In a remote, dry and cold part of the high Andes, in today’s Bolivia, there is a mountain which the natives knew as Sumaq Urqu and the Spaniards called Cerro Rico, “the rich mountain.” As already the Incas had discovered, the mountain was rich in silver. Enormously rich, the richest in the world. When the Spaniards began extracting the ore in 1545, a town, Potosí, was established which in the seventeenth-century had some 200,000 inhabitants, over thirty churches and many palaces, theaters and boulevards. This was where the crown of Spain minted its money. Yet the mines relied on slave labor and the conditions were atrocious. Hundreds of thousands of miners died.

It was the silver from Potosí which paid all Spain’s debts, financed its armies and churches in Europe and allowed it to go on shopping sprees in Asia. First the silver was transported by llamas to the Pacific coast, then shipped to Acapulco in Mexico and from there on to Europe. However, before long the Spaniards began shipping silver across the Pacific too, to Manila in the Philippines, where they traded with Chinese merchants. It was silver from Potosí which more than anything provided the means of payment which the creation of a world market required. Spanish coins — the famous peso de ocho, “pieces of eight” — was a universal currency accepted everywhere in the world. The symbol stamped on the coin — “$,” the dollar sign — has come to symbolize money ever since.

However, the long term consequences for the Spanish economy were disastrous. Since the silver from Potosí allowed them to buy whatever they wanted, Spain failed to develop a domestic industry. And when the silver boom was over and Bolivia declared independence in 1925, Spain had nothing left. The country was poor because it had been so rich.

But there is still some silver to be extracted from Sumaq Urqu and it is today mined by collectives of miners. Yet the working conditions have hardly improved since the sixteenth-century. It is dirty, dangerous, work, and few of the miners live to be older than 45.

External links:

15 Minute History, “The Trans Pacific Silver Trade and Early-Modern Globalization”

History of the World in 100 Objects: “Pieces of Eight”

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 for 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.

Chako Canyon was the center of the Pueblo culture and hundreds of buildings were constructed here between 900 and 1150 CE, organized into 15 major complexes. Pueblo Bonito is the most studied. In addition to the great kiva, it contained a structure in four stories which 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 29 rooms. And yet the resident population at Chako Canyon seems to have been quite low. Instead people 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 emerged. They are also symbolic of the womb.

In 1680 the Pueblo people joined together to fight incursions by the Spanish. Uniting around their shared religion, they pushed both conquistadors and missionaries out of their land for some twenty years. The Spaniards eventually returned, but never to the land of the Hopi. Indeed, the Hopi retain a high degree of self-governance to this day.

Today the 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 which will allow gambling to take place on their territory.

External links:

15 Minute History, “The pueblo revolt of 1680”

External links:

History of the World in 100 Objects, “North American otter pipe”

Aztlán is, according to the legend of Nahuatl-speaking peoples, the land from which they, some time in the eleventh-century CE, began the migration which eventually took them to the Valley of Mexico. There were seven different tribes that migrated, of which the Mexica was 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 US, originally as seasonal labor in the agricultural industry. In response to mistreatment by employers and US authorities, they began organizing themselves politically in the 1960s. According to some Chicano activists, Europeans are aggressors who have invaded land which originally belonged to them and to which they had a right to return.

Prior to 1848, 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 went to war. Yet the Mexican government was weak, its troops badly equipped and trained, and they were defeated. As a result, Mexico lost about half of its territory to the Americans — 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. In one version of the project, Mexicans on both side 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.

External links:

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, and it was so crowded that some of the inhabitants had to live in multi-story apartment buildings. Teotihuacán was a multi-ethnic city and 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. Despite the fame and power of the city of Teotihuacán, its history is still largely unknown. We do not know what language its people spoke, or even what its proper name was. “Teotihuacán” is a name coined centuries later. The people here had writing of some kind, though it seems not to have been used much; in any case the script has not been deciphered.

Tula, inhabited by the Toltecs, took over the position held by Teotihuacán in the valley of Mexico and dominated political and cultural life here in the centuries around the year 1000 CE. They came after Teotihuacán and before the Aztecs, in other words. What we know about them is largely filtered through the stories recorded in notoriously unreliable Aztec sources. There are still large statues of Toltec warriors to be seen, carved in limestone and volcanic rock.

