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History of International Relations: A Non-European Perspective
More info and resources at: https://doi.org/10.11647/obp.0074

Map of the Americas from Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum orbis terrarum (Antverpiae: Apud Aegid. Coppenium Diesth, 1570), p. 26, https://archive.org/details/theatrumorbister00orte

7. The Americas

© 2019 Erik Ringmar, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0074.07

Taken together the Americas, North and South, cover an enormous geographical area which runs from one polar region to the other, comprising all kinds of climates and ecological environments, including rainforests, deserts, prairies and some of the highest mountains in the world. Human beings began settling here some 20,000 years ago. Scholars are convinced that the first Americans wandered across the land bridge which at the time connected Asia and North America — across today’s Bering Strait, between Siberia and Alaska — but there is an abundance of other, far more fanciful theories. From this time onward, although they had some contact with each other, the peoples of the Americas had no connection with the rest of the world. As a result, their societies developed entirely according to their own logic.

The social and political diversity of the two continents is at least as great. Many very different political entities have been located here, and at least three major empires — the Maya and the Aztecs in Central America and the Incas in South America. In North America, meanwhile, societies were smaller and more dispersed. There was no proper empire here until the nineteenth century of the Common Era. Despite the enormous distances involved, trade connected these various communities — people in North America, for example, sold turquoise to the Aztecs. Neighbors fought each other in bloody wars, made peace and forged alliances. Yet all of the Americas were not connected into one international system, and as a result, it makes the most sense to discuss the Maya, the Aztecs, and the Incas separately.

It is at the same time true that societies in the Americas resemble each other in distinct ways. For one thing, compared with the rest of the world they were all quite limited in terms of the technologies at their disposal. For example, although elaborate works of art were produced in both gold and silver, there were no iron ores and hence neither tools nor weapons made from iron could be made. Furthermore no cereals like wheat or rice existed, corn and maize being the main crops in the region. Moreover, in the Americas there were no horses or cows and no domesticated sheep or goats. While the Incas used llamas for carrying things, these animals were never ridden. And no one in the Americas invented the wheel. Or rather, there were wheels on children’s toys in Mexico, but not on carts. But then again wagons would have been quite useless in the dense jungles of the Mayan Empire or in the vertical terrain of the Andes. Yet, the empires of the Americas were sophisticated in other ways. The Maya had their own system of writing — an elaborate and playful set of hieroglyphics — and a system of mathematics which included use of the number zero. And all three empires engaged in massive building works — irrigation systems, road networks and enormous public buildings in stone, of which the flat-top pyramids are the most famous.

There were many political similarities too. For one thing, the empires of the Americas had societies that were as hierarchical as their pyramids. At the top of society there was an aristocracy, a priestly class and a king who was associated with the sun and treated as a deity. Ordinary people had few rights and many obligations but they were at the same time subjects of the benevolent care of the state. This was most obvious among the Incas where there were no economic markets and no money, and where the government instead provided all the goods, including foodstuffs, which people could not produce themselves.

Moreover, each empire was held together by a strong sense of shared political values which were fostered by performances staged in public places such as squares and on the top of pyramids. The most notorious examples of such performances were the public rituals which included sacrifices of human beings. The aim of the rituals was religious — to convince the sun to rise in the sky, to keep away sickness, and to ensure another year of plentiful harvests. However the aim was also political: human sacrifices were a means of instilling terror both in the emperor’s enemies and in his own subjects. Human sacrifices were public displays of power.

Many of the people sacrificed were prisoners of war. War in the Americas was not a matter of killing adversaries as much as of impressing them with one’s might. In general, most military battles were ceremonial occasions, governed by a chivalric code in which elaborately dressed warriors engaged each other in combat. Yet it was always far better if one’s enemies could be subdued without a fight, and often they were. Although the Incas in particular would send diplomatic missions, carrying lavish gifts, to other states asking for an alliance, more rational arguments were also used. The Incas would calmly explain to their neighbors why their way of life was superior and why it was a great privilege to become one of their subjects. Engaging in similar carrot and stick practices, first the Maya and then the Aztecs created large federations which included a multitude of various ethnic groups.

The Maya

People speaking Mayan languages first appeared in the first millennium BCE, but it was between 250 and 900 CE that the Mayan civilization came to dominate Central America, including what today is Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. There had been other powerful societies in this part of the world before: the Olmecs, for example, who today are most famous for the colossal stone heads they carved of their rulers.

Big heads of the Olmecs
The Olmecs was the first major kingdom to emerge in Mexico, around 1800 BCE. The center of their society was the basin of the Coatzacoalcos River in the tropical lowlands of southern Mexico. That is, it was a state similar to, and appearing at the same time as, the far more famous states of Mesopotamia, the Nile, and the Indus. The Olmecs lived in cities, built pyramids, carried out human sacrifices and engaged in ritual bloodletting. Read more: Royal bloodletting rituals at p. 154. They also invented a system of writing, created a calendar with 365 days in a year and recorded their histories in books made of fig tree bark. They were the first to play games with large balls made of rubber. The many achievements of the Olmecs were built on by all Central American societies that came after them, including the Maya and the Aztecs.
What they also created, and what they are known for today, is their artwork. Using jade, clay, basalt, and greenstone, they made figurines of remarkable expressiveness and individuality. Often they show babies with chubby bodies, jowly faces, down-turned mouths, and puffy eyes. The babies have holes in their earlobes and probably wore earrings. They may also have worn clothes. Why babies were depicted, and which role the figurines played in Olmec society, we do not know.
The most famous Olmec artworks are the colossal heads they created in stone. Many of these statues are more than 2 meters tall, and the tallest is 3.4 meters, weighing an estimated 50 tons. Perhaps they were kings, but judging by the helmet-like headgear they are wearing, they may also have been famous ballplayers. Read more: Pitz, the first team sport at p. 155. The stone used for the statues was transported from far away. How this was done, in a society that had no beasts of burden and no carts with wheels, is difficult to explain. There are seventeen of these gigantic heads in existence today, all in Mexico, while the Olmec figurines can be found in museums around the world. Some have decided that the colossal heads have African features, and argued that this proves that the Olmecs were settlers from Africa. No serious scholar of ancient Mexico holds that view.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/09244c27

Mayan civilization inherited features from their predecessors. The Olmecs had a written language, which the Maya adopted and perfected; the Olmec kings practiced various gruesome rituals, a tradition which the Maya made even more horrendous. The Maya built large cities, yet since they were constructed in dense rainforest, they had none of the urban feel we associate with cities elsewhere in the world. More than anything the Maya cities resembled sprawling gardens in which large public buildings were located, including the large flat-top pyramids, administrative buildings and plazas. People lived here too of course, and they kept animals and cultivated the earth. The overall layout and enormous size of these garden cities have only recently been properly understood thanks to aerial laser photography. Read more: Angkor Wat at p. 61.

Mayan society was made up of distinct social classes. The state was ruled by a king and by a royal house that acted as mediators between ordinary human beings and the supernatural realm. It was the job of the king to keep society orderly and to convince the Gods to grant plentiful harvests and success in wars. The king ruled the political, administrative and judicial systems but was also expected to lead the army in battles. In addition, the king mobilized both the aristocracy and ordinary subjects in carrying out huge infrastructure projects, such as the building of the pyramids. The aristocracy comprised perhaps 15 percent of the population and it included both artisans and craftsmen. The position of the Mayan rulers rested heavily on the public displays of power in which they engaged. One highly theatrical occasion was the enthronement of a new king, but the kings would also dance beforehand together with their subjects. The most spectacular of all were the bloodletting ceremonies to which members of the royal family subjected themselves. Kings and queens were pierced and cut and the pain that they suffered was supposed to put them in contact with transcendental realms. The ability to achieve such transcendence was a sign of their power.

