State Systems in the Americas

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Learning Objective

Explain how and why states in the Americas developed and changed over time.

Historical Development 1

Geographic factors led societies in the Americas to develop differently than many of the larger societies of Eurasia. 

Historical Development 2

North America remained populated by largely tribal and clan-based peoples and civilizations.

Historical Development 3

Latin America and South America developed larger and more formalized state systems than in North America.


Environmental Factors Shaped the Development of Societies in the Americas

Societies in the Americas developed differently than Afro-Eurasia. While the Americas did develop large-scale and complex societies, they were generally smaller than the large-scale societies in Eurasia. Nowhere in the Americas did a large civilization develop that matched the size of places like the Abbasid empire in the Islamic world or Song dynasty China.

Characteristics of American State Systems

Smaller State Systems

chiefdoms, city-states, tribal governments (exception Inca)

Smaller Populations

The total population in the Americas was around 30 million out of a global total of around 400 million.

Less urbanization

exceptions Maya and Aztec cities in Latin America and Cahokia in North America

Lower trade volumes

exceptions Maya and Aztec cities in Latin America and Cahokia in North America

More political fragmentation

Increased numbers of rulers with control over small pieces of territory

Environmental Factors That Shaped Development of Societies in the Americas

The characteristics of American societies listed above resulted from unique environmental factors in the Americas. These American environmental characteristics resulted in less agriculture production and less trade, leading to less wealth creation and less expansive civilizations. Americas unique environmental characteristics include the following.  

Geographic alignment

North and South America are on a north/south alignment. This alignment meant that more climatic variations separated early American civilizations. These climatic variations made it harder to move across the landmass that separated early American civilizations. East/west land alignments, such as Eurasia, have fewer climatic variations because they cross fewer lines of latitude.

Lack of domesticable animals

The Americas also lacked easily domesticable animals that travelers could ride or use to carry goods across vast distances. As a result, travel and trade options were limited. There were no camels or horses, horses, or oxen like in Afro-Eurasia. The lack of domesticable animals also made it challenging to increase agriculture production as animals were not available for agricultural uses. People in South America did manage to domesticate llamas. However, the llama's usefulness was limited. They can not carry the heaviest loads and have difficulty operating as work animals outside the mountainous climate zone in which they evolved.

Comparison across regions: Africa has a similar north/south alignment as the Americas. As a result, African societies and states developed most similarly to the Americas. Though, because of their proximity to Eurasia, Africa had higher levels of trade and communication.

State Systems in America Were Largely Tribal

Before the arrival of Europeans, numerous complex native civilizations and cultures populated North America. These first nations’ peoples were diverse. Many tribes were nomadic or semi-nomadic, while others built permanent structures and settlements. Tribes such as the Inuit in the far north of North America were mainly hunting and gathering people, while the Mississippians were agriculturalists. Tribes engaged in low volume trade both with neighbors and across longer distances. Natives also produced beautiful works of art and monumental architecture, such as the Pueblo tribe’s cave dwellings at Mesa Verde.

Common Elements of State Systems in North America

  • Governance in North America was primarily tribal. 
  • There were no large centralized state structures.
  • Tribes in North America did not construct large bureaucratic systems responsible for creating large and elaborate laws and taxation systems. However, leaders did make essential decisions regarding food production, interactions with neighboring tribes, and the building of permanent structures needed by the tribes. 
  • Religious leaders and elders often led tribes. Within certain native civilizations such as the Pueblo, smaller tribes or individual villages would have their own leader. When smaller tribes gathered together into larger groups, elders and tribal leaders would often meet and make decisions through consensus.

Major Tribal Governments in North America

The following are two of the many native societies that populated North America.

Chaco (The Pueblo)

The Pueblo flourished in the American Southwest between the 9th and 12th centuries. Their name comes from the communal pueblos dwellings that the tribes lived within. Traditional American depictions of first nations peoples are of wholly nomadic societies that lived in teepees. The Pueblo proves that common belief is incorrect. While the Pueblo migrated during specific periods, they lived within their pueblo structures during other periods. Chaco Canyon and the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde are the most well-known Pueblo archeological sites.

Cahokia (Mississippi Valley Civilization)

The Mississippian people emerged between the 8th and 16th centuries in the Mississippi River valley. The society that they created was the largest in North American civilization before the arrival of Europeans. This Mississippi River valley civilization was not one tribe but a collection of different native tribes. The core of this civilization was the city of Cahokia, which is in present-day Illinois. In 1250, the population of Cahokia numbered 40,000–larger than London at that time.

The Larger State Based Governing Systems of Latin and South America

Latin and South America produced larger formalized bureaucratic state systems. These societies include the Maya, the Mexica (Aztec), and the Inca.

The Maya-City States

The Maya were an intellectually and technologically advanced urban civilization in Southern Mexico and Northern Guatemala. At its height, the Maya population numbered in the millions.

The Mexica (the Aztec)

The Aztecs were a semi-nomadic group that moved into Southern Mexico and established themselves on a small island in the middle of Lake Texcoco at the start of the 14th century. Over the next few hundred years, the Mexica people built up an empire through a series of marriage alliances and military victories over neighboring civilizations.

The Inca

The Inca Empire was the largest political and territorial system in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. At its heights, Inca territory stretched 2500 miles along the Pacific coast of South America. By 1525 the population numbered nearly 10,000,000 individuals.