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 niches, including rainforests, deserts, prairies and some of the highest mountains in the world. Human beings began settling in the Americas 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 contacts 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 area 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 there was not one international system which connected all of the Americas. As a result, it makes most sense to discuss the Maya, the Aztecs and the Incas separately.
And yet, societies in the Americas resemble each other in distinct ways. For one thing, compared with the rest of the world they were 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 was no iron ore and hence neither tools nor weapons made from iron. There were furthermore no cereals like wheat or rice. Instead it was corn, or maize, which fed the people. Moreover, in the Americas there were no horses or cows and no domesticated sheep or goats. While the Incas used llamas for carrying things, they were never ridden. And no one in the Americas invented the wheel. Or rather, while there were wheels on children’s toys in Mexico, there were no wheels 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 which were as hierarchical as their pyramids. On 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, no money, and where the government instead provided all the goods, including foodstuffs, which people could not produce themselves.
Each empire was held together by a strong sense of a political community, created by means of performances which were staged in public squares and on the top of the pyramids. The most notorious example was 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 assure another year of plentiful harvests. But the aim was also political: human sacrifices were a means of instilling terror both in one’s enemies and in one’s own subjects. It was a public manifestation 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 very often they were. The Incas in particular would send diplomatic missions, carrying lavish gifts, to other states asking for an alliance. But more rational arguments were used too. 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.
People speaking Mayan languages first appeared in the first millennium BCE, but it was between 250 and 900 of the Common Era 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. [Read more: “Big heads of the Olmecs”] 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. 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 understood thanks to aerial laser photography.[Read more: “Angkor Wat”]
Mayan society was made up of distinct social classes. The state was ruled by a king and by a royal house which 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 infrastructural 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 before and together with their subjects. Most spectacular of all were the bloodletting ceremonies. Members of the royal family, including the king and the queen, 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. [Read more: “Royal bloodletting rituals”] 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. [Read more: “Pitz, the first team sport”]
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 was no cereal – 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. [Read more: “Chocolate and chilies”] To wash it all down they drank chocolate, the cocoa bean being native to Central America.[Read more: “The Columbian exchange”] 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 too 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 businessmen 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 who controlled access to the trading routes by means of which these goods were exchanged.
The Maya had a written script which combined pictographs and alphabetic letters. It was long believed that these pictures merely had an artistic significance, but in the 1950s scholars realized that they constituted texts which could be read. [Read more: “Cracking the Mayan code”] A few Mayan texts, known as codices, have been preserved. They tell stories of kings, their reigns, honorific names and their greatest achievements.[Read more: “Books from ancient Mexico”] 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”]
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 which 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 both on each other and 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 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 have 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 which 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.
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. 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, 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 widely. 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 power by claiming descent from the Toltecs. The Feathered Serpent, known to the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl, symbolized this cultural heritage.
The power of Tula too lasted 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 the 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 of the city. 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 they 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 the 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: “Books from ancient Mexico”] The Mexica were Nahuatl-speaking people who had started moving south from their legendary homeland of Aztlán, located somewhere in northern Mexico, already some two hundred years previously.[Read more: “Independence for Aztlán”] 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 with their origin in the north. Again they began by working as soldiers and in return they were given the right to build a city, Tenochtitlan, first 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 an alliance, 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 all taxes which 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 lavish gifts were given or perhaps offers of friendship or membership in a military alliance. 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 has been common elsewhere in the world, warfare was often understood as a 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. Meanwhile the Aztec kings never appeared in public except on the rarest of occasions.
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. [Read more: “Kingdoms of Peru”] 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 Common Era, 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 which 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, was a great religious occasion 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 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. 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. [Read more: “Reading knots”] Current estimates of the size of the population vary widely – from 4 million inhabitants to almost ten times as many – but a figure commonly cited is 12 million inhabitants.
