Many ancient civilizations built pyramids. Egyptians and Chinese built pyramids as tombs or monuments to leaders, but the Mayans and Aztecs in Central America used pyramids mainly as religious temples. These Central American pyramids often were built and changed over centuries; they also were parts of major cities. The Egyptian pyramids were completed over a few decades, and were located away from cities.
Much less is known about China's ancient pyramids, some of which are disguised by trees and other vegetation. The giant structures are dotted throughout rural China and reportedly house mummies of the country's early emperors, generals and men and women of the upper classes. One of the pyramids, south of Xian, is the "White Pyramid," spotted by a pilot in 1947 and reported in a "New York Times" story.
Pyramids were built in Central America and Mexico as centers for religious ceremonies as early as 1,000 B.C. The first ones were made of mounds of clay and dirt, but eventually they became more elaborate, with stone slabs, stairways and even small structures on the pyramids' apexes. The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán is the most well-known such structure in Mexico. It is one of the largest structures any ancient American civilization built and housed tombs, along with caves and chambers for ancient rituals [source: Metropolitan Museum of Art].
The Mayan Indians built most of the pyramids in the Western Hemisphere, generally from about 300 to 900 A.D., at the height of their civilization. They built the pyramids at Chichén-Itzá and Uxmal in the Yucatán and at Tikal in Guatemala. The purpose of the Tikal pyramids, which also were engineering feats for their times, likely had to do with their astronomical placement and the role of astronomy in aligning major dates of the Mayans' religious rituals [source: Dartmouth]. Other Indian civilizations such as the Aztec, Zapotec and Toltec built pyramids slightly later than the Mayans.
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