The Americas

Introduction

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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.