The Incas built cities with enormous blocks of stone.
The Incas built cities with enormous blocks of stone.

The Aztecs, Mayans and Incas are often confused in the minds of those who have not studied their history. The Aztec and Maya were Mesoamerican civilizations, living in Mexico and Central America, while the Incas lived in South America. The religious beliefs and practices of the Mayans and Aztecs were similar, but the Incas worshiped the sun. The Mayans are credited with the Mayan calendar and the Aztecs also have a calendar, while the Incas are famed for their masonry and engineering skills. All three were great civilizations.

Maya

The Maya civilization occupied what is now Guatemala, Belize, parts of Honduras and El Salvador, the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas, and the entire Yucatan Peninsula. The earliest records of the Maya civilization show that they were already growing crops around 1,800 BC. Pyramid cities in the rain forest, elaborate ball courts in their ceremonial centers where captives played for their lives, and enormous carved stone stelae reveal some of their secrets. The "golden era" of the Maya civilization occurred between 250 and 900 AD, with more than 40 cities, some of which had populations of more than 50,000. Mayan women were involved in every level of leadership, including the ritual bloodletting that appeased their gods. Advanced Mayan mathematics and astronomy used the concept of zero, a complex 365-day calendar and precise architectural-astronomical alignment. Mayans had a written language and made books from paper. They were not defeated by the Spanish; they mysteriously abandoned their cities..

Aztec

The Aztecs lived in central Mexico from 1325 to 1523 AD. It is not known where they came from, as they did not have a written language, but it is said that they came from an island known as Astlan. When they arrived they were a poor and ragged group, but they grew to a great, sun-worshiping civilization. Their capital city, Tenochtitlan, was located in what they called the "Valley of Mexica" in swampy ground, and their buildings were often known to sink. The Aztecs were strong militarily, sacrificed the hearts of living captives to their gods, and developed floating agricultural gardens. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century they set out to completely wipe out the Aztecs, and few survived.

Incas

The Inca civilization existed at the same time as the Aztecs. Their empire in South America covered a vast territory, mainly in the Andes mountains but also including lowlands and deserts, stretching from what is now Quito, Ecuador to the Maule River in Chile. Named after a ruler, Tupac Inca, they built more than 14,000 miles of roads and bridges, traversable by foot or horseback. They are famed for their masonry skills, but it is not known how they cut the massive stones and fitted them so precisely or how they transported them to places like the famous city Machu Picchu, built high on a jungle mountainside. The Incas developed brain surgery but not writing, worshiped the sun and, apparently, ritually sacrificed "perfect" children to their gods, abandoning them in freezing mountaintop caves. They were not a militaristic people and were wiped out by the Spaniards in the 16th century.

Olmecs

The Olmecs were said to predate the Mayans, and their civilization declined around 400 BC. Very little information about them exists, but some believe that the Mayan calendar originated with the Olmecs. They are believed to have had a major influence on the Mayans and the Aztecs. Olmec were stone carvers, and some of their enormous stone heads can be seen in the Smithsonian museum. A ball game played by the Aztecs, ullamaliztli, was probably invented by the Olmecs, and their religious beliefs likely inspired some Mayan and Aztec practices.