Category Archives: Student Blog Post 4

Societies Across the World Share Certain Similarities

From the idea of forming priest cults for divine kings, to human sacrifice to nourish the sun god, to ancestor worship, the strength and variety of ideology in societies is absolutely astounding. It appears that appeasing the gods has always been a large focus of ancient societies and still persists today. This took a variety of shapes and was more important to some societies than others. Beyond appeasing deities, many societies also worked to appease ancestors or spirits of important people, such as the idea of divine kingship in Egypt or the split inheritance of the Inca. Temples have always been a large focus in the majority of ancient states, and in the case of some (i.e. Mesopotamia) even had a great deal to do with the economy. This all goes to show the influence of ideology on the ancient state.

Traditionally, ideology has been thought of on an individual basis without much thought given to its effects on a society. This is unfortunate because ideology truly shows how similar many societies are in important values or basic aspects, yet the amount of specifics are incredible. While Mesoamerica was unique in the sense that the people believed in [human] sacrifice to keep the world functioning, is this terribly different from any other ancient state making offerings and erecting temples to various gods? The answer is no, it is the same idea just more extreme. The Aztecs in particular may have feared world destruction, but so did the ancient Egyptians. They had a deep fear of chaos and something going wrong with the Nile floods. Many societies worked to appease the gods, particularly over environmental concerns, which also shows the depth to which environment affects a society. In all ancient societies, the elites and the rulers were often religious in nature and also had a special connection with the spirits, and could intercede on behalf of the people to the gods. Perhaps the reason ancient societies had such powerful rulers was because of their environmental or ideology-based fears. Out of trust (or desperation) the ancient peoples may have given their rulers increased power in return for protection. Starting off as priests gaining more status, eventually rulers were born. This may be overestimating peoples’ fears, yet in societies such as Egypt or Mesoamerica this may have been part of the reason for absolute authority. However, there is never one reason for anything, and thus ideology is not the only reason elites could have arisen, yet it could be part of it. If elites did not arise directly because of ideology, they certainly used it to their advantage, particularly in cementing or legitimizing their power. Using peoples’ ideology in one’s own favor seems like a cheap shot, yet it certainly happened, and still does today.

How Geography Can Suck

The last section of class focusing on Mesoamerica and the Andean States has been my favorite because I find the architecture, ideologies (and associated rituals), and urban planning of these massive cities and regions really fascinating (among other distinguishing characteristics).  I was most looking forward to exploring the Aztec and Maya, because I had previously studied them (albeit not in depth), and already knew they were really cool.  I was more hesitant to travel south to the Andean region, but surprisingly, I actually found the region to be my favorite of the class.   The Inca are an incredibly interesting group, and I loved learning about the way the Inca state was set up (split inheritance and mit’a are absolutely brilliant catalysts [and ideological justifications] for conquest and domination of neighboring cities and towns).  However, what I found most surprising about the Andean region was the complete and utter control the environment had on the peoples who lived in that region.

I have an affinity for interactions between people and their immediate surrounding environments, or how people and nature come together to either live harmoniously or constantly struggle for power over the other.  Thus, the Andean region was a great case study for that exact relationship.  I knew beforehand  that mountains would naturally change the ecology and environments of different elevations and across space, but I didn’t realize the extreme nature of the geography of the Andean mountains and surrounding areas until lecture.  The climate shifted from one extreme to another both latitudinal and longitudinally, and with altitude; west of the mountains was desert and the higher up the mountains, the wetter and less inhabitable the area became.  The way that cities and people dealt with their environment was a common theme throughout the cities we looked at; states had to adapt to the surrounding environment or risk failure. The presence of the Andes shaped absolutely everything that happened to the states in that region, and ultimately helped fast forward their declines.

The declines of states due to environment talked about in class include: the Moche state which collapsed due to a severe drought cycle ca 6th century AD, an earthquake that stopped the flow of rivers, and El Ninos, that ruined the capital and coastal fisheries, and the Tiwanaku who were devastated by droughts that persisted over several decades ca 1000 AD.  Luckily, the Inca managed to avoid being decimated by Mother Nature and their environments, although they were screwed in an entirely different way.  It amazed me that powerful, prosperous states could easily be swept away if the environment or geography suddenly changed or proved to be too uninhabitable; that in all reality, the peoples of the Andean region were slaves all along to their surrounding environments.

Human Sacrifice

Of course, one of the hottest topics when discussing ancient states, particularly the Aztecs, is going to be human sacrifice. So yes, I would like to discuss human sacrifice, but perhaps in a different light. As we were learning about human sacrifice, and being a relatively religious individual, I couldn’t help but think of the law of Moses, described in the Bible. Particularly the portion about sacrifice, and naturally began to compare the two.

