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, the peoples of the Americas had no connection with the rest of the world — although they had some contacts with each other — and their societies as a result developed entirely according to a logic of their own. 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 far smaller and more dispersed, and 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 — and neighbors both fought each other in bloody wars and made peace and forged alliances. Yet there was not one international system in all of the Americas, and 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 ways. For one thing, compared with the rest of the world they were quite quite limited in terms of the technologies which they had at their disposal. For example: although elaborate works of art were produced in both gold and silver, there was no iron and hence neither tools nor weapons made from iron. There were furthermore no cereals like wheat or rice, and instead it was corn, or maize, which fed the people. Indeed, according to legends of the Maya, corn is the very stuff from which both gods and humans are made. Moreover, in the Americas there were no horses, cows, and no domesticated sheep or goats, and 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 — although, at least for the Incas, wagons would have been quite useless in the vertical terrain of the Andes. And 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 major empires engaged in massive building works — irrigation systems, road networks, and enormous public buildings in stone, of which the 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 provided all the goods, including food stuffs, which people could not produce for 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. How common this practice was is debated among scholars and it is still a controversial topic. 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 impressing them with your might. For this reason, the Aztecs would much prefer not to kill on the battlefield but instead to capture their enemies alive and to take them back to their capital where they could be publicly sacrificed. 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 far better if 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 their subjects. Engaging in similar carrot and stick practices, first the Maya and then the Aztecs created large empires 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, who today are most famous for the colossal stone heads they carved of their rulers, and the Zapotec, along the Pacific coast.[Read more: The Olmecs] In addition, and like all other societies in Central America, early Mayan society was heavily influenced by Teotihuacán in central Mexico, a city with which they traded and from which the Mayan elite was happy to receive brides, indicating that the Mayas from an early age were sufficient important to engage in alliances. Mayan civilization inherited features from all these predecessors. The Olmecs and the Zapotecs had written languages, which the Maya adopted and perfected, and their kings practiced bloodletting rituals, a gruesome tradition which the Maya made even more gruesome. 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. Instead the Maya cities resembled sprawling gardens in which large public buildings were located, including large flat-top pyramids, administrative buildings and plazas. People lived here too, kept animals and cultivated the earth. The overall layout and enormous size of these garden cities have only recently been understood thanks to aerial photography.
Mayan society was as hierarchical as its flat-top pyramids. The state was ruled by a king and a royal house which acted as the 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 such occasion was the enthronement of a new king which was a highly theatrical affair, but kings were also known to engage in performances such as dances before and together with their subjects. Most spectacular of all, however, were the blood-letting ceremonies. The intense pain which they suffered as the members of the royal family were pierced and cut put them in ecstatic contact with a transcendental realm. A prince was supposed to go through such a ceremony at the age of 5, and the queen would have her tongue pierced and a thorny rope pulled through the hole. The ability to withstand such treatment was a sign of the spiritual superiority over the people they ruled. Far less gruesome were the ball games — known as juego de pelota — in which they engaged. These are the earliest team sports known in human history and purpose-built stadiums were constructed where large audiences would gather to watch the games played with large balls of rubber.[Read more: Juego de pelota]
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 — and for that reason there was no need to clear the jungle in order to provide for 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, or maize. 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 — and corn was even regarded as the very stuff of which human beings themselves 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: Chilies and chocolate] To wash it all down they drank chocolate, the cocoa bean being native to Central America. All in all theirs was an abundant environment; the world was rich and the gods provided for their people, at least in a normal year. There is evidence that ordinary people too ate meat on a regular basis.
In addition, the Mayas were businessmen who engaged in long distance trade across much of Central America and beyond. The kings and aristocracy imported gold objects from today’s Colombia and Panama, turquoise from New Mexico, and obsidian, a volcanic rock which resembles glass. In addition there was a flourishing trade in everyday goods, such as salt from Yucatán, across Mayan territory. The cities that became prominent, and were most successful in wars, were the ones who controlled access to the main trade routes.
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 1970s scholars realized that they constituted texts which could be read. A few Maya texts, known as codices, have been preserved, and they tell stories of kings, their reigns, honorific names and their greatest achievements. 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.
The Maya never created an empire properly speaking but consisted instead of a rather loose federation of related cities and states, including Palenque, Calakmul, Caracol, Mayapan, and Tikal. Relations between these centers were always unstable, alliances shifted and a state which traditionally had been subject to another could suddenly find itself on top. The kings formed alliances, exchanged daughters in marriage, gave tributary gifts and engaged in 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 take them back to one’s own capital where they were ritually killed in a public spectacle. Inscriptions show kings who were defeated, captured, tortured and sacrificed. Apart from these executions, there does not seem to be any human sacrifices in Mayan society.
