Category Archives: Student Blog Post 4

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.

Adaptation in Moche and Tiwanaku

The thing that has always most interested me about anthropology is evolution.  It fascinates me to look at characteristics today and be able to figure out why they are that way, that there is a purpose, a reason, an adaptation which overcame a threat to survival.  Adaptation can be seen on many scales from accumulating over millions of years to just a few generations changing their way of life to better suit their surroundings.  I was at once intrigued when the South American cultures were presented as having adapted to a variety of extreme environments along the Andes Mountain Range.  Where these took place, in modern Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, have several directions along which the settings change.  The west coast contains a thin band of fertile micro-climates, the north is mainly desert plain and the east and south are decided more by the Andes Mountains.  The survival strategies in these areas ranged from alpaca and llama herding (animals who themselves are expertly adapted to their specific environment) in the highest altitudes where no agriculture is possible, farming of potatoes, maize, and beans lower down (though still fairly high altitude), and utilization of water wildlife along the west coast low altitudes.  One specific example we were given which I thought was very clever adaptation took place in the highlands of the south central Andes.  Here one difficulty is that it gets fairly hot during the day and very cold at night.  In order to adapt to this dilemma, the Tiwanaku people developed an agricultural technique, “flooded-raised field”, in which mounds of soil are built up above the natural level of the ground and canals are dug through them.  These canals are then filled with water, serving several purposes.  Most obviously this supplies the crops with moisture, but it also serves to absorb the heat of the day and emit it during the night, keeping the crops from getting too cold.

We also see these cultures’ political strategies adapt to the environment.  In the lowlands the Moche were able to expand their control by having several satellite political centers which each ruled over individual valleys.  This delegation of power increased their reach without making themselves move over several valleys.  Apart from their religious influence, the Tiwanaku seemed to have expanded their control by taking possession of trade – something both necessary and difficult in mountainous environment.

Though these cultures were well adapted to their extremely variable environment, it was still environment which in the end caused their collapse and led to the vacuum filled by the Inca.

Organization of the Inca State

Prior to this class, I had not learned much about the Inca state. I had heard the name Inca before, but never knew them to be the well organized, largest state in the New World that they were. I can’t help but notice the similarities between the organization of the Inca state and the ancient Egyptian state.

The fact that the Inca state can be compared to ancient Egypt is a testament in itself to the success that the Inca state experienced during its time. As we previously have seen with the pharaohs in Egypt, the Inca state was controlled by one ruler, that is, the Sapa Inca, who was mummified after he passed away. The Sapa Inca was considered to be related the gods, also similar to the Egyptian pharaohs who had a divine right to rule. This Sapa Inca tradition began with the Manco Capac, the first Sapa Inca, who founded the short-lived Kingdom of Cuzco, from which the Inca state arose.

I was intrigued to learn in class how these Sapa Inca, even after their deaths, continued to be involved in the running of the state. The deceased Sapa Inca’s possessions remained entitled to him, and were not given to the next Sapa Inca, a practice called split inheritance. The fact that this split inheritance practice was created and adhered to demonstrates the respect the Sapa Inca had for each other. Because the possessions of the old Sapa Inca were not passed on, the new Sapa Inca needed to find ways to obtain his own wealth. To obtain wealth, it was necessary for the Sapa Inca to conquer new lands, from which tribute could be extracted. Each new Sapa Inca’s attempts to gain wealth is what caused the Kingdom of Cuzco to continue to expand and become the Inca state.

The lands conquered by the Sapa Inca gave tribute to the state, or as it was known by the Inca, Mit’a. Tribute, which also existed in ancient Egypt, was not only used as a means for the Sapa Inca to obtain wealth, but helped to support the construction of large public works, like terraces and roads, that, without tribute, could not have been built. Tribute existed as labor, which was helpful because many laborers were needed to build complex works. Tribute also existed in the form of food, which was needed to feed the laborers so that they would continue to have enough energy to work on and complete these large projects.

The organization of the Inca state is physically manifested in the roads that were constructed, which were extensive, spanning the entire Inca state so that even the most distant places were connected. The fact that the state was able to gather enough laborers to complete such a large project also demonstrates the high level of organization of the Inca state.

It has been truly intriguing to learn about the Inca state. Considering the large territory that it occupied, it is incredible that the Inca state was as well organized as it was.

Aztec Human Sacrifice

I know this subject of human sacrifice is beaten and tired, but it interests me a great deal.  The Aztecs believed that sacrifices to the gods would keep the universe in balance. They had mainly two types of sacrifice: human and animal. Human sacrifices fulfilled both religious purposes and socio-political purposes.

