Category Archives: Student Blog Post 4

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.

The Use of Sacrifice to Satisfy

Within the Aztec empire the use of sacrifice is pretty sickening but intriguing nonetheless. I find that the drive for sacrifice being the manner in which they nourish and replenish the strength of their gods super interesting. You have to wonder how that idea first came into existence and how they pitched that to the rest of the people. It probably was not too difficult as they were a pretty war and violence based state. I’ve known that the Aztec were pretty keen on ritual sacrifice for a while, it was pretty much the only thing I knew about that region and its ancient states. What I did not know was that it was only the prisoners of war that were captured in order to be sacrificed to the gods. Huitzilopochtli was their sun God (the main god) and needed enoguh nourishment every 52 years in order to continually fight off the darkness and bring the light every single day. I also did not know that there were different types of sacrifice besides the sacrificing of humans. It’s interesting that the person providing the ritual would also give up their own blood to the Sun god but did not have to die. I also did not know that they sacrificed animals in order to satiate this hunger for nourishment by their gods. Previously, I only knew that the heart was cut out from the body. I did not know that it was done while living nor did I know that they were kicked down the stops afterwards either, talk about adding insult to injury.  Upon deeper reflection on the idea it makes sense though. If you want a strong state you can’t really be killing your own people because you would be losing that which gives you your support and strength as a government. Although we do not know if this is entirely true as the information was passed down through the conquerors from the Spanish which means that it could be biased in attempts to make the “savage” impression of the Aztecs. I do not doubt that it happened, we see artwork and other things that support the ideas, but maybe it was much less savage in manner and more ritualistic. We won’t ever know the true answer to it for some time if at all, but it still is a pretty interesting thought to swell upon. It definitely is something I would like to delve further into in my own despite the morbidness.

Maya ideology oh my!! blog #4

Mayan ideology is white interesting to me even though we can never fully understand another culture’s ideology we can try the best we can to interpret. The Mayan belief was that the world was too complementary dimensions the first one in which where they lived and the other known as the other a.k.a. the Otherworld. The Otherworld was where God’s ancestors and other supernatural beings existed they were all connected the Mayans saw their own dimension as three-layered the first was a starry arch of heaven the middle was known as the starting middle world which is the earth which was to flower and bear fruit and this was to be done by the blood of the Kings the last was the dark waters of the Underground below. Now as I’m reading the chapters in the book I’m also say that they believed there was 13 levels in the heavens and nine levels in the Underworld each watched over by a particular God. They believed the sky was a big crocodile like monster, when it rained that was the crocodile’s supernatural blood that was given to them when a human sacrifice was made on the earth. They also thought the human world was a floating city that was on the back of a crocodile animal or turtle and that the gods were concentrated at very specific points such as caves and mountains. the Mayan believed that the PowerPoint center could beat intensified and charged with energy this is like kings built temples on the same spot time and time again. Blood letting was a highly focused ritual the Mayan believe that bloodletting could give birth to a God or incest or make you able to materialize in a physical form on the earthly plane of existence this would not only done by eating meats but also by priests and even low peasant farmers.

Now I would like to move into a little bit of the Aztecs. Aztecs were one of the last tribes to be in central Mexico. Aztecs were very feared by other political groups because of their thirst for human sacrifice and other barbaric rituals. The Aztecs were highly stratified in the class. They were led by divine King and underneath them were nobles that belong to the royal house then the general large populace of commoners. the Aztecs main God was the Sun God and their life revolved around him, they believe the extinction of the sun would lead to the end of humanity. To keep their son got happy human blood was a central part of the ritual to postpone the end of the world. They would do this by ripping a human heart from the sacrifice person to keep the sun happy and to make sure of its rebirth. Sometimes it would not just be one sacrifice but one right after another heart after heart being ripped out of the victims and then the poor victim’s body being shoved down the Temple steps and another victim laid on the altar to have their faith sealed to appease the fungi. Sometimes once these bodies were thrown down the steps they would be flayed in other words to have the skin removed from the bodies and sometimes even be eaten by the people below. But to let everybody know these people who were sacrificed were 99% of the time war captives and they knew their fate. In some cases young men were selected each year and may you live in the lap of luxury all the best food all the pretty women but at the end of the year they knew they would be sacrificed, why someone would do this voluntarily I’m not sure. In some cases parents throughout the whole empire would turn over their infants and children should government officials to be used in the annual sacrifice rituals, while that shows a lot of love and compassion for your family. Now it’s believed many of these sacrificial victims along with soldiers who died in battle, people who were struck by whitening or mothers who died in childbirth they believe these people to spend eternity in various different paradises. Well I wouldn’t do any of this to see what kind of paradise I’d end up in this seems all very barbaric to me, but that’s what entices us to this Aztec way of life the whole barbaric way, it’s like they say it’s a train wreck you don’t want to look but you just have to. We as humans no matter what we say are drawn to this kind of grisly information it treats us to know more and why that it was done even though we  know we should not want to know or be interested in.

