Pre-Columbian civilizations refers to American indigenous cultures before the European conquests starting in the sixteenth century. Usually it means Middle and South American peoples. For the inside story on the most famous gods, see Aztec Mythology.
The Maya were never a single unified civilization. They were divided into several city-states, much like classical Greece. Around the beginning of the European Middle Ages, the Maya reached a pinnacle of sophistication. They had sprawling cities, step pyramids, and a rich, vibrant culture; they even had an extensive body of literature, with Mayan writing being the only Mesoamerican writing preserved in quantity (the Olmec and Zapotec had writing before the Maya, but not much of it survives). Their cities were probably living places for the nobles and royals, with the poor living in villages surrounding the capitals. At the center was the temple, the aforementioned step-pyramid and likely the tallest building around, where every once in a while they'd sacrifice someone to appease the water god.
The Maya are perhaps best remembered for their calendar system, which purportedly predicts the end of the world in 2012; they also used a base-20 number system. The Long Count system was used mostly to record history, with most people using the 52-year dating method to keep track of time. The consequences are poorly understood, since relatively few Mayan documents remain, but most scholars agree that a disaster was not predicted on this date. It is the start of the 13th b'ak'tun, which admittedly is supposed to be the final phase of the cycle, but certain inscriptions imply the Mayans did not believe the end of the world would be 2012, and zero inscriptions imply that they did. (Present-day Mayans are similarly underwhelmed by the coming end of the b'ak'tun, not to mention nonplussed that people have felt free to invent a doomsday and attribute it to them.) In all seriousness, people are most likely going to be rather disappointed, since it is like going from December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2000 on the Gregorian calendar system (with this being what the present-day Mayans think of the event as more comparable to).
Around the year 900 they went into steep decline. Historians can't quite figure out why. Maybe their governing system collapsed, or maybe there was a famine, or maybe there was some kind of disease or something. By the time of the Spanish invasion, Mayan civilization still existed on a complex level organized into several kingdoms, confederations, and city-states (much like Italy at the time). However, by this time, the trend of Pan-Mesoamericanism (Mesoamerican cultures were becoming similar across the board due to increased trade and communication) had caused their culture to shift dramatically. Their states lasted centuries longer than any other Mesoamerican civilization into the 17th century, probably due to their decentralized structure. Their descendants live in Mexico and Guatemala, but their civilization has died out and their cities are abandoned.
Much like the Greeks, ethnic Mayans retain their languages and culture on a small scale; some Mayan temple sites are still venerated by individual Mayan villages in syncretistic fashion (see Inca, below) and the often-bloody tension between Mayans, Hispanic and Mestizo culture which came down from the north has never really gone away.
By the way, despite their portrayal in the film Apocalypto, the Mayans didn't sacrifice as many people as the Aztecs (it's a pretty low bar). They preferred to sacrifice captured royals and prisoners for the most part, which naturally led to a lot of wars. However, the Mayans were also very concerned with hygiene, and purification rituals mostly centered around self-sacrifice, usually by means of drawing a barbed thread through the tongue or the penis. Nor were they ignorant of climate or astronomy; their calendar was especially good at predicting eclipses and they also were able to precisely measure the orbits of planets. The Mayan Ballgame was an especially difficult combination of Basketball, Lacrosse, and Rollerball wherein either the captain of the winning team or the losing team got sacrificed; we're not sure which. This was apparently more in line with Gladiator Games, however.
The Aztecs are most commonly described as Evil Incarnate, and to be fair they did kill people as part of their religion. Every month—that is, eighteen times a year—they'd have a big festival and party a bit, and then they'd have a human sacrifice. While fun for those on the right end of the knife, it did carry a deeper meaning. In Aztec Mythology, the gods are continually sacrificing themselves so that the universe can keep existing. So they felt indebted to the gods. Instead of praying, people would cut themselves with knives and cover some thorns with their blood, then put the thorns in the temple. The Aztecs themselves reported 80,400 sacrifices in a four-day period on one occasion (but they probably fudged the numbers a lot, considering that to hit that number there would have to a sacrifice every 4 seconds for all four days). Most likely, they sacrificed "only" a couple thousand a year. Fun fact: Each god had a specific sacrificial offering, and Quetzalcoatl's sacrifice consisted of butterflies and hummingbirds.
Now we've shooed the elephant out of the room, we can talk about the stuff people usually don't know about the Aztecs. Let's start with history. The Mexica (pronounced "Mesheeka") people migrated to southern Mexico in the 13th century, probably from Arizona, and settled there, soon founding the city-states of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. They joined together into the Aztec Triple Alliance, known today as the Aztec Empire, in 1428. The Aztecs had a different way of looking at an empire; rather than seeing the lowest parts as something to be ruled from the top, they considered the top to be constituted of the parts. (No, that doesn't mean you get a room in the palace. Get back in the field and keep constituting.) They fell apart around 75 years later, with the Conquistadors allying themselves with the Aztecs' nemesis the Tlaxcala Confederacy and wiping them out.