Human sacrifices could either consist of self-sacrifice, such as bloodletting or sacrificing the lives of other people. The latter being the means of justification the Spanish used for their actions of persecution.  The Aztecs believed that they were the people whom the gods had chosen to feed them and keep the world in order and considered themselves the chosen people of the sun.  After some time, sacrifices also served as political propaganda.  The sacrifice of war captives, often obtained through flower wars as well as political warfare, and slaves (although men, women and children were also sacrificed) helped to validate the connections the priests and rulers had with the gods. These rituals also helped to strike fear into external rulers and common subjects negating ideas of intimidation, resistance, and other types of non-cooperation.

The victim, often dressed to represent the god they were being offered to, were led up the temple stairs and stretched over the sacrificial stone by four priests. The fifth priest would then extract the still beating heart.  In the case of sacrifices to the god Tlaloc, the heart would then be placed in the hands of his statue.  The Templo Mayor of the capital city of Tenochtitlan is a famous example of these type of sacrifices, where the bodies were kicked down the steps after the removal of the heart. The head was then cut off the body and placed in the skull rack. Heart sacrifices were the most common but not the only type of sacrifice.

The Xipe Totec cult also performed ceremonial gladiator and arrow sacrifice.  The gladiator ritual consisted of a type of mock battle. The  captive was tied to a large stone and given fake weaponry made of feathers.  His opponent would be equipped with real weapons and then carry on to ‘defeat’ the captive. The arrow sacrifice involved the victim being tied to a wooden frame with their arms and legs spread. Arrows were then fired at the victim, ensuring that the blood would run into the ground. Some sources say that the Xipe Totec priests would then remove the victims skin so that they could wear it.

These were just some of the forms of sacrifices the Aztecs made. There were many forms, sadly I couldn’t really find anything on animal sacrifices that they made. I have to wonder if the rituals for animal sacrifices were any different or maybe even more brutal than human sacrifices made.

Agriculture – The Foundation of the Ancient State

In my opinion, intensive agriculture is the most important primary characteristic of a state. Really, there can be no chance of a successful state if there is no source of food. According to the lectures, the birth of agriculture took place in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East around 11,000 years ago, most likely because of how rich the soils were there. However, agriculture didn’t happen at the same time around the world; it took time for each individual ancient state to figure out a method that worked for them. The changing climate also played a major role in the emergence of agriculture. At the beginning of the Holocene Epoch, there was a mass melting of continental glaciers, and this led to the overall temperature warming up, faster in some areas than others. Some of the glacial sediment that was deposited while the glacier was melting had contributed to the possibility of planting crops in some areas.

Each of the ancient states we studied over the semester demonstrated a mastery of agricultural practices, and that is a huge reason why these states were so successful. Not only was agriculture important to feed the citizens of these states, but also some foods that were plentiful could be traded to surrounding areas for foods that could not be grown in that specific area. Agricultural practices near bodies of water would have been relatively simple because of the rich soil, but attempting to plant crops in soil that had no capability to sustain a growing plant would have been impossible. Because of this, and because of the changing climate throughout the year, farmers had to be knowledgeable in irrigation practices as well as what crop to plant and when. Irrigation is just as important as agriculture, so much that one of the theories for the emergence of ancient states is irrigation. Perhaps the most famous example of how connected irrigation and agriculture are is the Ancient Egyptians, and how they manipulated the Nile River to be able to water their crops no matter how far inland they were planted. Soon after, other ancient states either adopted the Ancient Egyptian method or came up with their own way to ensure that their crops would be watered.

It was interesting to see how much specific crops have changed thanks to modern genetic modification; for example, wheat, corn and barley used to look drastically different than they do today. Because of this, they might not be as healthy as they were in ancient times before genetic modification.

Mesoamerican Sacrificial Rituals

Over the years, we have studied the Aztec, Mayan, and Inca people from Mesoamerica in our history classes. In these classes topics such as the rise and fall of the regions, the elite, and many other things have been discussed. A major part of Mesoamerica that has been discussed over the past few weeks in class regarding this region, is sacrifice and the rituals behind them. I am most interested in the Aztec people and examining their culture and sacrificial rituals. It has been very intriguing to learn about the reasoning to why these people sacrificed animals and even humans. The reasons were very important.

