- Biography: Pachacutec, or Pachacuti, Inca Yupanqui
- Primary Source: Juan de Betanzos
- Primary Source: Quipu
- Primary Source: Garcilaso de la Vega, El Inca
- Biography: Atahuallpa
- Primary Source: Felipe Huaman Poma de Ayala
The Inca chapter of this volume is loosely arranged by topic and chronology. The entries cover the relatively short duration of the Inca empire—from 1438 to 1533—as well as the era surrounding its demise. (An empire is a vast political unit extending across political boundaries and dominated by one central power.) The opening entry is a biography of the first Inca emperor, Pachacutec (d. 1471), who extended Inca rule over an immense part of the central Andes Mountain region in South America and its millions of diverse peoples. Rightly or not, Pachacutec has been credited with most of the accomplishments of the Inca empire, including rebuilding the capital city of Cuzco, reforming the Inca religion, and creating a sophisticated government and...
(The entire section is 1343 words.)
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Pachacutec, or Pachacuti, Inca Yupanqui
Birth date unknown
Cuzco, Andean region, present-day Peru
Sapa Inca, or supreme ruler of the Inca empire
Pachacutec (pronounced pah-chah-KOO-teck) came to power within the small community of Incas in Cuzco (pronounced KOO-sko) in 1438; this marked the beginning of one of the world's greatest early civilizations. As Sapa Inca, or supreme ruler, Pachacutec greatly expanded Inca territory and at the same time devised a structured government, economy, and way of life that could sustain the many diverse peoples who would fall under Inca rule. Even though some of the accomplishments attributed to Pachacutec may be mythical and others may have been carried out by his son, Tupac Inca Yupanqui (ruled 1471–1493), or grandson, Huayna Capac (pronounced WHY-nah CAH-pahk; ruled 1493–1525), many historians consider Pachacutec one of the most remarkable leaders of all time.
(The entire section is 2966 words.)
Betanzos, Juan de
Excerpt from Narrative of the Incas
Originally titled Suma y narración de los Yngas; written in 1557
Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton and Dana Buchanan
from the Palma de Mallorca manuscript, 1996
The details known about the life of Juan de Betanzos, the author of Narrative of the Incas, are sketchy at best. His birth and death dates are unknown. Betanzos was born in Spain but traveled to the Americas as a young man. By the beginning of the 1540s he was living in Cuzco (pronounced KOO-sko), a Spanish colony (a group of people living as a community in a land away from their home that is ruled by their distant home government), and had already spent several years learning Quechua (pronounced KECH-wah), the language of the Inca people. He was one of the first to translate Quechua into Spanish and quickly earned a reputation among the Spaniards as the best interpreter in Cuzco. The Spanish colonial government in Peru hired him around 1544 to help write a bilingual (two-language) manual for Spanish missionary priests. The manual was designed to help these priests communicate with the Incas. It was a large project that involved...
(The entire section is 3892 words.)
Photograph and illustrations of the Inca quipu, a knotted string recording device from the Inca culture
Date of origination: c. 600 C.E. (Andean region);
fifteenth century (Incas)
Writing systems generally have been deemed necessary achievements in the development of the world's early civilizations. Without writing, it would be impossible to keep track of the people, goods, debts, taxes and tributes, and laws of a vast empire; without records of these things, there could be no order or unity among large, diverse populations. The Incas have always stood out as the exception to this rule; they had no known writing system, and yet their civilization was extremely orderly and advanced. For the Incas, a record-keeping device called the quipu (pronounced KEE-poo; often spelled khipu) served some of the same purposes that writing served for other developing civilizations. Made of dyed, multicolored cotton cords that are knotted together, quipus look like old, tangled mops or Hawaiian grass skirts....
(The entire section is 2002 words.)
