Swamped with your writing assignments? Take the weight off your shoulder!
Submit your assignment instructions
African and American Empires
Explain the characteristics and contributions of the three African empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai
Explain the characteristics and contributions of the civilizations that flourished in the Americas
Identify and Understand how Civilizations used past achievements and knowledge to advance themselves
Identify how foreign influences impacted each civilization
Click on the play arrow below to watch the video.
*Helpful tip: Do not play the audio file above and the video below at the same time.
Africa is the second-largest continent in the world and covers one-fifth of Earth’s land surface. Africa is three times larger than the United States as it stretches more than 5,000 miles from north to south. Because of Africa’s size and geography, many different civilizations arose there. The Egyptian civilization found along the Nile was one of these civilizations. Three important kingdoms found in the Niger River Valley in West Africa were the kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. These three kingdoms were powerful from A.D. 300 to 1600.
The kingdom of Ghana was ruled by a powerful king as it rose to power around 400 A.D. The word Ghana means chief. Ghanaian society was made up of many clans. A clan is a group of people descended from a common ancestor. The king was responsible for settling arguments between the clans. To rule the lands of the kingdom, the king appointed governors. The areas ruled by governors had soldiers and workers who were given different jobs.
The economy of the kingdom of Ghana was based on agriculture, mining, and trade. The salt mines of the Sahara Desert in the north and the gold mines in the south provided the kingdom with a strong economy. Merchants were responsible to trade goods throughout the kingdom, and the Ghanaian kingdom became rich from taxing traveling merchants. Every time goods passed through the territory, they were taxed. This wealth enabled Ghana to keep a large army and a lavish court for their emperor. Muslim merchants bought goods made in Ghana and sold them throughout the Muslim empire. Muslim traders also brought foreign goods into Ghana. Overall, the economy was controlled by the king who worked to keep the value of gold as high as possible.
Ghana was able to successfully defend itself from attack by Muslims in the north, but eventually, the invading Muslims defeated the armies of Ghana. By the end of the 12th century, the Muslims overthrew the king. However, the influence of the Muslims did not last long.
During the 13th century, the Mali kingdom came into power. The Mali kingdom was ruled by leaders who became Muslims and were very powerful. Mali’s economy was built on gold, ivory, cattle, and cotton, and became very strong. Gold from Mali’s mines was traded for salt from the Sahara as salt was in short supply in West Africa.
The first ruler of Mali was Sundiata. While Sundiata reigned, Mali’s agricultural basis expanded. Mansa Musa was probably the greatest ruler of Mali. During his reign, the empire grew as he established a system of government and set up a tax system. Mansa Musa also had several big achievements. Mansa Musa converted to Islam and went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Holy City of Islam, taking with him 60,000 men. As he traveled eastward, a long procession of camels was loaded with huge quantities of gold. Mansa Musa built Timbuktu into a spectacular city known for its burnt brick architecture and many mosques, or Muslim houses of worship. Sankore University was established, and Timbuktu became a great center of education and scholarship. The Kingdom of Mali declined slowly after Mansa Musa’s death in 1337. The group which soon gained power was called Songhai.
Following the rule of Mali, civil war broke out. The fighting ended when the powerful rulers from the Songhai kingdom took power. The great king of the Songhai Empire, Sonni Ali, was extending his empire at about the same time that Christopher Columbus was discovering America. The Songhai Empire was at its strongest when Askia the Great, a Muslim, ruled. He ordered that the rule of Islam, the Quran, was to be the law of the land. Under Askia’s reign, the city of Timbuktu became the center of Islamic culture. Islamic scholars from faraway lands were attracted to Timbuktu because of its university. Like many other kingdoms around the world, all three rose due to powerful leaders who were able to unite the people and fell due to civil war and outside invasions.
Contributions to Civilization
In art and architecture, African traditions go back in time to the ancient rock painting of the Sahara, the pyramids of Egypt and Nubia, the rock churches of Ethiopia, and the stones of Great Zimbabwe. In about A.D. 1100, sculptors developed a method of bronze casting known as the lost wax process. The wax softness meant that it could be carved and used as a model. The model was then covered with clay and heated, melting the wax. Bronze was poured into the clay form, and when the bronze cooled, the clay was washed away. The lost wax process is still used today to make custom jewelry. The sculptors of this time are some of the best in the world. The stylized form would influence future artists such as Pablo Picasso. The stylized forms of African masks and other works had a dramatic influence on the development of modern art in the western world. Traditional African music was based on intricate and complex patterns of rhythm and has influenced modern forms of western music such as jazz.
In West Africa, griots, or professional poets, record keepers, historians, and political advisors to chiefs recited ancient stories to preserve history and folk tales from generation to generation. Some griots today can remember detailed family histories that go back more than 200 years and know the brave deeds of kings of 700 years ago. Griots often used riddles to sharpen the wits of the audience. Another popular type of tale told was the story without an ending. It challenged the audience to create a fitting lesson or conclusion. Traditional African storytelling continues to this day.