Royal bloodletting rituals
The empires of the Americas are notorious for practicing human sacrifice, but what is less well known is that the rulers also practiced a form of sacrifice on themselves. They cut themselves using sharp objects such as obsidian, stingray spines or shark’s teeth. Any soft part of the body could be cut, but it was usually the tongue or the genitals. The scattered blood was then collected on paper made from bark and burned. The smoke conveyed messages to the gods.
Blood, to the Maya, was the very force of life and at the beginning of time the gods had sacrificed their own blood in order for the world to come into existence. Ever since humans have owed blood to the gods and the sacrifices were a way to repay this debt. Interestingly, the best blood was that of noblemen and, for that reason, enemy noblemen were a prized catch in wars. The Maya would maintain “farms” of foreign noblemen who could be sacrificed on ceremonial occasions.
Leaders who claimed political authority for themselves would have to go through these ceremonies. This included the kings and members of the royal family. A particularly gruesome scene from a Mayan relief shows a queen with her tongue pierced. A thread with thorns was then pulled through a hole in the tongue. The agony which the queen experienced must have been perfectly mind-altering. And that, indeed, seems to have been the point. The pain that the royals suffered put them in contact with transcendental realms, and made clear to everyone else that they possessed unique spiritual powers. To make the point as effectively as possible, self-harm was performed in front of large gatherings of people — in a plaza or on the top of a pyramid. That the leaders of a country had to sacrifice themselves in these tangible ways surely meant that they were far more careful in embarking on risky ventures. If today’s political leaders were required to mutilate their genitals in public before going to war, wars would be less common.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/f9c26946

Somewhat less gruesome were the ball games in which the Maya engaged. These are the first team sports known in human history. Here too, however, human sacrifices would occasionally take place.

Pitz, the first team sport
The first team sport was a ball game played by the Olmecs in the first millennium BCE. It was later adopted by other Mexican societies, and it was particularly popular among the Maya. It was known as pitz among the Maya and as õllamaliztli among the Aztecs. Although the exact rules are unclear, the game was played by two teams with two to four players each. The object was to keep a large rubber ball in motion by means of the hips. The games were played in large ball courts with enthusiastic crowds betting on the outcome and cheering on their favorite teams. Successful ballplayers were celebrities in Mayan society, adored by women and favored by the gods. Occasionally ball games would serve as a substitute for war. Instead of fighting it out on a battlefield, two kings would confront each other in a ball court. It was also a way for noblemen to resolve conflicts.
The game had religious connotations too and features in the creation myths of the Maya. According to a legend which often was depicted on the walls of the ball courts themselves, two twins, Hun Hunaphu and Xbalanque, made so much noise playing ball that the gods of the underworld became annoyed and challenged them to a match. The game ended with one of the brothers being decapitated and his head used as a ball. From his decapitated trunk blood squirted out which fertilized the earth. Ordinary ball games made references to this myth, but in addition, commemorative games were occasionally held in which bloodlettings took place and human beings were sacrificed. Read more: Royal bloodletting rituals at p. 154. Yet ordinary games could be quite brutal too. The large rubber ball would bounce around in an unpredictable fashion and could hit the players to devastating effect. To protect themselves they used belts and helmets.
There are still many ball courts left in Central America. In the Chiapas region of Mexico alone there are some 300, and there is a ball court as far north as the U.S. state of Arizona. In fact, the game is still played in parts of Mexico. Today the rules are similar to those of volleyball, but played without a net.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/4e69605c

Everyone else in Mayan society was a farmer, yet farming in Central America did not look like farming elsewhere in the world. For one thing, there were no large grazing animals — no cows, goats or sheep. For that reason there was no need to clear the jungle in order to provide grassland. In addition, there were no cereals — no wheat, barley or rice — which required extensive fields for their cultivation. Instead the Maya kept smaller animals, like guinea-pigs, and they cultivated corn. Indeed corn was not only the main staple of their diet, but also their god — the Corn God was a central figure in their religious pantheon. Corn was even regarded as the very stuff of which both human beings and the gods were made. In addition, the Maya grew beans, squash and chili peppers which helped to give flavor to the rather bland corn diet.

Chocolate and chilies
Chocolate and chilies are both species native to Central America, meaning that before 1492 they were completely unknown in the rest of the world. Read more: The Columbian exchange below. Chocolate is made from the roasted and ground seeds of the cocoa tree, yet the beans themselves have a bitter taste and must be fermented in order to develop the right chocolatey flavor. Already the Olmecs consumed chocolate, and it was popular with both the Maya and the Aztecs. Read more: Big heads of the Olmecs at p. 153. Among the Aztecs, chocolate was a ritual beverage and cocoa beans were used as a means of payment. Today, two-thirds of the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa, with Ivory Coast as the largest producer.
Chilies originated in Mexico but spread throughout the Americas, and after 1492 quickly throughout the world. Columbus called them “peppers” since the flavor was similar to that of black pepper. They are commonly divided into bell peppers, sweet peppers, and hot peppers. Chilies were introduced to India by the Portuguese in the 1500s. Today they are an indispensable ingredient in Indian cuisine. Prik is essential to all Thai cooking, just as no Indonesian food is possible without sambal, a mixture which includes chilies, shrimp paste, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, spring onion, and lime juice. Berbere and mitmita are similar chili-based spice mixes popular in Ethiopia whereas Tunisians use harissa. In Hungary, paprika is the national vegetable.
Capsaicin, the compound responsible for the fiery flavor, has medical properties and it releases endorphins in the brain. Since it can be used to relieve pain, capsaicin is a banned substance in equestrian sports. Moreover, chili spray is an effective means of crowd control since it produces pain when in contact with skin, eyes and mucous membranes. Today China is the largest producer of fresh chilies, responsible for half of the world’s output.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/b10e249f

To wash it all down they drank chocolate, the cocoa bean being native to Central America.

The Columbian exchange
“The Columbian exchange” is the name given to the transfer of plants, animals, peoples, and microbes which took place between the Americas and the rest of the world after the year 1492. The Columbian exchange had a profound impact on nutrition, population growth, food culture and the prevalence of diseases. For example, today chilies are essential to the food of India and Southeast Asia, yet prior to 1492, they were unknown in these parts of the world. Before Columbus, Indian curries were made with black pepper, not chilies. Read more: Chocolate and chilies above. It is equally difficult to imagine that Italian food was made without tomatoes, that there was no coffee in Brazil, no bananas in Central America and no sugarcane in Cuba, or that the native peoples of North America had no horses.
Species that did not exist outside of the Americas before 1492 include: corn, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, cassava, sweet potatoes, turkey, peanut, manioc, chocolate, vanilla, pineapple, avocado, cashew, squash, rubber, and strawberry. Species that did not exist in the Americas include coffee, wheat, and barley, sugarcane, banana, rice, horse, donkey, mule, pig, cow, sheep, goat, chicken, large dogs, cats, and honeybees. The potato had a particularly important impact on the level of nutrition in Europe, yet it was slow to be adopted. Often the production had to be officially promoted. In Sweden, the potato only caught on once it was discovered that it could be used to make invincibly or vodka. The nutritional content of the potato was one reason for Europe’s rapid population growth between the years 1700 and 1900.
Diseases were also exchanged, and with devastating effect. Some 80 percent of the native population of the Americas died as a result of measles and smallpox epidemics caused by interaction with Europeans who carried these diseases. In some places, like the island of Hispaniola where Columbus first landed, all of the natives died. In return the Europeans got syphilis. The first known European case of the venereal disease dates from 1493. The first great outbreak of syphilis occurred in Italy the following year.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/9efb82cf

All in all, theirs was an abundant environment; their world was rich and the gods were good at providing for their people, at least in a normal year. There is evidence that ordinary people ate meat on a regular basis — an unthinkable diet in farming societies in much of the rest of the world.

