Introduction to Early American Civilizations
In world history, modern human beings (those human ancestors who fall under the category homo sapiens and are most like human beings today) go back about 150,000 years. For at least 142,000 of those years, Earth's people were nomadic (roaming from place to place without a fixed home); they traveled in small family groups or lived in tiny, temporary villages without government (a political organization, usually consisting of a body of people who exercise authority over a political unit as a whole and carry out many of its social functions, such as law enforcement, collection of taxes, and public affairs). Within the last eight thousand years, humans began to develop complex societies with political structures and dense populations. However, even after these complex societies first developed, thousands of years passed before civilizations arose.
What is a civilization? According to most dictionaries, civilization is a level of advancement and complexity in a society's technology, economics, politics, religious organization, arts, and sciences. Some scholars say that civilizations arise as a result of urbanization—the development of cities. Other scholars point out that some early societies did not have true cities yet still had distinguishing features that are present in every civilization. At base, a civilization is a complex political, economic, and social structure in which people work at a...
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Before the Rise of Civilization: The First Americans
Thousands of years ago groups of people traveled to North and South America from far-away homes, and they stayed, becoming the first Americans. These migrations (movements of groups of people from one home to another) remain covered in mystery. How long ago did the first people come? Did they come by foot over a land bridge? Did they come by boat from the Pacific coast of Asia, or did they sail across the Atlantic? Were the early migrants from northern Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia, Japan, or Europe? Was there one large migration, or were there many migrations? The short answer to all of these questions is that no one knows. In some ways, scientists and historians seem to know less in the twenty-first century than they did at the end of the twentieth century. New evidence is emerging on a regular basis that disproves long-accepted views about the first immigrants to the Americas. Experts in the early twenty-first century are coming up with many intriguing new theories—educated guesses based on an abundance of new evidence and research. Their ideas present exciting possibilities about the history of the ancient Americas.
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Early Andeans: From Nomads to City Folk
People have been living in the Andean region for at least twelve thousand years, and probably much longer. From the time of the earliest inhabitation of the region until about 7000 B.C.E. most Andean people were nomadic or semi-nomadic, roaming through the vastly different environments of the dry coastal plains, foothills, highland meadows, and mountain peaks. They hunted large and small game, fished, and gathered edible plants. Late in this era some Andean people began to grow a few crops; others began to raise camelids (family of mammals that, in the Americas, includes the llama, the alpaca, the vicuña, and the guanaco). Between 7000 and 3000 B.C.E. the Andean people began to settle into rough homes, initially caves or rock shelters, and ultimately formed small farming villages.
Things changed greatly around 3000 B.C.E., when the Andean people in a number of different areas began building very large ceremonial complexes (citylike centers in which people from surrounding areas gathered to practice the ceremonies of their religion, often at large temples and plazas built specifically for this purpose) many that required detailed planning and engineering and required hundred of thousands of human hours of labor to build. At that time, the Andean peoples were apparently fairly unsophisticated. Their farming was simple and there was no pottery for cooking and storing food. Nonetheless, during the...
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Chavín de Huántar (pronounced chah-VEEN deh WAHN-tar) probably does not fit the definition of a true city in the eyes of most scholars, but at this ancient bustling ceremonial center (citylike center usually run by priests and rulers, in which people from surrounding areas gather to practice the ceremonies of their religion, often at large temples and plazas built specifically for this purpose), many of the seeds of Andean civilization were sown. Functioning primarily as a religious center, Chavín de Huántar became an increasingly complex society, with a robust economy, social classes, job specialization, and an elite group of rulers. Between 500 and 200 B.C.E. the Chavín people made remarkable innovations in religion, the arts, engineering, architecture, and trade, and their advancements spread to other cultures throughout the Central Andes. The Chavín cult (a group that follows a living religious leader [or leaders], who promotes new religious doctrines and practices) was responsible for uniting a large part of the region for the first time. The cultural influence of the Chavín helped the entire Central Andes region take a large step toward true civilization.