Incidents of warfare increased in the tenth century CE, and this was also when several large 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 disappear. Indeed, they are still here. There are still some 10 million people who speak 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 language, and several of these scholars are themselves of Maya 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 Mexico City — is the Valley of Mexico, a fertile highland plateau located some two thousand meters above sea-level, and surrounded by mountains and several volcanoes which are at least twice as tall. 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 27 million inhabitants. Two thousand years ago it was the city of Teotihuacán which dominated the valley. With its estimated 125,000 people it was the largest city in the Americas at the time, and it was so crowded that some of the inhabitants even had to live in multi-story apartment buildings. Teotihuacán traded with most of today’s Mexico and with much of Central America, and until the city was sacked and burned in 550 CE it was a main adversary of the Mayan empire. 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 began to decline in the sixth century CE power shifted to Tula, capital of the Toltec empire, a bit further to the northwest. In Tula too we find impressive pyramids, and 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. [Read more: Teotihuacán and Tula] Subsequent kingdoms that rose to prominence in the Valley of Mexico, including the Aztecs, would bolster their power by claiming their heritage from the Toltecs.
The power of Tula too lasted about 500 years. Instead of being replaced by another large empire, however, it was replaced by an entire system of 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 there were as many as fifty of them. Each city-state was led by a king, 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, but the city-state was not a dictatorship. 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 the 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 connected. 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: Aztec 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 one 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. Although the Mexica fought successfully in the armies of their adopted state, relations with their masters turned sour once they decided to sacrifice the daughter of the Culhuacán king in honor of their own god. Thrown out in the 1320s, they were once again looking for a home. Next the Mexica allied themselves with the Tepanec state. The Tepanecs too were Nauhatl-speaking migrants who had come from 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. [Read more: Tenochtitlan] The location, on an island in the middle of the swampy lake Texcoco, was hardly prime territory, but as it turned out it provided excellent protection from attackers and the shores of the lake were 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 the city 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. 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 and to cooperate in wars of conquest against other city-states. All spoils of war were to be divided between them as would all taxes collected from conquered towns. Yet warfare was not always the best way to subdue enemies. Often threats of force were enough or lavish gifts or general offers of friendship or membership in an alliance. As a result, the practices of diplomacy and of warfare blended into each other, and even acts of warfare were often highly ritualistic. Instead of massive peasant armies colliding with each other, warfare was understood as a one-on-one combat between noblemen. Once defeated, the enemy was not killed but instead, much as among the Maya, taken back home and 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. 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, and 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 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 society was to be organized: only great noblemen and successful solders 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. The king himself was never to appear in public except on the rarest of occasions.
Early kingdoms of Peru
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The Inca Empire, 1438–1533 CE, was almost the exact contemporary of the Aztecs but it was located in the Andes, the vast mountain range in South America which stretches along the entire western side of the continent. 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. “Inka” 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 states which also corresponded to the cardinal points of the compass. Cuzco, in today’s Peru, was the capital of the empire 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 even 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 and everything he touched was burned in order to prevent witchcraft against him. The rituals performed 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. When the Sapa Inca died there was a period of mourning which lasted for up to a year, although he would continue to exercise power by means of his mummified corpse which continued to make occasional appearances in state ceremonies.
The government of the Inca empire was centralized and hierarchical. Below the Sapa Inca was his relative, the high priest of the Temple of the Sun, who in addition often served as a military commander. Below him, in turn, we find the nobility of Cuzco, made up of various distant relatives of previous Sapa Incas. The leading members of the nobility constituted a council which advised the Sapa Inca, but they were in addition responsible for choosing his successor. Although each Sapa Inca was to be succeeded by a son, it was never clear which one, and conflicts regarding succession often split the ruling elite and undermined the power of the empire. Below the nobility we find the leading members of ethnic groups who had been present in the region before the Incas rose to power. It was more than anything these people who staffed the imperial bureaucracy, 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 hieararchy 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 quipu which so far have not been deciphered.[Read more: Quipu] As a result, current estimates of the size of the population of the empire vary widely — from 4 million to almost ten times as many — but a common figure is 12 million people.
The economic basis for the Inca’s success lay in their ability to master the climate and the geography. They built enormous irrigation systems of terraces which 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, although 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 peasants grew the food they needed and kept animals — llamas and alpacas — which provided meat and wool. However, whatever surplus that was left over was gathered together by the authorities and stored in enormous store-houses. In fact, many other goods — clothing, ceramics, weapons, tools — were stored here too. In times of need these items were then distributed to the people. There were no public markets in the Inca empire and there was no currency. Instead whenever a particular item was needed, 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. People paid their taxes by means of agricultural produce or by working on the government’s infrastructural projects. The labor tax also included military service, and it was in this way that the Inca assembled their armies.