In addition, the Maya were business people who engaged in long-distance trade across Central America and beyond. Kings and the aristocracy imported objects made from gold from today’s Colombia and Panama, and turquoise and obsidian — a volcanic rock which resembles glass — from New Mexico. In addition, there was a flourishing trade in everyday items across Mayan territory, such as salt from Yucatán. The cities that became prominent, and were most successful in wars, were the ones that controlled access to the trading routes by means of which these goods were exchanged.

The Maya had a written script that combined pictographs and alphabetic letters. It was long believed that these pictures merely held artistic significance, but in the 1950s scholars realized that they constituted texts which could be read.

Cracking the Mayan code
The consensus among scholars used to be that the Maya had no script. The images that decorate their artifacts are wonderfully creative but they are works of art, not ways to communicate information. However, in the 1940s, a linguist called Yuri Knorozov began to question this conclusion. The only problem was that he lived in the Soviet Union, had little access to books and no chance to travel to Mexico. During the Second World War, Knorozov was among the soldiers in the Soviet Army that captured Berlin. Here, as luck would have it, he managed to get his hands on copies of Mayan manuscripts as well as a book, Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, written by a Spanish conquistador, Diego de Landa, in 1566. There are twenty-seven letters in the Mayan alphabet, de Landa had insisted. Although it was easy to prove that de Landa was wrong, Knorozov was now able to pursue his research. He published an article on the subject in 1952. The writing system of the Maya, he explained, is not an alphabet; it has characters for sounds but also for entire words.
However, as Knorozov’s article was published in Russian in the Soviet Union, it took a long time for scholars elsewhere to find out about it, and even once they did, Knorozov’s argument was summarily dismissed. It was only in 1973, at a conference in the old Mayan city of Palenque, that the consensus shifted. “That evening,” a scholar who was present recalled, “we were able to decipher the names of seven Maya rulers.” The writing system of the Maya, it turns out, has around 800 characters and today we can read some 75 percent of their texts. The Maya wrote about history, astronomy, and mathematics, but also the histories of their rulers and their reigns. Unfortunately, many Mayan texts were destroyed by the Spanish. Since the books only contained “lies of the devil,” Diego de Landa recalled, “we burned them all.” The Mayan people, he added, “regretted this to an amazing degree.”

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/db3a5cbd

A few Mayan texts, known as codices, have been preserved. They tell stories of kings, their reigns, honorific names and their greatest achievements.

Books from ancient Mexico
A codex, in the context of the history of the Americas, refers to a book put together before or right at the time of the European conquest. Both Maya and Aztecs had a tradition of making such books. They describe their customs and rituals, the history of the respective empires, but also the encounters between them and the Europeans. Today there are at least 500 codices in existence in libraries around the world. They are our best source of information about life in pre-Columbian Mexico.
The most important example is the Dresden Codex, a work consisting of seventy-eight pages, dating from the thirteenth or the fourteenth century. It was lost for many years, but eventually rediscovered in a library in Germany, hence its name. The Dresden Codex was of great importance for scholars trying to decipher the Mayan script. Read more: Cracking the Mayan code at p. 157. It contains astronomical information as well as the schedules for rituals such as the celebration of the Mayan new year. The book suffered serious water damage during the Allied bombings of the Second World War.
The Florentine Codex is the most important of the Aztec codices. It was compiled by a Spanish priest, Bernardino de Sahagún, with the help of his native students. The work runs to 2,400 pages and has more than 2,000 images, organized into twelve books. It describes the culture of the Aztecs, their cosmology and rituals, but also social and economic conditions and the history of the Aztec people. Sahagún’s aim was to facilitate the conversion of the Aztecs to Christianity. We need information about the Aztecs, he argued, just as a doctor needs information about the illnesses of patients in order to cure them. The Florentine Codex was written in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, but has been translated into Spanish and English. It is today available online.
The Incas did not compile similar books, but an important primary source for their society and culture is the work of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, 1539–1616. He was the son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca noblewoman. His account was written when Garcilaso de la Vega had retired to Spain, but it provides a history of the Incas from a native point of view.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/b02ba153

In addition, the Maya were skilled mathematicians and astronomers. Their number line included a zero which allowed for sophisticated calculations to be performed. They also constructed an elaborate calendar by which they organized time. Read more: Indian mathematics at p. 48.

The Maya never created a centralized state, but what we have come to call their “empire” consisted instead of a rather loose federation of related cities, including Palenque, Calakmul, Caracol, Mayapan and Tikal. Relations between these assorted centers were always unstable and alliances shifted; a city-state that traditionally had been the subject of another city-state could suddenly find itself on top. The kings formed alliances, exchanged daughters in marriage, gave each other tributary gifts, and engaged in plenty of ritual feasting. In addition, they made war on each other as well as on outsiders. Yet the point of a battle was typically not to kill enemies but instead to capture them and to take them back to one’s capital where they could be ritually slaughtered on top of a pyramid. Reliefs show pictures of kings who were defeated, captured, tortured and sacrificed.

Incidents of warfare increased in the tenth century. This was also when several of the large Mayan cities began to decline. Some scholars, and documentaries on YouTube, discuss the “mystery of the disappearance of the Mayan civilization.” Yet the Maya did not disappear. There are to this day some 10 million people who speak the Mayan language and they are fiercely proud of their heritage. Indeed, today’s Maya has been crucial in providing information which has allowed scholars to decipher their inscriptions. Several of these scholars are themselves of Mayan descent. In 1994, an armed rebellion against the Mexican government was started by the so-called Zapatista movement in the southern Mexican province of Chiapas. The Zapatistas want autonomy and better living conditions, and rely on an ideology that combines libertarian socialism with traditional Mayan beliefs. Today the military uprising is over, but the Maya continue their struggle by means of public campaigns and civil disobedience. The Maya have not gone away.

The Aztecs

In the center of Mexico — in the region where we today find Ciudad de México — is the Valley of Mexico, a fertile highland plateau located some 2,000 meters above sea level. People have lived here for some 12,000 years, and it has always been one of the most densely populated regions in the world. Today the urban sprawl which is the Mexico City Metropolitan Area has an estimated 21.3 million inhabitants. Two thousand years ago, it was the city of Teotihuacán which dominated the valley. With its estimated 150,000 people it was the largest city in the Americas at the time. Indeed, it was so crowded that some of the inhabitants had to live in multistory apartment buildings. Teotihuacán was a cosmopolitan city, but it was not the center of an empire. It was looted and destroyed in 550 CE. Today Teotihuacán is the most visited archaeological site in Mexico, famous for the large pyramids located along the so-called “Avenue of the Dead.” The Pyramid of the Sun was both the political and the religious center of the city.

