Ancient Civilizations of North America

Join the Director of the Maya Exploration Center to discover the astounding accomplishments of the ancient North Americans and their significant legacy.
Ancient Civilizations of North America is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 237.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from An insightful and engaging course! While listening to a podcast earlier this year, the presenter cited some details about the first migrations to the Americas. As a trained Sinologist, I suddenly realized how little I knew about the history of the Americas prior to First Contact with the Europeans. So, I went to the Great Courses website and found this course. It provided just the type of topical overview that I was looking for and I purchased the audio edition. The course was outstanding. Professor Barnhard did an impressive job of organizing the course lectures in a very logical manner. Concepts and observations introduced in early lectures are continuously reinforced throughout the course. What I found particularly useful are his discussions of the new archeological technologies (and their limitations) that are being employed to provide new insights into indigenous societies. As I also appreciate the importance of paleoastronomy to our understanding of early cultures, I enjoyed his explanations regarding the insights that he obtained from celestially-oriented observations. In conclusion, his enthusiasm is palpable and he consistently emphasizes “why this is important.” I’ve been a Teaching Company / Great Courses listener for nearly three decades; many courses courtesy of our local libraries and others that were purchased. This is the precisely the type of course that keeps me coming back for more! p.s. I just started listening to his “Lost Worlds of South America” last week. I haven’t been disappointed.
Date published: 2021-06-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting course This course is highly recommended if you have an interest in Native American history. Professor Barnhart has a down-to-earth, measured delivery that holds your interest. I am going to look for other courses that he has taught. It’s fun to hear about the regional differences. I discovered that the flint arrowheads that my grandfather found on his farm are probably thousands of years old!
Date published: 2021-05-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from WOW Just WOW! This should absolutely be required content in school. I am 33 years old and I can not even describe how much I have hungered to have this information, I wanted this presentation to never end. For sure I will be watching through this again. I wish so much that I had had access to this information as a child, such a rich part of the history of this land that was absolutely missing from my education. I have read several books about this subject recently but this presentation really just put it all together with the visuals. Another thing I absolutely loved and added so much to this presentation was the passion of Mr. Barnhart. Thank you so much!
Date published: 2021-05-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fabulous, easy to understand, thorough, respectful started watching this to learn more about pre-colonial America and ended up pleasantly surprised at just how well done this program was done with Edwin as the professor! thank you for an illuminating, enriching and enjoyable course.
Date published: 2021-05-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great course on underserved subject This course was very thorough on its subject matter. It covers the many cultures over an extensive time period in a clear and detailed way. The problem is that we simply don't know much about the native peoples before European contact. That becomes very clear in this series of lectures as does the destruction that has taken place on the sites of these ancient people. The professor handles this problem in a professional way, rarely being speculative or trying to piece things together. In the process, he covers the length and breadth of the USA over several centuries in an informative and entertaining way.
Date published: 2021-05-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating and Superbly Taught Please see Challenger's insightful "Most Helpful Favorable Review" - I agree completely, and thank you (again) to Challenger for saving me the trouble of writing all of that! Briefly - I am one of the many who grew up knowing nothing about the remarkable and impressive history of pre-European North American humanity beyond the implications derived from cowboy movies. This course for me is wonderfully eye-opening, fascinating, and completely worthwhile. I only wish our schools could be induced to start including this in the regular history curricula. And Professor Barnhart, as always, is excellent - remarkably knowledgeable, highly organized, clear, and a pleasure to listen to. My attention didn't drift for an instant. I do recommend the video for the many maps and photos. And the Course Guidebook is very complete and well written. Highest recommendation. Enjoy!
Date published: 2021-04-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good! My universities teach little to nothing on the early civilizations and cultures of North America. Dr. Barnhart was very interesting to listen to that it was easy to stay engaged. His other courses are just as good!
Date published: 2021-04-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Barnhart excellent as always! Fascinating course. I had no idea there were so many separate societies throughout what became the USA. And I had no idea they were building flat topped pyramids, burying offerings that could include humans, and no idea of the extent of their astrological knowledge. I had no idea they were trading with what is now southwest Mexico.
Date published: 2021-04-05
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Overview

Most of what we've been taught about the native cultures of North America came from reports authored by the conquerors and colonizers who destroyed them. Now, in Ancient Civilizations of North America, Professor Edwin Barnhart, Director of the Maya Exploration Center, reveals the astounding true accomplishments of these ancient cultures-vibrant cities, agriculture, art, large-scale earthen pyramids, astronomical observatories, and the source of some of our most basic American" values."