Civilizations of North, Central, and South America
At about the same time that civilizations were developing in Africa, great civilizations were forming in North America, Central America, and South America. These civilizations were unknown to the Africans and Europeans during the Middle Ages. It wasn’t until the late 1400s and early 1500s that Europeans came in contact with these civilizations. About 25,000 years ago, the glaciers of the Ice Age froze so much of Earth’s water that ocean levels dropped as much as 500 feet. Because of this drop in ocean level, a land bridge surfaced across the Bering Strait between Northern Asia and present-day Alaska.
Archaeologists believe that the earliest Americans migrated to North America from Asia across this bridge, probably searching for or following food. As Earth warmed, the glaciers melted and the land bridge disappeared, the Americas becoming a separate landmass. Slowly traveling southward over thousands of years, these wandering hunters and gathers eventually reached as far south as the tip of South America.
Diverse cultural groups developed in North, Central, and South America. The Americas are made up of the continents of North and South America. In North America, the Rocky Mountains begin in Alaska and continue southward into Mexico. The Andes Mountains run down the length of South America. Both continents are drained by the Mississippi River in North America and the Amazon River in South America.
American civilizations learned to adapt to the variety of climates and resources in the Americas. In both the far northern and southern parts of the Americas, people learned to survive in icy cold climates. Near the Equator, civilizations had to adapt to a hotter climate and tropical rain forests. The Americas also had deserts, woodlands, swamplands, and fertile plains. Between North and South America is a region called Middle America. Middle America or Mesoamerica includes Mexico and Central America.
Most of what is known about the Native American population of North America comes from the work of archaeologists. Archaeological digs have resulted in the discovery of burial mounds, pottery, tools, and the remains of the bones of both animals and humans in all parts of North America. Native Americans who settled in a particular area of North America developed a common culture. As these cultural areas flourished, their arts, crafts, and religious customs became distinct or different from those in other areas of North America. Each culture reflected the environment in which it developed. Historians call this cultural differentiation.
Early Americans used the resources of their environment for food, clothing, and shelter. Some early Americans lived near the ocean. Other groups may have fished in streams and rivers, while others were hunters and gatherers. Archaeologists have learned that early Americans throughout North America developed diverse ways of living. They have uncovered such artifacts as rounded stones for grinding and bone hooks for fishing. By about 5000 B.C. early Americans discovered farming. This discovery led to the development of permanent farming villages. As food supplies increased, the population of North America grew. By A. D. 1500, when the Europeans arrived in the Americas, about 15 to 20 million Native Americans lived in what is today the United States and Canada.
Native North Americans
There are 10 cultural groups that are based on the environments in which Native American people lived. These include the Arctic, Sub-arctic, Northwest Coast, California, Great Basin, Plateau, Southwest, Great Plains, Eastern Woodlands, and Southeast. In each of these areas, the people adapted to their environment and the environment directly influenced the diverse cultures that developed. Early Americans mainly lived by hunting and gathering wild plants and berries. Eventually, Native Americans learned how to plant and harvest corn. Other crops grown by Native Americans included potatoes, squash, avocados, pumpkins, tomatoes, peanuts, and a variety of beans.
Civilizations of Middle and South America
Middle America or Mesoamerica are the lands of Mexico and Central America between North and South America. Many different civilizations flourished in Mexico, Central America, and South America. Most of the people in these civilizations were farmers, but these great nations developed remarkable cultures with outstanding accomplishments in the development of architecture, agriculture, education, and the arts.
The first American civilization, the Olmecs lived in farm villages in what is today Mexico’s Gulf Coast. They raised maize, a corn plant native to the Central American rainforest. The Olmecs built pyramid-shaped temples and carved enormous stone heads. Archaeologists believe that their cities were the center of religious worship. These advanced people developed a system of writing, a calendar, and a counting system. Through trade, the Olmecs culture spread to other civilizations.
The Olmecs Contributions to Civilization
Through trade, the Olmecs’ influence spread over a large area. Their carvings of grinning jaguars and snakes appear in the art of later peoples. Some of the most impressive remains of the Olmecs’ civilization are the giant carved 40-ton stone heads found at La Venta. The Olmecs also invented a picture form of writing and developed a number system with a zero. Using these advances, they made remarkably accurate calendars. The Olmecs’ most important contribution may have been the tradition of priestly leadership and religious devotion that would be a major influence on later Middle American civilizations.
The Mayan city-states developed an advanced civilization from the Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico through Central America. The Maya civilization started around 2600 B.C. They lasted the longest of all and are often viewed as the greatest Mesoamerican civilization. The Mayans were mainly a farming civilization by clearing the rainforest and growing both maize and beans. Mayan cities were important due to their roles of being religious, government, and trading centers. The rulers, Mayan priests, and nobles governed from the largest city-state of Tikal. A huge triangle-shaped pyramid served as a religious place of worship.
