The Aztecs, Mayans and Incas are often confused in the minds of those who have not studied their history. The Aztec and Maya were Mesoamerican civilisations (living in Mexico and Central America) while the Incas lived in South America. The religious beliefs and practices of the Mayans and Aztecs were similar, but the Incas worshipped the sun. The Mayans are credited for the Mayan calendar and the Aztecs also have a calendar, while the Incas are famed for their masonry and engineering skills. All three were great civilisations.
The Maya civilisation occupied what is now Guatemala, Belize, and the Mexican states of Tabasco, Chiapas and the entire Yucatán Peninsula. The earliest records of the Maya civilisation show that they were already growing crops around 1,800BC. They built pyramids and stone monuments. The "golden era" of the Maya civilisation occurred between 250 and 900AD, with more than 40 cities, some of which had populations of more than 50,000. They sacrificed humans to their gods. The Maya civilisation used advanced mathematics and astronomy and developed the Mayan calendar of 365 days. They had a written language and made books from paper. It is not known what caused the collapse of their civilisation.
The Aztecs lived in central Mexico from 1325 to 1523AD. It is not known where they came from, as they did not have a written language, but it is said that they came from an island known as Astlan. When they arrived they were a poor and ragged group, but they grew to a great civilisation. Their capital city, Tenochtitlan, was located in what they called the "Valley of Mexica" in swampy ground, and their buildings were often known to sink. The Aztecs were strong militarily, sacrificed human beings to their gods, and used advanced agricultural techniques. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century they set out to completely wipe out the Aztecs, and few survived.
The Inca civilisation existed at the same time as the Aztecs. Their empire in South America covered a vast territory, mainly in the Andes mountains but also including deserts, stretching from what is now Quito, Ecuador to the Maule River in Chile. Named after a ruler, Tupac Inca, they built more than 14,000 miles of roads and bridges, traversible by foot or horseback. They are famed for their masonry skills, but it is not known how they cut the massive stones and fitted them so precisely or how they transported them to places like the famous city Machu Picchu, built high on a jungle mountainside. The Incas worshipped the sun.They were wiped out by the Spaniards in the 16th century.
The Olmecs were said to predate the Mayans, and their civilisation declined around 400BC. Very little information about them exists, but some believe that the Mayan calendar originated with the Olmecs. They are said to have had a major influence on the Mayans and the Aztecs. They were stone carvers, and some of their enormous stone heads can be seen in the Smithsonian museum. A ball game played by the Aztecs, ullamaliztli, was believed to have been started by the Olmecs and their religious beliefs were believed to have been adapted by the Mayans and Aztecs.