Learning New Things About Mesoamerican Cultures

It amazed me when we were learning about Mesoamerica and South America how much I did not really know. I can also see how our opinion about these groups is skewed because of the lack of detail provided when they are taught in school. Of course everyone knows about the main groups, the Aztec and Maya, and everyone is also taught that these peoples, the Aztecs especially, practiced human sacrifice. However, the reasoning behind it, as well as where these great cultures came from, is often not explained in detail.

For both the Maya and especially the Aztec religious, and some might say ironically, life sustaining reasons were the main factor behind practices like human sacrifice and blood letting. While these practices were often gruesome, the belief was that they were a necessary ritual to keep the universe balanced and the gods happy. More often than not, as we learned in class, prisoners of war were the ones to be sacrificed to the gods, not the Aztec people themselves. Although it was not unheard of. They would generally be put on an altar and have their heart cut out in a ritualistic way. These sacrifices were done to satiate the sun god, Huitzilopochtli, who was in charge of fighting the darkness and keeping the universe running. In the Toltec culture, human hearts were placed on a Chacmool offering stone. The Chacmool figure represented the rain god that needed to be appeased. There are also stone statues and carvings in Maya cities that portray priests performing bloodletting rituals on themselves. This was meant to be an offering to the god and to bring the priest closer to the spiritual world. Usually through hallucinations which were brought on by a lack of blood. So, as we learned, the reasons behind human sacrifice and bloodletting, was not just because of an affinity to be brutal and gory, although the practice was, but was to keep their gods satisfied and their lives in order.

Another topic which is not often talked about is the other civilizations that both predated and flourished during the time of the major civilizations. In Lowland Mesoamerica, the Olmecs were a dominant group that were around at about the same time as the Maya and a little before. They also greatly influenced all of the other peoples culturally who came after them in this area. The Zapotec were an ethnic group that originated in Highland Mesoamerica in the Oaxaca Valley. They traded quite a bit with Lowland cultures and during this time trade became more complex and settlements became larger as well.  The Toltecs were a group composed of highland tribes. Each of these peoples played integral parts in the development of later cultures and peoples as well as the development of Mesoamerica as a whole.

There are also some similarities between these New World cultures and other cultures around the world that they had no connection to or knowledge of. As we have learned throughout class, the sun god is often the most important and revered.  In Egypt, for example, the sun god was Amun Ra/Re. This was no different for the Aztecs, who’s sun god was Huitzilopochtli as mentioned above. Another similarity between the New world and other cultures was the emphasis in on their origin and who they descended from. For example, the Aztecs were adamant about connecting themselves to the Toltecs whom the Aztecs said were fierce warriors and the dominant group before them. In the Mayan city of Copan, there is the hieroglyphic stairway which details the life of Copan’s rulers and dynasties. This was used to legitimize Copan’s power and right to rule the surrounding area. These New World cultures, especially later on, also built massive temples and spiritual complexes to their gods, which were also where the sacrifices took place in the later cultures. Huge temples like the temple of Huitzilopochtli in Tenochtitlan, the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, and Tres Zapotes.

In the end, this last section of class, as was the rest of class, was very informative and enlightening. I learned a lot that I did not know and my interest in these New World cultures has grown. It also seems that the general view about these cultures could also be improved if schools stopped portraying them essentially as blood thirsty  and barbaric and looked at the reasons behind why they practiced what they practiced.

4 thoughts on “Learning New Things About Mesoamerican Cultures”

  1. Hey Melissa, great post! I agree with what you said about the knowledge we know and have been taught about these groups growing up has been skewed. Like you and many other people, I have always heard of the Mayan, Incan, and Aztec states. I have heard about the grandeur that was these states and some about their cultural practices, specifically the Aztecs human sacrifice, as well. I was also interested to learn more about the different groups that I had never previously heard about. The Olmecs and the Moche groups are just a few of the many different ethnic groups that comprised the Mesoamerica’s. It was so interesting for me to find out and learn the reasoning behind these practices. When we found out that the Aztecs made human sacrifices to keep the sun god nourished in order to keep the universe running, it really made me think about how different we all are.

    Every state that we have talked about in this class has made me realize that we are all so different. Each group has their own religious and cultural practices and traditions and they are all so fascinating. From the Aztecs and their human sacrifices to the ancient Chinese and their oracle bones and everyone in between, every group has their own ways of doing things. With that, humans are also incredibly alike and similar in so many ways. For example, a lot of the Mesopotamian groups have had very similar cultural traditions. From similar pottery styles to housing formats, to religious beliefs and practices, when living in the same area, people tend to blend together. We are all so different, but yet so similar at the same time.