Dates of predominance
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The Nazca (pronounced NAHZ-cah) were a small, independent society that flourished between 100 B.C.E. and 700C.E. The Nazca people worked as farmers, skilled potters, and basket makers, and as a group they made significant advances in underground irrigation systems. They also made large-scale line drawings in the desert, which have endured into the twenty-first century. Many similar independent communities existed in the Central Andes during the same period as the Nazca, but the Nazca are more famous, mainly because of these amazing drawings. If a modern traveler flies over the arid (dry, with little or no rainfall) southern coastal plains of present-day Peru he or she will see a vast display of straight lines that are miles long, huge geometric shapes, and gigantic animal and plant figures. The drawings are so large that it is difficult to see them from the ground. Why did the Nazca sketch out these enormous pictures in the sand—pictures that they could not easily view themselves? This question has puzzled all kinds of investigators. Some of them offer scholarly theories to explain the drawings; others have come up with alternative explanations involving extraterrestrial beings and the supernatural.
Dates of predominance
100 B.C.E.–700 C.E.
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The Moche (pronounced MO-chay) people unified a section of the northern coastal area of the Central Andes region, spreading a unique culture. It is believed that the Moche imposed strict political and administrative rule upon outlying regions, governing through local headquarters or capitals. The Moche prospered for several hundred years by skillfully manipulating scarce water sources, but they lived under the constant threat of natural disasters—earthquakes and the legendary El Niño that periodically ravaged their lands with floods and droughts (a long period of little or no rainfall). The Moche are best known for their beautiful artwork—and for their grisly practices in human sacrifice. Their artwork often depicts events and people that correspond to their actual history. From artifacts (items made or used by humans, such as tools or weapons), archaeologists have put together a profile of the way the Moche state operated, and most conclude that the Moche state had many of the important features that characterize civilization: social classes, specialized large-scale production of a number of goods, dense populations, trade, political organization, and regional administrative centers throughout the state.
Dates of predominance
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Many experts consider Tiwanaku (pronounced tee-wah-NAH-coo) and Wari (pronounced wah-REE; see Chapter 8) to be the first expansive empires of the Andean region. (An empire is a vast, complex unit extending across political boundaries and dominated by one central power, which generally takes control of the economy, government, and culture in communities throughout its territory.) Both held influence over large areas of the Central Andes—Tiwanaku in the southern region and Wari in the north—from about 650 to 1000C.E. The concept of a Tiwanaku or Wari empire is controversial among scholars of ancient Andean cultures, particularly because no evidence of war or conquest has been found in the regions where Tiwanaku and Wari artistic style and religious imagery prevailed. Many believe that these so-called empires were independent communities that shared religion and culture but without direct rule from afar. Though Tiwanaku and Wari shared some cultural traits, it appears that they were independent of each other in many important ways. Scholars do not fully understand the relationship between these two leading governments of the Andes, but it is clear that both Tiwanaku
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An empire is a vast, complex political unit extending across political boundaries and dominated by one central power. To varying degrees, the dominant power takes control of the economy, government, and culture in communities throughout its empire. The Wari (pronounced wah-REE) empire and the Tiwanaku (pronounced tee-wah-NAH-coo) empire influenced or governed much of the Central Andes from 700 C.E. to about 900 C.E. Many archaeologists consider this period to be the first empire-building era in the Americas.
At its height, beginning about 700 C.E., the Wari empire appears to have been larger and stronger than the Tiwanaku empire to the south. The Tiwanaku state unified Andean peoples through shared culture and trade. Scholars suspect that the Wari empire spread in a different way: They believe that Wari leaders used military force to subdue other cultures and that they forced the conquered peoples to conform to the Wari culture. These experts disagree, however, about how much power the Wari empire had over its outposts (remote settlements or headquarters through which a central government manages outlying areas).
Archaeologists and historians know less about Wari civilization than about some of the other major pre-Inca (pronounced ING-kuh) civilizations. By the time the Spanish reached South America in the sixteenth century, the abandoned Wari centers had fallen into such...
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Kingdom of Chimor
At its peak around 1400 C.E., the kingdom of Chimor (pronounced chee-MOR) had a larger empire than any of the other Andean civilizations that preceded the Incas (pronounced ING-kuhs); its capital city, Chan Chan, was the largest pre-Inca city. (An empire is a vast, complex political unit extending across political boundaries and dominated by one central power.) Chimor had a powerful government and a thriving economy that boasted a flourishing import (bringing goods from another region into one's home region) and export (sending or transporting goods produced or grown in one's home region to another region) trade system and large-scale crafts production. Information about the Chimú (pronounced chee-MOO) is more plentiful than what is available on most other early Andean civilizations. This is partly because archaeological excavations of Chimú sites have been highly productive. In addition, sixteenth-century Spanish explorers chronicled the oral traditions and memories of the Chimú, and a few of these written records—the first known written history of the ancient Andes—still survive.
