Ancient Civilizations of North America

Course No. 3900
Professor Edwin Barnhart, Ph.D.
Maya Exploration Center
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Course No. 3900
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  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. While the video version can be considered lightly illustrated, it includes maps, timelines, illustrations, drone footage from sites, pottery, artifacts, tools, arrowheads, and more, as well as on-screen text, which may help reinforce material for visual learners.
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What Will You Learn?

  • Study astounding ancient scientific accomplishments.
  • Examine the Iroquoian principles behind the U.S. Constitution.
  • Explore ancient cities that rival those of modern times.

Course Overview

Arriving in the 15th century and beyond, European explorers came to North America hoping to discover another civilization like those of the Maya or Inca to plunder. Not finding mountains of gold or silver, they saw no value in what they did find: myriad sophisticated cultures with hundreds of vibrant cities, roadways, canals, extensive trade networks, art, religious traditions, and thousands of earthen pyramids.

The people who shaped these civilizations—the engineers, political leaders, mathematicians, and astronomers—were also considered to be of no value, labeled by the Europeans as primitive and backwards, often enslaved or murdered. And because the native peoples left no written language, the narrative continued to be shaped by the conquerors, passed down as truth from generation to generation.

But now—with the technological advances of modern archaeology and a new perspective on world history—we are finally able to piece together their compelling true stories. In 24 exciting lectures supported by explanatory maps, beautiful photographs and illustrations, and 3-D models that bring it all to life, Ancient Civilizations of North America will take you on an eye-opening journey through thousands of years of unique and fascinating ancient cultures. Professor Edwin Barnhart, director of the Maya Exploration Center, will show you a world you never knew existed.

Astronomers, Engineers, and Hydrologists

The peoples of ancient North America were exceptionally knowledgeable about their environment; their lives required it. Professor Barnhart shows you how they used their detailed understanding of flora and fauna, landforms, geology, and water resources when developing strategies for hunting and gathering, locating villages, and farming. But their intellectual and artistic curiosity went much beyond the immediate need for food and safety. Beginning thousands of years ago, and without the benefit of written language, native peoples became skilled mathematicians, metallurgists, jewelers, construction engineers, astronomers, and more. In this course, you will explore:

  • The Sun Dagger of Chaco Canyon and other Chacoan features marking the solstices and equinoxes;
  • The ancient peoples’ use of the cycles of the heavens to align buildings in relation to the cardinal directions and in relation to each other across vast distances;
  • Their use of horizon-based astronomy to align structures to the lunar maximum and minimum standstill points in 18.6-year cycles;
  • The Hohokam hydrologists and engineers who provided water for large desert populations via the sophisticated manipulation of flow rates in some 700 miles of canals, pieces of which still exist today;
  • The ancient engineers and urban planners who designed master-planned communities, building them out in a single, intricate, and coordinated construction effort;
  • Numerous ancient earthworks and geoglyphs that reflect sophisticated engineering and cooperative construction—the Serpent Mound and Blythe Intaglios, among others.

Ancient Cities to Rival Those of Modern Times

About 3,500 years ago, a great and vibrant city existed in present-day northeast Louisiana. Built by a Late Archaic people, Poverty Point is considered by most archaeologists to be the first city in North America. Supporting a population of more than 4,000—40 times the size of an average village at the time—it existed for more than 1,000 years. With Professor Barnhart as your guide, you will understand how Poverty Point has been revealed as a master-planned community, with a 37-acre central plaza; earthen pyramids; and six semi-circular, concentric platform mounds holding hundreds of houses. Carbon-14 dating reveals that the entire set of concentric platform mounds were built in one single phase, requiring extensive leadership, planning, surveying skills, and cooperation from an enormous pool of laborers. Even with its compact organization, every single house had a view of the central plaza—a feat many modern planners would be challenged to accomplish.

In this course, you’ll learn about Poverty Point’s:

  • Vast trade network bringing raw materials from as far away as the Great Lakes (nearly 1,000 miles);
  • Mound A, one of the oldest pyramids on the planet, built over a period of only 90 days with more than 15 million hand-held basketloads of dirt, and still in existence today;
  • Mound E, 13 feet tall and larger than a football field; and
  • Recently discovered “woodhenges,” which could be linked to archaeoastronomy.