Garcilaso de la Vega, El Inca
Excerpts from Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru
Reprinted from edition translated by Harold V. Livermore, 1966
Originally published in two parts as Comentarios reales de los Incas,
Part One (1609); and Historia general del Peru, Part Two (1617)
Garcilaso de la Vega (1539–1616), known as "El Inca," has been called the first classic author of the Americas. The Peruvian writer and historian's master work, Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru (two parts, 1609 and 1617), presents a vivid chronicle of the personalities, events, customs, rites, and royal lineage from the Inca civilization's beginnings to the arrival of the Spaniards. The book is noted as great literature as well as useful—though somewhat romanticized—history.
Born in 1539 in Cuzco, Peru, shortly after the Spanish conquest of Peru (1533), Garcilaso's family background connected him with both Inca and Spanish traditions. His father, Sebastian Garcilaso de la Vega, was a Spanish conquistador (Spanish word for "conqueror") and military captain from a distinguished Spanish family. Garcilaso's mother, Isabel Suarez Chimpu Ocllo, was the niece of the last great Inca emperor, Huayna Capac (pronounced WHY-nah CAH-pahk), who ruled from 1493 to 1525....
(The entire section is 3588 words.)
Born c. 1502
Cuzco, Andean region, present-day Peru
Died July 26, 1533
Sapa Inca, or supreme ruler of
the Inca empire
Atahuallpa (pronounced ah-tah-WAHL-pah; also spelled Atahualpa, Atagualpa, or Atabalipa) was the thirteenth Inca ruler and the last to preside over the Inca empire before the Spanish conquest of South America in 1533. Prior to the death of Atahuallpa's father, Huayna Capac (pronounced WHY-nah CAH-pahk; ruled 1493–1525), in 1525, the Inca empire had been prosperous and strong, the home of the largest civilization in the Americas. Its territory extended 2,500 miles (4,023 kilometers) from north to south in the Andes Mountain region: from the southern part of present-day Ecuador down through present-day Peru and Bolivia and into the northern half of present-day Chile. Yet within ten years of Huayna Capac's death, the empire had collapsed. In a six-year span of time, a smallpox epidemic (sudden spread of a contagious disease) decimated the population, civil war divided the empire, and Spaniards destroyed the Inca cities and temples and took over as rulers of the land....
(The entire section is 3822 words.)
Poma de Ayala, Felipe Huaman
Illustrations from La primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno
Also referred to as Nueva corónica y buen gobierno; translated as
The First New Chronicle and Good Government
Written and illustrated 1587–1615
For illustrations of life in the Inca empire, many modern history books include the drawings of Felipe Huaman (often spelled Guaman) Poma de Ayala (c. 1535–c. 1615). Poma was the author and artist responsible for La primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (The First New Chronicle and Good Government) a 1,200-page account of the history and life of the Andean peoples who lived in the Inca empire before and after the Spanish conquest. The work was completed in 1615 and included 398 drawings. Poma's manuscript, though lost to historians for centuries, is now known as one of the most unusual and remarkable documents to be written about the Inca empire and its aftermath.
Poma was born around 1535, soon after the...
(The entire section is 2357 words.)
The Mayas and Their Ancestors
- Primary Source: Olmec Stone Roller Stamp
- Primary Source: Bar and Dot Number System
- Primary Source: Sacred Calendar
- Primary Source: Long Count
- Primary Source: Copán Stelae and Monuments
- Biography: Pacal
- Primary Source: Popol Vuh
Of the great ancient civilizations of the Americas, the Mayas were the first to develop a writing system that could completely reproduce their spoken language, and they were the only group of Americans who accomplished this during pre-Columbian times (the period before Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492). From the Classic Maya era (250–900 C.E.) on, the Maya people were using an effective numbering system (which included a zero symbol), sophisticated and accurate calendars, and a system of recording their history and stories. The Mayas were by no means the originators of these systems. Writing, numbers, calendars, and many other features of Maya...
(The entire section is 1288 words.)
