How were Native American societies in North and South America different?

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rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a difficult question to answer, not least because there was so much diversity among Native peoples within North and South America. Algonquian peoples who lived in what is today the Northeastern United States had very little in common with Pueblo peoples in the Southwest. It is true that many societies in South and Central America—the Inca, Maya, and Aztec in particular—developed highly complex societies and powerful empires centered in massive urban areas. Yet many Mississippian peoples in North America lived in large cities. Cahokia in what is today St. Louis was a massive city complete with large temple structures and ceremonial mounds. But if one were to generalize in the extreme, South and Central America saw the development of large, expansive, centralized societies to a far greater extent than did North America. Archaeologists and historians have long since dispensed with the notion that all Native people in North America were primitive nomads who had no important political structures. Also, they were connected by far-flung networks of trade that facilitated cultural change. But it is true that few societies in North America matched the power and the scale of the Aztec and Inca peoples.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is somewhat difficult to answer because we do not know as much as we would like to know about Native American societies, particularly in North America.  However, it is generally correct to say that North American societies were not as urbanized and centralized as those in Central and South America.  

In Central and South America, there were many elaborate societies that left behind many traces of their existence or that were still in existence when the Europeans came.  For example, the Aztecs' capital city of Tenochtitlan was as big as any city in Europe at the time.  There is simply nothing like that in North America.  It is also true that North American societies (so far as we know) did not develop things like hieroglyphics and complicated astronomical calendars such as those of the Maya.

So far as we know, then, North American societies were less elaborate and developed in terms of their material society.  This is not to make value judgements about the societies, simply to say that they did not leave behind the ruins of large cities or writings that gave evidence of long-standing dynasties.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Native American societies in South America before European conquest were more advanced and unified than those in North America. Civilizations such as the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas developed sophisticated societies with  knowledge of fields such as mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and technology. Their societies' advancements rivaled the achievements of progressive civilizations in other parts of the world. These societies were ruled by complex governments that were able to unify large numbers of people.

The societies in North America, on the other hand, were relatively undeveloped with regard to technology, and they existed as loose bands without complex governments. Archeologists have posited that South American societies were more able to become complex because people had access to nutrient-rich plant life, such as maize and beans, while Native Americans in North America had less nutrient-rich forms of agriculture.