Cahokia, built about 1,000 years ago just east of present-day St. Louis, was the largest city in ancient North America north of Mesoamerica. With 3,000 acres and 50,000 people living in its interior and satellite communities, Cahokia dwarfed the contemporaneous populations of London, Paris, and Rome. At one point in its history, the ancient city was razed and replaced with a master-planned version more than three times its previous size. Although many of Cahokia’s features, such as large mounds, ritual spaces, and communal farming, had been seen elsewhere, its scale and level of social organization were unprecedented. In this course, you’ll learn about Cahokia’s:

  • Grand Plaza, covering an area greater than 35 football fields and containing council houses, elite homes, a charnel house, and more;
  • Monks Mound, the third-largest structure ever built in the ancient New World, and the largest north of Mesoamerica, with 25 million cubic feet of earth covering nearly 15 acres, and reaching 100 feet high;
  • Chunkey Court, the ritual and social heart of the city where the game of chunkey was played, a sport symbolizing warfare and the creation story; and
  • Mass graves indicating ritualized human sacrifice.
  • The Legacy of the Iroquois: North American Democracy

    At the time of European contact, the Iroquois were a semi-sedentary farming people near Lakes Erie and Ontario whose villages were often in fierce conflict with each other. When three visionary leaders recognized that such continual warfare was holding the nation back, they proposed a tribal confederation known as The Great League of Peace. The League’s Great Council consisted of 50 chiefs, or sachem, each of whom was elected to represent a specific clan by the clan’s female elders. These women voted their representatives in—and could also vote them out. The Great Council settled all disputes and conflicts through dialog, debate, and consensus, guided by the 117 articles of confederation known as the “Great Law of Peace.”

    Sound familiar? It should.

    Not only did the Iroquois establish the first North American democracy, but the framers of the U.S. Constitution held the system in the highest regard. Two hundred years after establishing its own Constitution, the United States formally acknowledged this Iroquois legacy in Congressional Resolution 331, stating the “confederation of the original Thirteen Colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the Constitution itself.”