The economic basis for the Incas’ success lay more than anything in their ability to master the climate and the geography. They built enormous systems of terraces which 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. 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 that 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 here too. In times of need, these items were distributed to the people. There were no public markets in the Inca Empire 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 which protected all inhabitants of the empire. Aspects of the ayllu system have remained to this day. [Read more: “Túpac Amaru”]
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. 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. But his most famous victory was against the Chimor, the powerful kingdom to the north of Cuzco. [Read more: “Kingdoms of Peru”] Despite attempts to reach an amicable settlement, the Chimorese king refused to surrender, a decision he was to bitterly regret. When Pachacuti died, shortly after the victory, he was succeeded by his son, Tupac Inca Yupanqui, 1471-1493, who already had 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 ones 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 which 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 were to use ostentatious displays of power or spectacular acts of cruelty by which their enemies were both terrified and overwhelmed. But 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 assure that the local administration was running smoothly and in line with Cuzco’s demands. At the same time the imperial authorities were concerned to preserve a measure of local autonomy. Provinces were, for example, administered by local people and traditional local elites often mixed socially with the new rulers. Although the cult of Inti, the sun god, was required 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 as a way to connect 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 in 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 roads 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 south but 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 and 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.[Read more: “Huacas,ceque and Nazca lines”] 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.[Read more: “Children of the mountain”]
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 who live here – the “Indians” – spend all their time chasing buffaloes, living in tipis 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 which spanned the entirety of the continent. There are still many impressive monuments to be seen which provide testimony 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 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 buffalo hunting became feasible only in the course of the eighteenth century. [Read more: “The Columbian exchange”] As for gathering, 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 a society of differentiated social classes developed. In addition, the people of the Woodland period worked leather, made tools and used pottery. Over time an increasing number of hunters and gatherers turned to farming and began burning trees and planting seeds in the ashes.
After the Woodland period, archaeologists have identified a number of separate cultures, distinguished above all by their artwork and their funeral rituals. 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 which 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 also produced ritual objects used by shamans who sought to transform themselves into birds, wolves, bears and deer. The societies of the Adena culture 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 of the Common Era, 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 built enormous mounds and 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 sizable classes of 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. [Read more: “Moundbuilders of the Mississippi”]
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 near and on top of each other, sometimes creating apartment-style buildings four or five stories high. In addition to creating a closely connected community, the pueblos served as defense against robbers and roving bands. The most elaborate pueblo settlement was that of Chaco Canyon in today’s New Mexico. [Read more: “The kivas of Chaco Canyon”]
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 US. 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 and still inhabited pueblos in the southwestern United States. They are the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States.
- Besom, Thomas. Inka Human Sacrifice and Mountain Worship: Strategies for Empire Unification. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013.
- Bremmer, Jan N. and Conference at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, eds. 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.
- 550. Teotihuacán is looted and destroyed. Its pyramids are Mexico’s most visited tourist attraction.
- 250. Mayan Empire in today’s southern Mexico and Central America. Flat-top pyramids and garden cities in the jungle.
- 674–1122. The Toltec Empire, with Tula as its capital. Important cultural influences on the Aztecs.
- 900. Chaco Canyon is established as a major center for the pueblo culture. Construction of the great kiva.
- 950. Mayan cities are abandoned.
- 1050. The city of Cahokia is founded in the Mississippi Valley. Mound builders.
- 1200. Various nomadic peoples from the north, including the Mexica, arrive in the Valley of Mexico.
- 1325. Tenochtitlan is founded in the lake Texcoco.
- 1428. Alliance between Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan. The triple alliance is known as the Aztec Empire.
- 1438 – 1533. The Inca Empire is established in Cusco, with Pachacuti Inca as the first leader.
- 1463. Túpac Inca Yupanqui greatly expands the Inca empire.
- 1521. The Aztec Empire is defeated by an alliance of Spanish conquistadors and subjects of the empire.
- 1572. The last Inca stronghold in Vilcabamba falls to the Spanish.
- atepetl, Nahuatl. “City-state” of the Valley of Mexico. Prominent before the emergence of the Aztec empire.
- ayllu, Quechua. 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. 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. 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.