History Summarized: The Maya, Aztec, and Inca


All righty! Let’s cover the great civilizations of the New World, from the time before the Old World made the New World New by killing most of the New World and reconstructing it to be way more Old World-y. That’s a mouthful. Anyway, three great civilizations: the Inca, the Aztec, and the Maya. The Maya, the Inca, and the Aztec? Um… Okay! Aztec, Maya, Inca? Hey! Nice! Okay, next problem: what’s the difference between them? Because before I started researching this video, I honestly couldn’t tell you either, because so often their stories are only told in so far as they relate to the Spanish conquest of the Americas. So we hear a lot about human sacrifices and smallpox, but not so much anything else and they all kind of blends together. But these societies were highly complex and had their own histories long before the Conquistadors showed up. And they were also completely unique and distinct from each other. The Maya have been around on the Yucatan Peninsula for basically ever and were subsistence farmers for almost the whole time. But their great cities mostly disappeared before the Spanish ever arrived. The Aztec empire was born from a triple alliance of city-states in Central Mexico. And they built up an amazing capital city in Tenochtitlan. Unlike the Maya, the Aztecs only lasted for about a hundred years before the Spanish wiped them out. And finally, the Inca were from South America, not Mexico. And they lived almost entirely in the western coastal mountains for over a century before the Spanish showed up. So we’re dealing with a decent amount of variety here, and it’s part of what makes it really cool. So before we jump into this, we should also take a look at what sources we’re working with. Archeology in most cases is pretty good, but in this specific instance, we’re also lucky enough to have decent written accounts. The Maya and the Aztecs both had pictographic writing, although it took us a good long while before we could actually translate any of it. First we figured out numbers in the Mayan calendar, and then in the mid and late 1900s we were able to translate more of the Maya script, and discovered that their writing system was syllabic rather than alphabetic. And, lucky for us, it turns out that a lot of the texts contain dynastic records. So the Maya actually recorded their own history! Which is really cool! The reason we still have a lot of Mayan writing is because a lot of it was written on surfaces like: temple walls, ceramics, and the occasional staircase. The Aztec writing system is a trickier topic though, since the Aztecs weren’t quite around for long enough to create a fully fleshed out writing system. From the surviving codices we have, we know that they certainly liked writing. But I say “surviving” because Spanish “Christians” burned almost all of their texts before, incidentally, also murdering almost everybody. Which, by the way, anyone in any situation who decides that burning information is a good idea is just being a dick. There’s no two ways about that. Luckily, we still know a decent amount about the Aztecs on account of Spanish writings about them. Meanwhile, the Inca themselves didn’t actually have a writing system. They instead had this really cool thing called a “khipu”: a collection of knotted cords of different lengths and colors used to record and convey information. Khipus contained all sorts of numerical information, like dates and events and whatnot. But we still mostly can’t decipher them, so it’s a mystery. Our other information on the Inca comes, again, mostly from the Spanish. So are the Spanish accounts of these civilizations biased and/or more likely to portray things in a more negative or exoticized light? Probably in some cases, yeah. But they’re the best we have so they’ll have to do. Now that we’ve got that sorted, let’s go one by one and look at some proper history. The Aztec and the Inca are actually relative latecomers to the party, as they really only came along in the centuries immediately prior to the Spanish arrival. Those two are contemporaneous with the Renaissance! So it is super inaccurate to label those two as way ancient, like we subconsciously tends to do. The Maya, however, are crazy ancient. But not quite as crazy ancient as the Olmec Civilization, the first fancy civilization in all of Mesoamerica, which flourished for two thousand years between 1500 BC and about 400 AD. Now that is old! While we have a fair amount of Olmec art and statuary thanks to our old pal archaeology, they’re still decently mysterious, which makes sense given how old they are. Slightly less old than the Olmecs is the central Mexican city of Teotihuacan, which is similarly shrouded in mystery and uniquely cool for how huge and well designed it was. Its most famous building, the Pyramid of the Sun, was built in the first century AD. But aside from the building remains in the city, we really don’t know a lot about it like, who built it or who lived there. The presence of some shattered statues points to evidence of some variety of popular uprising near the end of the city’s life. But still, not a lot to go on. Also, it might have been a trade empire? Again, we don’t really know. But it’s big, it’s old, it’s cool, and it was probably the inspiration for most of the subsequent Mesoamerican culture as we understand it now. So it’s worth a mention. Anyway, back to the Maya! Agriculture in the Yucatan Peninsula developed in the second millennium BC. And by about 500 BC, they had huge and awesome cities. In the centuries following 250 AD, the Maya were out in full force: building giant monuments covered in writing, connecting cities with trade, and just generally being an awesome civilization. This is impressive because it’s just kind of cool, but also because it was really hard to live in the Yucatan Peninsula It’s an exposed coral reef that’s basically impossible to farm conventionally. So they had to practice slash and burn agriculture where they slash down vegetation and then burn it to infuse the soil with enough nutrients to sustain crops for a few years, before moving on to another plot of land and letting the old forestry grow. Adding to the trickiness, rivers don’t really form in limestone, so the only naturally available sources of water were sinkholes called “cenotes”. So a lot of really intricate hydraulic engineering went into making the Yucatan livable. And if that all sounds labor-intensive, it’s because it is! It’s a minor miracle that the Maya were able to build the kinds of settlements they did with such inhospitable land. So while the Maya spent the centuries between 250 and 900 AD trying not to die of hunger and thirst on a