  2. I agree, this was a good post. It hit a lot of the high points of lecture that I too found interesting. Though, I think the most salient aspect of this blog was the first point made about human sacrifice. It is indeed an action that becomes synonymous with the Aztec and Maya peoples, but unfortunately it is, like you mentioned, often portrayed in a dishonest way. The ideological justifications behind such actions were, to the Aztec and Maya, not justifications at all but a way of life; like you said, the rituals were life sustaining and crucial to the survival of the people who practiced them. In their eyes, they were doing the right thing.

    I think it is pretty obvious that people tend to abhor and rebel against ideologies or religious beliefs that conflict with their schematic perceptions of themselves, others, and/or their environments. This conflict is often a source of dissonance, hatred, fear, disgust, and in extreme cases, war. However, when I was reading the section of your post detailing the human sacrifices or bodily mutilations that the Aztec and Maya engaged in, I thought about rituals or gruesome practices that are done in this modern era with the same justification that the Aztec and Maya had for their ‘unspeakable acts.’ Countries today justify war because it is meant to sustain life as they know it, and keep their own ideologies intact. People die in gruesome and horrible ways all the time at the hand of someone who believes himself or herself to be totally justified in their actions. Even in the 2000s, we still use POWs or war captives as a means to an ideological end, as with Abu Ghraib. In big or small ways, all these actions are crucial to the individual or individuals committing them, because they are done to protect an ideological view (just like the Aztec and Maya peoples). I know this is a bit of a stretch, but I think a parallel can be drawn effectively. It makes me wonder why we, as a modern society, are so quick to blame and chastise ancient cultures for their barbaric and inhumane actions, when we are presently doing comparable things.

  3. I really enjoyed what you had to say about the Mesoamerican cultures. You made some very good points and I enjoyed the comparisons you made between the different cultures. Our opinions on the matter of how schools portray the Aztecs as being barbaric and gory does not tell a well-rounded enough history of their culture. Over the past few weeks, I found it very interesting to learn that the majority of human sacrifice was done out of religious practices. Learning about how the Sun God, Huitzilopochtli, had to be nourished in order for the universe to continue working was my favorite information I have learned over the past few weeks of this section. There was a reasoning behind the sacrifices that I never knew of before.

    Also, I liked how you mentioned the similarities between the New World cultures and other cultures around the world. The Sun God is seen in a few different cultures that we have studied throughout this semester. I find it interesting how different religions and beliefs work. How cultures that are on completely different sides of the world and at different time periods can still believe in the same or similar gods boggles my mind. Your post was very informative and interesting to read!

  4. You say a lot of good stuff here! So much of what we learn in schools about history is enormously skewed or outright incorrect, especially about societies or civilizations that have been long since been conquered by others. Mesoamerican culture was often presented, especially when it came to the Aztecs, as violent societies whose culture revolved around human sacrifice practices. I know I was taught that they sacrificed prisoners, people who won ball games, people who lost ball games, coaches of winning ball games, regular citizens… the list goes on. Often, the things we were taught about the culture of Mesoamerican societies were assumptions or generalizations based on misconceptions about the occasionally violent practices of these cultures.

    Though I’m loath to repeat an old cliche, history really is written by the winners. We learned in class that Spanish Franciscan priests are largely responsible for painting the native Mesoamerian people in a violent, negative light. Unfortunately, we know that this is the case for many occurrences throughout history where one culture has dominated another, especially through military action. I’m sure that the varied Mesoamerican societies are not alone in being pigeonholed into a much more basic, simpler, and generally outright incorrect views.

    This is why archaeology is so important to our understanding of history. Conquerers and others in positions of power can say whatever they would like about an extincted group of people, but nothing can change the evidence that’s hidden away in the archaeological record. Without the research and intensive investigation of the Mesoamerican sites, I highly doubt that we would know nearly as much about these incredible people and their cultures as we do. It’s a shame that they, and all others who were in a similar situation of history being recorded by the victor, are still to this day misrepresented as being so much less complex than they are. Especially in schools! Spreading such misconceptions about ancient cultures is criminal and sort of disappointing to the educators themselves.

    Basically, it’s the job of modern-day historians and archaeologists to challenge these misconceptions and educate others. A big theme I noticed in this class was the cyclical nature of the rising and falling of ancient societies; where one falls, more sprout up in its wake. Perhaps it’s worth considering that, if we continue to spread misconceptions about ancient societies then we have nothing we can learn from them; if there’s nothing we can learn from them, will we be doomed to repeat their failure?

Leave a Reply