Dates of predominance
Name variations and pronunciation
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The Rise of the Incas
While many people have never heard of the early cultures of the Andean region, like the Chavín (pronounced chah-VEEN), Moche (pronounced MO-chay), Tiwanaku (tee-wah-NAH-coo), Wari (wah-REE), and Chimú (chee-MOO), that existed before the Inca (ING-kuh) empire, most people know something about the Incas. That is at least partly because when the Spanish arrived in South America in the early 1530s, they found one wealthy and powerful empire, rather than many small states descending from the earlier cultures. (An empire is a vast, complex political unit extending across political boundaries and dominated by one central power, which generally takes control of the economy, government, and culture in communities throughout its territory.) In a mere ninety-five years between 1438 and 1533, the Incas spread their empire over almost 3,000 miles (4,827 kilometers) of western South America, unifying the highly diverse populations in the vast region under their control. In truth, the Incas were not the originators of many of the aspects of civilization for which they are often credited. Before the Inca empire was built, great innovations in farming, art, architecture, and social organization were already in place throughout the Andes. The Inca government excelled at organizing all the various cultures and economies it had brought together. The incorporation of many diverse peoples into a unified system was probably the crowning...
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Inca Government and Economy
When the Incas (pronounced ING-kuhs) began their rise to power in the Cuzco (pronounced KOO-sko) Valley in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they were one small ethnic group among many. Then, in 1438, Inca king Pachacutec defeated a powerful enemy, the Chancas, and forced the defeated state to provide thousands of soldiers to expand his armies. With a much larger army, the Incas were able to conquer additional territories. From the Incas' conquest of the Chancas until the Spanish conquest of the Incas in 1533, the Inca empire grew into a vast and heavily populated state. (An empire is a vast, complex political unit extending across political boundaries and dominated by one central power, which generally takes control of the economy, government, and culture in communities throughout its territory; a state is a body of people living under a single independent government.) The empire had a complex system of government and a unique economy that continue to fascinate scholars and politicians in the twenty-first century.
The word "Inca" can be confusing. It can mean "ruler," referring to the Inca king or leader. The term is also sometimes used to describe members of the original Inca tribe or ethnic group—ten Inca family clans that rose to prominence in the city of Cuzco. In this book, the supreme ruler of the Incas is referred to as Sapa Inca (an official title meaning "only" or "unique" ruler),...
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Inca Religion, Arts, and Sciences
The Incas (pronounced ING-kuhs) had a culture of their own well before the empire began its expansion in 1438, but this culture changed and grew significantly in the ninety-five years that followed—the era of the Inca empire. (An empire is a vast, complex political unit extending across political boundaries and dominated by one central power, which generally takes control of the economy, government, and culture in communities throughout its territory.) The Incas adopted and incorporated the important gods as well as the arts and the sciences of the people they had conquered. The Inca government created a system that skillfully organized the various cultures it had brought together. It brought unity to the people it controlled by providing a set of traditions that were familiar and acceptable to the entire empire.
The different Andean cultures conquered by the Incas all had their own set of religious beliefs, practices, and major deities. However, rather than switching to the Inca state religion after they were conquered, most of the Andean peoples simply added the Inca gods to their own set of gods and spirits. The Incas in turn adopted the gods of the people they conquered, hoping to unify their empire through shared religious beliefs. As the Inca empire expanded, religious practices in the Andes grew and changed....
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Daily Life in the Inca Empire
Of the estimated ten million people living in the Inca (pronounced ING-kuh) empire at the time of the Spanish conquest in 1533, the vast majority were working people whose lives were filled from dawn till dusk with hard work. In many ways, the Inca rulers were keen psychologists (people who study human thinking and behavior) who created a system to ensure that their people had neither the time nor the energy to rebel, commit crimes, or avoid their duties to the empire, their religion, their families, or their ayllus (pronounced EYE-yoos; extended families who lived in the same area, shared their land and work, and arranged for marriages and religious rituals as a group). Beyond obliging people to work very hard, the Inca government invited everyone to participate in lengthy festivals and other ceremonial activities directed by the empire. At these festivities—perhaps the only break from their toil that common workers ever received—the commoners often indulged in heavy drinking with nobles. Many experts believe the festivals provided the cement that held the empire together. (An empire is a vast, complex political unit extending across political boundaries and dominated by one central power, which generally takes control of the economy, government, and culture in communities throughout its territory.)
