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’s 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. 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 rain forests, deserts, prairies, and some of the highest mountains in the world.
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 CE. Despite the enormous distances involved, trade connected these various communities — people in North America, for example, sold turquoise to the Aztecs; neighbors both fought each other in bloody wars, made peace and forged alliances. Yet there was not one international system in all of the Americas. As a result it makes most sense to discuss the Maya, the Aztecs and the Inca separately.
And yet, societies in the Americas resemble each other in various 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, 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 wagon would have been quite useless in the dense jungles of the Mayan empire or in the vertical terrain of the Andes.
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 all 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 food stuffs, which people could not produce themselves.
Each empire was held together by a strong sense of a political community, created by means of public performances which were staged in squares and on the top of the pyramids. The most notorious example 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 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 peoples.
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 the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico, 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 these predecessors. The Olmecs had a written language, which the Maya adopted and perfected, and their 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 rain-forest, they had none of the urban feel we associate with cities elsewhere in the world. The cities were not laid out on a grid-pattern, had no walls surrounding them, and included plenty of farmers too. 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 laser photography. [Read more: “Angkor Wat“]
Mayan society was sharply hierarchical. 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 peaceful and to convince the gods to grant plentiful harvests and success in wars. The king ruled the political, administrative and judicial system 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 Maya rulers rested heavily on the public displays of power in which they engaged. As elsewhere in the world, statecraft and stagecraft were closely associated. One occasion was the enthronement of a new king which was a highly theatrical affair, but the kings would also dance before and together with their subjects. Most spectacular of all, however, were the blood-letting 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 Mayans 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, squashes 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 Mayas were businessmen who engaged in long distance trade across much of Central America and beyond. Kings and the aristocracy imported objects made from gold from today’s Colombia and Panama, 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 Maya code“] A few Maya texts, known as codices, have been preserved. They tell stories of kings, their reigns, honorific names and their greatest achievements. [Read more: “Native codices“] 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, alliances shifted; a city-state which traditionally had been subject to another 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. Inscriptions show kings who were defeated, captured, tortured and sacrificed. Apart from these executions, there does not seem to have been any human sacrifices in Mayan society.
Incidents of warfare increased in the tenth century CE. This was also when several of the large Mayan cities began to decline. Some scholars, and many documentaries on YouTube, discuss the “mystery of the disappearance of Mayan civilization.” Yet the Maya did not actually 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 relies 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 Mayas 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 two thousand 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, 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 already 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. [Read more: “Teotihuacán and Tula“]
Once Teotihuacán had lost its position, power shifted to Tula, capital of the Toltec empire, a bit further to the northwest. In Tula too we find impressive pyramids. The architecture of the Toltecs had a profound influence on its neighbors and, much later, on the Aztecs. Ceramics from Tula have been found all over Central America and 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 form of worship. Subsequent kingdoms that rose to prominence in the Valley of Mexico, including the Aztecs, would bolster their power by claiming descent from the Toltecs. The Feathered Serpent, known to the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl, symbolized this 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 CE, a number of city-states, known as altepetl, sprung up in the Valley of Mexico. In the sixteenth-century CE 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 city-states ranged from friendly to the openly hostile. Many city-states 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 onto 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, and 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 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 CE. [Read more: “Native codices“] 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 Nauhatl-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 for themselves, Tenochtitlan, first established in 1325 CE. The location, on an island in the middle of the swampy Texcoco lake, can hardly be considered prime real estate, but as it turned out it provided excellent protection from attackers and the shores of the lake provided good agricultural land. The city expanded rapidly and since more and more of the new houses were built on stilts in the water, people increasingly traveled around by canoe. In 1372, the Mexica appointed a 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 CE. The alliance covered political, military and economic matters, and 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 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, warfare for the Aztec 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 CE, 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. The Aztec empire could perhaps 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 certain products such as dog meat. Vendors were organized into guilds and depending on their wares they were allocated to different streets. The Aztecs taxed the markets, but only lightly so.
A new legal code, established under Moctezuma, laid down the rules for how Aztec society was to be organized. The Aztec state had clearly taken a firm grip on society: only great noblemen and successful soldiers were allowed to build two-storey 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. Meanwhile the Aztec king never to appear in public except on the rarest of occasions. By his absence he would maintain the mystique of power.
