Published on June 5, 2013 by Amy
In the Four-Corners area of the present Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico states was the heartland of the Anasazi people – the “ancient ones” in the Navajo language. Their culture began taking on its distinct characteristics about 100 B.C., but it became by the time of its climax the most extensive and influential by far in the Southwest.
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The first stage in the Anasazi development is called the Basket Maker. Over the course of this period the Anasazis developed and refined their ceramics and agricultural skills. Anasazi farming techniques included terraced fields and reservoir-canal irrigation systems.
After A.D. 750 a radical new architectural form has been developed by the Anasazi – the pueblo. This originally Spanish word for town or community has come to be applied to the Golden Age of Anasazi culture, the Pueblo Period, as well as to modern Pueblo Indians who inherited Anasazi cultural traits. Elaborately designed multi-tiered, multi-roomed apartment buildings resulted from this Anasazi breakthrough in technology. Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, started around A.D. 900, with its five stories and 800 rooms was a prime and stunning example.
From about A.D. 1000 – 1300 as Anasazi influence spread outward, the Southwest supported a growing population of builders, farmers, potters, weavers and other artisans. It was a culturally rich, creative time.
Then, starting about 1300 the Anasazis abandoned their great villages entirely and moved southward along the rivers. There are various theories for this mass exodus – the prolonged drought of 1276-99 and a change in seasonal rainfall patterns; nomadic invaders, in particular Utes and Apaches; fighting among the various pueblos; a depletion of the wood supply. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the evacuees established new, smaller pueblos and passed on many of the Anasazi cultural traits to their descendants, modern-day Pueblo Indians, including Rio Grande peoples and Hopis.
In Mesoamerica the first permanent villages (Ocos, Tehuacan, Oaxaca) were established around 2000 B.C. and the first pottery dates back to 3000 B.C. well before the first major civilization was formed by the Olmecs.
If any one group of peoples deserves the label “Mother Culture” or “Mother Civilization” of Mesoamerica, it is the Olmecs on the Mexican Gulf Coast. Tribes evolved into complex social structures. Crafts and handiwork evolved into art and architecture on both refined and colossal scales. Ritual evolved into seminal number and calendar systems and into glyph writing, all of which were to blossom at Mayan sites over the next centuries. Agriculture evolved into a network of trading partners. Indeed, this flowering of culture influenced the other cultures to spring up in Mesoamerica – among them the Maya, Toltec, Aztec, as well as other peoples far to the north and south.
Like most Mesoamerican civilizations to follow, Olmec society was theocratic, with fixed classes of priests, bureaucrats, merchants and craftsmen based in the community centers.
In terms of artifacts, the Olmecs were most famous for mammoth basalt heads (some as heavy as 20 tons), as well as for statuettes of jade, terra-cotta and stone, with cat-like “baby-faces”. The heads, for which the Olmecs dragged overland and floated in by rafts huge quantities of basalt, were possibly representations of chiefs or kings, dressed in headgear for ceremonial ball games. Because of linguistic and cultural ties between the Olmecs and the Mayas, and because it is not known what became of the Olmecs after their cultural decline, some scholars hypothesize that they migrated southeastward and were the direct ancestors of the Mayas.
The Mayas have been called “the Greeks of the New World”. The comparison expresses the high level of the Mayan civilization and intellect. For that matter, the Greeks can be called “the Mayas of the Old World”.
The Mayas inherited a rich cultural legacy from earlier Mesoamerican peoples, in particular the Olmecs. Their own greatness resulted not so much from innovation but from refinement of existing lifeways, as revealed in their intricate mathematical, astronomical, and calendrical systems; their hieroglyphic writing, both pictographic and ideographic, and perhaps even with glyphs representing sound or syllables; their realistic art styles in both painting and relief carving; and their elaborate architecture, including such designs as steep sided pyramids and roof combs.