First the purpose of the sacrifice. The purpose of human sacrifice was to nourish Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec sun god. The need for nourishment was imminent, because this god was keeping the universe going, and without nourishment the universe was in danger. The purpose of sacrifices under the law of Moses was to worship or give thanks to god.

Second, the actual thing that was being sacrificed. There is first the obvious difference in that Aztecs sometimes sacrificed humans whereas under the law of Moses, sacrifices were usually some sort of animal. In addition though, Aztecs sacrificed prisoners of war, people who were considered beneath them and that they wanted to get rid of. Under the law of Moses, the sacrifice was always meant to be the best of the flock, the animal in the most pristine condition.

Of course, I’m not an expert on either of these practices, I just thought it was interesting to compare. In my mind, the word sacrifice means to give up something precious for something you consider to be greater/more important. Because of this thought, and my limited knowledge on Aztec culture, I had always assumed that the individual being sacrificed would be someone of importance or perhaps upstanding morality. I hadn’t even considered the idea that the entire nature of the sacrifice might be different than what I had known. They weren’t giving up something they loved to show respect or humility for the sun god, it was their duty, to save the universe, to nourish the sun god. I thought this view was very interesting and not something I would have previously thought about.

I think it’s interesting how much we can learn about a people and their world view through traditions they carry on. For example in this case, we learn that individuals who believe in the Old Testament in the Bible believe that their god is all powerful, he doesn’t need them, and to gain his grace they must make sacrifices in his honor. The Aztecs believe in multiple gods who, while being extremely powerful, need them to provide sustanance in the form of human sacrifice to be able to carry on in thier duty, such as keeping the universe running. For me, these kinds of topics are the most interesting things uncovered through anthropological studies.

Human sacrifice and other practices

Throughout my education, all the history and geography courses I have taken have always talked about the Mesoamerican peoples. Everyone has heard of the Mayan, Aztecs, and the Incans. Learning about some of their practices and other traditions as well as seeing photos of the massive pyramids they built were all part of the curriculum. With knowing this, I am glad we went over these ethnic groups in this course and it has just further peaked my interest. Like most people, I am particularly interested in the Aztecs and their human sacrifice rituals. I think the reason this is so fascinating to us is because we see this practice as cruel and so different than anything we do now. As I have come to find out, the Aztecs had their reasons for doing it and it seemed like they had no intent on stopping.

The Aztecs had one huge ideology: that the sun god needed to be nourished to keep the universe running. Let me explain: the Aztecs believed that the sun god was in constant struggle with darkness and in order to keep the darkness at bay and the universe running, the sun god needed to be nourished by sacrifice. These sacrifices were both animals and people. Most of the human sacrifices were captured prisoners of war (P.O.W.s) The Aztecs believed that every 52 years, the universe cycled. Meaning, that the sun god needed nourishment (blood of sacrificial claims) to keep the universe running.

Why does this interest us so much? I think the fact that the Aztecs sacrificed humans is what catches our attention. Though the Spanish did publicize and overly state how much and how often the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice to portray them as barbarians and uncivilized people, the fact is that they still did it and this is what fascinates us. Many other cultures have interesting practices, but when murder is involved you can bet that people will be more than interested to learn about it. I think something that is equally as fascinating as the Aztecs need for human sacrifice are the monuments erected in their name. Just like the pyramids of ancient Egypt, the Mesoamerican people built enormous structures that are still standing today. The fact that they were organized and skilled enough to build such lasting monuments is awe-inspiring and something that proves the intelligence of these people. I would love to be able to visit Mexico and see these awesome structures one day.

The “Mayan Doomsday”

Here’s a little excerpt from a long, angry rant thing (minus a bit of the angry verbiage for the sake of professionalism) that I wrote back in 2012, when everyone was still in the midst of all the “December 21 2012 is the end of the world oh nooo” thing.

For a little bit of background, around the time I wrote this, there was a post on Popular Social Media Website that I was getting pretty sick of seeing which claimed the following:

“There have been about 514 Leap Years since Caesar created it in 45BC. Without the extra day every 4 years, today would be July 28, 2013. Also, the Mayan calendar did not account for leap year…so technically the world should have ended 7 months ago.”

First off, this is worded very poorly. The original writer seems to be implying that if you take away the days given by leap year, we somehow end up in the future. This is obviously untrue, because it’s really stupid. Instead, what I think they meant was that the date would be 28-7-2013 if we used a calendar that consistently counted a 366-day(?) year instead of the 365.25-day year first implemented by the Julian calendar.