Mayan priests observed the movement of stars and planets. They believed that the stars and planets in the sky were gods, and they determined everything that happened on Earth. Below the priests and nobles were the merchant class. However, most of the Mayan people were in the lower classes made up of artisans, peasants, and slaves.
Mayans were known to have traded with other civilizations. Mayan trade goods included salt, grain, cloth, bird feathers, jewelry, and animal skins. For reasons not yet known, the Mayans abandoned most of their cities between A.D. 800 and 900.
Mayan Contributions to Civilization
The Mayans studied and observed the movement of the stars and the heavenly bodies. They recorded eclipses and developed a very accurate calendar. Based on careful observations of the planets, sun, and moon, Mayan astronomers estimated a year contained 365.2420 days. Their calendar was only .0002nd of a day too short.
The Mayans developed a writing system and a mathematical system that used zero. Their first writing system used pictures. Later they developed characters called phonograms that represented sounds. Phonograms were written on sheets of paper made of tree bark and folded to form pages. These were the first books ever made in the Western hemisphere.
Advances in architecture are seen in the remains of many of their tall pyramids. The Mayan pyramids were the tallest structures in America until the Flatiron Building, a skyscraper, was built in New York City in 1903.
The Aztecs were fierce, warlike people who settled in Mexico’s Central Plateau. In the 15th century, they built a great empire by conquering other civilizations and forcing them to pay tribute. Borrowing from earlier civilizations, the Aztecs learned to be skilled builders and built their capital city of Tenochtitlan in the middle of a lake. As many as 300,000 Aztecs lived in this city. Tenochtitlan had great gardens, palaces, and markets, and the emperor and his family lived there. Stone bridges known as causeways were constructed to connect their capital city to the mainland. Like other civilizations in the Americas, they built huge stone pyramids as temples in their cities.
The Aztecs were polytheistic, meaning they worshipped many gods. Their chief god was the sun god and Aztec priests believed that their sun god demanded human sacrifices in order to survive. Without a daily diet of a human heart, their sun would not rise again. To provide enough humans to be sacrificed to their god, the Aztecs were constantly at war with their neighbors. Most of the human sacrifices were those captured in war, but sometimes families offered one of their family members as a sacrifice to their sun god.
The emperor and his family were part of the upper class in Aztec society. The priests and noble classes chose him to lead their people in war. Priests were extremely important in Aztec society as they were responsible for leading religious ceremonies, keeping historical records, and schooled the children of the nobility. Nobles were the government officials and often governed the conquered provinces in the empire. The warrior class was the next highest class in Aztec society. However, the majority of the people were the common people, most of whom were farmers. At the bottom of society were slaves, prisoners of war, and criminals.
After Europeans discovered the Americas, Spanish adventurers were known as conquistadors or conquerors began exploring this “New World.” In 1519, Hernan Cortes and a band of soldiers attacked the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan. He and his soldiers defeated the Aztec ruler Montezuma. The conquistadors successfully defeated the larger Aztec armies because they had horses, guns, and armor, which were unknown to the Aztecs. Cortes also won the support of the neighboring tribes that had been conquered by the Aztecs and allied with their warriors. By 1521 the Spanish destroyed the city of Tenochtitlan. The victory of Cortes over the Aztecs marked the end of Aztec rule in Central America and the beginning of Spanish rule in the Americas.
Fun Facts: The Spanish Conquistadors waged a war against the Aztec Empire by bringing weapons unheard of in the Americas and by employing tribes subjugated by the Aztec Empire. A third ally, and perhaps the most dangerous to the Aztecs, was brought entirely by accident! The Conquistadors brought smallpox with them to the “New World,” and this disease ravaged the Aztecs. Historians estimate that over 20 million natives of the Americas were killed within 5 years! This paved the way for the Spanish domination of South and Central America.
The Aztec Contributions to Civilization
The Aztecs were the most advanced civilization in Middle America at the time of Cortes. They did not originate much of their advanced knowledge. When the Aztecs invaded a region, they adopted the culture and knowledge of their foes. From the Mayas, they learned how to determine the solar year accurately.
Religion was very important in the life of the Aztecs. Aztec priests used herbs and other medicines to treat fevers and wounds. Aztec physicians could set broken bones and treat dental cavities. The Aztecs also prescribed steam baths as cures for various ills, a therapy still in use today.
In architecture and sculpture, the Aztecs excelled in building and decorating huge temples. They used picture writing and number symbols to record religious events. Although they were excellent traders, they had no money systems, so they used a system of barter Aztec sunstone to trade goods.
