Of all the sites we studied throughout the semester, though many were extremely interesting and of great importance, the American sites stood out to me as the most significant. The sites in Europe and Africa were from the Old World, either a direct part of or influenced by the rise of Western civilization. The sites of the New World, on the other hand, were utterly independent of that rise. They represent a parallel development to what the inheritors of the Old World tend to think of as the single, inevitable development of the West.
This independence from the west applies to the Mississippians, the Maya, and the Inca, but each of these are interesting for different reasons. The Mississippians baffled Europeans for decades because the idea of complex civilizations in North America was seen as absurd. The Mississippians created an advanced culture capable of great feats entirely on their own. The same can be said of the Inca, who unified a vast empire and developed systems of agriculture, record-keeping, and inheritance that, while alien to Europe, were undoubtedly advanced. The most interesting to me, however, is the civilization of the Ancient Maya.
The Ancient Maya built greater structures and left a greater record of themselves than the Mississippians, but disappeared, their civilization sinking away into the jungle. This, to me, is what makes them more interesting than the Inca. The Inca collapsed at least to a great part due to the influence of European invasion. The Maya collapsed all on their own. Separate entirely from the continuity of European history, the Ancient Maya rose and fell, completing the full life cycle of a civilization without a word from the inheritors of Rome. We may still speculate as to what the Inca could have accomplished without the sudden curse of Pizarro upon them, but we know exactly how the story of the Ancient Maya would end – because it did.
It may seem strange to be fascinated by a civilization because of it’s collapse, but the existence of both a rise to such great heights and a fall into obscurity, both without any interaction with the Old World, represent something almost unique in world history. It affects our view of natural cultural development and of history as a linear march of progress. It informs us of what is essential to human societies, which parts of their growth and subsequent withering are the same whichever side of the Atlantic they appear on. It is this that makes the Maya so interesting to me – they serve as a microcosm of human civilization free from the baggage of Old World contact. Among so many great discoveries, they stand out as unique, and yet representative of greater, underlying characteristics of humanity.