About

Edwin Barnhart
Edwin Barnhart

In my own experience as an explorer, it's almost always the case that the locals knew where lost places were all along. The discoverer is just the first person to ask the right questions.

INSTITUTION

Maya Exploration Center

Dr. Edwin Barnhart is director of the Maya Exploration Center. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin and has over 20 years of experience in North, Central, and South America as an archaeologist, explorer, and instructor. In 1994, Professor Barnhart discovered the ancient city of Maax Na (Spider-Monkey House), a major center of the Classic Maya period in northwestern Belize. In 1998 he was invited by the Mexican government to direct the Palenque Mapping Project, a three-year effort to survey and map the unknown sections of Palenque's ruins. The resultant map has been celebrated as one of the most detailed and accurate ever made of a Maya ruin. In 2003, he became the director of Maya Exploration Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the study of ancient Maya civilization. The center leads study-abroad courses for college students and tours for the general public in the ruins of the ancient Americas, among its other research and educational activities. Professor Barnhart has taught archaeology and anthropology at Southwest Texas State University, and currently teaches University of Texas travel courses for college professors on ancient Andean and Mesoamerican astronomy, mathematics, and culture. Over the last 10 years, he has appeared multiple times on the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and Japanese NHK Public Television. He has published over a dozen papers and given presentations at eight international conferences.

By This Expert

Ancient Civilizations of North America

Trailer

The Unknown Story of Ancient North America

01: The Unknown Story of Ancient North America

Pyramids. State-of-the-art highways. Productive scientists, artists, and engineers. These, and much more, were ancient North America. But having left no written record, and considered of no value by European conquerors many centuries later, these societies seemed destined to remain a mystery. Now, we are finally able to reveal their fascinating truths.

34 min
 The First Human Migrations to the Americas

02: The First Human Migrations to the Americas

DNA evidence points to Asia, and only Asia, as the origin of all human migration to North America. While there were many migration episodes, each episode involved passage across the Bering Strait. Sites of ancient habitation have been found all across the continent, under water and on dry land. See why, even with current technologies, scientists cannot yet agree on the ages of these sites.

36 min
 Clovis Man: America’s First Culture

03: Clovis Man: America’s First Culture

Explore Clovis, the very first American culture, which is identified by the Clovis point, a specialized megafauna-hunting tool that became the most widespread technology in the paleo-world. The Clovis populated the Americas from coast to coast, from Alaska to South America. Although the culture became extinct around 12,000 years ago, you will see how some of the Clovis people evolved into the last Paleo-Indians, the Folsom.

38 min
The Archaic Period: Diversity Begins

04: The Archaic Period: Diversity Begins

When the megafauna died out across the continent about 10,000 years ago, Paleo-Indian culture began to diversify regionally. Better understand why some groups developed hunting and gathering culture in a seasonal round pattern, while others fished from temporary camps. Also, see what DNA research reveals about one ancient sedentary people with resources plentiful enough to support 350 generations of habitation.

36 min
Late Archaic Innovations

05: Late Archaic Innovations

In this lecture you will see how, about 5,000 years ago, the creative, yet disparate, peoples of North America developed corn agriculture, permanent houses with storage and cooking pits, religion, art, pottery, ceramics, metallurgy, and basket weaving. Further explore the only innovation common to these many different cultures: an increase in cemetery sites and formalized treatment of bodies in burials.

