of the crops that these people grew were potatoes, peanuts, kidney beans, and tomatoes.

Although the earliest movement of people in the Americas was almost certainly from north to south, evidence shows that the practice of agriculture advanced from south to north.  In the places where agriculture had been practiced the longest, the greatest civilizations arose.

The Mayas
The Mayas developed the first advanced civilization in the Americas.  They lived in the jungles of Central America and southern Mexico.  Their civilization flourished from 1,200 to 700 years before Europeans arrived in America.  The Mayas built large cities, supported by croplands carved from the jungle.  One of their main crops was maize, or Indian corn.  From this area, the cultivation of maize spread throughout North America and South America.

About the year 900 the Mayan civilization declined for unknown reasons.  But reminders of its greatness can still be seen in the jungles.  There are ruins of temples, pyramids, and other stone buildings.

The Aztecs
By the 1400s the Aztecs ruled what is now central Mexico.  Like the Mayas, the Aztecs built beautiful cities.  Their capital, Tenochtitlan, was built on islands in the middle of Lake Texcoco.  It stood on the site of today's Mexico City.  Tenochtitlan had a population of about 300,000.  The surrounding farmlands produced abundant food supplies.

The Aztecs developed an accurate calendar with 365 days.  They wrote their history in a series of pictographs on long strips of paper.  They learned to fashion jewelry with jade, gold, and silver.

The Aztecs were a warlike people.  They practiced human sacrifice because they believed that their gods needed blood in order to live.  As a result, other tribes lived in dread of the Aztecs.

The Incas
The Incas were the descendants of those first Andean tribes who learned to farm long ago.  By conquering their neighbors, they greatly expanded the region they controlled.  In the 1400s, they ruled over all the tribes in the areas of present-day Peru and Ecuador and parts of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina.  Cuzco in Peru was their capital.

The Incas developed a complex system of farming.  On the steep sides of the Andes, the Incas cut terraces, or ledges, into the land for planting.  Water from mountain streams irrigated, or supplied water to, the dry soil.  By using these methods, the Incas were able to raise more crops to feed the many people they ruled.  To transport these crops and other goods, the Incas built an extensive highway and bridge network.  There were more than 7,000 miles of roads.  Messages or communications were carried across their lands by relay runners.

The Pueblo Indians
About 700 years ago, Indian civilization in the Southwest United States reached its height.  Agriculture had probably come to this region 2,000 years earlier.  Still, it took centuries for farming to develop enough to support a large population.

Much of this population lived in pueblos--the Spanish word for "towns."  Indian pueblos were, however, more like apartment houses than towns.  At one time there were thousands of pueblos.  They were scattered over the region between the Mexican state of Chihuahua in the south to Kansas and Colorado in the north.  One of the most famous is Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

About 1,000 years ago Pueblo Bonito housed at least 1,500 people.  Until a bigger apartment house was built in New York in 1882, Pueblo Bonito and some of the other pueblos were the largest dwellings ever built in the Americas.

To support so many people, Pueblo agriculture had to be well developed.  Farmers raised corn, squash, and beans.  They looked upon these vegetables as gifts from the gods they worshiped.  Like farmers to the south, the Pueblo Indians irrigated their crops with water brought from distant streams.  They raised cotton, too.  From its fibers, cloth was woven and decorated with a variety of fancy designs.

At Mesa Verde, in southwestern Colorado, pueblos were built along the sides of steep cliffs.  Some of these dwellings were several stories high.  They were probably built along the sides of cliffs as a means of protection from the tribe's enemies.

Most pueblos in the Southwest were abandoned long before Europeans came to America.  Invaders from the north may have driven the peaceful Pueblo Indians from their towns.  Or changes in climate may have caused a drought, that is, a long period of dry weather.  A lengthy drought would have been a disaster for farming.  People would have had to leave the pueblos to find other sources of food.  As people scattered in search of food, the Pueblo civilization would have declined.
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Come back tomorrow for Part Three!  Tomorrow's is going to be about The Mound Builders

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