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The Conquest of the Incas
The reign of the mighty Inca (pronounced ING-kuh) empire was remarkable but short. In 1438 the Incas were merely a group of related families residing in Cuzco (pronounced KOO-sko), without any aspirations of building an empire. Within the next ninety-five years, they had created the largest native empire that ever existed in the Americas; it stretched over almost 3,000 miles (4,827 kilometers) of western South America and had an estimated population of about ten million people. The empire was wealthy and powerful, and Inca leaders had massive military forces at their command. However, in the 1520s, illness, uprisings, and other social and political problems plagued the Incas. Then, in November 1532, a small army of Spanish conquistadores (Spanish word for "conquerors") marched into their territory. The Incas, weakened and disorganized by their previous problems, were in no condition to defend themselves. The empire was suddenly in jeopardy, and the Incas were about to take an abrupt fall.
Huayna Capac and the takeover of Quito
The last great Sapa Inca was Huayna (pronounced WHY-nuh) Capac, the eleventh Inca king, who ruled from 1493 to 1525. During Huayna Capac's reign, the empire's continuous expansion into new territories slowed down significantly. There were few lands left to conquer....
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Early Mesoamerican Peoples
Mesoamericans are people who lived in the civilizations that arose in roughly a 400,000-square-mile (1.04 million-square-kilometer) area in the northern part of Central America (the part of North America that extends from Mexico in the north down to the South American continent at Colombia in the south). Mesoamerican civilizations spanned an area that included the present-day countries of Mexico (mainly in its southern and central parts), Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize. Some experts believe at one time or another in prehistory (the period of time in human history that occurred before there was writing to record it), some thirty civilizations rose and fell in Mesoamerica. Each one had its own distinct culture, but all shared in many Mesoamerican traditions.
Mesoamerica is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. Its climate and geography are very diverse. The weather is warm and dry on the plains along the majority of both coasts. On a large part of the eastern coast, however, heavy rainfall creates dense tropical jungles. Two large mountain ranges run down the length of the area—the eastern and western Sierra Madre mountains. Between the two mountain ranges lie three plateaus (large, elevated, level areas of land) with fertile valleys running in between....
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In the early 1900s the Olmecs (pronounced OLE-mecks) were a little known cultural group (a group of people who share customs, history, beliefs, and other traits) of ancient Mesoamerica. Scholars had named the group based on the artistic style of a few of their artifacts (things created or used by humans in past times), but no one knew when they had lived. In fact, most people assumed the Olmecs had lived after the ancient Maya (pronounced MY-uh); some believed they were simply a separate grouping of Maya people. Ignorance about the Olmecs was based in part on the geography of their heartland (the central region of a cultural group, where their traditional values and customs are practiced). The hot and swampy jungles in which the Olmecs had lived were so inaccessible that few had ventured there to seek answers about ancient societies. The jungle forests had long ago engulfed the abandoned cities of the Olmecs, hiding them from sight. Over the centuries the heat and moisture combined forces to decay thousands of artifacts and remains of the once-flourishing society.
It was not until the late 1930s that archaeologist Matthew Stirling (1896–1975), long intrigued by the few known Olmec artifacts, began excavating (digging to uncover artifacts and remains) at a site now known as La Venta in Mexico. Under a deep blanket of jungle vegetation he found an astonishing ancient city. Stirling uncovered...
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Zapotecs and Monte Albán
The Zapotecs have lived in the Oaxaca (pronounced wah-HAH-kah) Valley of Mexico since at least 500 B.C.E. and are still there today. Most ancient Zapotec history revolves around the capital city, Monte Albán, which many experts consider the first Mesoamerican city. The Zapotecs, like the Olmecs (pronounced OLE-mecks), are regarded by some current scholars as the possible originators of several key features of the great Mesoamerican civilizations that followed. They were one of the earliest societies to produce a written version of their spoken language and they used the vigesimal, or base-twenty, numerical system (as opposed to the decimal, base-ten system used in contemporary society). They also used bar-and-dot numbers and the two-calendar system of tracking time (see the box on pages 306–307). These were all widespread characteristics of Mesoamerian cultures. (Culture is the arts, language, beliefs, customs, institutions, and other products of human work and thought shared by a group of people at a particular time.)
