Study Aid 10: Early Monumental Architecture in the Western Hemisphere

The first immigrants to the Western Hemisphere arrived from Asia 15,000 to 100,000 years ago. By the time Columbus arrived, estimates of the population of the Western Hemisphere range from 13 million to 100 million people, with 1,000 to 2,000 different languages. This Pre-Columbian history was so long that many cultures with monumental structures actually rose and collapsed before the arrival of the Europeans (e.g. the Olmecs of Mexico and the Anasazi in the Southwestern U.S.). Pre-Columbian history presents distinct problems for the historian and the most valuable information regarding Pre-Columbian architecture has come from early Spanish accounts, archaeological excavations, and a handful of illustrated books created by the Indians themselves.

The earliest civilization to construct monumental structures in what is now Mesoamerica (or "middle America"--Southern Mexico and North Central America) were the mysterious Olmecs, famous for their carvings of gigantic heads. Their ceremonial centers included San Lorenzo (1200-900 BC) and La Venta, Mexico(1100-400 BC). By far the most culturally influential civilization of Mesoamerica was Teotihuacan (200 BC-750 AD) in what is known today as the Valley of Mexico. The city was distinguished by its two great axis, plazas, ceremonial platforms and pyramids. The basic design concept of the ceremonial buildings was the talud/tablero. The Temple of the Sun (1-150 AD) was built over a sacred cave and is oriented to the setting of the sun on the summer solstice. The so-called Temple of the Moon lies at the Northern end of the "Street of the Dead" and may have been symbolically related to the mountain behind it. Other monumental features of the city include the ciudadela (which contains the Temple of Quetzalcoatl) and the great compound. Residences are composed of walled, flat-roof dwellings oriented around a central, open courtyard (courtyard houses). Archaeological evidence suggests the city had neighborhoods made up of different professions and even colonies of foreign traders. The civilization of Teotihuacan collapsed for unknown reasons around c. 700-750 AD.

The Maya civilization was centered in Southern Mexico and Guatemala and was characterized by powerful, competing city/states such as Tikal (first settled c.600 BC, at its peak c.550-950 AD), Palenque (c.300-800 AD), Uxmal (c.600-1000 AD) and Chichen Itza (c.900-1200 AD). The ceremonial centers created by the Maya show distinct regional variations but can be generally characterized by tall stepped pyramid/temples, (sometimes dedicated to powerful rulers, e.g. Temple I at Tikal); corbelled stone vaults; and long, horizontal "palaces," (e.g. "Palace of Governors" at Uxmal).

United States
In what is now the United States, a number of Indian cultures built monumental complexes including some great mounds that archaeologists believe were at least partially inspired by the creations in Mesoamerica, (e.g.: Cahokia, III., 900-1450 AD; Great Serpent Mound, 800 BC-400 AD, Ohio). Perhaps the most remarkable Indian buildings in the United States were created by the Anasazi culture of the Southwestern U.S. Multistory communal dwellings, on flat ground or tucked into cliffs, featured plazas and kivas, e.g.: Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde, Co.1200-1300 AD; Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, NM.(c.900-1150 AD, especially between 1030-1079).


Date: 200BC-750AD
Location: Valley of Mexico
Architect: Unknown




Aerial View


Pyramid of the Sun


Pyramid of the Sun and Street of the Dead from the Pyramid of the Moon


Palace of Quetzalpopalotl


Temple of Quetzalcoatl




Temple of the Moon - Talud/Tablero Platforms in foreground


Date: At its peak 550 - 750 AD
Location: Guatemala
Architect: Unknown


Site Plan

Plan, Section, and Elevation

Model of Central Tikal


Reconstruction - Bird's-Eye View


Aerial View


Temple I

Temple I

Bird's-eye Reconstruction of North Acropolis


Temple II and North Acropolis

Pueblo Bonito

Date: 900-1150AD
Location: Chaco Canyon, NM
Architect: Unknown


Pueblo Bonito


Aerial View of Ruins


Reconstruction - Bird's Eye View



Schematic Plan of a Kiva


Great Kiva


Section - Chacoan Great House


Pueblo Kettle Ruins


Chacoan Masonry


Window and Wall Detail