Olmec Stone Roller Stamp
Photograph of an Olmec stone roller stamp and a drawing of its rolled-out seal
Artifact date c. 650 B.C.E.; found at San Andres, Tabasco, Mexico
In 2002 anthropologist Mary Pohl (1942–) and a group of fellow archaeologists (scientists who dig up and examine artifacts, remains, and monuments of past human life) were working in San Andres, a site near the ancient Olmec city of La Venta in the western part of the Mexican state of Tabasco. They found a ceramic cylinder (tube-shaped object) with raised, carved symbols on it. Nearby they found small fragments of flattened jade inscribed with similar symbols. The ceramic cylinder is believed to have been a roller stamp or seal. When it was rolled in ink or dyes, it could be used to print the symbols from its raised carvings onto cloth, or even human skin as a kind of body decoration. Scientific testing indicated that the cylinder and other artifacts found nearby dated back to 650 B.C.E.
What made this find so remarkable was that the archaeologists recognized the symbols on the cylinder as glyphs (figures used as symbols to represent words, ideas, or sounds). Prior to the roller...
(The entire section is 1544 words.)
Bar and Dot Number System
Illustrations showing how the Mayas used the Mesoamerican bar and dot number system for mathematics
Date of origination: 1200–400 B.C.E.
The bar and dot system of writing numbers was in use in Mesoamerica as far back as the Olmec civilization (1200–400 B.C.E.) and prevailed in a wide variety of regions. The bar and dot number system was devised in conjunction with the Mesoamerican calendar systems (see Sacred Calendar and Long Count entries). Perhaps one of the most notable features of the Mesoamerican number system and mathematics is the value of zero, which developed around 400 B.C.E. Mesoamericans were among the earliest civilizations to use the concept of zero. The Olmec, Zapotec, and Maya number systems were all basically the same. There were minor variations in the way numbers were laid out, the way zeroes were represented, and the ornamentation around the numbers, but many of these were individual or regional preferences.
Things to remember while examining the illustrations showing how the Mayas used the Mesoamerican bar and dot number system for mathematics:
(The entire section is 1263 words.)
Illustration of the Maya tzolkin, or sacred calendar
Date of origination: prior to 500 B.C.E.
No one knows for certain where the first Mesoamerican calendar systems arose, but two very likely places are the Olmec homeland, along the southern gulf coast of Mexico, and the Zapotec city of Monte Albán in Mexico's Oaxaca (pronounced wah-HAH-kah) Valley. Virtually every Mesoamerican civilization from the Olmecs forward used a calendar system that combined two calendars: the sacred 260-day calendar now known as the tzolkin and the practical 365-day solar calendar called the haab.
The Maya used three calendars in combination: the tzolkin, the haab, and the Long Count (see entry), a way of counting the days from the beginning of time. While the Maya did not invent these calendars, they were responsible for making them work nearly perfectly and for adding many features. In the Maya world, specially trained priests were responsible for keeping track of the days in the...
(The entire section is 1872 words.)
Illustrations showing how the Mayas used the Long Count system to record dates
Date of origination: first century B.C.E.
Virtually all Mesoamerican societies from the Olmecs forward used both the sacred tzolkin calendar and a solar calendar, but only a few groups used the Long Count, most notably the Olmecs and the Mayas (pronounced MY-uhs). Many scholars believe the Long Count originated with the Olmecs sometime around the first century B.C.E. Stela C, found at the Olmec site of Tres Zapotes, has long been thought to be one of the oldest dated written documents of the Americas, dating back to 32 B.C.E. An even earlier Olmec Long Count date of 36 B.C.E. was more recently found on an artifact in the present-day Mexican state of Chiapas. In 1986 a huge, four-ton basalt (a fine-grained, dark gray rock) monument was found at La Mojarra, near the Olmec urban center of San Lorenzo. One side of the monument, called La Mojarra stela, features an elaborate carving of an Olmec ruler and twenty-one columns of glyphs, or symbols representing words, ideas, or sounds. The people who carved this monument used the...
(The entire section is 2023 words.)