The Aztecs considered themselves the descendents of the Toltecs, which made them known as great warriors. Being a conquest state, the Aztecs were very powerful and dominant, and had special beliefs that had to be followed in order to survive. These people were huge practitioners of human sacrifice. Looking at their barbarian ways, the majority of people would consider the Aztecs savage and ruthless, but most of the sacrificing was done out of a religious standpoint. In order to survive, the Aztecs believed that they must sacrifice beings to the Sun God. The ideology behind is was that the Sun God, Huitzilopochtli, needed nourishment in order to keep the universe a float. This god’s job was to keep the darkness at bay and the universe running. The only way to nourish Huitzilopochtli was through sacrifice. The universe cycled every 52 years. With everything running on a 52 year clock, sacrifice became wrapped up in this process. There were blood sacrifices done by priests, animal sacrifices and human sacrifices. The human sacrifices were not an act of cruelty, but an act of the world. The majority of the sacrifices were captured prisoners of war. Known as a conquest empire, this explains why the Aztecs took prisoners of war usually for sacrificed. The number of sacrifices that occurred per year in unknown, but it was definitely a large number.

In previous classes, the art of sacrifice has been touched on lightly, but it was interesting to learn how the Aztec performed their sacrifices. There were temples that were that held the chacmool. The chacmool was the rain deity who had a direct connection to sacrifice. The Aztec would make offerings to this deity by cutting out the heart of the sacrifice and be placed before him. Then the body would be kicked down the steps of the temple.

It can be seen that the Aztec people were definitely a fierce and powerful group. Now a days, sacrifice is viewed as savage and cruel, but the Aztec’s religion said that it had to be done in order to survive and this was the norm. I find it very interesting how norms and beliefs change over the years and enjoy learning about them.

The Incas

I thought that learning about the Incas in the last section of class was one of the most interesting civilizations or ancient states that we looked at. First off, the fact that their empire was so incredibly large is outstanding to me. They were the only group of people in the region to unite both the South and North regions of their empire, which is one reason why it was so huge. Something that kind of seemed hard for me to grasp when we first discussed it in class, was the Inca idea of split inheritance. Split inheritance is a social practice in which a dead ruler is mummified and all of his prior possessions while living remain his even after he is dead. Things like his palace land or servants were all things considered his possessions after his death. The deceased ruler would attend all further meetings as well. (weird…?) There fore, the next ruler would in turn, receive nothing apart from his political power and political rights. As confusing as this seems at first, it actually helped expand the Inca state. This meant that the new ruler would have to build his palace within land that he conquered himself. The empire grew bigger and bigger because the rulers would want to gain as much land as they could to ensure a good afterlife. In order to build his new palace, he would use mit’a, or mandatory public labor that all adult citizens had to pay to the state annually. Wouldn’t this seem so strange if that was the way our government was today? What if that was the ideology of the modern United States? How far do you think we could expand? Would it end at North America or would we go overseas and take over European or African countries? I think that in modern times with all of our war technology, we would not get very far. We may expand on our Canadian and Mexican borders a little bit however, I think that if this were the way our government worked today, we would be in constant warfare and would not gain or lose any significant amount of land. What I liked about the Incas is that when they did conquer land and people, they did not instate their own rulers in those areas. They made a leading member of the local community a local ruler instead of kicking out old rulers. I think this is how they internally kept civil strife to a minimum for so long, although it was in fact one of the reasons for their eventual collapse, along with Spanish Conquest.


Ancient Roman Port

Through all the archaeology classes I have taken and articles I have read, I have learned that there is always something more at archaeological excavation sites. Whether it’s a new artifact that leads to a new interpretation or new questions or more to a site than was discovered before. In a previous class I had done a project on a port in Italy that was very important during to the Romans called Ostia. While surveying critical ports to Rome during the Romans height, archaeologists have discovered a new boundary wall meaning it was much bigger than they previously thought it to be. Through the use of “geophysical survey techniques”, specifically magnetometry, archaeologists found the boundary wall extended more down the Tiber river and included towers and three more warehouses which were much bigger than previously excavated warehouses. One of which being as big as a football field. This discovery pushes further evidence of commercial activities during the beginning centuries of this ports building. “Director of the Portus Project, Professor Simon Keay says, “Our research not only increases the known area of the ancient city, but it also shows that the Tiber bisected Ostia, rather than defining its northern side.” The Portus Project is working on the important ports of Rome between the 1st through 6th century including the port of Ostia and Portus, Ostia’s neighboring port.  Another building was also discovered but its use is still unknown, which is why I believe it’s important for archaeologists to revisit sites that have already had research done on it and for archaeologists to extensively excavate newly discovered sites as to retain as much information from that site as possible. This way archaeologists can get a better interpretation of sites. Professor Keay states, “Our results are of major importance for our understanding of Roman Ostia and the discoveries will lead to a major re-think of the topography of one of the iconic Roman cities in the Mediterranean.”  The workings of this project supports that going back to iconic sites like the Roman port of Ostia can give new insights and a better understanding on topics like topography of critical archaeological sites. With the advancement of technology over the last 50 years, archaeologists should revisit sites and use new technology like GIS to bring forward more information and better understandings of the important sites of past civilizations, like the Portus Project did for the Roman port of Ostia.