 Where this idea came from, I’m not sure. The Mayans did not have a 366-day calendar, or anything of the sort. I doubt many people even know what they’re talking about when they say all this nonsense about the Mayans predicting the end of the world.

 The Mayans are commonly believed to have used two calendars: the 260-day Tzolk’in and the 365-day solar Haab’. These two calendars did not identify years, but days. The combination of a Tzolk’in and a Haab’ date marked a specific “date” which would not repeat for approximately 52 Haab’ years. So, for example, the Mayan’s creation date is 4 Ahau; 8Kum’ku. This combination of days, one pulled from each calendar, would not repeat for 18,980 days, or 52 years. This period is referred to as a Calendar Round.

 Oh, but what if you had to keep track of events that happened in periods longer than 52 years? Well you were out of luck, then… unless you resorted to what is referred to as the Long Count calendar. The Long Count calendar counted the number of days had passed since the Mayan’s creation date and thus could be used to make more accurate measurements of periods over 52 years.

 The Mayan word for one day on the Long Count calendar is a k’in. Twenty k’ins made one winal, eighteen winals made one tun, twenty tuns made one k’atun, twenty k’atuns made one b’ak’tun, twenty b’ak’tuns made one piktun, and so on.

 First of all, one important thing to note, and another thing that makes comparing the Mayan to the Julian calendar pointless, is that the Mayans counted in base-20 and base-18 (most western counting systems use base-10). Therefore, 0.0.0.0.1 (representing one k’in) is equal to one day. But 0.0.0.1.0 (representing one winal) is equal to 20 days. Thus, 0.0.0.1.5 is equal to 25, and 0.0.0.2.0 is equal to 40. Since there are eighteen winals in one tun,  0.0.1.0.0 is 360 days, not 400. Given all this, one b’ak’tun (1.0.0.0.0) is 144,000 days, or approximately 394.3 solar years.

 Again, the Long Count calendar does not count years, but days. Specifically, the number of days since the aforementioned creation date, 4 Ahau; 8 Kum’ku, which is estimated by historians to be roughly around 11-8-3114 BCE on the Gregorian calendar.

 If it were not already incredibly obvious, you might have noticed that, given the way the Mayan’s Long Count works, it does not simply end. The Mayans didn’t predict a single thing about anything ending. 21-12-2012 is simply the start of the next b’ak’tun (13.0.0.0.0), roughly 5125.9 solar years after the Mayan creation date. It’s not the end of the world, it’s simply just the beginning of the next cycle in the calendar.

 Sandra Noble, executive director of the Mesoamerican research organization Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI), notes that “for the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to make it to the end of a whole cycle”. She considers the portrayal of December 2012 as a doomsday or cosmic-shift event to be “a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in.”

 In short, all this stuff about doomsday is nonsense and if people would do a little research then they would know that we should all actually celebrate on December 21, 2012 because it’s a huge deal to be around for the beginning of a new cycle!

 Oh yeah, and those of us around on October 13, 4772 will get to see the first piktun (20 b’ak’tuns, or 1.0.0.0.0.0)!

Feeding Hiutzilopochtli

The practice of human sacrifice is fascinating, especially when focusing on the ways in which the Aztec people conducted their rituals. The fact that a cultural group of people found it ethically acceptable to kill another human being in honor of a spiritual deity is awe-inspiring. The amount of dedication, organization, and brain washing it must have taken to convince people that presenting human hearts as an offering to the Gods is hard for me to comprehend. The ancient Aztecs were truly remarkable people with stranger than fiction stories, and their ways of religious worship are worthy of countless amounts of literature.

Although not formally known as the “Aztecs” until long after their era of cultural dominance and rather the “Mexica” people, the group that is now identified as the “Aztecs” took sacrifice very seriously. In modern culture, human sacrifice is seen as barbaric and insane, but in the time of the Aztecs, it was looked at as a way of saving the world and it was never taken lightly. They felt they were justified in the murder of the thousands of innocent humans in order to appease the diet of their sun deity Hiutzilopochtli who was in constant struggle with darkness. Naturally, in an effort to forever keep the ill-spirited darkness away, the “Mexica” people came to the conclusion that Hiutzilopochtli could be nourished through blood, animal, and human sacrifice – a practice that they felt was their job.

Keeping the sun god Hiutzilopochtli happy required the steady slaughter of a significant amount of people. Where were the Aztecs getting all these people? Surely they weren’t going to kill off each other until there is nobody left. They have to acquire these bodies from somewhere else in order to keep this cyclical process in motion, right? The answer: conquest.