    By journeying through Ancient Civilizations of North America with Professor Barnhart, you’ll recognize the legacy of the Iroquois and many more native nations that have influenced our lives today.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Unknown Story of Ancient North America
    Pyramids. State-of-the-art highways. Productive scientists, artists, and engineers. These, and much more, were ancient North America. But having left no written record, and considered of no value by European conquerors many centuries later, these societies seemed destined to remain a mystery. Now, we are finally able to reveal their fascinating truths. x
  • 2
    The First Human Migrations to the Americas
    DNA evidence points to Asia, and only Asia, as the origin of all human migration to North America. While there were many migration episodes, each episode involved passage across the Bering Strait. Sites of ancient habitation have been found all across the continent, under water and on dry land. See why, even with current technologies, scientists cannot yet agree on the ages of these sites. x
  • 3
    Clovis Man: America's First Culture
    Explore Clovis, the very first American culture, which is identified by the Clovis point, a specialized megafauna-hunting tool that became the most widespread technology in the paleo-world. The Clovis populated the Americas from coast to coast, from Alaska to South America. Although the culture became extinct around 12,000 years ago, you will see how some of the Clovis people evolved into the last Paleo-Indians, the Folsom. x
  • 4
    The Archaic Period: Diversity Begins
    When the megafauna died out across the continent about 10,000 years ago, Paleo-Indian culture began to diversify regionally. Better understand why some groups developed hunting and gathering culture in a seasonal round pattern, while others fished from temporary camps. Also, see what DNA research reveals about one ancient sedentary people with resources plentiful enough to support 350 generations of habitation. x
  • 5
    Late Archaic Innovations
    In this lecture you will see how, about 5,000 years ago, the creative, yet disparate, peoples of North America developed corn agriculture, permanent houses with storage and cooking pits, religion, art, pottery, ceramics, metallurgy, and basket weaving. Further explore the only innovation common to these many different cultures: an increase in cemetery sites and formalized treatment of bodies in burials. x
  • 6
    Poverty Point: North America's First City
    About 3,500 years ago, while most North Americans were still nomadic, see how one group of ancient people developed a planned community on more than 900 acres to accommodate 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants. Designed with exceptional engineering skills, the fascinating city of Poverty Point functioned for 1,000 years and included one of the oldest pyramids ever built on Earth. x
  • 7
    Medicine Wheels of the Great Plains
    Medicine wheels—wagon-wheel type arrangements of stones on the ground—vary in their number of spokes and size; are difficult to date; and although some are precisely aligned to the solstices, the majority have no known astronomical significance. Survey what we do know about their function and meaning, which almost certainly changed over time, just like the human populations who built them. x
  • 8
    Adena Culture and the Early Woodlands Period
    In modern-day Ohio, the continent's first coherent civilizations evolved about 3,000 years ago, bringing together previously far-flung Archaic practices. Meet the Adena, the first ancient American culture with wide-ranging influence. Known for their conical burial mounds and shared concept of an afterlife, they also might have been the continent's first habitual tobacco smokers. x
  • 9
    The Hopewell and Their Massive Earthworks
    Here Professor Barnhart introduces you to the Hopewell culture, a civilization that thrived for over 700 years. You will see how they influenced all the peoples of eastern North America with trade networks, an art tradition, and the practice of burying their most important dead in earthen mounds. Their knowledge of mathematics and astronomy allowed them to build massive earthwork complexes in sophisticated geometric patterns in present-day Ohio. x
  • 10
    The Origins of Mississippian Culture
    About 1,200 years ago in eastern North America, populations gathered their farms and living structures behind defensive walls. Explore Mississippian culture and see how it introduced an increased use of the bow and arrow along with a large body of art, extensive trade networks, and mythological creation stories remembered today in bits and pieces by a multitude of surviving indigenous nations. x
  • 11
    The Mississippian City of Cahokia
    Covering more than 3,000 acres and with an associated population of about 50,000, understand why Cahokia, the largest ancient city in what is now the US and Canada, became a model for the region. Its fascinating and complex life included stratified social organization, burial mounds, deeply held religious beliefs, sophisticated artwork, woodhenges to mark the solstices and equinoxes—and ritual human sacrifice. x
  • 12
    The Wider Mississippian World
    After the fall of Cahokia, witness how Mississippian civilization flourished across eastern North America with tens of thousands of pyramid-building communities and a population in the millions. Look at the ways they were connected through their commonly held belief in a three-tiered world, as reflected in their artwork. Major sites like Spiro, Moundville, and Etowah all faded out just around 100 years before European contact, obscuring our understanding. x
  • 13
    De Soto Versus the Mississippians
    In 1539, Hernando de Soto of Spain landed seven ships with 600 men and hundreds of animals in present-day Florida. Follow his fruitless search for another Inca or Aztec Empire, as he instead encounters hundreds of Mississippian cities through which he led a three-year reign of terror across the land-looting, raping, disfiguring, murdering, and enslaving native peoples by the thousands. x
  • 14
    The Ancient Southwest: Discovering Diversity
    Uncover what archaeology has revealed about the ancient peoples of the southwestern deserts. Survey the variety of strategies they used depending on their specific locale—from farming in flood plains to building elaborate irrigation canals—and how they developed into multiple distinct, but not isolated, cultures. See why today we recognize three core, and two peripheral, ancient cultures of the area. x
  • 15
    The Basketmaker Culture
    Once natural selection produced a strain of drought-resistant corn, the peoples of the desert gave up their nomadic existence and began to build more permanent structures. Examine the first sedentary cultures of the American Southwest—the possible precursors to the Pueblo—and understand why baskets, which had been invented many thousands of years earlier, significantly increased in importance as the only portable storage solution before the advent of pottery. x
  • 16
    The Mogollon Culture
    As the Mogollon people increased reliance on agriculture, the size and density of their villages also grew, the largest having more than 100 pit houses arranged around multiple kivas. But as you will discover, they're probably best known for their exquisite pottery bowls. Take a look at how, while neighboring cultures were still experimenting with geometric designs, the Mogollon painted sophisticated scenes of animals, humans, and supernatural creatures. x
  • 17
    The Hohokam: Masters of the Desert
    Learn about the Hohokam, a people who made beautiful art, employed cooperative decision making with strong centralized leadership, and developed extensive public architecture. But see why their real claim to fame was building more than 700 miles of sophisticated irrigation canals—the largest and most highly-engineered irrigation system constructed in the Pre-Columbian New World—segments of which are still visible today. x
  • 18
    The Ancestral Pueblo
    The dominant culture of the southwest was the Ancestral Pueblo. For the past 1,300 years, their settlements have exhibited an apartment-like room block pattern, from small farmsteads to cities with thousands of people. Examine how both the architecture and the short lifespans of earlier villages reflected the reality of the area's scarce resource base, promoting cultural traditions born of environmental adaptation. x
  • 19
    The Chaco Phenomenon
    Chaco Canyon contains the most sophisticated architecture ever built in ancient North America—14 Great Houses, four Great Kivas, hundreds of smaller settlements, an extensive road system, and a massive trade network. But who led these great building projects? And why do we find so little evidence of human habitation in what seems to be a major center of culture? Answer these questions and more. x
  • 20
    Archaeoastronomy in the Ancient Southwest
    The people of the ancient Southwest were skilled astronomers, incorporating astronomical alignments in their architecture with impressive displays of light and shadow. Learn how discoveries of the Sun Dagger and the Chimney Rock lunar observatory—as well as the alignment of Great Houses miles apart along lunar maximum lines—could help reveal the true purpose of Chaco Canyon. x
  • 21
    The Periphery of the Ancient Southwest
    As you delve further into the ancient Southwest, you will see why the ancient farming cultures of the region did not spread into surrounding areas where farming was either unnecessary or impossible. Instead, nearby groups lived a more nomadic life, relying on hunting and gathering, and minimal occasional farming. Over time, each group developed its unique artwork, perhaps none as fascinating as the desert Intaglios of the Patayan. x
  • 22
    Late Period Cultures of the Pacific Coast
    From southern California to Alaska, witness a vast array of complex hunter-gatherer cultures that thrived along the Pacific Coast for centuries before European contact. In this most densely populated area of the continent—and its most culturally and linguistically diverse—peoples developed highly stratified societies, sophisticated systems of resource distribution and trade, advanced methods of food storage, and unique artwork. x
  • 23
    Late Period Cultures of the Great Plains
    The peoples of the Great Plains were broadly divided into the bison hunters in the west and the semi-sedentary farmers in the east. But with the European introduction of the horse, gun, and new diseases, you will shift your attention to how each of five main culture areas began to transform and how these changes shaped the homogenized, oversimplified view of American Indian cultures. x
  • 24
    The Iroquois and Algonquians before Contact
    At the time of European contact, two main groups existed in the northeast—the hunter-gatherer Algonquian and the agrarian Iroquois. Delve into how the Iroquois created the first North American democracy as a solution to their increasing internal conflicts. Today, we know much of the U.S. Constitution is modeled on the Iroquois’ “Great League of Peace” and its 117 articles of confederation, as formally acknowledged by the U.S. in 1988. x