In seeking the origins of Mesoamerican cultural traits, it is important to remember that the Mesoamerican cultures were strongly connected with each other from ancient times forward. The earliest Zapotecs were heavily influenced by the Olmecs, and later enjoyed strong relations with the great city of Teotihuacán (pronounced TAY-uh-tee-wah-KAHN) in the Valley of Mexico. They also...
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According to some Aztec (Mexica; pronounced may-SHEE-kah) legends, the city of Teotihuacán (pronounced TAY-uh-tee-wah-KAHN) was built by giants. Who else could have achieved the immense size and scale of building that occurred there more than two thousand years ago? The founders of Teotihuacán remain unknown in the twenty-first century, and observers still look upon the ruins with the same awe and amazement as the Aztecs. At its height in 500 C.E. Teotihuacán's population was somewhere between one hundred thousand and two hundred thousand people, making it the sixth largest city in the world at the time.
Within Teotihuacán's 8 square miles (20.7 square kilometers) were thousands of public buildings and residences, including six hundred pyramids. Among the pyramids was the enormous Pyramid of the Sun, the majestic Pyramid of the Moon, more than one hundred temples and shrines, and thousands of other ceremonial structures. There were also several huge marketplaces and more than two thousand apartment compounds and palaces.
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Mystery of the Maya
When the Spanish conquistadores (Spanish word for "conquerors") arrived in the Americas at the beginning of the sixteenth century, they found a people known as the Maya (pronounced MY-uh) living on the Yucatán peninsula (a large area separating the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, which includes the nation of Belize, the Petén territory of northern Guatemala, and the southeastern Mexican states of Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Yucatán). These lands had been the home of Maya people for thousands of years.
At the time of the Spanish conquest there were hundreds of Maya villages and towns, but the magnificent cities of earlier days—Tikal in northern Guatemala, Copán in northern Honduras, and Palenque, in Chiapas, Mexico, as well as Chichén Itzá (pronounced chee-CHEN eet-SAH) and Mayapán in the Mexican state of Yucatán—had long been abandoned. The once-great Maya civilization had fallen centuries before.
In the years after the conquest of Mesoamerica, the ruins of the ancient Maya were largely forgotten. Some were known to a few experts. Early Spanish conquerors and missionaries reported on the spectacular ruins of some ancient Maya cities, but their reports were largely ignored. Maya descendents living near old ruins certainly knew of their existence, but rarely shared this information. The tropical forests engulfed most of the ruins, and the great Maya...
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The Rise and Fall of Maya Cities
The Mayas (pronounced MY-uhs) were never a single group of people. The amazing fifteen-hundred-year civilization consisted of multiple groups who shared religion, arts, writing, scientific advances, and many other cultural traits, but who never lived under one unified government. Rather, the Maya civilization consisted of the rise and fall of a series of independent city-states (independent self-governing communities consisting of a single city and the surrounding area) and smaller cities, each with its own line of rulers. There were many Maya histories rather than just one.
The huge 200,000-square-mile (518,000-square-kilometer) region that makes up the Maya world has remained their home for thousands of years, but throughout history different regions flourished at different times. Large cities like Tikal in the Petén area of Guatemala or Chichén Itzá (pronounced chee-CHEN eet-SAH) in the present-day Mexican state of Yucatán were extremely influential for hundreds of years and then were abandoned.
When the cities of the Petén area were abandoned at the end of the Classic era around 900, a portion of the Maya population moved to the northern Yucatán. The great Maya cities, however, were principally ceremonial centers, places designed for people to gather to practice their religion, often at large temples and plazas built for this purpose. The rulers, priests, and their...