The Aztecs had a heavily agrarian society, with several rather successful farming methods used, and were also one of the first civilizations to implement mandatory education for all children (although, strange to say, they had no true writing system; however, it's highly likely that their system of pictograms would have become a true logographic script if not for the unfortunate incident with the Spaniards). Their stratified society allowed for some social climbing, but the noble-commoner distinction was often difficult to cross. A commoner could be awarded a noble title, usually for taking a certain number of captives in battle, but he could not personally benefit from it. His children, however, would be considered true nobles and receive all the benefits after his death. Commoners were allowed their own land and possessions, however, and were often quite active in the marketplace. The other main part of Aztec society was warfare. Some of their gods required an enemy to be sacrificed in the temple, so they had to have wars a lot. Sometimes they had Flower Wars, which were apparently mock wars fought for the purpose of obtaining captives for sacrifices. In any case, every male commoner was given basic military training, and noble children were trained more thoroughly. A commoner could take a prisoner for sacrifice in order to become a professional warrior, which was a useful means of social climbing.
It should be understood also that Tenochtitlan was, in effect, the Aztec Empire. It and its surrounding lands were the only areas where Aztecs were to be found in large numbers. The Mexica had adopted the customs of surrounding peoples, so other groups in the same region were similar. Several other Chichimec (northern) tribes had invaded before the Mexica, so one might say the Aztecs were very very similar to their neighbors, but technically, the Mexica, as the ruling ethnicity of the empire, were limited to about one city. The "Empire" consisted of their two allied/minion city-states and the numerous tributary states that made up most of the empire's territory. The Aztecs ruled effectively by having a massive population of which nearly all males could be mobilized in the event of war. And the Aztecs threatened to torch any city that violated the agreement to pay tribute. This happened frequently. Hence the sacrifices. The Aztecs also tended to be victorious as there were no siege weapons at the time. The ladder was the only siege equipment that could make it through the jungle, so Mesoamericans were effectively limited to Zerg Rush tactics in the event of a siege. This is why the Aztecs, who had a massive population, nearly always won.
In 1519 one Hernan Cortez landed with some horses and a few hundred Spanish conquistadors, armed to the teeth with guns, cannons, and steel swords. Through a combination of terror tactics and shrewd alliances with the Aztecs' many enemies, he gained enough strength to march on Tenochtitlan. His forces were greeted in the city of 200,000 by Aztec leader Moctezuma II himself. A few days later, Cortez took Moctezuma prisoner in his own palace. The Aztecs were having none of this. They chose a new leader and drove the Spanish and their allies out of the city. Cortez, undeterred, gathered an army and went back to besiege Tenochtitlan, which was by this time weakened by a smallpox epidemic.
A few short years later, nothing would remain of the Aztec Empire... except for the capital city, and the name of the future country, and a few of the festival days; and the canals, which were turned into boulevards, and the stones of the temples and palaces, which were recycled into... er, cathedrals and government buildings. However, most of the regional towns were rebuilt in the Spanish style. Today, the Zocalo in Mexico City marks the site of the great plaza of Tenochtitlan; a few original sculptures can be seen in the foundation stones. Oh, and the Mexica who survived the conquest and converted to Christianity told the Spaniards where to go next, since the Aztecs had a longstanding unfulfilled claim on El Salvador.
A few Spaniards wanted to keep the pyramids and turn them into churches, what with the view and all, but most of them were literally plastered with blood and gore, so only the long-abandoned ones remain. To be fair, the Spaniards were no pikers: entire tribes would be slaughtered under the policy of "convert or die"; and given the apparent collapse of the Aztecs, who were already the bane of other tribes in the region, they had no want of willing converts.
The Aztec language, Nahuatl, is still spoken today. The image associated with the myth of the founding of Tenochtitlan, an eagle devouring a snake on a cactus, is today depicted in the Coat of Arms of Mexico and on the Mexican flag.
The Incas were particularly unlike the Mayincatec image. For one, they lived nowhere near the Mayas and Aztecs, but in South America, specifically the Andes. The Incas called their empire Tawantinsuyu, or The Four States, and it was indeed effectively four distinct states, what would today likely be called a federation. Rather than military conquest, the Incas believed in diplomatic acquisition, and they brought many tribes under their rule.
Entrance to the nobility was based on merit as determined by some sort of Inca SAT-equivalent. They were very bureaucracy- and business-oriented, as they pretty much had to be to rule an empire that large. Even their marriages were strictly a business deal. The Incas believed in equality, that All Men Must Work In Order To Live, and every citizen—even nobility—paid tribute in the form of some manual labor as a public service.
