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Big Era Three: Landscape Unit 3.5

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Early Complex Societies in the Americas
1800 - 500 BCE

Why This Unit?

About five thousand years ago, agricultural societies were beginning to emerge in certain parts of North and South America. Shortly after 2000 BCE, complex societies began to appear. They had almost all the major elements of the complex societies, or civilizations that had appeared about 2,000 years earlier in Afroeurasia: densely clustered populations, cities, states, specialized occupations, social class structures, monumental building, intricate belief systems, and sophisticated technological and scientific knowledge. Peoples of North and South America got a later start on farming than Afroeurasians did, and the earliest American civilization arose on its own, entirely isolated from the lending and borrowing of ideas and inventions that in Afroeurasia flowed between one river valley society and another. The population of the Western Hemisphere was a sort of "control group," suggesting that complex society was likely to develop wherever in the world intensive farming arose and population went up. Investigation of early complex societies in the Americas raises important questions: Was the rise of civilizations in the world inevitable once some human communities turned to farming? Were early complex societies in the Americas mainly similar to those in Afroeurasia? Or were they drastically different? Have the cultural heritages of early complex societies in the Americas endured in some ways up to today?

This unit focuses on the two early complex societies that reveal themselves in the archaeological record: the Olmec in Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America) and the Chavín society in the Andean Mountains of South America. Archaeologists continue to make new discoveries about these complex societies. Therefore, the historical evidence continues to grow, and scholars continue to debate the meaning of this evidence. Students can join archaeologists and historians in constructing explanations of the meaning and purpose of artifacts found in sites identified as Olmec or Chavín. Building interpretations is an important habit of mind for young history students. Moreover, students will see that in ancient times people built complex societies on all the major land masses of the world, with the exception of Australia and Antarctica.

Unit Objectives

Upon completing this unit, students will be able to:

1. Identify the fundamental elements of Olmec and Chavín societies and describe their similarities and differences.

2. Construct and evaluate an argument about the purpose of the monumental colossal heads that the Olmec built.

3. Infer characteristics of ancient societies based on archaeological evidence.

Time and Materials

The unit will take about five class periods.


Table of Contents

Why This Unit?


Time and Materials


Unit Objectives




The Historical Context


This Unit in the Big Era Timeline


Lesson One: Rise of the Olmec


Lesson Two: The Olmec colossal heads: Were they evidence of a complex society?


Lesson Three: Hierarchy of Olmec Society


Lesson Four: Hierarchy of Chavin Society


Final Assessment


This Unit and the Three Essential Questions


This Unit and the Seven Key Themes


This Unit and the Standards in Historical Thinking




Correlations to National and State Standards and to Textbooks


Conceptual Link to Other Lessons


Complete Teaching Unit in PDF Format


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