G.K. Chesterton, 1874-1936 CE, was a British journalist and author, still known today for the Father Brown series of detective stories, but he was also a philosopher of sorts and a devout Catholic. On September 18, 1909, he wrote an article in the Illustrated London News in which he discussed Indian nationalism. He did not like it, but not for the reasons one might expect. Indian nationalists, he said, are “not very Indian and not very national.” What they want for their country are all the trappings of our government — they want our parliament, our judiciary, our newspapers, our science. The fact that Indian nationalists want all these things is evidence that they really want to be English. As a result, “[w]e cannot feel certain that the Indian Nationalist is national.”

Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, who was visiting London at the time, read Chesterton’s article when it first appeared and “he was thunderstruck.” On the boat back to South Africa two months later he wrote the first draft of Hind Swaraj, “Indian Home-rule,” and clearly Chesterton’s thoughts were still with him.

In order to obtain home rule, Gandhi insisted, we must first make sure that we have a home which is truly ours. If we only copy English institutions, our country will no longer be “Hindustan” but instead “Englistan.” For a country to be independent, it must be defined in independent terms. India must be herself, not a version of Britain. Starting from this premise, the rest of the book is an elaboration on what home rule, in the true sense of the word, really means.

Chesterton and Gandhi were romantics and they were quick to denounce the evils of modern society. “It is machinery that has impoverished India,” Gandhi argued, and in particular the factories of Manchester that had wiped out India’s cotton industry. Gandhi’s famous response was to learn how to spin his own yarn using a hand-loom, and to make his own clothes. This, he argued, was the way to make India self-sufficient and only a self-sufficient India would be able to rule itself.

External links:

15 Minute History, “Inside the Indian independence movement”

G.K. Chesterton, “On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small”

Not all non-European countries were colonized by the Europeans, not even at the height of Europe’s power. Which countries were these and why did they preserve their independence?

First of all we have the ancient empires of Asia — Persia, China and Japan. They were far too big and far too far away for the Europeans to control. But this does not mean that the Europeans did not meddle in their affairs in various ways. China was something of a “semi-colony” and Japan was forced to accept humiliating treaties. India could of course have been included in this group but the country was not strong and unified enough.

In addition we have countries such as Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan which best are described as “buffer states.” That is, they were left as cushions between empires — or, to be precise, between British and Russia. The Afghans defended themselves ferociously in no fewer than three Anglo-Afghan wars, and in the end Britain decided it was easier to leave them alone.

A third group includes Ethiopia and Thailand. Both were established monarchies and the kings in question were very skillful in appealing to the international community for support. In addition, they were good at organizing their own bureaucracies. Basically, they colonized their own countries using administrative methods which were very close to those employed by the Europeans. Ethiopia, however, was militarily occupied by Italy between 1935 and 1941.

Then there is Liberia in West Africa which was established by the American Colonization Society, an American charity, as a place to which former slaves could be repatriated. It was not a colony, but not really an independent country either. In addition there were states which now are independent — such as Korea, Taiwan and Mongolia — which were colonized but not by Europeans.

The final case is the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were not colonized by the Europeans, indeed they were themselves a part of the European system of state. They were also a large and ancient empire, although in the nineteenth-century it was shrinking precipitously.

On the other hand, we might question what colonization really means. Not all countries that were formally colonized were actually controlled by the Europeans. In many cases, they only had control over the capital, the ports, a strategic border and their own economic investments. “Independence” is a relative concept, but so is “colonization.”

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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 with knots. They called it quipu, meaning “knot” in Quechua, the Inca language. A quipu consisted of a set of colored strings, perhaps as many as 2,000, usually made of cotton. On each string were knots tied at various distances from each other. The color of the string, its length, the number of knots on it and their distance from each other, all conveyed information. The Incas had quipu experts, trained to read the messages.

Economic relations in Inca society were organized by the state. For this reason a lot of statistical information was needed. State officials needed to know how much food that was produced, how much taxes they received, which products the government-run warehouses contained, and they needed data on births and deaths. All this information was conveyed by the quipu which easily could be dispatched by a courier from a provincial governor to the bureaucrats in Cusco.

Since the quipu were 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 have not been deciphered.  [Read more:Cracking the Mayan code“] Code-breakers and historians are still working on it. An international database project is responsible for collecting data and coordinating the research.

The knots seem to correspond to numbers, not letters or sounds. They would consequently be similar to a musical notation. A professor at Harvard believes he has deciphered a combination of knots which correspond to “Puruchuco,” the name of a village. The knots would thus function like a zip code. In Tupicocha, Peru, local officials still use quipu for record keeping, but there is no direct connection to the Inca usage. If scholars one day manage to read the quipus, chances are we will obtain far better data for example on how many people who lived in the Inca empire.

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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. Yet the researchers knew right away that these were not recent casualties. The children of the mountain were the sacrificial victims of an Inca ceremony conducted some five hundred years ago.