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Maya Religion and Government
Like many pre-Hispanic cultures, the Mayas (pronounced MY-uhs) did not distinguish between religion and government. While they considered the gods to be the rulers of their everyday life, they depended on their mortal rulers to ensure that the gods did not destroy the earth or extinguish the life-providing sun. The Maya religion required a highly complicated worship, including bloodletting and sacrifice rituals often fulfilled by the kings and queens. These efforts were believed to "feed" the gods. The rulers were also believed to have the power to pass in and out of the spirit world, where they could communicate with the gods and ask them to bring prosperity to their people. The Maya kings actively promoted themselves as the descendants of the gods in order to maintain and increase their power over the people. These efforts at persuasion resulted in many of the characteristic aspects of Maya culture, from the towering pyramids to the sophisticated methods of writing developed to record the kings' names and important dates as well as to prove their royal descent stemming from the gods.
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Maya Arts and Sciences
Maya (pronounced MY-uh) mythology (traditional, often imaginary stories dealing with ancestors, heroes, or supernatural beings, and usually making an attempt to explain a belief, practice, or natural phenomenon) features two brothers, Hun Batz and Hun Chuen, who angered the Hero Twins long ago and were transformed into monkeys. These brothers came to be known as the "monkey scribes," and they were the patrons (supporters) of Maya art and writing—the skills involved in telling the Maya's story. In the ancient Mayan language, there was no distinction between writing and painting; the word ts' ib was used for both.
The Maya scribes created writing and artwork on surfaces all over their cities, particularly in the Classic era from 250 to 900 C.E. Some inscribed (carved) the stone pillar monuments—called stelae—in the plazas, door lintels (horizontal structures over doors), stone or stucco buildings and pyramids, thrones, altars, and even jade jewelry; the painter-scribes worked on wall murals and pottery; those who used a pen worked in handmade books known as codices. Glyph-writing was almost always accompanied by pictures that added to the meaning of the words.
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Maya Economy and Daily Life
From the Classic Maya (pronounced MY-uh) era, beginning about 250 C.E., Maya artists and scribes (people who wrote glyphs—the Maya writing system using figures for words and sounds—on monuments and in books) focused their writing on the lives of the rich and powerful of their time. Almost all of the writing and art left behind portrays the heroic deeds and courtly lives of the nobles of ancient Maya cities.
The upper classes of Maya society represented only a tiny portion of the population. Most people lived in humble farming villages and towns ruled by one of the large Maya cities. The farmers worked hard to feed themselves and to provide the enormous amount of food, goods, and labor necessary to support the cities and their elite or ruling classes.
With the breakthroughs in deciphering (figuring out the meaning of) Maya glyphs, many historians in the last decades of the twentieth century focused on the royal families whose lives were chronicled by Maya historians. There are many unexplored ancient cities and villages, untouched by modern hands, lying beneath the tropical jungles—especially those without huge pyramids or ornate temples to draw attention to them. There is little known about the daily lives of ordinary Mayas: were they poor or comfortable in their lives? How strict was the rule of the royal families? What were the roles of women? How did their economies...
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Much of what is known about the Toltecs (pronounced TOHL-tecks) comes from the Aztecs (Mexicas; pronounced may-SHEE-kahs), who later succeeded the Toltecs as the rulers of the Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs revered the Toltecs and, when interviewed by the conquering Spanish in the sixteenth century, told a detailed history of Toltec heroism. The Aztecs frequently portrayed the Toltecs idealistically as the great masters of nearly everything they did: architecture, the arts, religious worship, and warfare. In fact, the Aztec reports often credited all the inventions and triumphs of the Mesoamerican past to the Toltecs. Spanish missionary Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (c. 1500–1590), who interviewed the Aztecs and wrote down their stories in the mid-sixteenth century, recorded the words of one Aztec man who summed up the feelings of awe the Aztecs held toward the Toltecs: "The Tolteca were wise. Their works were all good, all perfect, all marvelous … in truth they invented all the wonderful, precious, and marvelous things which they made" (quoted from Brian M. Fagan's Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade). The advances the Aztecs credited to the Toltecs, such as the invention of the calendar and techniques in architecture and the arts, had actually been the work of earlier groups in Mesoamerica—the Olmecs (pronounced OLE-mecks), Zapotecs, Teotihuacáns (pronounced TAY-uh-tee-wah-KAHNS), Mayas (pronounced MY-uhs), and...