Copán Stelae and Monuments
Photographs and illustrations of Stela A (front and back views), featuring Maya king, 18 Rabbit
Artifact date 731 C.E.; located in Copán, Honduras
One of the main features of the Classic Maya (pronounced MY-uh) era (c. 250–900 C.E.) was the stela cult—the widespread creation of carved stone monuments known as stelae (plural of stela) that adorned the public areas of the great Maya city-states such as Tikal, Palenque, and Copán. The stelae were huge, inscribed slabs or pillars of stone—the Maya called them "tree-stones." They ranged from 3 to 35 feet (0.9 to 10.7 meters) tall. Much of the Maya glyph-writing (carving or drawing figures to represent words, ideas, or sounds) that survived into present times appears on stelae excavated from Maya sites. Maya text written in glyphs has also been found on other monuments, such as temple doorways and altars—large carved stone blocks that sometimes served as thrones. For more than 150 years Maya scholars studied these artifacts without being able to decipher, or interpret, the glyphs. Now experts are able to read this writing and learn about Maya royal history in the Maya's own words.
(The entire section is 3922 words.)
Born March 26, 603 C.E.
Died August 31, 683 C.E.
King of Palenque
On the Maya Long Count date 184.108.40.206.8 (or July 29, 615 C.E.) in the Maya city of Palenque (pronounced pah-LAIN-kay), K'inich Janahb' Pakal, more commonly referred to as Pacal, ascended to the city's throne. He ruled for sixty-eight years, becoming the most well-known of Palenque's, and perhaps the Maya world's, kings. During his reign and the reign of his oldest son and immediate successor, Chan Bahlum (635–702), the formerly humble town of Palenque became an extraordinarily beautiful Maya ceremonial center (a central place where people from surrounding areas gather to practice their religions, usually at large temples and plazas built for this purpose). Under the direction of these kings, the Mayas in Palenque created some of the finest bas-relief carvings (sculpture in which the background is cut away, creating a slightly raised depiction), sculptures, and architecture in the entire Maya world.
(The entire section is 3087 words.)
Excerpt from Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life.
Based on the ancient knowledge of the modern Quiché Maya
Translated and with commentary by Dennis Tedlock, 1985.
Reprinted from University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire (Web site)
Created by the Quiché Maya (date unknown); copied by Francisco
Ximénez c. 1702
The Popol Vuh is the sacred book, or bible, of the Quiché Maya (pronounced kee-CHAY MY-uh) and is considered one of the greatest works of literature to have survived from the pre-Columbian (before the arrival of Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492) Americas. The name of the book, Popol Vuh (also spelled Popul Vuh or Popo Vuh), is usually translated as "book of council." It is believed that the Quiché Maya had a copy of the book written in glyphs (figures used as symbols to represent words, ideas, or sounds) in the years before Europeans arrived in the Americas. It told them of the creation of the world, of their sacred traditions, and of their history. When the noblemen of the community of Quiché sought help in making decisions for their people, a council of specially trained priests gathered to consult the Popol Vuh.
(The entire section is 4813 words.)
The Aztec Empire
- Biography: Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl
- Biography: Montezuma I
- Primary Source: Aztec Sun Stone
- Primary Source: Codex Borgia
- Primary Source: Codex Mendoza
- Primary Source: Nezahualcoyotl
- Biography: Montezuma II
- Biography: Malinche
- Primary Source: Bernal Díaz
- Primary Source: Aztec Poetry
The Aztecs migrated into the Valley of Mexico and settled there in 1325. Other groups already living in the valley initially considered the Aztecs crude ruffians with vulgar habits, but the Aztecs quickly disposed of that image by adopting key aspects of the established cultures of the valley—and then taking them a step further in development. The Aztecs wanted more than acceptance in their new home. They were warriors at heart,...
(The entire section is 1308 words.)
Born c. 947 C.E.