Once Teotihuacán had lost its position, power shifted to Tula, the capital of the Toltec Empire, 674–1122, a bit further to the northwest. In Tula too we find impressive pyramids. Ceramics from Tula have been found all over Central America, and its cultural influences spread at least as wide. This was when the cult of the Feathered Serpent, a god associated with the city of Tula, became a common object of worship. Subsequent kingdoms that rose to prominence in the Valley of Mexico, including the Aztecs, would always bolster their claim to power by tracing their heritage to the Toltecs. The Feathered Serpent, known to the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl, symbolized this lineage.

The power of Tula also lasted for about 500 years, but instead of being replaced by another large empire, it was replaced by a system of smaller states. After the year 1000, a number of city-states, known as altepetl, sprung up in the Valley of Mexico. In the sixteenth century, there were as many as fifty of them. Each city-state was led by a king, known as a tlatoani, who controlled all land and acted as the political, military and religious leader. The tlatoani spoke in the name of the people — he was the source of law and wisdom — and the one who interpreted and carried out the will of the gods. In return, he had the right to collect taxes. Each city-state was rigidly hierarchical. Under the king, there was a class of noblemen, and under them a class of warriors whose rank varied depending on their achievements on the battlefield. The political system was reflected in the layout of each city. The royal palace was at the center, together with the main temple pyramid and the main market square. Around this center lived the nobility while the commoners lived in the outskirts. The noblemen too were regarded as chosen by the gods, and this gave them wide-ranging powers. Yet, the Mexican city-states were not dictatorships. The power of the tlatoani was balanced by the power of a royal council, and by judges who acted to protect the rights of ordinary people.

Relations between the Mexican city-states ranged from friendly to openly hostile. Many joined together in alliances and some attached themselves as tribute bearers to more powerful neighbors. No state dominated all the others, and none of them was sufficient unto itself. Wars were common, but they tended to be small-scale affairs and rarely upset the balance of power. It was only by trading with each other that the city-states could survive. Socially and culturally too they were closely interconnected. Shoppers would visit a neighboring city looking for bargains and members of the nobility of different states participated in each other’s ceremonies, festivals, and funerals. The families of the various tlatoani were often related to each other by marriage. Indeed marriages were an important means of establishing political alliances and maintaining peace. A lower-ranking tlatoani would always try to marry off his daughter to a tlatoani of a more powerful state.

It was into this city-state system that the Mexica arrived in the thirteenth century. Read more: Independence for Aztlán below.

The Mexica were Nahuatl-speaking people who had started moving south from their legendary homeland of Aztlán, located somewhere in northern Mexico, some two hundred years previously.

Independence for Aztlán
Aztlán is, according to the legend of Nahuatl-speaking peoples, the land from which they began the migration which eventually took them to the Valley of Mexico, some time in the eleventh century. There were seven different tribes that migrated, of which the Mexica were one. It is clear that Aztlán was located somewhere to the north, but exactly where is less certain. Guesses point to northwestern Mexico or to somewhere in the southwestern parts of the United States.
References to Aztlán have been important among members of the Chicano movement in the United States. “Chicano” is the name given to Mexicans who have emigrated to the U.S., originally as seasonal labor in the agricultural industry. In response to mistreatment by employers and U.S. authorities they began organizing themselves politically in the 1960s. According to some Chicano activists, today’s Americans are aggressors who have invaded the land which originally belonged to them, and to which they have a right of return.
Prior to 1848, all of the southwestern United States was a part of Mexico. In 1835, Texas declared itself an independent republic, something which the Mexican government refused to accept. When Texas was annexed by the United States in 1845, Mexico declared war. Yet the Mexican government was weak, its troops badly equipped and trained, and they were easily defeated. As a result, Mexico lost about half of its territory — corresponding to the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.
There are activists who hope for a new, independent Aztlán. According to one version of the project, Mexicans on both sides of the border should create one country, sometimes referred to as “la República del Norte.” Others have talked about the need for a “reconquista” of the parts of the United States which were parts of Mexico until the Mexican-American War. The Chicano movement lost much of its political momentum in the 1970s, but the problems they reacted to have not gone away. Their most lasting legacy might be the departments of “Chicano studies” that have been established at various American universities. If a wall is built between the United States and Mexico, it would be regarded as a provocation by Aztlán activists.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/229ddbf5

Stopping in various places along the way but never settling for more than a couple of decades in each place, they eventually arrived in the Valley of Mexico. As outsiders without a city-state of their own, the Mexica began by hiring themselves out as soldiers and tried to gain a foothold in the system by making alliances with established rulers. The first such alliance was with the city of Culhuacán whose tlatoani allowed them to settle on his territory. When the arrangement with the Culhuacán king broke down in the 1320s, the Mexica were once again looking for a home. Next they allied themselves with the Tepanec state. The Tepanecs too were Nahuatl-speaking migrants who originated in the north. Again they began by working as soldiers and in return they were given the right to build a city, Tenochtitlan, established in 1325. The location, on an island in the middle of the swampy Texcoco lake, was hardly prime real estate, but it provided excellent protection from attackers and the shores of the lake provided good agricultural land. In 1372, the Mexica appointed the first tlatoani of their own.

In 1426 the Tepanec king died and shortly afterwards the king of the Mexica was murdered. This provided an opportunity for new political alignments. A new group of people came to power in Tenochtitlan who broke off the alliance with Tepanec and instead allied themselves with the city-states of Texcoco and Tlacopan. Together these three states formed a triple alliance, which was to become known as the Aztec Empire, 1428–1521. The alliance covered political, military and economic matters. The three states agreed not to fight each other but instead to cooperate in wars of conquest against other city-states. All spoils of war were to be divided equally between them, as would be all the taxes they collected from the cities they conquered.

Yet warfare was not always the best way to subdue enemies. Often threats of force were enough, or perhaps lavish gifts were given, or offers of friendship or membership of a military alliance made. As a result, the practices of diplomacy and of warfare blended into each other. Much as for the Maya, war for the Aztecs was a highly ritualistic affair. Instead of massive peasant armies colliding with each other, which was common elsewhere in the world, warfare was often understood as one-on-one combat between noblemen. Once defeated, the enemy was not killed but instead, and again much as among the Maya, taken back home and ritually sacrificed in a public ceremony.

In the course of the fifteenth century, the Aztecs created a large empire covering the entire Valley of Mexico and much of Central America besides. King Moctezuma I, 1398–1469, who was Mexica, was the person responsible for much of this expansion. During his reign, taxes were levied directly on the subdued city-states and a number of extensive building projects were embarked on, including new pyramids. Trade continued to flourish. In fact, the Aztec Empire could be described as a series of related marketplaces where you could buy everything from precious metals and construction materials to weapons, fruits, vegetables and herbs. There were also markets that specialized in products such as dog meat. Vendors were organized into guilds, and depending on their wares they were allocated to different streets. A new legal code, established under Moctezuma, laid down the rules for how Aztec society was to be organized. The state had a firm grip on society: only great noblemen and successful soldiers were allowed to build two-story houses; commoners could not wear cotton clothing; adulterers were to be stoned and thrown into rivers; thieves would be sold off for the price of their theft, and so on.

The Incas

The Inca Empire, 1438–1533, was almost the exact contemporary of the Aztecs but it was located in the Andes of South America. In the Andes the highest mountain peaks approach 7,000 meters, and much of the area consists of a highland plateau located some 4,000 meters above sea level. This is an inhospitable environment to say the least, in particular since the high mountains block most rain clouds coming from the Atlantic. As a result, the western slopes of the Andes are mainly desert. Some weather stations in the Atacama desert, in today’s Chile, have never recorded any rain at all. Before the establishment of the Inca Empire there were many other kingdoms and empires here.

