Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas

Several cultures flourished in Central and South America from about 300 C.E. in the modern-day nations of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Of the many early civilizations first living in this area, the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas are the best known and offer a broad understanding of early life in these areas.

The Mayans

The Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico and Belize in Central America were home to the ancient Mayan civilization, which originated in about 2600 B.C.E. , rose to prominence in about 300 C.E. , and collapsed around 900 C.E. Although often studied as an empire, the Mayan civilization was not a unified society but rather a group of twenty culturally similar, independent states. Mayans created a highly developed culture with systems of writing, calendars, mathematics, astronomy, art, architecture, and religious, political, and military order. Mayans constructed beautiful stone cities and religious temples without the use of metal tools or the wheel, since these tools had not yet been discovered by their culture. Much about Mayan culture is lost forever. The tropical climate of Mexico did not preserve the tree bark books buried with priests, and the Spanish conquerors and missionaries of the 1500s burned or destroyed the remnants of Mayan culture that they found. Nevertheless, archaeologists, people who study the physical remains of past cultures, continue to reveal new aspects of this ancient civilization through present-day excavations or scientific digs.

The Aztecs

The Aztec empire reigned in present-day central Mexico for nearly one century until 1519 when disease and brutality brought by Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) destroyed it. Originating from a small group of poverty-stricken wanderers, the Aztec empire developed into one of the largest empires in the Americas. At its height the Aztec empire consisted of a ruling class of Aztecs with nearly fifteen million subjects of different cultures living in five hundred different cities and towns. The Aztecs followed a demanding religion that required human sacrifices, wrote poetry, engineered huge stone temples, devised two calendars—one for the days of the year and another for religious events—and developed

An aerial view of Machu Pichu, an Incan city built in the Andes Mountains in Peru. Incas developed trade, built roads, and created stone architecture. Reproduced by permission of .
a system of strict laws that covered all aspects of life, including what clothes a person could wear. The Aztec culture was swiftly overcome in the 1500s when the Spanish conquerors, with thousands of Mexican allies who wished to destroy the Aztecs, began battles that, along with the spread of smallpox, an often fatal highly infectious viral disease, would ruin the Aztec empire by 1521.

The Incas

The Inca empire spanned a large portion of South America by the late 1400s C.E. Although many different cultures prospered in the South American Andes Mountains before 3000 B.C.E. , the Incas developed their distinctive culture beginning in 1200 C.E. and by 1471 became the largest empire in South America, reigning over a region that stretched from modern-day Ecuador to Chile. Incas built roads, developed trade, created stone architecture, made beautifully worked gold art and jewelry, became skillful potters, and wove lovely fabrics. Much like the Aztecs, the Incas suffered from the attacks of Spanish conquerors and the spread of smallpox. In 1532 Spaniard Francisco Pizarro (c. 1475–1541) conquered the Incas and the territory soon became a colony of Spain. The last Inca emperor remained in power until 1572, when Spaniards killed him.

While the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas each had distinct clothing traditions and costumes, many similarities exist. In the broadest terms these cultures wore the same types of clothing styles. But the different ways they decorated their skin, adorned their hair, and patterned their fabric, among other daily habits, made them quite distinct.


Aztecs: Reign of Blood and Splendor. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1992.

Bray, Warwick. Everyday Life of the Aztecs. New York: Putnam, 1968.

Cobo, Bernabé. Inca Religion and Customs. Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Day, Nancy. Your Travel Guide to Ancient Mayan Civilization. Minneapolis, MN: Runestone Press, 2001.

Incas: Lords of Gold and Glory. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1992.

Wood, Tim. The Aztecs. New York: Viking, 1992.

Clothing of Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas
Headwear of Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas
Body Decorations of Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas
Footwear of Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas

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