Pre-Columbian America: Great Achievements

Ana Campos, Principal Librarian, Central Library Services,
Machu Picchu in Peru with a Llama
Machu Picchu, an Incan citadel set high in the Andes Mountains in Peru

During the celebration of Latino Heritage Month, we'll be sharing a weekly segment highlighting interesting facts from pre-Columbian America. We'll give information about the contributions of these civilizations, from their greatest achievements to food, animals, and art. Historically, not enough coverage and recognition have been given to all the great things that existed before 1492; when the European colonization began in America.

We start this segment with five important achievements of the pre-Columbian civilizations:

1. The Mayans discovered the number zero, which they used to measure time. The Mayans used only three symbols to represent the numbers: the point, whose value is 1; the line, whose value is 5; and the snail/shell whose value is zero. Also, the Babylonians and Hindus independently discovered the number zero.

2. The Aztecs created a calendar system. The first calendar consists of 365 days. This was the agricultural calendar because they used it to plan their crops and harvest. The second calendar was a sacred calendar consisting of 260 days. This calendar was used to make predictions.

3. The Shuar/Jivaro tribe is the only group in the world who made shrunken heads. The Shuar lived in the Amazon between Ecuador and Peru. The shrunken heads were heads of the enemies that they defeated. They could shrink heads using their extensive knowledge of anatomy and chemistry. They believed that they trapped the spirit of their enemies in those shrunken heads, which they used as a talisman. The tribe of the Shuar still exists today, but in the 1950s they were forbidden to continue their practice of making shrunken heads.

4. Pre Columbian civilizations built wonderful structures that in some cases scientists today cannot explain how they were built. Among these wonderful structures are Machu Picchu in Peru, the city of Tikal in Guatemala, and the city of Teotihuacan in Mexico. It is evident that these civilizations possessed advance engineering and architectural skills.

5. They had extensive knowledge of healing plants and in some cases, they also practiced surgeries. As is the case of the Incas who practiced very advance skull surgeries.

More About These Great Civilizations

The Incas: New Perspectives
McEwan, Gordon Francis.

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Incas: The History, Legends, Myths and Culture of the Ancient Native Peoples of the Andes
Jones, David M. (David Michael), 1950-

Cause & Effect: The Ancient Mayans
Currie, Stephen, 1960-

Quest for the Lost Maya

Cause & Effect: The Ancient Aztecs
Nardo, Don, 1947-

Barghusen, Joan D., 1935-

Prehistoric Mesoamerica
Adams, Richard E. W., 1931-

Mesoamerica's Ancient Cities: Aerial Views of Pre-Columbian Ruins in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras
Ferguson, William M.