Busting Historical Myths in Meso- and South America

In the last section of class I found that a lot of the things I thought I knew about the Maya, Aztec, and Inca, simply were not true. And I’m assuming that, because a lot of what I thought was true came to me through popular culture and our education system in the United States, I’m not the only student in class who had these misconceptions. So I would like to share some of these insights. I also think its important to note that when discussing pre-Colombian civilization in Mesoamerica and south America, at least in typical educational settings (or on the history channel) the prominent states that I mentioned above are the only ones ever discussed. So I really appreciated learning about other ethnic groups, and even whole empires, that are often left out of conversations (outside of archeology circles) such as the Zapotec, Olmec, and Toltec. The Zapotec, for example, essentially laid down the cultural model that all subsequent societies in the region adopted; yet I have never heard of the Zapotec before this course (as far as I can remember).   I also was previously under the impression that Teotihuacan was the great city and capital of the Aztecs. (I actually think I got this information originally from a Spanish class I took in high school, which probably oversimplified the historical narrative in order to teach basic Spanish). I know now that Teotihuacan, though it has religious/cosmological significance for the Aztec, at its height was home to several ethnic groups from around the area. Its original founders were not even Nahuatl speakers (I think?), though Teotihuacan is a Nahuatl word that was later used by the Mixtec (Aztec) to name the great city. The Teotihuacano civilization expanded significantly, spreading influence and appropriating other cultures in its wake, until it collapsed. One of the largest groups to come out of the collapse of Teotihuacan was the Toltec. The Aztec see themselves as descendants of the Toltec and herein lies the Aztec connection to Teotihuacan that previously confused me. It is refreshing to know a more complete narrative.


A few more comments: In recent years, surrounding the whole 2012 phenomena, Aztec cosmology, particularly the long count calendar, has become hip and trendy but there is a lot of confusion about what the long count calendar signifies. I’m not professing to be an expert or anything like that but from what I understand the end of the calendar signifies the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new chapter. It never meant the apocalypse or end of the world, though I have to say I’m waiting for those pages in history/life cycle/world to be turned.


Also the Incan state is of particular interest to archeologists but is often left out of the western historical narrative. In most high schools in America, I’m willing to bet, when learning about 16th and 15th century history and civilization; medieval Europe dominates the discussion. But we should remember that during this same period a far greater civilization with millions and millions of inhabitants, the Inca, existed in South America.

One thought on “Busting Historical Myths in Meso- and South America”

  1. I, too, was interested in the fact that usually, the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca are the popular ancient states. Before this class, the only other Mesoamerican or South American culture I had heard mentioned was in one of my high school Spanish classes. We talked about how the Aztec empire was built by a people who had migrated from northern Mexico to Lake Texcoco. There were many other peoples living in the New World around the same time as the popular three, and I cannot imagine that their interaction, whether through trade, diplomacy, or conquest, is unimportant. For example, the Aztecs made many enemies while expanding their empire, who eventually aided the Spanish and Hernán Cortés in defeating them. For the Inca, the collapse of the Wari and Tiwanaka is what allowed for their rise. Ancient states do not exists independently of one another.
    You mention that one culprit of misunderstanding was Spanish classes. In my previous Spanish classes, we have touched on history, but the class that I took senior year of high school focused on Meso and South American history. Predictably, we talked about the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca. I think you make a good point in saying that for the sake of learning the Spanish language, classes tend to simplify the history. For example, in my class we only briefly touched on the political structure of the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca in order to have enough time to read some of their religious myths. It is unfortunate that there is not always enough time to cover every aspect of an ancient state in depth, but in my experience classes do the best that they can.

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