Kingdoms of Peru
Everybody has heard of the Incas, but next to no one has heard of the many diverse societies that preceded them. Yet there were many cultures, kingdoms, and empires in the highlands of the Andes, on the narrow coastal plain of the Pacific Ocean and in the Amazonian jungle. These are a few examples:
  • The Nazca culture, 100 BCE–800 CE, flourished in the river valleys of southern Peru. They produced complex textiles and ceramics and are famous for their geoglyphs: line drawings of animals and humans which are best viewed from the sky. Read more: Huacas, ceque and Nazca lines at p. 168.
  • The Tiwanaku Empire, 300–1150, was located on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Tiwanaku was a city which at the height of its power may have had some 100,000 inhabitants. The Tiwanakus kept llamas, caught fish in Lake Titicaca and used its water to irrigate their fields. They traded widely across their empire which gave them access to a varied diet.
  • The Muisca Confederation, 1450–1550, was a loose alliance of rulers in the mountains of today’s Colombia. Unusually, they did not build large temples or pyramids, but they developed an elaborate calendar, created artifacts in gold and drank chicha, an alcoholic beverage, in large quantities. Their most prominent members were mummified after their deaths, and placed in temples or carried along by advancing armies in order to impress their enemies.
  • The Chachapoya society, 750–1500, was located in the Peruvian part of the Amazon. The Chachapoya are famous for their vertical burial sites. They placed their dead in tiny houses worked into the walls at the highest point of a precipice. As a result, they have not been excavated until recently.
  • The Chimú, 900–1470, was located in the Moche Valley of today’s Peru. Their work in precious metals was very intricate and they created black ceramics. Since they were conquered late by the Incas, there were still people alive who could tell the Spaniards about life as it originally had existed in Chimú society.
The society that the Incas assembled, and transformed into an empire, was a patchwork of peoples such as these. Some of them greeted the arrival of the Europeans as a liberation.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/4dc6710a

The vertical nature of life in the Andes meant that large states were difficult to establish and instead there was a jumble of small political entities, all with a specific culture which had developed more or less on its own. One exception was the Tiwanaku, who created a large empire in the first millennium of the CE, and then the Incas who did the same thing in the fifteenth century.

Inca means “lord” in Quechua, the Inca language, and it was originally a term that applied only to the ruling elite. The Incas themselves referred to their land as Tawantinsuyu, “the four regions,” an alliance of four states, but the name also referred to the cardinal points of the compass. Cuzco, in today’s Peru, was the capital of the empire. It was here that the Sapa Inca, the ruler, resided and where the main temples and government buildings were located. From Cuzco the Incas controlled a vast area, some 5,000 kilometers in length, which included most of the Andes but also the narrow strip of lowland along the Pacific coast and parts of the Amazon rainforest. The Inca Empire was the largest empire in the world at the time — larger than the Ottomans and the Ming dynasty in China.

The Sapa Inca was an autocratic ruler who wielded enormous power. He ruled for life and was not only the head of state but also in charge of military and religious affairs. The Incas worshiped Inti, the sun god, and the Sapa Inca was considered as Inti’s living representative on earth. Indeed, the Sapa Inca was considered so holy that ordinary people were not allowed to even look at him. Everything he touched was burned in order to prevent witchcraft being performed against him. The rituals carried out at the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco, with the Sapa Inca in attendance, were great religious occasions but also a source of political identity for the empire and its subjects. When a Sapa Inca died, a period of mourning ensued which lasted for up to a year. And yet the Sapa Inca would continue to exercise power even after his death — by means of his mummified corpse which continued to make an appearances on various state occasions.

The government of the Inca Empire was centralized and hierarchically organized. Below the Sapa Inca was his relative, the high priest of the Temple of the Sun, who in addition to his religious duties also served as commander of the army. Below him, in turn, we find the nobility of Cuzco, made up of various distant relatives of the ruler. The leading members of the nobility constituted a council which advised the Sapa Inca, but they were also responsible for choosing his successor. Although each Sapa Inca was to be succeeded by a son, there were often many sons to choose from, and conflicts regarding succession often split the ruling elite and undermined the power of the empire. Below the nobility we find the leading members of ethnic groups who had been present in the region before the Incas rose to power. It was these people who staffed the imperial bureaucracy. They levied taxes, conducted censuses of the population and were in charge of irrigation works, road building, and other infrastructural projects. At the bottom of the social hierarchy we find the peasants who made up some 98 percent of the population. Exactly how many people lived in the empire is less clear. The Incas kept excellent data on the population but the records were kept by means of quipu, a rope-based language which so far has not been deciphered.

Reading knots
The Incas, much like the Maya, had a system of writing. At least if we by writing mean “a medium of human communication by means of signs.” Yet the Incas did not write their signs down, instead, they used ropes. They called it quipu, meaning “knot” in Quechua, the Incan language. A quipu consisted of a set of colored strings, perhaps as many as 2,000, usually made of cotton. On each string, there were knots tied at various distances from each other. The color of the string, its length, the number of knots and their distance from each other, all conveyed information. The Incas had quipu experts, trained to read these messages.
Economic relations in Incan society were organized by the state. For this reason, a lot of statistical information was needed. State officials needed to know how much food was produced, how much taxes they received, which products the government-run warehouses contained, and data on births and deaths. All this information was conveyed by the quipu which could easily be dispatched by a courier from a provincial governor to the bureaucrats in Cusco.
Since the quipu was made of cotton, many have perished. Many were also destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors. There are today some thousand quipus in existence. In contrast to the hieroglyphs of the Maya, the quipu has not been deciphered. Read more: Cracking the Mayan code at p. 157. Code-breakers and historians are still working on it. An international database project is responsible for collecting data and coordinating the research. If scholars one day manage to read the quipu, the chances are we will obtain far better data concerning life in the Incan Empire.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/59673078

Current estimates of the size of the population vary widely — from 4 million to almost ten times as many — but a commonly cited figure is 12 million inhabitants.

The economic basis for the Incas’ success lay, more than anything, in their ability to master the climate and geography of the land. They built enormous systems of terraces that provided irrigation, harnessed and reused water, but also helped to stop soil erosion. In addition, the terraces created micro-climates in which a range of different plants could be grown. Here as elsewhere in the Americas, corn was the main staple. It is estimated that more land was under cultivation during the Incas than is the case today. Although the Incas kept animals — llamas and alpacas — which provided both meat and wool, they could also get food from far further away. Communities high up in the Andes would often have contacts with people living along the Pacific Ocean. In the river valleys along the coast it was possible to grow beans, squash, and cotton, and from the sea came fish and shellfish.

Whatever surplus was left over once the peasants had had enough to survive was gathered together by the Inca authorities and stored in enormous warehouses. Many other goods — clothing, ceramics, weapons, tools — were stored there too. In times of need, these items were distributed to the people. There were no public markets and there was no currency. Instead whenever a particular item was required, it had to be requested and was then dispatched by the bureaucracy. In addition, the Inca authorities organized feasts in the public squares throughout the empire in which the common supplies were consumed.

Much of the agricultural labor was organized by community groups known as ayllu. The ayllu took the household as its basic unit but it expanded through neighbors and family networks to include entire villages. Members of the ayllu worked the land together, sharing what the earth produced — from all according to ability, to all according to need. The ayllu, in combination with the welfare programs of the Inca state, provided a safety net and an insurance scheme that protected all inhabitants of the empire. Aspects of the ayllu system have remained to this day, and it has often been referred to in the political manifestos of various left-wing organizations.

