“Cultures are like books, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once remarked, each a volume in the great library of humankind. In the sixteenth century, more books were burned than ever before or since. How many Homers vanished? How many Hesiods? What great works of painting, sculpture, architecture, and music vanished or never were created? Languages, prayers, dreams, habits, and hopes—all gone. And not just once, but over and over again. In our antibiotic era, how can we imagine what it means to have entire ways of life hiss away like steam? How can one assay the total impact of the unprecedented calamity that gave rise to the world we live in? It seems important to try.” – Charles C. Mann, author of 1491.
Openendsocialstudies.org is bringing the remnants of these vibrant cultures to life in your classroom – check out our library of free readings, lessons, and activities on precolumbian American civilizations.
- The Three Sisters: Background information on the agricultural combination of maize (corn), beans, and squash that formed the backbone of the Mesoamerican and North American civilization, plus suggested activities.
- The Maya: Illuminated Offspring of the Makers (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): The Maya people’s rich history can be traced back nearly four thousand years, during which time they have refined and extraordinary and vibrant culture all their own.
- Teotihuacan: The Place Where the Gods were Born (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): Who built these incredible ruins outside of present day Mexico City, which include one of the largest pyramids in all of history? How did this mysterious civilization influence its neighbors and successors?
- The Aztec: Life Under the Fifth Sun in Old Mexico: A basic overview of the Aztec-Mexica, one of the final great civilizations to arise in the western hemisphere before the paradigm shifting Columbian Exchange, including the dramatic ways in which they harnessed and changed the environment around them to grow their capital city into one of the largest in the world.
- The Inca: Andean Civilization in the Realm of the Four Parts (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): The tremendous success of the Inca was attained by harnessing and adapting the incredible achievements of the earlier peoples of the Andes, one of only six places in the world where civilization developed independently. A lesson in two parts:
- Unrecognized Potential: Terra Preta, Ancient Orchards, and Life in the Amazon: Until relatively recently, was widely believed that the Amazon Rainforest was incapable of sustaining large scale human development. New findings have challenged this view, and evidence of ancient agriculture suggests that humans once developed this fragile region in ways so subtle that – in the form of carefully managed soils and prehistoric orchards – they have been hiding in plain sight all this time, challenging the basic tenants of “agriculture” as western eyes tend to recognize it.
I recently took trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Forgoing the usual tourist center of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, I headed inland to Mérida. From this, a Maya city turned Spanish colonial center turned Mexican provincial capital, one of the oldest inhabited places in the Western Hemisphere, I undertook a short series of day trips to the great Maya ruins of the Yucatan, including Chichen Izta, Uxmal, and Ek’ Balam.
To maximize my time – to make the most sense of my all too brief visit to this incredible region – I did my homework before I left the States. Of particular use to me – and to anyone looking to learn more about the Maya and their Mesoamerican neighbors – is The Maya (People and Places) by Michael Coe. While certain passages were somewhat esoteric in their detailed account of the history of Maya archaeology, the book itself was eminently readable – a great resource for anyone looking to cut through the hype and 2012 sensationalism that soaks the usual Amazon search results.
Aimed at younger readers – but still rich and directly written, with lush illustrations – Ancient Maya by Barbara Somervill is a book that paints a nuanced portrait of this complex society. Suitable for a middle or high school library, and I can honestly say that as an educator I took a lot away from this book myself. It never speaks down to its audience, which is the sign that a book is truly accessible to all ages.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann is a perennial favorite of mine. While its scope is far wider than the Maya – encompassing Teotihuacan, the Aztec, the Inca, and many more Pre-Columbian societies that deserve more attention from the general public, Mann’s masterpiece is a true revelation – an inspiration that started me down the path that eventually led to the creation of Openendedsocialstudies.org.
If you know of any other relevant books I should be looking at – especially if they might help to inform future travel and lessons here at Openendedsocialstudies – please leave a comment in the section below!
Openendedsocialstudies has just launched a brand new unit for teaching middle or high school classrooms about the ancient Maya. Find free readings, guided questions, and lesson plan ideas on the following subjects:
- The Basics of Ancient Maya Civilization – Who were the Maya? Where did they live and when?
- The Ancient Maya in Time and Space – How did the Maya interact with their environment? How did the Maya conceive of themselves and the universe around them? In European influenced societies, geography, ecology, time, and spirituality are all relatively distinct spheres – not so for the ancient Maya, whose since of time, space, and religion were closely linked.
- Ancient Maya Society – How was the ancient Maya society structured? How did they govern and feed themselves?
- The Maya City – The most durable testament to the grandeur of the ancient Maya are their grand construction projects. How were these cities made, and what makes them so awe-inspiring?
- The Written Language of the Maya – Language shapes thoughts, knowledge, and feelings as well as human imagination, so it permeates all aspects of culture – the complexity of the Mayan language is key for understanding the richness of this people.
One great way for students to develop a deeper understanding of a concept is to have them teach others.
- Choose any section from this unit and develop a lesson – in the form of a presentation, a storybook, or a worksheet – that teaches younger students about the Maya. Make sure the material is age appropriate in content and approach, and create some simple questions to check your audience’s understanding.
Find more free lessons on the Maya at Openendsocialstudies.org.
There are also plenty of free lessons featuring other peoples from world history.
Explore the ruins of Ek’ Balam, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza, scramble through streets of colonial Merida, and sample the cuisine and culture of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on this guided photo essay (complete with suggested activities for use in your social studies classroom.)
This photo essay works perfectly in conjunction with the rest of our free Maya unit.
- Choose any topic described in a photo or caption in this album. Do deeper reading and research on that topic, creating a presentation to share with your class.
- Research and plan a realistic travel itinerary through Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula that focuses specifically on its Maya and colonial histories. Explain the historical or cultural relevance of your choices. Present the final itinerary with photos and estimated costs for the whole trip.
What happened to the ancient Maya? How did their great cities come to ruin? Check out this new Openendedsocialstudies documentary short, shot on location in Ek’ Balam, a Maya ruin in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. This tour of the city is a great primer on the latest theories of Maya collapse and can be enjoyed by the casual viewer, or in the classroom, in conjunction with our brand new unit on the ancient Maya.
Check out this new Openendedsocialstudies documentary short, shot on location at Uxmal, a Maya ruin in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. This tour of the city is a great introduction to Maya culture and can be enjoyed by the casual viewer, the history buff, or in the classroom, in conjunction with our brand new (and totally free) unit on the ancient Maya.