Digging Up Lost Cities in Mesoamerica

By Jeanette Larson

Books to Share

Aztec: Kids @ the Crossroads by Laura Scandiffio

The Fisherman and the Turtle by Eric Kimmel

Lost City: The Discovery of Machu Picchu by Ted Lewin

Machu Picchu: The Story of the Amazing Inkas and Their City in the Clouds by Elizabeth Mann

The Mystery of the Maya: Uncovering the Lost City of Palenque by Peter Lourie

Up and Down the Andes: a Peruvian Festival Tale by Laurie Krebs

Books to Show or Booktalk

The Aztecs: Life in Tenochtitlan by Matt Doeden

Cities of the Dead: Finding Lost Civilizations by Denise Rinaldo

How to Be an Aztec Warrior by Fiona MacDonald

The Jaguar Stones: Book One by J&P Voelkel

Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow by James Rollins

Lost Cities by Sue Hamilton

Lost Worlds by John Howe

Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark

Thea Stilton and the Secret City by Thea Stilton

Bulletin Board

I Dig Mesoamerica!

Cover the bulletin board with rich green paper to resemble the jungles of Mexico and Central America. Use clip art, available at Ancient Civilizations Clipart, http://civilizations.phillipmartin.info/index.htm, to create a Mayan temple, Machu Picchu, and an Aztec temple. Add images of the Toltec Chac-mool, Mayan calendar, and other artifacts. Examples created by an archeologist are available from MAXclips, http://www.maxclips.us/?gold750banner. Apply these images to the green background. Add some of the birds and other animals from the region to create a colorful display. Include jacket covers, if available, for books about Mesoamerica or allow the children to write the names of their favorite books on cut out figures of a llama or quetzal bird to scatter around the bulletin board, showing off participation in the Texas Reading Club.


Serve fresh corn tortillas. If possible, make them fresh, grilling the tortillas on a portable electric griddle. Serve with chocolate milk or cocoa.


Chewing Gum

Chewing gum originated in the Aztec and Mayan cultures. Discover more about history of this popular treat at Mexicolore, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/index.php?one=azt&two=art&tab=two&typ=reg&id=419, and provide packages of Chiclets as a treat.


Share the song "Xtoles" ("Song to the Sun"), a Mayan warrior dance song, with the children. The words in English and Mayan are provided at Mama Lisa,

http://www.mamalisa.com/?t=es&p=713&c=105, along with a YouTube video of the song being performed. The site also includes a pronunciation guide.

Dance and Movement Songs

Mesoamerican cultures have a long history of colorful dances. Invite a ballet folklorico group to demonstrate dances from different areas of Mexico.

Audio Recordings

"Fusion Natural" on Latin Playground by Putumayo

"Hanal Weech" on Latin Playground by Putumayo

Mayan Ancestral Music by Xavier Quijas Yxayotl

Singing Earth by Xavier Quijas Yxayotl

Stories to Tell

An Aztec Legend: Why the Hummingbird Migrates to Mexico in Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas.

(Text copyright © by Jeanette Larson and Adrienne Yorinks. Used with permission by Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.)

No one knows for sure where the Aztec people lived before they came to what is now Mexico City, but this story offers one suggestion. The chief god of the Aztecs was called Huitzilopochtli (wee-TSEEL-oh-poach-tlee). He was also referred to as Hummingbird-on-the-Left because he wore feathers from these tiny birds on his left foot. According to legend, Huitzilopochtli could turn himself into a hummingbird and show his people what route to take in their travels.

Long ago the Atzec people lived in a land called Aztlan. One day a man heard a small bird singing in a tree. It was a hummingbird.

"Come. Let us go," said the hummingbird.

The man called another to join him to hear the bird speak. Again the hummingbird said, "Let us go."

The people took this as a sign that they should begin their journey out of Aztlan and move southward toward the land where the Mayas lived. As they followed the hummingbird, the man asked, "How will we know where to stop?"

The hummingbird answered, "When we reach a beautiful place with rivers and mountains and forests, I will give you a sign. You will see an eagle perched on a cactus plant, eating a snake. That will be the sign that you have found your new homeland."

The Aztec people followed the hummingbird through lands that they thought were quite beautiful. But still they traveled farther. Eventually they reached a beautiful place in a green valley by a lake. There the Aztecs saw a golden eagle fly down from the sky and grab a snake from the marsh around the lake. As the eagle settled on a cactus plant to devour the snake, the hummingbird, who was really the god Huitzilopochtli, spoke. He told the people to build a great city at this spot. That city is today called Mexico City, and it might not exist had not the hummingbird led the people there.

