1.4I: State Systems in the Americas

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Learning Objective 1I

Explain how and why states in the Americas developed and changed over time.

Historical Development 1

Geographic factors led societies in the Americas to develop differently than many of the larger societies of Eurasia. 

Historical Development 2

North America remained populated by largely tribal and clan-based peoples and civilizations.

Historical Development 3

Latin America and South America developed larger and more formalized state systems than in North America.

The Americas north/south alignment and lack of domesticable animals prevented the development of transcontinental political powers and limited the development of trade networks.

North America developed complex societies with tribal governing and social structures.

Latin and South America developed larger state systems with bureaucratic governance. Maya, Aztec, and the Inca resembled some of the larger societies of Afro-Eurasia.


Environmental Factors Shaped the Development of Societies in the Americas

Main idea

The Americas north/south alignment and lack of domesticable animals prevented the development of transcontinental political powers and limited the development of trade networks.

Unique environmental characteristics in the Americas resulted in civilizations and relationships between societies that differed from those in Afro-Eurasia. While the Americas did develop many complex and technologically advanced societies like the Mississippian people, the Maya, Aztecs, and the Incas, nowhere in the Americas did a trans-continental power like the Abbasid Empire or a trading empire like the Song dynasty develop.

Geographic alignment

North and South America are on a north/south alignment. This alignment meant that more climatic variations separated early American civilizations. These climatic variations made it harder to move across the landmass that separated early American civilizations. East/west land alignments, such as Eurasia, have fewer climatic variations because they cross fewer lines of latitude.

Lack of domesticable animals

The Americas also lacked animals that could be ridden or used to carry goods. As a result, the growth of travel and trade was difficult. There were no camels or horses, horses, or oxen like in Afro-Eurasia. The lack of domesticable animals also made it challenging to increase agricultural production as animals were unavailable for agricultural use. People in South America around the Inca empire did manage to domesticate llamas. However, llamas could not carry the heaviest loads and had difficulty operating as work animals outside the mountainous climate zone in which they evolved.

Impacts of environmental factors on American state formation

While there are exceptions and variations across the Americas, the following were common features of state systems in the Americas. Notice how the environmental factors above resulted in smaller governments and less economic exchange.

Smaller State Systems

Chiefdoms, city-states, and tribal governments (exception Inca) either did not have formal governing structures or had small bureaucracies.

Smaller Populations

The total population in the Americas was around 30 million out of a global total of approximately 400 million.

Less urbanization

While the city of Cahokia in North America was larger than London and the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had nearly 200,000 residents, most American civilizations were tribal and not urbanized.

Lower trade volumes

Trade volumes in the Americas were much lower than in Afro-Eurasia. While trade networks did exist, there was no network like the Silk Roads or Indian Ocean exchange networks.

More political fragmentation

Without formalized bureaucratic structures, governments in the Americas remained smaller. As a result, more leadership structures controlled smaller pieces of territory.

Tribal Systems Were the Most Common State System in North America

Main idea

North America developed complex societies with tribal governing and social structures.

Before the arrival of Europeans, North America had a wide diversity of tribal societies. Some tribes were nomadic or semi-nomadic, while others built permanent structures and settlements. Tribes such as the Inuit in the far north of North America hunted and gathered, while the Mississippians grew agriculture. Tribes engaged in low-volume trade both with neighbors and across longer distances. Natives also produced beautiful works of art and monumental architecture, such as the Pueblo cave dwellings at Mesa Verde.

A few common characteristics of North American societies included:

Tribal leadership consisted of elders or religious leaders who made decisions for tribal groups of various sizes.

Most tribal structures lacked large bureaucratic systems.

Tribal governance lacked written legal and tax collection systems.

Tribal economies consisted of hunting and gathering and agriculture with small trade volumes.

The Pueblo (Chaco Canyon)

The Pueblo flourished in the American Southwest between the 9th and 12th centuries. Their name comes from the communal pueblos dwellings that the tribes lived within. Traditional American depictions of natives are of nomadic societies that lived in teepees. The Pueblo proves that stereotype to be incorrect. While the Pueblo migrated during specific periods, they lived within their pueblo structures during other periods. Chaco Canyon and the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde are the most well-known Pueblo archeological sites.

The Mississippi River Valley Civilization

The Mississippian people emerged in the Mississippi River valley between the 8th and 16th centuries. Like the Pueblo, their society was a collection of various smaller tribes. Together, these tribes were the largest North American civilization before the arrival of Europeans. The largest city was Cahokia in present-day Illinois. In 1250, the population of Cahokia numbered 40,000 people–at the time, it was more populated than London.

Latin and South America Had More Extensive and Formal State Systems

Latin and South American societies sometimes had larger formalized government and social systems like those in Afro-Eurasia.

A few common characteristics of Latin and South American societies included:

Some states had larger governments and some bureaucratic systems. 

Theocratic monarchs governed and were also religious leaders. 

Scholars understood advanced mathematical and scientific concepts.

Higher trade volumes than North America, but trade volume was lower than in Afro-Eurasia.

Historical trend

Notice that America’s leaders also connected their rule to religion. Just like many societies in Afro-Eurasia, leaders were also religious figures who claimed God wanted them to rule.

The Maya-city states

The Maya was an intellectually and technologically advanced urban civilization in Southern Mexico and Northern Guatemala. At its height, the Maya population numbered in the millions.

The Mexica (the Aztecs)

The Aztecs were a semi-nomadic group that moved into Southern Mexico and established themselves on a small island in the middle of Lake Texcoco at the start of the 14th century. Over the next few hundred years, the Mexica people built up an empire through a series of marriage alliances and military victories over neighboring civilizations. At its height, the Aztec Empire numbered between 5 and 6 million inhabitants.

Comparison across civilizations

The mathematical and scientific knowledge in some Latin and South American societies was as advanced as in the Song dynasty or Abbasid caliphate.

The Inca

The Inca empire was the largest native state system in the Americas. At its height, Inca territory stretched 2500 miles along the Pacific coast of South America. By 1525 the population numbered approximately 10 million individuals.