Túpac Amaru
Túpac Amaru, 1545–1572, was the last Sapa Inca. He was the ruler of the Incan state which survived in Vilcabamba, in a remote part of Peru, once Cusco itself had fallen to the Spanish invaders. In 1572, the Spaniards attacked the new capital too, but Túpac Amaru fled into the jungle where, after a month-long pursuit, he was arrested and executed.
In 1780, a peasant uprising started against Spanish rule, led by a certain José Gabriel Condorcanqui who called himself “Túpac Amaru II” and claimed to be a direct descendant of the last Sapa Inca. Túpac Amaru II gathered many indigenous people behind him and organized an army that comprised some 60,000 followers. However, after he failed to take Cusco, he was captured and killed. After his death, Túpac Amaru II became a mythical figure in the struggle for indigenous rights, as well as an inspiration to various left-wing causes in Spanish America and beyond.
In Uruguay, in the 1960s and 70s, an urban guerrilla movement — the “Tupamaros” — committed a number of bank robberies and kidnappings. They also stole food which they distributed to the poor. The military junta which ruled Uruguay at the time began an unofficial war against them and against other left-wing organizations. The Tupamaros collapsed in 1972 when the leading members were assassinated by paramilitaries working for the government. Democracy was re-established in Uruguay in 1984, and in 2010 a former member of the Tupamaros, José Mujica, was elected president of the country.
In Peru, a Marxist guerrilla group, the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, was founded in the early 1980s. They wanted to turn Peru into a socialist state and to fight imperialism. They too robbed banks and organized kidnappings. In December 1996, fourteen members of the movement occupied the Japanese embassy in Lima and held seventy-two people hostage for more than four months. The hostages were eventually freed and the hostage-takers killed.
The American rapper, Tupac Amaru Shakur, 1971–1996, was named after Túpac Amaru II. His parents were both members of the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary organization in the United States fighting for the rights of black people. Tupac Shakur was killed in a gang-related shooting in Las Vegas.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/13ed10e2

Although the Incas had lived in Cuzco since the thirteenth century, it was only in the middle of the fifteenth century that their imperial conquests began. The first Sapa Inca, Pachacuti, 1438–1471, began by attacking people living in the Ecuadorian lowlands and in the rainforests of what today is Bolivia and Peru. However, his most famous victory was against the Chimor, the powerful kingdom to the north of Cuzco. Read more: Túpac Amaru above.

Despite attempts to reach an amicable settlement, the Chimorese king refused to surrender, a decision he was to regret bitterly. When Pachacuti died, shortly after this victory, he was succeeded by his son, Tupac Inca Yupanqui, 1471–1493, who had already served as commander of the army. During his reign the conquests continued, first against the Kingdom of Quito to the north and then against a number of smaller kingdoms, including several located in the extreme south, in what today is Argentina. Here, however, the Incas met with considerable resistance. It was clear that the empire had found its southernmost limits.

Despite these bloody conflicts, warfare was not in fact the chief means by which the conquests were made. The Incas much preferred their enemies to surrender voluntarily and to this end they, much as the Aztecs, relied on a mixture of kindness and cunning. Combining lavish gifts with assurances of protection, they made offers that their enemies could not refuse, and often a marriage alliance with a daughter from the Sapa Inca’s extended family was thrown into the bargain. Other tactics included ostentatious displays of power and spectacular acts of cruelty, which both overwhelmed and terrified their enemies. The Incas used rational arguments too. We, they explained, represent a higher civilization and a better way of organizing social and political life. No one else can guarantee peace and a constant food supply, even during droughts and other calamities.

Once a kingdom had joined the empire, the Incas put one of their governors in charge of the province in question. Auditors made regular visits to ensure that the local administration was running smoothly and in line with Cuzco’s demands. At the same time the imperial authorities were concerned with preserving a measure of local autonomy. Provinces were administered by local people and traditional local elites often mixed socially with the new rulers. Although the cult of Inti, the sun god, was enforced throughout the empire, local religions were respected and supported too. Local administrators who had proven themselves to be loyal were rewarded with yearly trips to Cuzco where they exchanged gifts with the Sapa Inca and were wined and dined. In addition, the large building projects in which the imperial authorities engaged were thought of both as a way of improving the living conditions of their new subjects and a means of connecting them more firmly to the authorities in Cuzco. But clearly, these efforts did not always work. There were rebellions in the Ecuadorian lowlands, in the jungles of Bolivia and Peru and in many other places.

The power of the Incas rested more than anything on their ability to build things — roads, dams, terraces, and irrigation canals. For these purposes, they employed conscript labor and the work crews were clothed, fed and housed by the state. The road network may be the most stunning of these achievements. There was a main road that ran the entire length of the empire from the north to the south, and many branch roads too that ran in an east-west direction. The Incas carved out paths along the sides of the most precipitous cliffs, across the highest of mountain passes, and they bridged the deepest gorges. At regular intervals there were relay stations — in total some 2,000 of them — where travelers could stop on their journeys and where the authorities would store food, weapons, and garrison soldiers. Travelers would walk on these trails and an official team of mail carriers would run. Taken together the road network covered some 40,000 kilometers — almost exactly equivalent to the circumference of the earth.

The empire was held together by spiritual means too. In addition to the sun god, the Incas worshiped huacas, the Quechua name for unusual rock formations or other peculiar features of the landscape.

Huacas, ceque and Nazca lines
Huaca is the Quechua word for “revered object.” In Incan society, it referred to a monument or a feature of nature where energy of some kind had gathered, perhaps a cosmic force or an emanation of the divine. In order to harness that energy and placate the gods, people would conduct ceremonies at the huacas, making offerings and saying prayers. Members of a particular family would often have the task of looking after a specific location. Huacas existed in pre-Incan societies and they exist to this day all over Peru. Indeed, downtown Lima has been built around them.
Different huacas were joined together in pathways known as ceques. The ceques would run throughout the landscape conducting spiritual energy from one place to another. Together they formed a pattern that radiated from the capital of Cusco to every part of the empire. When children were dispatched to various places of sacrifice, they were located according to the ceque system. Read more: Children of the mountain below. Together these lines formed a spiritual grid in which all imperial subjects could find their respective places, and through which they all were connected. By conducting the required rituals at a huaca, each conquered people could show that they accepted the power of the Inca rulers. In this way, the ceque brought a sense of unity to a geographically very dispersed set of subjects.
Nazca lines are enormous geoglyphs, “earth engravings,” created by the Nazca people sometime between 500 BCE and 500. Read more: Kingdoms of Peru at p. 163. They consist of trenches, 10 to 15 centimeters deep, which create a line-drawing in the landscape. And they are enormous — up to 1 kilometer long. Popular motifs are animals or humanoid forms. Why the Nazca lines were created is unclear. Perhaps they were a part of an irrigation system or perhaps they played some role in an astronomical calendar. Curiously, many of them are best viewed from the sky, leading to speculations that they were a way for the Nazca people to communicate with extraterrestrials. Nazca lines are a favorite subject of late-night documentaries on less reputable TV channels.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/5dac553a

According to Inca belief, the huacas were connected to each other in lines of spiritual energy that radiated out from the center of the empire. The spiritual connections reached even the remotest of places and the Incas built temples and held religious ceremonies even on the highest peaks of the Andes. Many of these religious sites have only recently been discovered and many sites, no doubt, remain unknown to this day.

