History Stories

The Maya Empire, centered in the tropical lowlands of what is now Guatemala, reached the peak of its power and influence around the sixth century A.D. The Maya excelled at agriculture, pottery, hieroglyph writing, calendar-making and mathematics and left behind an astonishing amount of architecture and artwork. From the late eighth through the end of the ninth century, something unknown happened to shake the Maya civilization to its foundations. One by one, the classic cities in the southern lowlands were abandoned, and by 900, Maya civilization in that region had collapsed. The reason for this mysterious decline is unknown.

The Aztecs, who probably originated as a nomadic tribe in northern Mexico, arrived in Mesoamerica around the beginning of the 13th century. From their magnificent capital city, Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs emerged as the dominant force in central Mexico, developing an intricate social, political, religious and commercial organization that brought many of the region’s city-states under their control by the 15th century. In November 1519, invaders led by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes arrived in Tenochtitlan, where Montezuma and his people greeted them as honored guests. Though the Aztecs had superior numbers, their weapons were inferior. The Spaniards murdered thousands of Aztec nobles, and Montezuma died under uncertain circumstances while in custody. Some 240,000 people were believed to have died in the city’s conquest, effectively ending the Aztec civilization.

The Inca first appeared in the Andes region during the 12th century A.D. and gradually built a massive kingdom through the military strength of their emperors. Known as Tawantinsuyu, the Inca state spanned the distance of northern Ecuador to central Chile and consisted of 12 million inhabitants from more than 100 different ethnic groups. Well-devised agricultural and roadway systems, along with a centralized religion and language, helped maintain a cohesive state. Despite their power, the Inca were quickly overwhelmed by the diseases and superior weaponry of Spanish invaders, the last bastion of their immense empire overtaken in 1572.

Explore the rites, rituals and ruins of the Aztecs, Inca and Mayans in this week’s featured collection, Great Civilizations: Ancient Americas. Here’s a look at some of the episodes:

  • Originally built by the Incas, this magnificent structure remains a mystery. Was it an observatory, pleasure retreat, or a fortress? Find out in Machu Picchu: City In The Sky.
  • Archaeology and modern science are now shedding new light on blood rituals practiced by the Aztecs. Join host Josh Bernstein as he travels to Mexico City to investigate in Aztecs: Blood and Sacrifice.
  • The Incas worshipped their mummified ancestors, held lavish banquets for them and even dressed them in fine clothes and exquisite jewelry. In Lost Mummies of the Inca explore the story of the ancient Incas’ bizarre death cult.

Watch Great Civilizations: Ancient Americas on HISTORY Vault available on your computer at historyvault.com, Roku players, iOS devices and Apple TV (4th Generation). For related collections, check out Great Civilizations: Asia and Wonders of the World.

Available until Thursday, December 22:
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