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The Rise of the Aztecs
The Aztec empire was at its peak when the Spanish conquistadores (conquerors) arrived in 1519. The first soldiers who arrived with the expedition of Spanish commander Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) were amazed by the civilization they found in the Valley of Mexico. The size, magnificence, beauty, wealth, order, cleanliness, and sophistication of the capital city of Tenochtitlán (pronounced tay-notch-teet-LAHN) rivaled the top European cities of the time, and outdid them in many ways.
At the same time, however, the conquistadors were horrified by the massive human sacrifices (killing many people as an offering to the gods) practiced by the Aztecs, usually in very gruesome ways. Many noted (as most people still do today) the odd combination of sophistication and brutality of the Aztecs. Few of the Spanish conquistadores who described the Aztecs noted that they—who were busily recording information about the civilization they had found—had recently killed thousands of Aztec people themselves and were taking part in the destruction of the most cherished parts of Aztec culture (arts, language, beliefs, customs, institutions, and other products of human work and thought).
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Aztec Government and Economy
From the time the Aztecs settled in Tenochtitlán (pronounced tay-notch-teet-LAHN) in 1325 until the day the Spanish conquered the city in 1521 was a period of just less than two hundred years. There were two distinct eras of government and economy during this time, each about one hundred years long. During the period from 1325 until 1427, the Aztecs were under the domination of the Tepanecs. As subjects of a more powerful people, they gradually built their monarchy and established an economy at least partly based on the spoils they brought in from the battles they fought with the Tepanecs. In the second hundred years, the Aztecs, under the Triple Alliance formed with the nearby cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan, were the unquestioned military power and dominated the Valley of Mexico.
With their highly skilled military forces, they went on to conquer vast territories beyond the valley, forcing the conquered people to pay hefty annual tribute payments in the form of goods sent to the capital city. (A tribute is a payment by one nation to a conquering nation, often occurring on a regular basis like a tax.) War became an economic necessity for the empire (a vast, complex political unit extending across political boundaries and dominated by one central power, which generally takes control of the economy, government, and culture in communities throughout its territory). As the population of Tenochtitlán...
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Aztec Religion, Culture, and Daily Life
The Spanish conquistadores (conquerors) arriving in Tenochtitlán (pronounced tay-notch-teet-LAHN) in 1521 marveled at the extremely refined and artistic culture they found there. Many claimed that the capital city of the Aztecs surpassed the cities of Europe in architecture, engineering, and the arts. The city's laws were sophisticated and there was little crime. Its markets were orderly and its streets were clean, fragrant, and brightly painted. The Spaniards' first sights, walking down the streets of Tenochtitlán, might have led them to believe they had discovered a serenely peaceful civilization. During the battle for the conquest of the city, however, the Spaniards witnessed some of their fellow soldiers, who had been captured by the Aztec soldiers, being sacrificed to the gods. They looked on as the hearts were torn out of the living bodies of their comrades. Though the Spanish were responsible for burning at the stake those people who did not conform to their religious beliefs during the Spanish Inquisition (1478–1834), the sight of these human sacrifices filled the soldiers with utter fear and horror. The two sides of the Aztecs these first Spaniards in Mesoamerica witnessed—the great capacity for beauty, logic, and order and the violent culture based on war and "feeding" the gods with the blood of sacrifice victims—were difficult for them to reconcile. Though almost all societies have practiced human...
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The Conquest of the Aztecs
In its two hundred years of existence, the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán (pronounced tay-notch-teet-LAHN) rose out of a rough swampland settlement to become one of the largest and most magnificent cities of its time in the world. In 1325, when the Aztecs settled Tenochtitlán, they had been an egalitarian (everyone had an equal say in political, social, and economic decision making, and no one was considered the leader) and nomadic (roaming) society. As they built their rough houses on the swampy island in Lake Texcoco, they were barely able to feed themselves. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, however, the vast Aztec empire (a vast, complex political unit extending across political boundaries and dominated by one central power, which generally takes control of the economy, government, and culture in communities throughout its territory) encompassed all of what is present-day central and southern Mexico extending all the way down into Guatemala, including the Mexican states of Puebla, Hidalgo, Mexico, Morelos, most of Veracruz, Guerrero, and Oaxaca (pronounced wah-HAH-kah), and parts of Chiapas. The estimated population of the empire was about fifteen million people. The empire was wealthy, and the Aztec armies were strong. Then came the first sightings of ships with bearded, fair-skinned men aboard, and the Aztec empire entered its final years.
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