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 whole 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, guaranteed a safety-net and an insurance scheme to 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 the imperial conquests began. The first Sapa Inca of the empire, Pachacuti, 1438–1471, started 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. 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 Inca 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 seemed 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. Another tactic were 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. But 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. 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 most important of these public works projects, and the best way of connecting the provinces to Cuzco, was to build roads. Indeed, their extensive road network may be the Inca’s most stunning achievement. 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 of gorges. At regular intervals there were way stations — in total some 2,000 of them — where travelers could stop on their journey and where the authorities would store food, weapons and perhaps garrison soldiers. Travelers would walk on these trails and an official team of mail carriers would run. However, since the Inca had no system of writing, the messages the mailmen delivered were given in quipu or in a confidential multicolor coding system. 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 and ceques] According to the Inca belief, the huacas were connected to each other in lines of spiritual energy that radiated out from the center of the empire. Together these lines formed a spiritual grid in which all imperial subjects could find their place and through which they all were connected. 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: Machu Picchu]
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. What we have here are instead native Americans — “Indians” — who chase buffaloes, live in tipis, and engage in various “savage” forms of warfare. Since they are made up of hunters and gatherers, these societies are “stateless” by definition; they lack fixed territorial boundaries and have no political or administrative institutions. In fact, the very notion of “history” is sometimes said to be inapplicable to societies such as these. Life in North America, before the Europeans arrived, was frozen in time. As historians conclusively have demonstrated, however, these are prejudices with little evidence to back them up. In North America too there were plenty of sedentary societies, agricultural kingdoms and large states which grew rich from trade conducted in far-flung networks which included the entirety of the continent. There are indeed impressive monuments left by their activities. The fact that we know very little about these societies is our fault, not theirs.
The first societies identified by historians are those belonging to the so called “Woodland period,” which comprises the two millennia from 1000 BCE to about 1000 CE, and 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, elk, turkey, grouse, beavers and raccoons. But they did not hunt buffaloes. There were indeed enormous herds of buffaloes grazing further out west, but there were no horses in the Americas and buffalo hunting became economically important only in the course of the eighteenth-century. As for gathering, the people of the Woodland period collected nuts, acorns, mushrooms and wild berries, and some rivers provided a continuous supply of fish and shellfish which allowed them to sustain sedentary societies throughout the year. They worked leather, made tools and used pottery very widely. Over time an increasing number of hunters and gatherers turning to farming, slashing the trees, burning them, and planting seeds in the ashes. They grew gourds, beans, sunflowers, squash and, as always in the Americas, corn. The land cultivated in this fashion was highly fertile but deteriorated after a few years and the farmers had to move on to new land.
One main center during the early part of the Woodland period was known as the Adena culture, consisting of a number of societies in today’s Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia which shared a number of cultural practices, above all the tradition of building conical mounds which were used as burial sites and for ceremonial purposes. The dead were buried with various goods, including copper bracelets, beads and cups. The people of the Adena culture also produced various 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 states of Ohio and Illinois. The Hopewell societies continued to build conical mounds, but the most distinguishing feature was the very widespread trade in which they engaged. Historians have talked about the “Hopewell exchange system,” which, judging by the many exotic products discovered, must have connected much of the North American continent. These societies were not part of one state, but instead parts of an interrelated network based on trade. Hopewell societies were more complex and made distinctions between social classes. They seem to have been ruled by “big men,” leaders noted for their ability to attract followers and distribute goods and favors. Artists made use of the teeth from grizzly bears and sharks, fresh water pearls, copper and silver, in order to made decorative and ritual objects. Pipes for smoking tobacco, made from bone engraved in the form of otters, have been found dating from this period, which might have been employed in shamanic rituals. Tobacco, with mild intoxicating effects, was a way to induce transcendental states in their users.
Although the societies of the Hopewell tradition began to decline around 500 CE, the mound building tradition continued in the societies that flourished on the southern shores of the Great Lakes and in the Mississippi river valley between 800 and 1600 CE. Here there were large urban settlements, of which the city of Cahokia, in today’s Illinois, was the largest. On top of the pyramid mounds, wooden structures were erected which served as temples, burials, and centers for political administration and in some cases domestic buildings. The people of Cahokia were farmers, growing corn, but there were sizable classes of craftsmen too, and here too many engaged in trade, again with far-flung parts of the North American continent. Cahokia was a chiefdom with sharp social distinctions, inequality, and political and religious power was in the hands of a small elite. The Great Serpent, with wings and horns, is the most conspicuous symbol left on artifacts from this period. The Great Serpent belonged to a pantheon which included the sun, the moon and four stars. The falcon was another common symbol, understood as an avatar of a warrior and worn as an amulet that could longevity, a healthy family and many children.
Far further west, in today’s New Mexico and Arizona, in southwestern parts of the United States, we find the so called “pueblo culture.” Pueblo means “village” in Spanish and the village-like structure of the settlements was the first thing that struck the Spanish when they first came here in the sixteenth-century. The houses, consisted of apartments 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. This was the largest built structure in North America until the nineteenth-century. The people of Chaco Canyon built kivas, circular pits where used for ceremonial purposes, possibly as a way of symbolizing the emergence of spirits from the underworld. The number of kivas was proportional to the number of people who lived in a settlement. The Great Kiva of Chaco Canyon rival the temples, churches and mosques built in other parts of the world. Chaco Canyon was abandoned already in the twelfth-century, possibly as a result of environmental change.
There are today some 5 million people in the United States and maybe 1.5 million in Canada who count themselves as native Americans, corresponding to less than 2 percent of the US population. There are 562 federally recognized tribal governments in the United States. These “reservations” govern and police themselves and collect their own taxes. 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. The Natchez people of Oklahoma maintained their traditional Mississippi culture, including mound-building and other religious practices, until they were defeated by the French in the 1730s and sold into slavery in the Caribbean.