|How do different places affect the way people live?|
The North American continent spans a wide range of regions, consisting of many different land formations, climates, and natural resources. In this unit, students examine how the environment impacted the lives of the people who lived in North America before Columbus’s arrival.
What Primary Sources Can Tell Us about the Native Peoples of North America
Many insights about the early Americans can be gained by looking closely at archaeological finds—be they from the mound-building peoples of the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys circa 500 b.c., the Navajo who migrated to northern New Mexico from Canada in the late a.d. 1200s, or any of the other native people students learn about in this unit.
Chichen Itza, Mexico
A codex is a collection of ancient manuscripts in book form. The Mayan codices were made from bark paper coated with lime, then folded several times and bound with wood and deer hide. Experts believe that the Maya created hundreds of codices, but that only a few of them have survived. The others were destroyed by the humidity of the tropics or during the Spanish conquest. Believing these hieroglyphic writings to be the work of the devil, Spanish priests had most of the codices burned.
Today the major source of Mayan writings is stone inscriptions. Only three pre-Spanish codices and a few pages of a fourth have been found. Except for the Grolier Codex (whose authenticity is questioned by some scholars), the others are all named after the place where they are kept. They are the Paris Codex, the Dresden Codex, and the Madrid Codex (which is a compilation of the Codex Troano and Codex Cortesianus.) In addition, a few post-conquest works written have also been discovered. All of these contain clues about Mayan beliefs, history, astronomy, and calendar.
Ancient Mayan Prediction-Making
In some ways, the Mayan codices can be viewed as ancient versions of a Farmerís Almanac. Among other things, they contain information about weather, astronomy, and native calendar cycles. As a result, they are important historical documents demonstrating Mayan achievements in mathematics and astronomy. The Dresden codex, for example, includes a remarkably accurate table that predicted the dates of eclipses for more than a century into the future. These predictions were based on observations of past eclipses.
Predicting the “Future” of the Ancient Maya
1. Share with students some of the sample pages of the Mayan codices shown on one of the web sites listed above or from page 48 of your Primary Sources Handbook. Inform students that historians believe that these codices were written sometime between a.d. 1200 and 1500. Using the time lines and other information on pages 55, 59, and 60 of their textbooks, ask students at what point in Mayan history these codices were made. (They were created in the last years of ancient Mayan civilization, as the culture was starting to decline.) Invite students to share any observations and/or comparisons they have of these documents.
2. Using the Background information above, explain to students the ways these codices are similar to the Farmers Almanac of today. (You may want to have a copy of a modern-day Farmer’s Almanac on hand to show students what one looks like. Show the section that forecasts weather in different areas of the country, gives dates of solar and lunar eclipses, provides dates and times of meteor showers, and lists times that the sun and moon will rise and set.)
3. Make sure students understand why so few Mayan codices remain. (See the information about Mayan codices above.) Then tell students that they will now work in teams to “replace” these codices with ones they will create that predict the future of the Mayan achievements or events, such as the Mayan system of writing, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, religion, trade, conquest, and life in the 21st century. Assign a group of students to each of these topics.
4. Invite students to imagine that they live in one of the early years of Mayan civilization (between 1000 and 500 b.c.) It is their job to create a “codex” predicting the future of the category of their culture, that they were given. Encourage students to use a variety of sources for their information (books, encyclopedias, and the Internet). Also, challenge students to be as creative as possible when deciding on a form in which to present their information.
5. Offer students a week or so to do their research and put together their presentations. Then schedule a “Mayan day of discovery” on which students share their findings with others. You may wish to have the class help decorate the room with Mayan-style art, and invite children to research and bring in traditional Mayan foods to share in honor of the event.
Additional Primary Sources
Chapter 1: Early Peoples
Chapter 2: Native Peoples and Their Cultures
Image credits: a. Geostock/Getty Images; b. Steve Cole/Getty Images