They built a highway system and remarkably stable stone structures, given the unstable geology of the region—possibly due to their propensity to build things out of ginormous stone blocks carved to exacting specifications. Much of the imperial capital of Cuzco is still standing and in use today, along with thousands of terraces and granaries. They used these to take advantage of the region's unique climate that allowed them to grow different crops at different elevations throughout the Andes, and export them only a short distance to market, so that Imperial runners could bring fresh fish to Cuzco every day, along with mail, despite the lack of a wheel or written language.
Moreso than any other culture in the region, the Inca chose to survive and adapt to Spanish conquest, with the last Inca Emperor instructing his citizens to convert to Christianity and worship Inca traditions on the side, which some Quechua people continue to do today. Their language and much of their agrarian lifestyle has also survived. They were aided in this by the mountainous nature of the region which left the Spaniards dependent on Inca infrastructure and foodstuffs, a fact which protected the Inca from wholesale slaughter. In particular, Incan roads inhibited Spanish spread. European mountain roads consist of multiple switchbacks in order to accommodate the proclivities of the Eurasian horse. In contrast, Incan roads were built with the llama and alpaca in mind, and consist of stairsteps up the sides of mountains. Eurasian horses hated them.
The Inca system of manual labor as a public service, paid for in coca leaf, also survives in Peru. It helps that Inca beliefs were a little easier to reconcile with European values than, say, the Aztecs'.
Around the 6th century AD, the suite of Meso-American crops (squash, beans, corn) finally began to cross the south-eastern desert of North America. With that, a viable alternative to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle became more attractive. As such, larger, denser, more complex societies began to emerge in the Mississippi river valley.
Egalitarian tribes grew and evolved into chiefdoms with social stratification. This enabled increased food production (through specialization and centralized food storage), which fueled greater population growth, which led to greater social stratification and more complex societies and political structures.
At their height, the mound culture built the earthen mounds for which they are named. Their architecture was then built on top of those mounds. They didn't work in stone or metal, hence little is known about them as very few of their artifacts or architecture have survived. However, it is known that the mound culture did spread throughout much of central and eastern North America, and it is suspected to have developed to the point where one mound city was capable of exerting political influence or authority nearby cities.
Eastern mound culture was the first to encounter Europeans, and proceeded as is described in most Eagle Land textbooks. The interactions were occasionally violent, occasionally peaceful, but inevitably ended poorly for the natives thanks to European diseases and weaponry among other things. Mound cultures in the central valley probably never had the opportunity to meet Europeans, as diseases spread through the interior of the continent much faster than the Europeans themselves. Measles and smallpox decimated and scattered the mound builders and, denuded of elders (repositories of knowledge) and necessary population, the nascent cities, city-states, and proto-empires collapsed. Some populations (such as the Cherokee) retained enough population and continuity to link themselves to the mounds their ancestors had built through oral tradition.
The Ancestral Puebloans (often called Anasazi, though this name actually comes from the Navajo and means "ancient enemies") were groups that lived in the Southwestern region of the United States. Starting somewhat over a thousand years ago, they began building pueblos, moving on to Great Houses, which were enormous buildings with hundreds of rooms and unknown purpose. After a couple centuries of this there was a disruption in their society and new pueblos were built in highly defensible positions, including the famous cliff houses. Things did settle down though and there is clear continuity between them and the modern puebloans, such as the Zuni, Hopi, and Taos. They were conquered by the Spanish, who hoped to find gold and the Seven Cities of Cibola (which were real puebloan settlements, but with decidedly less gold than the Spaniards would have preferred). Later they revolted and drove the Spanish out. The Spanish took them over again, but New Spain soon became Mexico. Then the United States took over half of Mexico and to this day there are people who still live in pueblos like their ancestors did a thousand years ago.
There are also two closely related but less famous cultures, the Mogollon (pronounced moh-ghi-yohn)and the Hohokam. All three cultures seem to have had some contact with Mesoamerica, as chocolate and macaw feathers can be found at archaeological sites. One Hohokam settlement even had a ball court, presumably for the same sort of game the Aztecs and Maya played.
One puebloan motif that most Americans can recognize is the fertility god Kokopelli. They are also sometimes associated with conspiracy theories, possibly because in many people's minds they are in the same general area as Roswell and Area 51.
There were actually hundreds of cultures that existed in the area at various times, but people don't care about them because they never had empires. The Nazca are an example of one of these. So are the Olmecs, known mostly for carving massive heads out of stone and being considered the Precursors to later Meso American civilizatons.
And then again, there are these giant stone balls in Costa Rica.
- well, not that kind of pikers
- Which isn't as odd as you might think; wheels aren't that helpful when most of your country is either uphill or downhill.
- (Chewing the leaves helpfully kept workers energized, and is considerably tolerated, leading to no small amount of Values Dissonance when a revolt by coca growers led to the election of Bolivia's first Indian president.)