Another advanced American civilization developed far to the south in the Andes Mountains along the Pacific coast. The Incas built their capital city of Cuzco high in the mountains of what is today the South American country of Peru. The Incan civilization began as a small group of herders who domesticated and raised llamas. In 1438 the Incan warrior Pachacuti conquered the neighboring tribes and declared himself emperor. He extended Incan rule from Ecuador in the north to Chile and Argentina in the south. The empire he created included people of many diverse cultures and 20 different languages. This empire eventually grew to become a powerful empire that stretched over 2,000 miles through coastal deserts, dry highlands, fertile river valleys, and rain forests.
Most of the Incas lived in the Andes and had to adjust to living in high altitudes. Their capital city Cuzco was almost 12,000 feet above sea level. Like other advanced civilizations in the Americas, the Incas were great builders. From earlier civilizations, they learned how to build large stone buildings. They also built a 14,000-mile system of roads to connect their growing empire. Their roads ran through the highest mountains as well as the deserts. The Incas also built hundreds of bridges across rivers and cut tunnels through hillsides. These roads allowed the Incan armies and news to spread quickly through the empire. Runners stationed at various provinces in the empire could quickly carry important news from one part of the empire to the other.
Like the Maya and the Aztecs, the Incas created a strong government. The Incan Empire had as many as 16 million people. This huge empire was divided into provinces. The Incan emperor ruled his empire from the mountain capital of Cuzco where he closely regulated the lives of the common people. The Incan people believed that their emperor was descended from the sun god.
All the land and wealth of the Incan empire was owned by the emperor. He distributed the land to the common people in the empire and closely regulated the growing and distribution of food. Such foods as potatoes and quinoa, a protein-rich grain, were important parts of the Incan diet. To unite his diverse empire, a single language called Quechua became the official language of the Incan Empire. All the citizens of the empire were expected to speak this language and learn Incan ways.
Local rulers were permitted to rule the conquered provinces of the empire as long as they remained loyal to the Incan government. The Incan government demanded tribute from its citizens in the form of labor. Citizens were expected to work on public works projects for the government for a certain number of days every year. Citizens were also expected to work on irrigation systems, roads, or palaces.
The Incas had no formal system of writing. Special officials kept records of births, deaths, crop production, and taxes on a quipu, a collection of knotted, colored cords. History and literature were memorized and passed down from generation to generation.
Like the other civilizations in the Americas, the Incas were polytheistic. They worshipped their ruler as a god, believing he was a descendant of the sun god. The Incas also worshipped nature spirits. Incan priests served the gods by celebrating religious festivals. Young women known as the chosen women were selected by the priests to devote their lives to religious service. They were trained in the skills and duties needed to serve the sun god. Food and animals were typical sacrificial offerings, but it is believed that human sacrifices were also made during special events.
The Decline of the Inca
Cortes’ success in his conquest of the Aztecs inspired other Spanish conquistadors to seek their fortune in the Americas. In 1531 the Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro discovered the Incas at a time when the Incan Empire was weakened by civil war. Helped by rival Indian tribes, he and his army captured an Incan city and Atahualpa, the Incan emperor. Pizarro and his army killed thousands of Incans and demanded a huge ransom for the safe return of Atahualpa. Although Atahualpa gave Pizarro enough gold and silver to fill up an entire room, the Spanish killed him. Pizarro eventually captured the capital city Cuzco in 1533. The Incas rebelled against the Spanish for many years but were unable to defeat them.
Incan Contributions to Civilization
The Incas made use of advanced methods of agriculture. To survive in their dry and mountainous land, they built irrigation systems for watering and developed special methods of farming. To prevent erosion, the Incas also invented a technique known as terraced farming. Farmers plant their crops on level strips of land dug into the steep slopes of mountainsides.
The Incas were master builders. They built temples from huge blocks of stone, some of which weighed up to 200 tons each. The Incas fitted stone blocks together tightly without cement or mortar. Many of their temples and other stone buildings withstood centuries of earthquakes and some still stand today.
As artisans and craftsmen, Incas believed that gold and silver were sacred objects that should be used to give glory to their gods. They designed beautiful gold statues and ornaments of the finest quality and decorated the walls of their temples with sheets of gold. Their gold statues and ornaments are among the finest ever produced.
In the field of medicine, Incas learned to treat malaria with quinine, a substance made from bark. They performed brain surgery, bone operations, and amputations. They operated on the skull to relieve swelling caused by wounds and used herbs as antiseptics. How do we know this? Ancient Incan skulls have been discovered with holes that had been drilled but had healed over, indicating the patient had survived.
Supplemental Lessons (These are optional. Please do not submit, as they will not be graded).
1. Besides North America, which of the above cultures would you rather live in? Why? Which would you NOT want to live in, and why?
2. Write a paper describing your life in the cultures you chose above. Include family, work, food, the environment, and lifestyle.
Outside reading- Mesoamerica