Aztec Religion Compared to Today

Within the last few weeks of class, a few different things have really stuck out to me in conversation. One of these things is the Sun God Huitzilopochtil which we discussed when talking about the Aztecs. I think that it is interesting to see how ways in which societies worship their Gods has changed, or not changed, with time. For example, to the Aztecs the Sun God was at a constant struggle with the universe. He was constantly fighting against the darkness of the world in order to keep them in the light. Today, however, many common religions see their God (or being which they believe in) to be superior to all things. People tend to not see those which they follow to be at a constant struggle, but instead guiding their lives and aiding in their personal struggles. Another prominent aspect is how the Aztecs pleased their Sun God as opposed to how many people please their Gods these days. The Aztecs main contribution to their Sun God was by sacrifice. It goes that sacrifices had to be done in order to please the Sun God and keep him available to do his work to protect them and the world. The sacrifices did not have to be human sacrifices, but a sort of sacrifice did have to be made in order for the Aztecs to please the Sun God. In many – but not all – cultures today, this idea is terrifying. The thought of taking the life of a living being is not ideal to many people, and many would actually see this more as a sin than as a way of pleasing whomever they worship. Many religions today express their faith though actions such as attending church, praying, helping in communities, going to confession, etc. This is quite a significant change in how individuals feel about nourishing their Gods. One thing that I do not think has changed, however, it how the Aztecs used their faith and actions toward the Sun God in order to produce power. The sacrifices which the Aztecs made is thought to have assisted in how they prospered, because it scared those around them. They were not trying to scare others purposefully, but they still put their faith first. Today many people who follow a certain God believe that their religion is superior to others, and when they try to express it do not consider others opinions or feelings. It is funny to think that with as much as the ways that people express their faith have changed, in the end people still use their faith or devotion to a God as a way to overpower others. In the end, people will always think the same in some ways.

The Inca and Late Andean Expansion

Knowing nothing about the early groups of South America before taking this class, one topic I particularly found interesting over the course of this semester was the Inca and their social structure and means of expansion. This giant empire, lasting only a short period of time, was the only Andean state to unite the Northern and Southern poles of the Andes. This successful unification and outward expansion was mostly due to their particular societal characteristics. To begin with, the Inca ayllu, or kin groups, were intent on ancestral worship and lineage, as well as reciprocity. Also, split inheritance, in which a new king inherits prestige but is required to obtain his own wealth through taxable labor, and mit’a, in which citizens perform mandatory public service as tribute to the state, allowed the Inca too become the largest Andean empire. Each unit of tax payers, ranging from 10-10,000, was assigned an administrator to handle local affairs. As kings began to acquire their wealth, they needed to levy more labor. Because many tax payers were already loyal to and worked for the previous king and those associated with him, the new king needed to obtain more taxable land. This required new kings to conquer new territories, leading to great outward expansion and unification of the Andes.

The Inca were also successful due to the early alliances they made in and around the Cuzco Basin. Through these alliances, as well as warfare, labor supply was readily available for tending to agricultural fields and construction work. By consolidating the region and initiating military campaigns, the Inca were able to intensify their agricultural practices as well as expand the polis. Expanding the boundaries of the state also allowed the Inca to establish strong long distance diplomatic relations. This type of expansion and control is comparable to that of the Roman Empire.

It was interesting to me that the people paying tribute to the state in forms of labor were in return gratified by the king. As mentioned earlier, the Inca were a group who believed strongly in reciprocity, therefore, the king was required to entertain and feed the tax payers during their times of labor in return for their contribution to the state. I feel this type of exchange is important for a successful state. Knowing that these tax payers would be compensated for their hard work and tribute, the kings expression of gratitude may have instilled the respect and loyalty of the people and increased the overall morale of the Inca, the more they are rewarded, the more willing they would be to erect more monuments, fix more roads, or tend to the fields as the polis continued to expand, contributing to the states overall success. It is impressive that a group only lasting a few years time would have been such an influential and powerful empire of Andean society.

Religious Texts

I have always enjoyed learning about the indigenous peoples of ancient Mesoamerica and the Andes. In my Spanish classes over the years, we have discussed them to various depths, and my senior year of high school, my Spanish class examined the history of Latin America from the ancient states to present day. We first read excerpts from the religious myths of the Maya, Aztecs, and Inca. The Spanish recorded the documents, so they did contain bias, but they also provide insight into aspects of their cultures. After reading these stories, the ideology behind sacrifice is more understandable.
The Mayan creation myth explains the importance of maize and consequently the importance of sacrifice. The myth that the Spanish recorded was similar to the book of Genesis. In the Bible, God created the world in seven days and seven nights, adding more and more creations until finally He created humans. The Mayan version tells a parallel story of the gods creating the world and ending with humans. This biased telling probably was a mechanism that the Spanish used to convert the indigenous populations to Catholicism. In Genesis, God creates the first man from clay. According the Maya, the gods tried multiple times to create a being to rule over the world as their servants, including people from mud, wooden dolls, and monkeys. Finally, they created humans from a concoction that included maize, which proves to be an important substance to the Maya. This also explains why the Maya practiced human sacrifice; they believed that humans were made out of maize, and their responsibility on Earth was to provide subsistence for the gods.
The Aztec’s story of human sacrifice is depicted as extremely gruesome and excessive by Spanish ethnohistorical documents. They built their capital in the middle of Lake Texcoco, where they saw a vision that Huitzilopochtli had ordered them to find, an eagle with a snake in its mouth standing on a cactus. As legend goes, Tenochtitlan was the location of the site where Huitzilopochtli had his son’s heart buried after he tried to rebel against him. Nourishing Huitzilopochtli with sacrifice, including hearts offered on the plates of chacmools, was the Aztec’s duty, so that he could keep the keep the universe running and out of darkness.
While human sacrifice is hard to understand because it is something so unimaginable in our society, to the Latin American ancient states, it was an important and necessary ritual for society to survive. By hearing the stories behind their beliefs, the indigenous point of view becomes a little clearer. While the Spanish altered myths and depictions of sacrifice for colonization purposes, they still provide valuable information as an addition to archaeological evidence when examining their cultures.