The Mayan world, like that of the Olmecs, revolved around ceremonial centers. More than 100 Mayan sites are known in the “Mundo Maya”, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Most of these centers consisted of magnificent stone structures – temple pyramids, astronomical platforms or observatories, palaces, monasteries, baths, ball-courts, plazas, bridges, aqueducts, and reservoirs. Tikal, for example, one of the most important sites of Classic lowland Maya found in Guatemala, had 3,000 structures, including six temple pyramids, spread out over one square mile, and an estimated population of 100,000. The priests were the keepers of knowledge with their passion for keeping time. There were seven distinct Mayan calendars.
Although Mayan society was rigidly structured into classes, there is no evidence of a larger political system uniting the various population centers or of one dominant capital. The Mayas were not as militaristic as later Mesoamerican civilizations, without huge conquering armies. They did, however, establish far-reaching trade routes.
It is not known why the Mayas of the Classic lowland centers fell into a state of cultural decay about A.D. 900. One theory suggests that an agricultural crisis resulting from a fast-growing population and depletion of the soil led to a peasant uprising against the ruling priests and nobles. From A.D. 900 on, Mayan culture thrived primarily to the south in the Guatemalan highlands. A notable innovation that reached these southern peoples, probably from Indians in Peru and Ecuador, was metallurgy, including the use of gold, copper, silver, zinc and tin.
Still another strain of Mayan culture flourished after A.D. 1000 to the north, on the Yucatan peninsula, after an invasion by Toltec peoples who interbred with the Mayas and adopted their tradition and esthetics. New ceremonial centers, such as Chichen Itza, Mayapan, and Tulum, had their future.
They came from the north into the Valley of Mexico – “Sons of the Dog”. Small groups came as early as the 8th century. But it wasn’t until the early 10th century that one of these wandering tribes, the Tolteca-Chichimeca, managed to become dominant. Learning from the local cultures, they built a great city of their own – Tula – located on a defensible hilltop. In the late 10th century a Toltec empire had been established where had been independent city-states. The Toltecs became master builders. They erected palaces with colonnaded and frescoed halls, they constructed tall pyramids, they built masonry ball-courts. The Toltecs developed improved strains of maize, squash and cotton. They crafted fine objects in gold and silver. New forms of pottery appeared in Toltec culture, and weaving, feather-working and hieroglyphic writing were further developed.
As for the Toltecs who stayed in power in Tula and the Valley of Mexico, they were plagued by a series of droughts, fires and invasions of northern nomads. They had come full circle. They had once been the conquering Dog People; now they were being conquered in turn. Tula was destroyed in 1160.
The Mexicans migrated into the Valley of Mexico from the north. The date given for their arrival in the region is 1168. During the years that followed, they lived as wanderers on the fringes of the local cultures, sometimes serving as army mercenaries with their deadly bows and arrows. Supposedly in the year 1325, with no other choices left to them in the fierce competition for territory, they founded two settlements on swampy islets in Lake Texcoco – Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlan.
Tenochtitlan (the site of present-day Mexico City) proceeded to expand. The residents called themselves Tenochas conspired and fought their way to dominance over the valley’s competing city-states. The Tenochas then took a new name – the Aztecs – after the legendary Aztlan from where they were supposed to have come, and they eventually subjugated most people of central Mexico. Tenochtitlan became a city of hundreds of buildings, interconnected by an elaborate system of canals, with an estimated 300,000 inhabitants. And the Aztec Empire came to comprise five million people.
Conquest and re-conquest served two purposes for the Aztecs. First, it created and maintained their trading empire. Gold, silver, copper, pearls, jade, turquoise and obsidian were important trade goods, and so were the staples of corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, cotton, cacao, mangoes, papayas and avocados, as well as domesticated dogs and turkeys. But the Aztecs wanted more than just goods from the people they conquered; they wanted their very persons. Their second motive for continued military activity was the taking of captives for human sacrifice, which served as a function of the state for keeping order.
Religion permeated Aztec life. The Aztecs did not originate human sacrifice in Mesoamerica, but they carried it to new extremes of efficiency and fanaticism.
The Aztec emperors made their annual pilgrimage to Teotihuacan, the city that was largely in ruins. (Teotihuacan was built in 400 B.C. and destroyed by fire in A.D. 700, but the great architectural memories, the pyramids remained sacred places ever since.)
Of all the so-called “lost civilizations”, the Aztecs are the best known, being at the height of their power when Europeans arrived. Although the Spanish quickly destroyed much of the Aztec culture – temples, sculpture, writings – they also recorded considerable information about it.
The Incas originally formed one of the small city states in the southern Sierra struggling for political power. By 1438 they became supreme in that area; and in less than a century they conquered an Empire 200 miles wide that stretched 2,000 miles from north to south. Its northern limit was approximately the modern Ecuador – Colombia border and its southern, the Maule River in central Chile. The spread eastward was thwarted by the impenetrable Amazon jungles. Throughout the empire the Incas spread their own culture like a veneer over native traditions and ruled their new territories from purpose-built new towns with Inca-trained officials.
The Inca state was centralized and authoritarian in both its structure and policy towards conquered peoples. The Inca himself, “Son of the Sun”, was a divine ruler whose word was law. The common people were divided into ayllus, groups of related families living in the same place and owning their land collectively. The ayllus were grouped into provinces, each with its own capital, and the provinces were grouped into the four great “quarters” of the empire. Except perhaps for Cuzco, the Incas themselves did not attempt to build large towns, and the bulk of the empire’s population lived in villages and small rural settlements.
A rigid and uniform structure was imposed over most of the empire, with a direct chain of command leading from the ruler in Cuzco to the head of each individual family. The administration was organized like a pyramid. At the top were the provincial chiefs, below whom came the high officials who controlled the affairs of 10,000 households. They in turn were helped by subordinate officials responsible for 5,000 families, and below these were the ranks of lesser administrators who looked after units of 1000, 500, 50 and 10 families.
Cuzco was inhabited only by the court and the priests, but the suburbs contained houses belonging to the provincial governors and lords. These were built of stone and mud and had the characteristic Inca-style trapezoidal niches, doorways and windows. The Incas were outstanding builders, and to this day Inca walls stand up to earthquakes when more recent structures might collapse. The greatness of their engineering can be seen even if we look at the fact that when a new province was conquered it was first surveyed and plans drawn up for new lands or land improvement schemes to augment the tribute quota. These schemes included new irrigation and terrace projects and river straightening to drain marshes. The Incas grew maize, beans and cotton on the coast, potatoes and quinoa in the highlands, and the narcotic coca in the tropical forests. The amount of land under cultivation must have been very great and its production rates very high to sustain an empire of this size.
Despite this high level of organization, the Inca empire was basically non-urban, and only a few of the existing Peruvian cities continued in occupation during the Inca period. A road system linked all parts of the empire, and a messenger service carried reports from the provinces and commands from the capital. The government kept a census of population, farmland and stocks of vital commodities. It was the government which also levied taxes and labor service, controlled commerce, and made sure that supplies were sent where they were needed.
By 1437, less than 100 years before the Spanish conquest, the Incas had made their first substantial territorial gains for expansion of their empire. Inca religion, however, was not forced upon the conquered as Catholicism was after the Spanish Conquest. Each province was allowed to worship its traditional gods.
High in the Andes was one of the major Peruvian Inca cities, Machu Picchu. Abandoned some time after the Spanish conquest, Machu Picchu was never mentioned in official records and vanished from memory for four centuries.
In 1532, when the Inca Empire was at the height of its powers culturally and administratively, the Spaniards came and in the course of ten years virtually destroyed the Inca civilization. Some Cuzco nobles retreated into the Vilcabamba jungles and put up a spirited resistance, but by 1580 Inca rule had been broken once and for all.