Subsequent analysis showed that the three — two girls, 15 and 6 years old, and a boy of 7 — 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 when they died. In fact, they could almost be alive.

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 they were 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 or local rulers. First they were taken to Cusco where they underwent various purification rituals, and from there they were dispatched to mountaintops throughout the empire. The 15 year old girl was most likely a “Sun Virgin,” chosen at the age of ten to live with other girls and women who would become royal wives, priestesses and sacrifices. According to Inca beliefs, the children who are sacrificed do not actually die but watch instead over the land from 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. Other indigenous groups strongly approve of any research that can help spread knowledge of their ancestors. It is estimated that there are some 40 similar burial sites in the region but for now at least no more mummies will be removed from the mountains.

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Huaca is the Quechua word for a “revered object.” In Inca society it referred to a monument or a feature of nature where an 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 — make offerings and say prayers. Members of a particular family would often have the task of looking after a particular location. Huacas existed already in pre-Incan societies and they exist all over Peru to this day. Indeed, down-town 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 which radiated out 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“] Together these lines formed a spiritual grid in which all imperial subjects could find their place 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 some time between 500 BCE and 500 CE. [Read more:Kingdoms of Peru“] They consist of trenches, 10 to 15 centimeters deep, which create a line-drawing in the landscape. And they are enormous — up to 1,000 meters. 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 extra-terrestrials. Nazca lines are a favorite subject of late-night documentaries on less reputable TV channels.

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Túpac Amaru, 1545-1572 CE, was the last Sapa Inca and the ruler of the Inca 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 he eventually, after a month-long pursuit, was arrested and then 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 which comprised some 60,000 followers. However, after a failure 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, named after Túpac Amaru II – 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 reestablished 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 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 72 people hostage for more than four months. The hostages were eventually freed and the hostage-takers summarily executed.

The American rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur, 1971–1996 CE, was he too 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.

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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. 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 who captured Berlin. Here, as luck would have it, he managed to get his hands on copies of Maya manuscripts as well as a book, Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, written by a Spanish conquistador, Diego de Landa, in 1566. There are 27 letters in their alphabet, de Landa had insisted. Although it was easy to prove that he 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.

The only problem was that Knorozov’s article was published in the Soviet Union and in Russian. It took a long time for scholars elsewhere in the world to find out about it, and even once they did, it was easy to dismiss the argument. It was only in 1973, at a conference in the old Maya city of Palenque, that the consensus shifted. “That evening,” a scholar who were 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. They wrote about history, astronomy and mathematics, but also about the histories of their rulers. Since the Maya people themselves have not gone away, it is possible for researchers to ask them about the meaning of many of the myths to which the texts refer.

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 Maya people, he added, “regretted this to an amazing degree.”

External links:

In Our Time, “Maya civilization”

The first team sport was a ball-game played already by the Olmecs in the first millennium BCE. It was later adopted by other Mexican societies and it was particular popular among the Mayas. 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 2-4 players each who kept a large rubber ball in motion by means of their 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 battle field, two kinds would confront each other in a ball court. It was also a way for noblemen to resolve conflicts.

But the game had religious connotations too and they feature in the creation myths of the Maya. According to a legend which often was depicted on the walls of the ballcourts themselves, two twins, Hun Hunaphu and Xbalanque, made so much noise playing ball that the gods of the underworld were annoyed and challenged them to a game. The game ended with one of the brothers being decapitated and his head being used as a ball. From the 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 when bloodlettings took place and human beings were sacrificed. [Read more:Royal bloodletting rituals“] Yet ordinary games could be brutal too. The large rubber ball would bounce around in an unpredictable fashion and could hit the players with 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 ballcourt as far north as in Arizona, in the United States. In fact, the game itself is still played in parts of Mexico. Today the rules are similar to those of volleyball, but played without a net.

External links:

History of the World in 100 Objects, “Ceremonial ballgame belt”


The Olmecs is the first major civilization to emerge in Mexico, some 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, they built pyramids, carried out human sacrifices and engaged in ritual bloodletting. [Read more:Royal bloodletting ceremonies“] But 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 at one time 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.

Yet the most famous Olmec artworks are no doubt the colossal heads they created in stone. Many of these statues are more than two meters tall, and the tallest 3.4 meters, weighing an estimated 50 tons. We do not know who these people were — kings perhaps, but judging by the helmet-like headgear they are wearing, they may also have been famous ball-players. [Read more:Juego de pelota“] The stone used for the statues has been transported from far away. How this was done in a society which had no beasts of burden and no carts with wheels is difficult to explain. There are 17 of these gigantic heads in existence today, all in Mexico, while the Olmec figurines can be found at 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 this view.

External links:

15 Minute History, “Monumental Sculpture of Preclassic Mesoamerica”

History of the World in 100 Objects, “Olmec stone mask”