Valley of Mexico
Death date unknown
Legendary ruler of the Toltecs
Sometime in the early 900s, a group of warriors from the northern regions of Mexico arrived in the Valley of Mexico. One of their first acts was to invade and destroy the abandoned ruins of Teotihuacán (pronounced tay-uh-tee-wah-KAHN), which was considered the holiest of cities by most Mesoamericans. In time these invaders, who would come to be known as the Toltecs (pronounced TOHL-tecks) established their own cities of Culhuacán (pronounced cool-whah-CAHN) and Tula. Until about 1200 they were the dominant rulers of the Valley of Mexico. The Toltecs were the last group to rule over an extended area of the valley before the Aztecs came to power there around 1325.
Historians and archaeologists...
(The entire section is 2899 words.)
Born c. 1397 (some sources say 1390)
Tenochtitlán, Valley of Mexico
Aztec head of state
Montezuma I, or Montezuma Ilhuicamina (also spelled Moctezuma or Motecuhzoma; pronounced mohk-the-ZOO-mah ill-whee-cah-MEE-nah), ruled the Aztecs from 1440 to 1469. His full name means "angry archer who shoots an arrow in the sky." Montezuma lived and ruled in the large and heavily populated Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán (pronounced tay-notch-teet-LAHN), which was located on an island in Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. In the decades before he took over as the Aztec ruler, the Aztecs had become very powerful in the region and had begun building an empire, a network of the cities and...
(The entire section is 3100 words.)
Aztec Sun Stone
Photograph and illustrations of the Aztec Sun Stone, commonly
known as the Calendar Stone
Artifact date c. 1479; located in Mexico City, Mexico
The Aztec Sun Stone, commonly known as the Calendar Stone, is one of the most famous artifacts of the ancient Aztec empire. The huge stone—carved from a fine-grained, dark gray rock called basalt—weighs 24 tons (21.8 metric tons) and measures about 13 feet (4 meters) in diameter. Although it is often called the Calendar Stone, the Sun Stone probably did not function as a calendar. It was an artistic representation of an Aztec idea of the universe measured in cycles from the beginning of time. To the Aztecs, time was much more than a way to count the days, years, and seasons. Every day, month, and epoch was associated with a god. In the Aztec view, an event did not occur only once. When something happened, the Aztecs believed it was simply a variation of an event that had happened before, over and over again on a cyclical basis. To the Aztecs, history was not a recording of events like it is in modern times. The Aztecs viewed history as the placement of events within the context of their cycle. Knowing these...
(The entire section is 2994 words.)
Illustration of days and gods in the Aztec calendar, from the
Created c. 1510
Codices (singular: codex) are ancient books that relate information about the religion, rituals, history, astronomy, and calendar systems of vanished peoples. Codices from Mesoamerica, such as the Codex Borgia, are a leading source of information about the cultures that existed there prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century. Before the Spanish conquest most Mesoamerican codices were painted on paper made from the bark of fig trees or from animal skins. For a deerskin book, for example, strips of deerskin were attached end to end to make one long strip. The strip was then treated with white lime-plaster and folded like an accordion. Priests or scribes made the codices, using natural pigments from vegetables and minerals to color their paints. Their paintbrushes came in a variety of sizes; the bristles were often made of rabbit fur. Many codices had covers made from wood or animal skin.
(The entire section is 3736 words.)
Illustration of the founding of Tenochtitlán,
from the Codex Mendoza
Manuscript compiled c. 1541
When the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico around 1325, they adopted the writing systems of the people already living there. Like their neighbors, the Aztecs created large folding books called codices (singular: codex) and painted their text on long pages made from bark leaf paper or deer-skin. Their system of writing relied heavily on the use of pictures to convey meaning and it included some glyphs (symbolic figures) as well. The Aztecs glyphs represented words, but they were usually used only for people or place names or calendar dates. Unlike Maya glyph-writing, the Aztec system did not include glyphs for individual syllables or the separate sounds that make up words. Therefore it could not fully reproduce the spoken language of the Aztecs.
(The entire section is 3133 words.)
Selected poems of Nezahualcoyotl
Reprinted from Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World.
