In the late 1400s, Europeans set sail toward the West and stumbled into the New World. What Christopher Columbus and his men couldn’t have known was that they’d ventured into an area that had already witnessed the birth and death of major civilizations unlike anything Europe had ever seen. What do you know about the legendary Maya, Inca and Aztec societies in our quiz?
Western history tends to emphasize the European exploration — and exploitation — of Central and South America in the 1500s. But the Maya, Inca and Aztec peoples built (and destroyed) civilizations of majestic proportions before any white people ever set foot on their turf. How much do you know about the difference between these various cultures?
The Incas, Mayans and Aztecs overlapped in some ways, but they also had distinct characteristics that made them unique to history. They worshipped different gods, built varied political systems, and even had very different architecture. Do you think you can pick out the various details that made these societies special?
Although their empire days are long over, these cultures left behind a wealth of artifacts and symbols that endure. Their customs and dialect are still strong, too. Let’s see how much you know about these fascinating native societies in our tough history quiz!
Before the Europeans arrived, the Maya civilization was the only one in the Americas with a formalized writing system. That system helped its people share ideas in amazing ways.
The Incas constructed the famous Machu Picchu in the mid-1400s, a lavish structure for an emperor of the time. Now, it is one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions.
The Mayans were an ancient people who lived in what is now southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. They eventually built an amazing society that intrigues historians around the world.
Quetzalcoatl is the Aztec god of learning, wind and air. This god was represented by a serpent with feathers.
The Inca Empire was huge, the biggest organized society in the Americas before the Europeans arrived. It was so big, in fact, that it may have been the biggest empire in the world in the 1500s.
Although area residents knew about the massive Inca structure called Machu Picchu, it went entirely unnoticed by the Western world until 1911. That’s when an American researcher and explorer Hiram Bingham scoured the area and publicized his findings.
The Maya people were prodigious farmers. As with many Central American cultures, they relied heavily on maize, squashes, peppers and other plants to fill their nutritional needs.
The Incas were widespread throughout western South America. Their influence stretched almost the entire west coast of the continent, primarily in the Andean Mountains.
Mayan cities, located in tropical jungle areas, tended to be really dispersed. One reason? Farmers would use the jungle’s fertile soils to grow crops throughout the area, including in the middle of "urban" areas.
Oddly, the Incas never used any sort of wheeled vehicles. But in spite of that inefficiency, this civilization became one of the biggest on the planet.
Inti was the name for the Inca’s sun god. Much of Inca culture revolved around their devotion to the blazing god of the sky.
Tenochtitlan was a capital city of the Aztec Empire, originally built on an island in the middle of large lake. The Spanish captured Tenochtitlan in 1521.
The so-called "Sapa Inca" was top dog in Inca society, a king and later, emperor. The Inca people viewed the Sapa Inca as the son of the sun, a true god among men.
Three city-states in the area of Mexico came together to form the Aztec Empire — the Triple Alliance. The Alliance started around 1430 and controlled the region until the Spanish conquistadors arrived.
Unlike other societies which plotted construction in grids, the Mayans were pretty random.%0DThe Mayans were your artsy aunt — they just sort of built wherever they felt like it at the time.
The position of Sapa Inca was hereditary, passed from king to male heirs. Some reigns lasted for decades; others, for just a few years.
The Incas, like the Romans, knew that roads were essential to the empire. They built roads all over the place, even in far-flung reaches of the empire.
Tikal was a major city in the Mayan society. At its peak, it may have had a population of around 100,000.
The Incas worshipped their sun god, Inti, with frantic devotion. They believed that the sun’s heat was what caused rain.
Nojpetén was a Maya capital city, the last to fall to invading conquerors. Surrounded by a lake, it held out until 1697, when hundreds of Spanish soldiers captured the area.
The pipiltin were the lucky, high-born citizens of the Aztec Empire. They occupied positions of power in all walks of life, from the military to politics and more.
The Inca empire didn’t require the concept of money. Instead, people traded services and products to get what they needed.
Spanish conquerors ravaged the Inca Empire in the 1500s. And in 1572, they took down the final Inca holdouts — and the Empire was no more.
The Triple Alliance brought together formidable forces in the area of Mexico. Once aligned, these armies went on conquests that made the Empire even bigger.
Conquistador Francisco Pizzaro had fewer than 200 soldiers — but far better weaponry and tactics. He used both to win the Battle of Puna, which contributed to the fall of the Inca Empire.
Maya cities shrunk substantially during the 800s ... and no one really knows why. There may have been a famine or perhaps a terrible war that killed off many people.
Cortes was a famous Spanish conquistador who set out to gain power in the New World. He slowly but surely conquered the Aztec Empire.
The conquistadors were clever. They realized that many indigenous peoples were tired of empires like the Incas. So, they leveraged that resentment to their advantage, convincing the locals to take up arms against the empires.
In the Empire, all outlying provinces were expected to pay tributes to the primary city-states. But with those payments out of the way, the locals were mostly left to create their own societies.
Thanks to their prolific writings and vast population, the Mayan languages are still spoken by a few million people today. There are at least two dozen languages of Mayan origin still in use.