32 min
Poverty Point: North America’s First City

06: Poverty Point: North America’s First City

About 3,500 years ago, while most North Americans were still nomadic, see how one group of ancient people developed a planned community on more than 900 acres to accommodate 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants. Designed with exceptional engineering skills, the fascinating city of Poverty Point functioned for 1,000 years and included one of the oldest pyramids ever built on Earth.

30 min
Medicine Wheels of the Great Plains

07: Medicine Wheels of the Great Plains

Medicine wheels—wagon-wheel type arrangements of stones on the ground—vary in their number of spokes and size; are difficult to date; and although some are precisely aligned to the solstices, the majority have no known astronomical significance. Survey what we do know about their function and meaning, which almost certainly changed over time, just like the human populations who built them.

28 min
Adena Culture and the Early Woodlands Period

08: Adena Culture and the Early Woodlands Period

In modern-day Ohio, the continent’s first coherent civilizations evolved about 3,000 years ago, bringing together previously far-flung Archaic practices. Meet the Adena, the first ancient American culture with wide-ranging influence. Known for their conical burial mounds and shared concept of an afterlife, they also might have been the continent’s first habitual tobacco smokers.

27 min
The Hopewell and Their Massive Earthworks

09: The Hopewell and Their Massive Earthworks

Here Professor Barnhart introduces you to the Hopewell culture, a civilization that thrived for over 700 years.  You will see how they influenced all the peoples of eastern North America with trade networks, an art tradition, and the practice of burying their most important dead in earthen mounds. Their knowledge of mathematics and astronomy allowed them to build massive earthwork complexes in sophisticated geometric patterns in present-day Ohio.

33 min
The Origins of Mississippian Culture

10: The Origins of Mississippian Culture

About 1,200 years ago in eastern North America, populations gathered their farms and living structures behind defensive walls. Explore Mississippian culture and see how it introduced an increased use of the bow and arrow along with a large body of art, extensive trade networks, and mythological creation stories remembered today in bits and pieces by a multitude of surviving indigenous nations.

31 min
The Mississippian City of Cahokia

11: The Mississippian City of Cahokia

Covering more than 3,000 acres and with an associated population of about 50,000, understand why Cahokia, the largest ancient city in what is now the US and Canada, became a model for the region. Its fascinating and complex life included stratified social organization, burial mounds, deeply held religious beliefs, sophisticated artwork, woodhenges to mark the solstices and equinoxes—and ritual human sacrifice.

31 min
The Wider Mississippian World

12: The Wider Mississippian World

After the fall of Cahokia, witness how Mississippian civilization flourished across eastern North America with tens of thousands of pyramid-building communities and a population in the millions. Look at the ways they were connected through their commonly held belief in a three-tiered world, as reflected in their artwork. Major sites like Spiro, Moundville, and Etowah all faded out just around 100 years before European contact, obscuring our understanding.

33 min
De Soto versus the Mississippians

13: De Soto versus the Mississippians

In 1539, Hernando de Soto of Spain landed seven ships with 600 men and hundreds of animals in present-day Florida. Follow his fruitless search for another Inca or Aztec Empire, as he instead encounters hundreds of Mississippian cities through which he led a three-year reign of terror across the land—looting, raping, disfiguring, murdering, and enslaving native peoples by the thousands.

32 min
The Ancient Southwest: Discovering Diversity

14: The Ancient Southwest: Discovering Diversity

Uncover what archaeology has revealed about the ancient peoples of the southwestern deserts. Survey the  variety of strategies they used depending on their specific locale—from farming in flood plains to building elaborate irrigation canals—and how they developed into multiple distinct, but not isolated, cultures. See why today we recognize three core, and two peripheral, ancient cultures of the area.

28 min
The Basketmaker Culture

15: The Basketmaker Culture

Once natural selection produced a strain of drought-resistant corn, the peoples of the desert gave up their nomadic existence and began to build more permanent structures. Examine the first sedentary cultures of the American Southwest—the possible precursors to the Pueblo—and understand why baskets, which had been invented many thousands of years earlier, significantly increased in importance as the only portable storage solution before the advent of pottery.