The Fisherman and the Turtle

Eric Kimmel's book, The Fisherman and the Turtle, is an Aztec folktale that shares motifs with the "The Fisherman and his Wife" by the Brothers Grimm. Read, or learn and tell, this story.


Ancient Pottery
  • Crayola® Model Magic or other quick-drying clay, various colors
  • Photographs of Mexican and Mayan pottery from books or magazines
  • Carving tools (plastic knives, skewers, forks)
  • Fine line markers


There are many ways to create ancient pottery and figurines. Show the children pictures of some examples. Select one or two colors of quick-drying clay. Roll coils of quick-drying clay into long ropes. The longer the rope, the bigger the pot will be but more rope can be added to increase the size. Coil the clay rope to create a base. Continue adding coils to build the walls of the pot, smoothing the clay as you go. Use carving tools to incise designs. Fill the incised designs with the markers. Allow to dry.

  • Large sheets of construction paper, light colors
  • Scissors
  • Large craft sticks or paint stirrers
  • Craft glue
  • Crayons, markers, colored pencils
  • Samples of Mayan and Aztec glyphs and symbols

A photograph of a codex that has been drawn on yellow paper containing Mayan and Aztec glyphs and symbols using colored pens of black, blue, and orange. Each end has an orange colored stick attached to it.

Photograph by Debbie Gonzales; used with permission.


The Aztecs and Mayans wrote their calendars and important stories on codices. In advance, cut a large sheet of construction paper in half lengthwise, creating two long strips. Provide two craft sticks or paint stirrers for each child. Glue the two lengths of construction paper together to create a longer, narrow sheet. Glue one of the craft sticks or paint stirrers to each end of the long sheet. While the glue dries, show samples of Mayan and Aztec glyphs and symbols from books and websites, or download some of the samples from Dover Publications, http://store.doverpublications.com/0486467791.html. (Ancient Mexican Art Tattoos by Marty Noble is a very inexpensive booklet available from Dover if suitable samples are not available in the collection.) Use the crayons, markers, and colored pencils to add glyphs and symbols to the paper. Roll up the finished product from each end to the middle to create the codex.

Games and Activities


Quipu is the ancient method used by the Incans to count and keep records. Using base ten for reference, knots are added to a main string to facilitate record keeping and remembering information. Follow the instructions from Simon Fraser University, http://www.sfu.ca/archaeology/museum/laarch/inca/quie.html, to demonstrate how to tie quipu. It's a lot like macramé! Show the children the Writing in String material from Emory University, http://www.carlos.emory.edu/ODYSSEY/AA/quipo.htm, to explain how the system worked.

Web-Based Activities

The Ball Game


The first team sport in human history was the Mayan ball games. Watch a game at this site or be a contestant, testing your knowledge of the game.

Brainteaser: Incas


Test your knowledge of the Inca by taking this on-line quiz.

Jewel Quest


Yahoo offers a web-based version of this popular game where players discover ancient artifacts while exploring the ruins of an ancient civilization in the Mayan jungle.

Web 2.0

Legends in Film

Show the short film "The Legend of the Bat" at Mexicolore, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/index.php?one=azt&two=sto&tab=two&typ=reg&id=329. Share legends or other simple stories from one of the cultures included in this program. Let the children use digital cameras to take photographs of objects that will aid in retelling the story or of their own artwork based on the legends. Then use a service like Smilebox, http://www.smilebox.com, to create a one or two minute movie or slideshow of their legend. If desired, add captions and music to the show.

Blog Like an Ancient Kid

Show the children a book like Aztec: Kids @ the Crossroads by Laura Scandiffio. This book is written as if it were a blog produced by 12-year-old, Yoatl, an Aztec living in 1519. Set up a blog site for the summer reading program using a free service like Blogger, https://www.blogger.com/start, and let the children write blog entries as if they were living in one of the ancient civilizations included in the books in this section.


Ancient Aztec Empire (19 minutes)

Digging for the Truth: The Real Temple of Doom (50 minutes)

Machu Picchu: Lost City of the Inca (50 minutes)

Travel with Kids: Mexico (80 minutes)


Lego Indiana Jones


Inca Kids


Meet "the children of the sun" and discover everything about their lives and culture.

Mayan Kids


Everything Mayan is here, including some online games, pictures, and information about the culture.

Professional Resources

The Ancient Maya


This website from Scholastic Instructor provides additional craft ideas, reproducible, and resources.


Texas Reading Club 2011 Programming Manual / Dig Up a Good Book!

Published by the Library Development Division of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission

Page last modified: June 14, 2011