Collapse in the New World

Out of all the ancient states we have covered throughout the semester, the ancient states of the New World fascinate me the most. I must admit, I was most looking forward to going over Mesopotamia, as I have always been interested cuneiform, Mesopotamian mythology, ziggurats, etc. Professor Watrall’s lectures on Mesoamerica and Andean South America painted a vivid picture of how people lived in those areas of the New World. What interested me the most was that collapse for these states was centered around environmental disasters and European conquest. While environmental disasters conquest had a hand in the collapse of ancient states in the Old World, they play a more prominent role in the New World.

Going back to the end of the Classic Maya, we see a pattern of environmental disasters. From our textbook, it is suggested that three major droughts occurred during the last years of the Classic Maya period. Droughts can upend an entire society, throwing everything into chaos, causing death and destruction. It’s true that other factors contributed to the collapse, but the Droughts were the tipping point for Mayan collapse.

We see the Moche collapse from El Ninos and droughts. The Moche were hit with devastating drought cycles, causing crop yields to drop at a significant rate. The Moche also suffered from an earthquake that hit the Andes, resulting in the rivers being choked with debris from landslides. Even the Moche capital was flooded by an El Nino. At Tiwanaku we see the same thing again. A drought cycle brought Tiwanaku to its knees, spanning decades, leading to the inevitable collapse of the central government, and field systems falling into disrepair.

Aside from environmental disasters, many ancient states of the New World succumbed to European conquest, most notably from Spanish Conquistadors. Cortes lands in Vera Cruz in 1519; by 1521, Tenochtitlan was conquered. The Conquistadors, with their horses and guns, proved too much for the Aztecs, and the whole region was under Spanish control by 1531. A byproduct of Spanish conquest was disease. Disease ravaged the people of the New World, spreading through Mesoamerica and killing everyone it infected. Syphilis was the main disease that caused so much death.  The Inca would suffer the same fate; Francisco Pizarro and his soldiers laid waste to the Inca, which, up until that point, was the largest empire in the New World.

The ancient states of the New World are unique in the sense that their stories are one of extreme adaptability, having to adapt to extreme climates, but at the same time, being at the mercy of those climates and environments. Floods, earthquakes, droughts, and El Ninos all wreaked havoc across the New World. What also makes the New World unique is the records we have of Spanish conquest. We have exact dates of when these ancient states fell because of records kept by Spanish priests. Another thing that makes this unique is that this is contact (horrible contact) between the Old and New Worlds. It’s a contact that had devastating and tragic consequences for the people that had the unfortunate pleasure of meeting the Spanish Conquistadors.

2 thoughts on “Collapse in the New World”

  1. I agree with you, I was a bit more excited to learn about other topics like Egypt and Mesopotamia the would professor teach us this semester, but everything that was presented with the New World was captivating and left me wanting to learn more about the cultures there. The rise and fall of the many states of the New World interested me in how it happened over and over with many states. Some states turned into great centers and then they would fall to disease or famine, environmental disasters like droughts, and if that didn’t cause their collapse, European conquests would in the end. And yes, although collapse seemed to be inevitable once the Spanish landed in the New World, the Inca, Aztecs, Moche and others were extremely adaptable to the different climates of South America and Central America. Although for some it was their downfall once the climates became too extreme for their states to survive. The ups and downs of these interesting ancient states captivates and creates a curiosity for many. The constant rise and fall of once powerful states is what the focus of this class is and the states of Central and South America presents this perfectly.

  2. I completely agree with the concept that the New World had much more troubling environmental disasters that helped to lead to collapse. I see a damaged environment as a huge player in the downfall of a state since their main source of sustenance is now unavailable to them. What makes the new world unique though is just the vast majority of different disasters that occurred in the area. From earthquakes to floods to drought. There is no group of people, no matter how prepared and evolved they are, that can be expected to thrive after that drastic amount of negative change.

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