Children of the mountain
In 1999, a horrible discovery was made by a team of researchers near the summit of Llullaillaco, a 6,700-meter-high volcano on the border between Argentina and Chile. Three small children were found dead in a pit. The researchers knew right away that these were not recent casualties. The children of the mountain were the sacrificial victims of an Incan ceremony conducted some 500 years ago. Subsequent analysis showed that the three — two girls, fifteen and six years old, and a boy of seven — had been fattened up and drugged with alcohol and coca before they died. They had most likely fallen asleep in their tomb and then frozen to death. Their mummified bodies have been extraordinarily well preserved in the cold and very dry environment. The internal organs are intact, individual hairs are preserved, and they look more or less as they must have looked the day they died.
Child sacrifice was an important part of the religion of the Incas. It was a way to commemorate important events, such as the death of a Sapa Inca, or else such sacrifices could be offerings to the gods in times of famine or war. It was considered a great honor to die as a sacrifice, and only the most physically perfect children were selected, often of noble families. First, they were taken to Cusco where they underwent various purification rituals, and from there they were dispatched to mountaintops throughout the empire. The fifteen-year-old girl was most likely a “Sun Virgin,” chosen at the age of ten to live with other girls who would become royal wives, priestesses, and sacrifices. According to Incan beliefs, the children who were sacrificed did not actually die but watched over the surrounding landscape from atop their mountaintop perches.
Today a museum has been built for the children. At the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology in Salta, Argentina, they have recreated the exact conditions of the mountain where they were found. Yet some indigenous groups object to what they regard as “their children” being put on display in this fashion. Meanwhile, other groups strongly approve of any research that can help spread knowledge of their ancestors. It is estimated that there are some forty similar burial sites in the region, but for now, at least, no more mummies will be removed from the mountains.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/0b061074

North America

We rarely think of the North American continent, prior to the arrival of the Europeans, in political terms, and we never think of it as an international system in its own right. In our imagination the people living here — the “Indians” — spent all of their time chasing buffaloes and engaging in various forms of savage warfare. Since their societies lacked fixed territorial boundaries, they had no political or administrative institutions. Indeed, the very notion of history is inapplicable to societies such as these. Yet, as it turns out, none of these descriptions is true. In North America too there were plenty of sedentary societies, agriculturally-based kingdoms and large states which grew rich from trade conducted in far-flung networks that spanned the entirety of the continent. There are still many impressive monuments to be seen which testify to these achievements. The fact that we know little about these societies is our fault, not theirs.

The first societies identified by historians are those which belong to the so-called “Woodland period,” which comprises the two millennia from 1000 BCE to about the year 1000 of the Common Era. These societies can be found in a geographical area which stretches from what now is eastern Canada down along the eastern United States to the Gulf of Mexico. The people of the Woodland period were hunters and gatherers and they used spears, bows and blowguns in order to catch deer, moose, turkey, grouse, beavers and raccoons. They did not, however, hunt buffaloes. There were indeed enormous herds of buffaloes grazing further out west, but since there were no horses in the Americas, these large animals were difficult to kill. Read more: The Columbian exchange at p. 156.

In addition, the people of the Woodland period collected nuts, acorns, mushrooms and wild berries; some rivers provided a continuous supply of fish and shellfish which made it possible to establish settled communities. In communities that controlled particularly rich fishing grounds, differentiated social classes developed. In addition, the people of the Woodland period worked leather, made tools and used pottery.

After the Woodland period, archaeologists have identified a number of separate cultures, distinguished above all by their artwork and their funeral rites. The Adena culture is the name given to a number of societies in today’s Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia. Here archaeologists have found conical mounds that were used as burial sites and perhaps also for various ceremonial purposes. The dead were buried together with various goods, including copper bracelets, beads and cups. The people of the Adena culture produced ritual objects used by shamans who sought to transform themselves into birds, wolves, bears and deer. These societies were gradually replaced by the so- called Hopewell societies, 200–500, located further inland, in today’s Ohio and Illinois. The Hopewell societies continued to build conical mounds and they engaged in trade. Historians have talked about the “Hopewell exchange system,” which, judging by the many exotic products discovered here, must have connected much of the North American continent. In Hopewell societies, archaeologists have found shells from Florida, obsidian from the Rocky Mountains and mica — a mineral used for making pots — from Tennessee.

Although Hopewell societies began to decline around the year 500 CE, the mound-building tradition continued in the societies that flourished in the Mississippi River valley between 800 and 1600. The people of the Mississippian culture created large urban settlements, of which the city of Cahokia, in today’s Illinois, was the largest. The mound built at Cahokia reminds us of the pyramids that were built in Mexico at the same time. On top of the mound, wooden structures were erected which served as temples, burial sites and centers for political administration. Cahokia was a chiefdom with sharp social distinctions. Here political and religious power was in the hands of a small elite. Ordinary people were farmers, growing corn, the staple food, but there were many craftsmen too. Again, trade was important. The Cahokians traded with a number of satellite cities, but also with people as far west as the Rocky Mountains. They worshiped the sun, moon and stars, but above all the Great Serpent — again there may be a connection to Mexico here. Cahokians used to wear amulets in the form of a falcon, perhaps to protect a warrior against the arrows of his enemy or to assure health and many children.

Mound builders of the Mississippi
For the longest time, Europeans refused to believe that the enormous mounds they had discovered in the valley of the Mississippi River were constructed by native people. The sheer size of the monuments was just too impressive. The “Indians,” the Europeans had decided, were hunters and gatherers, but the people of the Mississippi valley lived in large cities and grew crops. The construction of the mounds must have required years of dedicated labor, and only a highly organized society could have managed that task. Perhaps it was the Vikings who had built the mounds, or the Chinese, or perhaps the ancient Egyptians?
Europeans should have known better. There were still mound-builders in North America as late as in the eighteenth century. In 1682, French explorers visited the Natchez, a tribe in the valley of the Mississippi River. They were astonished to be greeted by their leader, known as the “Great Sun,” who lived in a large house on the top of a platform mound. The Great Sun was treated as a living god by his people and was carried in a litter wherever he went. His mother, known as “White Woman,” was his principal adviser and lived in a house on top of another mound. The Natchez were defeated in a war with French settlers in the 1730s. As a result, some were sold into slavery in the Caribbean while others were forced to take refuge with other tribes. Today the Natchez nation has only some 6,000 members. It is led by a chief, still known as “Great Sun,” and by four “Clan Mothers.” The last fluent speaker of the Natchez language died in 1957.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/29a90ddf

Further west, in today’s New Mexico and Arizona, in the southwestern parts of the United States, we find the so-called “Pueblo cultures.” Pueblo means “village” in Spanish and the village-like structure of the settlements was the first thing that struck the Europeans when they arrived in the sixteenth century. The houses consisted of apartments made in adobe and stone, with numerous rooms and courtyards built very close together and even on top of each other, sometimes creating apartment-style buildings four or five stories high. The pueblos not only made for a closely connected community, but also provided a defense against robbers and roving bands. The most elaborate pueblo settlement was that of Chaco Canyon in today’s New Mexico.