External links:

History of the World in 100 Objects, “Huastec goddess”


The Chimor kingdom was established around 900 CE and it was the last Peruvian kingdom to resist the Incas, defeated by the Inca emperor Topa Inca Yupanqui in 1470.  The kingdom of Chimor was not located in the highlands of Peru but instead in the narrow strip of coastland, much of it desert, along the Pacific Ocean. Chimor society was sharply hierarchical and divided into four social classes. People survived thanks to fishing and thanks to the irrigation systems they built which made agriculture possible. They worshiped the moon, not the sun, like the Incas. The Chimor kingdom has left remnants in the form of black ceramics, are known for their exquisite metalwork and for the textiles spun from alpaca wool. The capital of Chan Chan was a great center for artisans and craftsmen.

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“] 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 a chocolatey flavor. Already the Olmecs consumed chocolate and it was popular with both the Mayas and the Aztecs. [Read more:Big heads of the Olmecs“] Among the Aztecs, chocolate was a ritual beverage and cocoa beans were used as a means of payment. Today chocolate is used in baked goods, the main component of many sweets, and it is drunk in the form of hot chocolate. Milk chocolate is sweet chocolate which contains milk powder; white chocolate contains cocoa butter but no cocoa solids. Today, two thirds of the worlds 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, and are today indispensable ingredients in Indian cuisine. The Thais make a distinction between prik meaning “chili” and prik thai, which is the name for the indigenous black pepper. Prik is essential to all Thai cooking, just as no Indonesian food is possible without sambal, a mixture of 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 of the chilies, has medical properties and as curry lovers around the world can attest, 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 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.

External links:

15 Minute History, “The Precolumbian civilizations of Mesoamerica”

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 geophyphs, line-drawing of animals and humans which are best viewed from the sky. [Read more:Huacas, ceque and nazca lines“]

The Tiwanaku empire, 300-1150 CE, was located on the shores of the 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 CE, 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.

Chachapoya society, 750-1500 CE, 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.

The Chimú, 900-1470 CE, were located in the Moche Valley of today’s Peru. Their ceramics are all black and their work in precious metals is very intricate. 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 empire that the Incas assembled was a patchwork of peoples and societies such as these. By some of them the arrival of the Europeans was greeted as a liberation.

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The kings of Dahomey were absolute rulers of a militaristic state which grew rich from the slave trade. When they received foreigners they put on an ostentatious display. A large contingent of soldiers would show up, brandishing their weapons and waving flag-staves decorated with human skulls and with the jawbones of their enemies. There was music too and before long the king would start to dance before his visitors, accompanied by drums and by singing soldiers. After having danced a few minutes, the soldiers would fire their guns in a salute and the king would approach the visitors and shake hands with with them.

The kings of Dahomey had an elite guard made up entirely of women, known as the mino. They were established in the seventeenth-century CE, initially as a group of elephant hunters, but later they became the king’s body guard, equipped with muskets and regular uniforms. They also participated in slave raids. The mino underwent rigorous physical exercises, learnt survival skills, how to storm defenses and execute prisoners. They were not allowed to have children or to marry. By the mid-19th century, there was between 1,000 and 6,000 of these female warriors, making up about a third of the Dahomeyan army.

The mino participated in the wars against France. The French soldiers had initially found it difficult to fight female adversaries, but before long they learned how to fight back. In a battle in 1890 many of the mino were killed after an intense hand-to-hand combat with the French. The female battalion was disbanded after Dahomey became a French colony in 1894. Interviews with former female soldiers conducted in the 1930s indicated that many of them had severe problems adapting to civilian life.

The mino guard has recently been discovered by Hollywood and American popular culture. There is no doubt that they provide an image of female empowerment. Whether they really are appropriate role models for young black women today can be discussed.

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A codex, in the context of the history of the Americas, refers to books put together before or right at the time of the European conquest. Both Mayas and Aztecs had a tradition of making such books. They describe their customs and rituals, the history of the respective empire, but also the encounter 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 78 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. It was of great importance for scholars trying to decipher the Maya script.[Read more:Cracking the Maya code“] The Dresden codex contains astronomical information as well as the schedules for rituals such as the celebration of the Maya new year. The book suffered serious water damage during the allied bombings during the Second World War.

The “Florentine Codex” is the most important Aztec codex. It was compiled by a Spanish priest, Bernardino de Sahagún, with the help of his native students. The work has 2,400 pages and 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 CE. 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.

External links:

In Our Time, “The Aztecs”

History of the World in 100 Objects, “Double-headed serpent”