The Americas

7. The Americas

Taken together the Americas, North and South, cover an enormous geographical area that 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 here 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 two continents 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. Yet all of the Americas were not connected into one international system, and as a result, it makes the most sense to discuss the Maya, the Aztecs, and the Incas separately.

It is at the same time also true that societies in the Americas resemble each other in distinct ways. For one thing, compared with the rest of the world they were all 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, and 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, there were wheels on children’s toys in Mexico, but 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 that 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. Moreover, each empire was held together by a strong sense of a political community, created by means of performances that were staged in public squares and on the top of the pyramids. The most notorious examples 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 to assure another year of plentiful harvests. But the aim was also political: human sacrifices were a means of instilling terror both in the emperor’s enemies and in his own subjects. Human sacrifices were public manifestations 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 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 also used. 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.