Environmental Factors Shaped the Development of Societies in the Americas
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.
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.
Tribal Systems Were the Most Common State System in North America
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.
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.
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 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.