The kivas of Chaco Canyon
A kiva is a pit in the ground constructed by the peoples of the Pueblo culture living in today’s southwestern parts of the United States. The kivas were used for living in, for various social purposes, but above all for religious ceremonies. There are kivas of different sizes. Most are only big enough to fit one person but some are enormous. In Chaco Canyon, in today’s New Mexico, there is a kiva which is as big as any mosque or temple elsewhere in the world. It was the largest building in North America until the nineteenth century.
Chaco Canyon was the center of the Pueblo culture, and hundreds of buildings were constructed here between 900 and 1150, organized into fifteen major complexes. Pueblo Bonito is the most studied. In addition to its great kiva, it contained a structure in four stories that had as many as 650 rooms. There were many smaller houses too which all faced a common plaza. In addition, there were many smaller kivas — roughly one for every twenty-nine rooms. And yet the resident population at Chaco Canyon appears to have been quite low. It seems that people instead traveled here from outlying villages in order to participate in annual ceremonial occasions.
Why Chaco Canyon was abandoned we do not know, but it is easy to suspect environmental changes, possibly drought. Members of the indigenous Hopi nation, who now live in Arizona, are still telling stories of their migration from Chaco Canyon. In fact, the Hopi are still using kivas in their ceremonies. During the eight days of the annual Wuwuchim festival, the rituals are all performed in kivas. They are said to represent the world below from whence human beings once emerged. They are also symbolic of the womb.
In 1680 the Pueblo people joined together to fight the Spanish colonizers. Uniting around their shared religion, they pushed both conquistadors and missionaries off their land for some twenty years. The Spaniards eventually returned, but never to the land of the Hopi. Indeed, the Hopi have retained a high degree of self-governance to this day. Today all Pueblo peoples are heavily dependent on royalties from the extraction of natural resources, in particular of coal. The Hopi have repeatedly voted against casinos, but in 2017 they concluded an agreement with the state of Arizona to allow gambling to take place on their reservation.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/a5d18db4

There are today some 5 million people in the United States who count themselves as “Native Americans,” corresponding to less than 2 percent of the population of the country. In addition, there may be some 1.5 million Native Americans in Canada. There are 562 federally recognized tribal governments in the U.S. These “reservations” govern and police themselves and collect their own taxes. Many have recently opened casinos where they offer visitors Las Vegas-style gambling. Today only about a fifth of Native Americans live on reservations. There are twenty-one surviving inhabited pueblos in the southwestern United States. They are the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America.

Kingdom of Hawaiʻi
Before it was occupied by the United States in 1893, Hawaiʻi was a sovereign country with its own royal house, foreign policy, bank notes and stamps. In fact, it had been recognized as independent by European countries for close to one hundred years. The last ruler of independent Hawaiʻi was a woman, Queen Liliʻuokalani, 1838–1917. She was an accomplished author and the composer of “Aloha ‘Oe,” the most famous of all Hawaiʻian songs. She represented her country at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in London in 1887. Queen Liliʻuokalani is still revered by indigenous Hawaiʻians.
By the 1890s, the European occupation of all of North America was secure and the U.S. government continued its expansion across the Pacific. In 1898, they proceeded to annex the islands, the same year that they occupied the Philippines. Hawaiʻi became a U.S. state in 1959, following a referendum in which 93 percent of voters approved of statehood. As a result, the islands were removed from the United Nations list of territories subject to decolonization. In 1993, the U.S. Congress issued an apology in which they admitted that “the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi occurred with the active participation of agents and citizens of the United States” and that “the Native Hawaiʻian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people over their national lands.”
There are today some 150,000 Hawaiʻians of pure indigenous ancestry and another 400,000 people who claim partial indigenous ancestry. Together they constitute about a third of the population of the islands. Native Hawaiʻians are over-represented among the homeless and unemployed. Although there is an active independence movement, it has limited support. A more popular proposal is that the islands should be given a semi-sovereign status within the United States and that native Hawaiʻians should be recognized as an indigenous American tribe. Queen Liliʻuokalani still has descendants who claim a right to the vacant throne. There are today some 42,000 U.S. soldiers stationed on the islands.

Read more online: http://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/ae962e90

Further reading

Besom, Thomas. Inka Human Sacrifice and Mountain Worship: Strategies for Empire Unification. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013.

Bremmer, Jan N. The Strange World of Human Sacrifice. Leuven: Peeters, 2007.

Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs: An Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

Pauketat, Timothy R. and Thomas E. Emerson, eds. Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Read, Kay Almere. Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Salomon, Frank. The Cord Keepers: Khipus and Cultural Life in a Peruvian Village. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Sharer, Robert J. Daily Life in Maya Civilization. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2009.

Sugiyama, Saburo. Human Sacrifice, Militarism, and Rulership: Materialization of State Ideology at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, Teotihuacan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Urton, Gary. Inca Myths. London: British Museum Press, 1999.


20,000 BCE

The Americas are populated by migrants coming across the Berling land bridge.

1800 BCE

Olmec civilization in Central America. Famous for figurines of babies and enormous statues of heads.


Teotihuacán is looted and destroyed. Its pyramids are Mexico’s most visited tourist attractions today.


Mayan Empire in today’s southern Mexico and Central America. Flat-top pyramids and garden cities in the jungle.


The Toltec Empire, with Tula as its capital. Important cultural influences on the Aztecs.


Chaco Canyon is established as a major center for the Pueblo culture. Construction of the great kiva.


Mayan cities are abandoned.


The city of Cahokia is founded in the Mississippi Valley. Mound builders.


Various nomadic peoples from the north, including the Mexica, arrive in the Valley of Mexico.


Tenochtitlan is founded in the Lake Texcoco.


An alliance between Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan. The triple alliance is known as the Aztec Empire.


The Inca Empire is established in Cusco, with Pachacuti Inca as the first leader.


Túpac Inca Yupanqui greatly expands the Inca empire.


The Aztec Empire is defeated by an alliance of Spanish conquistadors and subjects of the empire.


The last Inca stronghold in Vilcabamba falls to the Spanish.

Short dictionary

atepetl, Nahuatl

“City-state” of the Valley of Mexico. Prominent before the emergence of the Aztec empire.

ayllu, Quechua

A traditional form of social organization among people of the Andes. Emphasizing social solidarity and mutual self-help.

ceque, Quechua

System of ritual pathways conducting spiritual energy from Cusco, the Inca capital, to all parts of the empire.

chicha, possibly Taino language

An alcoholic beverage made from corn, grain or fruit.

codex, Latin

“Book.” Name for manuscripts describing the cultures of the Maya and the Aztecs before the arrival of the European.

huaca, Quechua

Revered object among the peoples of the Andes. Often a natural feature such a large rock.

kiva, Hopi

A subterranean room used by the Pueblo peoples for religious purposes.

nazca lines

Enormous geoglyphs created by the Nazca people of today’s Peru. Best viewed from outer space.

pueblo, Spanish

“Village.” Name given to the societies of the south-western parts of North America.

quipu, Quechua

“Knot.” Rope-based language used for record-keeping by the Incas.

Tawantinsuyu, Quechua

Literally, “the four regions.” Inca name for the Inca Empire.

tlatoani, Nahuatl

The ruler of the atepetl city-state.

Think about

The Maya

  • How was Mayan society organized?
  • What role did human sacrifices and blood-letting ceremonies play in Mayan society?
  • Describe some of the cultural achievements of the Maya.

The Aztecs

  • Briefly describe some of the societies which preceded the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico.
  • Give an account of the history of the Mexica people.
  • How did the Aztecs conduct wars?

The Incas

  • Describe the economic system of the Inca empire.
  • Who was the Sapa Inca?
  • How was the Inca empire held together?

North America

  • Why are the most common images of the indigenous people of North America incorrect?
  • Describe life in Cahokia.
  • What was going on in Chaco Canyon?