25 min
The Mogollon Culture

16: The Mogollon Culture

As the Mogollon people increased reliance on agriculture, the size and density of their villages also grew, the largest having more than 100 pit houses arranged around multiple kivas. But as you will discover, they’re probably best known for their exquisite pottery bowls. Take a look at how, while neighboring cultures were still experimenting with geometric designs, the Mogollon painted sophisticated scenes of animals, humans, and supernatural creatures.

27 min
The Hohokam: Masters of the Desert

17: The Hohokam: Masters of the Desert

Learn about the Hohokam, a people who made beautiful art, employed cooperative decision making with strong centralized leadership, and developed extensive public architecture. But see why their real claim to fame was building more than 700 miles of sophisticated irrigation canals—the largest and most highly-engineered irrigation system constructed in the Pre-Columbian New World—segments of which are still visible today.

28 min
The Ancestral Pueblo

18: The Ancestral Pueblo

The dominant culture of the southwest was the Ancestral Pueblo. For the past 1,300 years, their settlements have exhibited an apartment-like room block pattern, from small farmsteads to cities with thousands of people. Examine how both the architecture and the short lifespans of earlier villages reflected the reality of the area’s scarce resource base, promoting cultural traditions born of environmental adaptation.

28 min
The Chaco Phenomenon

19: The Chaco Phenomenon

Chaco Canyon contains the most sophisticated architecture ever built in ancient North America—14 Great Houses, four Great Kivas, hundreds of smaller settlements, an extensive road system, and a massive trade network. But who led these great building projects? And why do we find so little evidence of human habitation in what seems to be a major center of culture? Answer these questions and more.

30 min
Archaeoastronomy in the Ancient Southwest

20: Archaeoastronomy in the Ancient Southwest

The people of the ancient Southwest were skilled astronomers, incorporating astronomical alignments in their architecture with impressive displays of light and shadow. Learn how discoveries of the Sun Dagger and the Chimney Rock lunar observatory—as well as the alignment of Great Houses miles apart along lunar maximum lines—could help reveal the true purpose of Chaco Canyon.

26 min
The Periphery of the Ancient Southwest

21: The Periphery of the Ancient Southwest

As you delve further into the ancient Southwest, you will see why the ancient farming cultures of the region did not spread into surrounding areas where farming was either unnecessary or impossible. Instead, nearby groups lived a more nomadic life, relying on hunting and gathering, and minimal occasional farming. Over time, each group developed its unique artwork, perhaps none as fascinating as the desert Intaglios of the Patayan.

27 min
Late Period Cultures of the Pacific Coast

22: Late Period Cultures of the Pacific Coast

From southern California to Alaska, witness a vast array of complex hunter-gatherer cultures that thrived along the Pacific Coast for centuries before European contact. In this most densely populated area of the continent—and its most culturally and linguistically diverse—peoples developed highly stratified societies, sophisticated systems of resource distribution and trade, advanced methods of food storage, and unique artwork.

35 min
Late Period Cultures of the Great Plains

23: Late Period Cultures of the Great Plains

The peoples of the Great Plains were broadly divided into the bison hunters in the west and the semi-sedentary farmers in the east. But with the European introduction of the horse, gun, and new diseases, you will shift your attention to how each of five main culture areas began to transform and how these changes shaped the homogenized, oversimplified view of American Indian cultures.

31 min
 The Iroquois and Algonquians before Contact

24: The Iroquois and Algonquians before Contact

At the time of European contact, two main groups existed in the northeast—the hunter-gatherer Algonquian and the agrarian Iroquois. Delve into how the Iroquois created the first North American democracy as a solution to their increasing internal conflicts. Today, we know much of the U.S. Constitution is modeled on the Iroquois’ “Great League of Peace” and its 117 articles of confederation, as formally acknowledged by the U.S. in 1988.

37 min