The Inca Empire, 1438–1533 CE, was almost the exact contemporary of the Aztecs but it was located in the Andes of South America. In the Andes the highest 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 Ocean. 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: “The ancient 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 independently of their neighbors. One exception were the Tiwanaku who created a large empire in the first millennium of the CE, and then the Inca who did the same thing in the fifteen-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 and it was here that the Sapa Inca, the ruler, resided and where all the main temples and government buildings were located. From Cuzco the Inca controlled a vast area, some 5,000 kilometers in length, which included most of the Andes but also the narrow strip of low-land 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.
The Sapa Inca was an autocratic ruler who wielded enormous power. He ruled for life and was not only 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 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 appearances in state ceremonies.
The government of the Inca empire was centralized and sharply hierarchical. 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 military commander. 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 to chose from, and it was never clear who would become the successor. 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 more than anything 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% of the population. Exactly how many people who lived in the empire is less clear. The Incas kept excellent data on the population to be sure but the records were made by means of quipu, a rope-based language which so far has not been deciphered. [Read more: “Quipu, reading knots“] As a result, current estimates of the size of the population of the empire vary widely — from 4 million inhabitants to almost ten times as many — but a figure commonly cited is 12 million.
The economic basis for the Inca’s 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 the water, but also helped 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 further away. Communities high up in the Andes would often have contacts with people living along the Pacific. In the river valleys along the coast it was possible to grow beans, squash and cotton and from the sea itself came fish and shellfish.
Whatever surplus that was left over once the peasant had had enough to survive was gathered together by the 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 Inca 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 provisions 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. In fact, it has often been referred to in the propaganda by assorted left-wing movements throughout South America. [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 took place. The first Sapa Inca of the empire, Pachacuti, 1438–1471, begun by attacking people living in the Ecuadorian lowlands and in the jungles 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: “The ancient 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 whereby 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, and 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 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 when they were off on their assignments. The roads may be the most stunning of these projects. 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 side of the most precipitous cliffs, across the highest of mountain passes, and they bridged the deepest gorges. At regular intervals there were way 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.
But the empire was held together by spiritual forces too. In addition to the sun god, the Incas worshiped huaca, 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 Inca 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. Life in North America, before the Europeans arrived, was frozen in time. None of these descriptions is true. In North America too, it turns out, 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 their achievements. The fact that we know very 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 1000 CE. 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 in the Americas before the Europeans arrived, buffalo hunting became economically important 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 allowed them to stay in one place throughout the year. These societies could be surprisingly inegalitarian. Since groups that controlled particularly rich fishing grounds did not have to move, a society of different social classes could be sustained across generations. 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. The land cultivated through these slash and burn techniques was highly fertile but deteriorated after a few years and the farmers had to move to new land where new trees could be slashed and burned.
The Adena culture is the name given to a number of societies in today’s Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia which shared a number of cultural practices. 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 tradition, 200-500 CE, 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.
Hopewell societies were more complex than Adena societies and made distinctions between different social classes. They seem to have been ruled by “big men,” leaders noted for their ability to attract followers and distribute goods and favors. They had artists too who created objects from the teeth of grizzly bears and sharks, or from pearls, silver and copper. The objects were decorative but they also no doubt had ritual uses. A particularly striking example are pipes for smoking tobacco. Tobacco was used in shamanic rituals as a way to induce transcendental states.
Although Hopewell societies began to decline around 500 CE, the mound building tradition continued in the societies that flourished in the Mississippi river valley between 800 and 1600 CE. 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 remind 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 as centers for political administration. Cahokia was a chiefdom with sharp social distinctions and where 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, the moon and stars, but above they worshiped 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: “The mound-builders of the Mississippi“]
Far 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, consisting of apartments made in adobe and stone, with numerous rooms and courtyards built very near and on top of each other. In addition to creating a very 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. Its main construction contained some 700 rooms in five stories and may have housed as many as 1,000 people. It is as impressive as any large cathedral, temple or mosque elsewhere in the world. [Read more: “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 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. Today only about a fifth of native Americans live on reservations. There are 21 surviving and still inhabited pueblos in the south-western United States, including popular tourist destinations such as Pueblo Taos.