Edited and translated by Miguel León-Portilla, 1992
Written in the fifteenth century; originally collected in Romances
de los señores de Nueva España
The codices (singular: codex), or painted books, of the Aztec empire are renowned for providing historical and cultural facts. They were created to be "read" aloud by storytellers, or orators, who had memorized the stories and used the pictures and signs in the books to help their memory and to add details to their narrations (see Codex Borgia and Codex Mendoza entries). The books presented the key ideas and pictures that would help the reader, but they did not contain the narration itself because the Aztecs' writing system could not reproduce their full spoken language.
Some codices were actually meant to be sung or chanted. (To the Aztecs, singing meant chanting the words in a rhythmic manner—they did not add melody.) These were called cuicamatl (pronounced coo-ee-cah-MAH-tul), or "papers of songs." As the orators...
(The entire section is 3307 words.)
Tenochtitlán, Valley of Mexico
Aztec head of state
Among his own people, Montezuma II was called Montezuma Xocoyotzin, meaning Montezuma the Younger. His name is more correctly spelled Moctezuma or Motecuhzoma and is pronounced mohk-the-ZOO-mah show-coi-YO-tzeen. Montezuma II became the Aztec emperor, or huey tlatoani ("he who speaks for the people" or the "Great Speaker"), when the empire was at its peak. His armies had repeatedly proven their overwhelming power, and few cities in the Valley of Mexico could stand against them. The emperor had been a strong and respected ruler for...
(The entire section is 3587 words.)
Born c. 1501
Possibly in the village of Jaltipan, Isthmus
of Tehuantepec, Mexico
Died c. 1550
Mexico City, Mexico
Translator and interpreter
Malinche (pronounced mah-leen-CHAY; also known as Doña Marina; Malinalli; and Malintzin) was a young woman living as a slave or concubine (mistress; a woman who lives with and has a sexual relationship with a man but is not married to him) among the Mayas (pronounced MY-uhs) in 1519. She suddenly became a major player in the history of Mexico when she was awarded as a "gift" to a group of Spanish conquistadores (Spanish word for "conquerors"). Led by Hernán Cortés (1485–1547), the conquistadores were on a mission to conquer the Aztecs, and they brought Malinche along with them.
(The entire section is 4480 words.)
Excerpt from The Conquest of New Spain
Translated with an introduction by J. M. Cohen, 1963; originally
published as Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España
(The True History of the Conquest of New Spain)
Written in 1568; published in 1632
Of the many Spanish accounts of the fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (pronounced tay-notch-teet-LAHN) in 1521, the one that is most often quoted in history books is Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España (The True History of the Conquest of New Spain) written by Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492–c. 1581) in 1568. Díaz, a member of the Spanish expedition that conquered the Aztec empire, was blessed with a healthy curiosity, an eye for detail, a remarkable memory, and a clear and conversational way of relating what he saw. His book, though not elegantly written, is full of historic and dramatic details that cannot be found elsewhere.
Díaz was born around...
(The entire section is 1889 words.)
"Elegies on the Fall of the City"
Three Aztec poems reprinted from The Broken Spears: The Aztec
Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Edited and with an introduction
by Miguel León-Portilla. Translated from Nahuatl into Spanish by
Angel Maria Garibay K. English translation by Lysander Kemp, 1992
Created c. 1521
Unknown Aztec poet, "The Fall of Tenochtitlan"
The three poems featured in this entry were created by Aztecs who were in Tenochtitlán (pronounced tay-notch-teet-LAHN) at the time of the Spanish conquest of 1521 and survived to tell about it. Two of the three poems were found in a song collection called Cantares mexicanos (Mexican Songs). This collection was made possible by a Spanish missionary, who worked with a group of tlamatinime (pronounced tlah-mah-TEE-nee-may; singular: tlamatini), the poets and philosophers of the Aztec empire, between 1560 and 1580 to write down the songs of the Mesoamericans. Most experts believe the collection is the work of the renowned Spanish missionary Bernardino de Sahagún...
(The entire section is 3389 words.)