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Your professor

Edwin Barnhart

About Your Professor

Edwin Barnhart, Ph.D.
Maya Exploration Center
Dr. Edwin Barnhart is director of the Maya Exploration Center. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin and has over 20 years of experience in North, Central, and South America as an archaeologist, explorer, and instructor. In 1994, Professor Barnhart discovered the ancient city of Maax Na (Spider-Monkey House), a major center of the Classic Maya period in northwestern Belize. In 1998 he was invited by the...
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Reviews

Ancient Civilizations of North America is rated 4.9 out of 5 by 53.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ancient Civilitation of North America Dr. Barnhart is a very interesting engaging lecturer. The history of the developing of North America is amazing.
Date published: 2018-11-18
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Fascinating insights but marred by simple flaws I have been interested in early peoples in America ever since we built a house in central Ohio years ago and while digging the basement the builder unearthed an Archaic stone axe that archaeologists at our state historical society estimated dated from 5000 BCE. There was a small stream across the back of our lot and it fascinated us to know that humans had been there nearly 7000 years ago. Dr. Barnhart provided a great deal of interesting information about various civilizations based on recent DNA evidence, but his mispronunciation of the Scioto Valley, site of numerous Adena and Hopewell sites, causes one to question the accuracy of his information. Despite this, the course opened my eyes to other sources worth exploring. This topic is currently quite relevant with DNA evidence suggesting revisionist history that is often in the news.
Date published: 2018-11-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Excellent Experience This was my first Great Course, and I was blown away. The information is in-depth, but explained clearly for a general audience. I'm a history/archaeology buff and it gave me PLENTY to learn and think about. It does focus mostly on the Mississippian and Southwestern cultures, so it may not be what you want if you want a lot of information on the Native Americans of the Northeast or Pacific Northwest, but it illustrates as clear a picture as modern Archaeologists have of the largest and most advanced ancient civilizations of North America (Prof. Barnhart does make it clear that our knowledge is limited due to surviving Archaeological evidence). Professor Barnhart is clearly an expert in his field, and although his presentation style at first seems a little awkward and stiff, I found myself quickly getting to feel as though I knew him personally. His personal anecdotes and occasional jokes lend personality and humor to a very well-organized and informative course. I cannot recommend this course enough - it truly was excellent, and it left me with a new appreciation of North America's Ancient Civilizations. I had no idea that North America had such advanced peoples living here before European contact. This course has left me with a new view of history. I purchased another of Professor Barnhart's courses (Lost Worlds of South America) at the same time I bought this one and I can't wait to start watching it.
Date published: 2018-11-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well-presented and thoughtful course Excellent course with lots of graphics and locale video. Worth every penny! I would love to see a follow-on course focusing on the tribes and cultures of the north Pacific Coast from California to Alaska.
Date published: 2018-11-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative and Entertaining! We listened to these lectures during a road trip in the midwest. It was very engaging. We have visited several of the sites discribed in these lectures, so it was nice to hear about them in the context of the time they were occupied.
Date published: 2018-10-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting and surprising Good coverage of early North American history before the invasion from Europe. Done well. Some surprisingly advanced civilizations I hadn't previously known about.
Date published: 2018-10-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic! I have enjoyed my journey in the ancient North America. I`ve bought this video two months ago. I`ve learned a lot of things about ancient Canada and USA. The professor is a very good speaker. Bravo!
Date published: 2018-10-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fills in the gaps This is my third course by Prof. Barnhart. As always, he has assembled a vast amount of information into an easily digestible format. This course filled in a huge gap in my historical knowledge about my own country. The discussions of archeoastronomy were particularly fascinating.
Date published: 2018-10-11
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