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.