Science in early Central and South America
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South and Central American Science

Olmec rubber ball
A rubber ball made by the Olmec people (about 1000 BC)

September 2016 - With different natural resources available to them, the people of South America and Central America invented different things than the people of Europe, Asia, or Africa did. One early invention was rubber: the Olmec people invented rubber (in fact the word "Olmec" means "rubber people" in the Aztec language, Nahuatl). The Olmec began to make rubber about 1600 BC, even before they had formed their first state government. People got latex from the sap of a tree that grew in their area, and they mixed it with the juice of a local vine to make rubber. One thing that they used this rubber for was to make rubber balls for a popular ball game.

Maya people, about 500 AD, also used another kind of sticky sap called chicle as chewing gum. This is where the name Chicklets comes from for one brand of American chewing gum. South American doctors also figured out how to use coca leaves as a powerful pain-killer. Arawak people invented the hammock, which may originally have been a fishing net hung up on hooks.

brownish paper map
Agave paper made by Aztec people

But the people of Central America also invented some of the same things that people in Asia invented. Like people in China and West Asia, the Aztec also invented paper, which was made out of agave plant fiber, and parchment (they used deerskin).

The Olmec also seem to have used zero as a place marker for numbers, perhaps as early as 400 BC. This would be earlier than the first use of zero in India, but the Indian mathematicians didn't learn about zero from the Olmec. Some time before 1100 AD, also, Mayan astronomers figured out the minimum number of days betweeen eclipses of the sun and eclipses of the moon, but the Mayans couldn't predict exactly when eclipses would happen, and they probably didn't understand why eclipses happened - they didn't know that the moon went around the earth, or that the earth went around the sun.

Learn by doing: chew some gum with chicle in it, and find something made of rubber
More about coca leaves
Native American science

Bibliography and further reading about South and Central American science:

More about South and Central America home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 24 April, 2017