The Aztecs were a conquest culture, traveling to areas near and far in order to gain resources/dominance and in turn spreading their cultural influences abroad. All of these excursions, battles, and political conflicts within the surrounding areas brought a lot of prisoners of war to the Aztec domain that would in turn serve as honorable gifts to Hiutzilopochtli above – keeping the universe moving.

Ironically, it was through the excursions of another conquest culture (Spanish) that the Aztecs met their match and lost a great deal of their power. Once the Spanish came in and spoiled all the fun, the Aztecs were overpowered, outnumbered, and have since failed to ever really recover the dominance that they once had.

 

Andean Potatoes

I had heard of the Andean peoples’ use of potatoes a long time ago, but with the subject brought up once more in class, I feel like talking about it.  Compared to the other regions discussed in class, the Andean peoples’ use of potatoes as their main staple crop strikes a contrast to the other regions in which grains became the dominant crop.  While maize eventually became a staple crop for the peoples of the Andean region, the potato did not simply get sidelined, but endured to remain the main staple in the Andean diet, even to today.   There are many questions I want to ask regarding the Andean peoples’ use of the potato.

One question is in regards to how the potato came to be domesticated.  As we learned earlier this semester,  while we may not know exactly how the various crops of today became domesticated, one common theory is that domestication followed discovery and extensive gathering of wild crops by hunter-gatherer groups.  Now, while it is easy to imagine hunter-gatherers seeing patches of wild wheat and other grains growing across the terrains they traversed, it is harder for me to image tubers like potatoes attraction much notice.  Unless the tops of potatoes were the only viewable “greenery” for miles, I would think that hunter-gatherers would ignore it in the face of other, more noticeable plants.  Of course, that is a modern prospective, as we can only hazard a guess as to the methods in which hunter-gatherers selected what they gathered.  From some research on the side I have learned that there were over 3000 varieties of potatoes in the region alone, so perhaps they were more noticeable than anything else.

Another question is to what effect if any the cultivation of potatoes had on the physiology of the Andean peoples.  For example, we know that the people of this region have over the centuries adapted physically to the low oxygen levels of their highland environments.  We also know that the teeth of modern humans are vastly different from earlier hominids as a result of millions of years of diet differentiation.  So, what did a diet that rested mainly upon potatoes result in for the Andean peoples?  Was the high starch content of potatoes a factor in their biology?  I would be interested to know whether or not the people of the Andean region today have higher than the common norm for starch in their physiology.

Finally, while we have learned about the paste making and freeze drying of potatoes in this region first done by the people of ancient Andean states, but I also wonder if like other ancient peoples, the ancient Andeans combined potatoes into a stew or porridge like meal.  Many of us today know or eat regularly potato soup, but I imagine the ancient versions of this classic dish may not appeal as much as one might think.

Tell me about the new world.

For this final blog post I wanted to discuss some of the things that we have recently been lectured on in class. More specifically I wanted to discuss the Aztecs and the Incas a little bit more as a reflection. The history and archaeology of the new world I am not as familiar with compared to that of the near east or Europe. For some reason I feel the history of the new world is shadowed in mystery and not very well understood. I couldn’t tell you why, but in South America I feel as if it was a barren place that was sparsely populated with low population density. I guess my preconceived notions are totally wrong there. Apparently South America as well as lower North America were quite populated and held some mighty empires that spanned great distances that rivaled that of the old world. The Aztecs and Incas were dominating empires in those two regions and deserve more attention.

For starters, as Dr. Watrall pointed out, the Aztecs had a population in the core city that might have ranged between 250,000 and 350,000 people. This is quite something considering that the city of Lansing has less than 200,000 people. What I find to be really interesting is that the Aztec empire as a whole might have had upwards of five million people under their control! This was not a small state by any standard. Also, I would never have guessed that Mexico City essentially is the continuation of the Aztec capital (mind blown). This state did collapse, but in some ways lived on in this manner. Further south on the western coast of South America, the Inca Empire was even larger. According to Dr. Watrall, the Inca win the award for the largest state in the new world, haha. The Inca Empire apparently had upwards of twenty million under their control. Formidable to say the least. The Aztecs and Inca had great power, but of course they did ultimately suffer the same fate… The Spanish found them and called checkmate. That will be another discussion!

So as I reflect on these two regions of the new world I realize that the reasoning for my original thoughts about “Civilizations” in the new world were probably due to an education that focused more so on European values and ethnocentric viewpoints (not by choice). From my own experience, emphasis on the new world in context of great peoples has been severely misconstrued. This even extends to even later cultures in North America like the Mississippians mound builders or even Native American culture. I think educators need to get more in the loop, if you will, with understanding the complex dynamics of early states and cultures in the West. Of course even my own language usage of “West” even shows a constructed dichotomy that makes the two hemispheres of the world different….