I Don’t Like Them.

I really, really hate the 16th century Spanish. I would argue that 16th century Spain was one the most, if not the most, destructive force in the world at the time. The root of not only collapse but the obliteration of Mesoamerican culture can be blamed on the Spanish. The Maya had script of which we have found a few examples on stone and hard surfaces but not much has been found on perishable surfaces. Why is this? The Spanish felt it necessary to destroy the Maya’s cultural belongings. The Spanish destroyed enough of the material to skew our interpretation of the script. Similarly, the Inca had a system of writing based on strings and knots called quipu. Quipu were kept by people called quipu camaya who the Spanish saw fit to kill. Because of this, how quipu is interpreted was completely lost. This is awful news for historians and the preservation of ancient American culture. We have no idea what this stored data means and we will probably never know. Something that may be worse the loss of material culture is the killing of the native people. The Aztecs had their existence truncated by the arrival of the Spanish. Hernan Cortes landed in 1518 and had taken the Aztec capitol by 1521. By 1531 the Spanish had control of the entire region! They had no business coming to town and destroying these peoples’ lives for gold. Not only were the Spanish lacking in respect for the native people of the land, they blatantly disregarded their well being. On top of disrupting daily operations and rocking the entire social system the Spanish introduced disease to the population, which would ultimately bring the Mesoamericans to their knees. The native people had zero resistance to the diseases that were introduced to them, including syphilis. I would venture to say that the Spanish were in fact raping the native women as a “spoils of war” prize, ultimately killing them further down the road after spreading the disease further. The Spanish literally killed thousands of natives by having (possibly forcing) intercourse with the native women. My LEAST favorite Spaniard has to be Francisco Pizzaro though. What a grade-A tool. Sure, he may seem nice at first, with his “I’m a diplomat” introduction and his respectful demeanor, but as soon as you let him get close he will kidnap your king and give you the choice: Gold or the king will die. Of course you’ll scrounge up all the gold you can and when you give it to him he will just strangle your king to death anyway. That is exactly what he did the Inca. Just four years after that he basically came back and destroyed everything and everyone. BOOM. That’s the end of everything as far as the Inca go. Man, I really hate the 16th century Spanish.

The Warmongers

To me, it seems that if you lived in Mesoamerica, you had an almost borderline obsession with war and conquest. A few of the groups that lived in Mesoamerica even went beyond the mere ideology of war obsession and could even be considered fanatics in the practice of war. Every empire that emerged was a conquest state. This differs from all of the other militarized states that we have looked at in the sense that when the other states expanded they would at least consider other avenues of expansion such as trade or diplomatic relations; this is most certainly not the case in Mesoamerica. As time goes on, the states appear to become even more and more consumed with the idea of military conquest.

First, lets look at a relatively late state to see what happens when fanaticism truly emerges: the Aztecs. Obsession can’t even incorporate an iota of the ideology that the Aztecs had with war. But, their obsession came from a religious belief. Their incessant need for sacrifice (as told by the Spanish) could definitely be a driving force in the Aztec war method. It honestly would have been amazing to see how much the Aztecs could have accomplished if they were not utterly decimated by the Spanish. Their need to conquer would have easily pushed their empire’s boundaries beyond what it already was. But, I would argue that they weren’t even the empire that was most concerned with militaristic conquest.

The Incas had the most militaristic ideology out of all of the groups that lived in Mesoamerica in my opinion. As I said earlier, the conquest ideology increased among the groups as time went on, so it would only make sense that the latest group we observed was the also the most militaristic group in Mesoamerica. I would argue that they were the most militaristic group in Mesoamerica since they had two powerful driving forces to fuel the need for conquest. An intertwining relationship between religion and politics that showed its face in the concept of split inheritance. Since no new ruler had the ability to tax any of the existing lands that were already under Incan rule, they had no other option than to completely conquer new lands in order to gain new wealth. This would obviously drive the new leaders to build an intense militaristic ideology that would form the basis of Incan culture in the relatively few years that they reigned.