regular basis, they were practicing their religion which is really interesting in how heavily cyclical it is. They believe that the world went through cycles of creation and destruction. And most of their deities have some hand in the cyclicality of the universe. The Maya also thought that no beginning or end was definite, and that when someone died, they went on a journey through the underworld and the heavens before showing back up on earth. Which may serve to explain why they were so chill with sacrifice. The sacrificing was also predominantly a priestly measure to delay the rebirth of the world and the collapse of the world as they knew it. But while their mythology may have thought that nothing has an end, history had other plans for the Maya. A series of droughts contributed to a gradual decline of Maya culture in the southern Yucatan Peninsula. Cities were mostly abandoned due to a likely mix of too many people and too little water. In the centuries after, the Maya gravitated towards the northern Yucatan where water was more consistently available. Cities like Chichen Itza and Mayapan became the dominant urban centers in the later centuries. Even still, those cities also gave way in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries respectively. So by the time the Spanish showed up in the sixteenth century, there wasn’t much left to conquer. So that’s the Maya for you. Real slow burn on that one. The Aztec to the northwest had a much faster history. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a series of independent city-states begin cropping up around the Texcoco Lake Valley in what is today Central Mexico. One such group of people, the Mexica as they called themselves, settled into an island in the middle of the lake and founded of the city of Tenochtitlan in 1325. The city and the culture developed and spread over the next century as trade increased and cultural and religious influence grew. In 1428, the Mexica formed an alliance with two other nearby peoples and the newfangled Aztec Empire began to expand their territory and conquer their neighbors. This wasn’t terribly bothersome for them because their warriors were really skilled. Not only did they conscript all adult males for fighting, but they used warriors from allies and conquered territories too. Plus their elite Jaguar and Eagle warriors were especially fearsome. In the course of conquering a majority of southern Mexico, Tenochtitlan, the capital, became only more and more splendid. Much like Venice the city was an island and it was dotted with canals in addition to its huge temples. It’s been estimated to have been several times as big as contemporary London, approximately the size of late medieval Paris. Yeah, that’s big. And, I mean, look at it! That is one pretty city! The Aztec also played a game that the Maya were known for called Pok-A-Tok. The game apparently involved getting a rubber ball into a high hoop without the use of hands or feet. The game was highly ritualized and meant a lot to the people who watched and played it. The end of the game involved some variety of sacrifice, but we’re not quite sure who it would have been or for what purpose. Unlike the gradual decline of Maya cities, the Aztecs lasted right up until the Spanish arrived. And since the Aztecs, unlike the Maya, were an empire, that meant that the Aztecs ruled over a lot of people who thought that they were massive knobs. So when Spain showed up and decided to take everything the Aztecs owned and also their lives, they stoked rebellions among the Aztecs’ often-annoyed subjects. Uprisings, plus smallpox, plus guns made for a fairly quick imperial turnover. But while blood was flying everywhere in Mexico, there was an interesting debate going on in Spain. See, while genocide definitely happens during the New World’s conquest, some people were debating its merits and whether or not it was justified. A guy named Sepulveda argued that the Aztecs were bad because of how much sacrifice they did and Spain had the moral authority to kill them in retribution. But a guy named de Las Casas argued that the Aztecs were their own people with their own ways and it wasn’t for Spain to step in and decide what was right and wrong. It’s really neat to see what types of arguments each side was providing as it gives us an interesting insight into the Spanish colonial mindset. The Conquistadors are rightly given a lot of flak for all of their Conquist-ing and genocide-ing. But we should recognize that the morality of genocide was at least on their minds. It’s a start, right? With Mexico covered, let’s jump south and talk about the Inca. The Inca Empire began with the one small kingdom of Cusco in the mountains of Peru. And it started expanding in 1438 to ultimately cover much of South America’s west coast. Seriously, this thing was HUGE! It might have even been the world’s biggest empire at the time! Even more impressive, it was multi-ethnic and it incorporated people through diplomacy as well as outright conquest. The Inca government was very specifically formulated and highly efficient. But the Inca, like we said, had no writing. So, well done! If having no writing was tricky, imagine what it was like building huge stone cities on the tops of mountains with no wheels! Yeah, the Inca hauled everything up those mountains with llamas and people! If mountainous cities weren’t crazy enough on their own, the Inca also had a network of hundreds of suspension bridges made only from woven fibers that ran all across the mountains. Their fiber-working was so refined that they could even make seaworthy boats out of it. The Inca infrastructure, which is amazingly well-adapted to the mountain covered coast, is almost entirely a result of their excellent central government. Terrace farming was also a huge factor in the ability of the Inca to live in such mountain-y terrain. Also, in the middle of all this, they figured out how to freeze-dry food and were also performing consistently successful brain surgery. So there’s that. Much like with the Aztecs, the Spanish showed up in the 1500s with intents to wreak shop and colonize everything. And they did. An Incan Civil War and the outbreak of smallpox immediately prior to the Spanish arrival certainly made conquering easier for them. In the centuries after, Spain would import tons upon tons of gold and silver from the New World and absolutely destroy their economy with inflation, sending them on a lovely one-way ride to geopolitical irrelevance within a century. I’m not saying Karma, but it kind of seems like Karma, don’t you think? Anyway, that’s Mesoamerica for you. Maya, Aztec, and Inca. Hey, there we go!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *