Mayan and Incan Civilizations
When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the New World in the 16th century they encountered and virtually destroyed two previously unknown civilizations. Never before had such a clash occurred because nowhere else on earth had civilizations arisen in complete isolation from each other and then fought to the death. Unless something quite strange happens, such an event will never occur again. The collapse of the civilizations centered in modern Mexico and Peru was sudden and devastating. They had developed in complete isolation from the Old World over centuries, beyond oceans, and then they were gone in just a few years. They left vast stone edifices expertly built that have survived numerous earthquakes, all without the domestication of large animals or the use of the wheel. Their legends tell of ancient peoples who lay the foundations of their cultures beyond memory from which they derived the bloodiest religious practices ever devised by man. They built cities on a scale with many European cities, one with 300,000 inhabitants. They controlled empires. They piled up gold and silver. Our task is to piece together what has been learned about their remarkable history before they were wiped out by war, disease, and the resulting famine and enslavement. We will start with the Mayan and Incan peoples, great workers of stone.
Only one thing is clear about the origins of this collection of peoples commonly referred to as Native Americans—they weren’t native to the Americas. American Indians migrated from Asia during the Ice Age either on dry land created by lowered oceans or on the ice of glaciers that did the lowering. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that these migrations may have been both by land and by sea in that simultaneous cultures sprouted in North and South America around 12,000 years ago. The ancient history of the Indian civilizations in Central and South America begins with a transition from hunting and gathering to the cultivation of domesticated corn, beans, and squash. Without these crops raised together in what is known as “three-sister” farming, the Indians of North America did not advance from cultures to civilizations. Our treatment of the wide variety of Indians that did not attain the status of civilization will be only cursory, but civilization can be an elusive concept—the Incan civilization did not possess a written language.
The distinction for the first people to achieve a civilization in the Americas belongs to none of those the Spanish conquered. An ancient people known to the Aztecs as the Olmec actually produced an advanced culture as early as 1,000 B. C. in what is today Mexico. Their mysterious culture had priestly-rulers of a cult of a half-man, half-jaguar god that held sway over thousands of peasants. Olmec artisans sculpted in basalt and in jade. The Olmec even possessed hieroglyphic writing. Other Indians invaded their territory, however, and destroyed their population centers by 400 B. C. Keep in mind that the third civilization we’ll study, that of the Aztecs, did not even begin to commence until around 1200 A. D. Another culture we know even less about produced a pyramid nearly on the scale of those of Egypt (as wide but not as tall) dedicated to the god the Aztecs called Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent, at a city complex the Aztecs named Teotihuacan, or “Place of the Gods.” Located about 30 miles from Mexico City, this complex containing a total of three pyramids is the most impressive ancient site in Mexico, the ruins of which were visited even by the Aztecs on sacred pilgrimages.
Our first major focus, Mayan civilization, started centuries after the Olmecs and outlasted the people of Teotihuacan, briefly their contemporaries. The Mayans were a people with distinctive features—a sloping forehead and a prominent, curving nose that can be seen both on ancient monuments and among their descendants today. Mayan culture seems rooted linguistically and ceremonially in Olmec culture and flourished in two parallel centers, in modern Guatemala and around Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. While the ruins of their civilization have now been swallowed by jungles with trees over 150 feet tall, from 300-900 A. D. these areas were crisscrossed with roads that connected hundreds of pyramids topped with temples and thousands of other structures all of stone. The Mayan builders had the curious habit of enclosing old pyramids in new ones with steep sides. Courtyards have been discovered with as many as fifteen separate layers.
The Mayan practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, the very practice that threatens rain forests today. Giant trees were “girdled” having a ring of bark removed to kill the living part of the trunk. Repeated burning would fell the trees, and then Mayan farmers would live in thatch-roofed houses surrounded by corn fields in the resulting clearings. Every few miles of roadway across Mayan territory possessed its own minor pyramid, temple, and court where people from that region would gather. These gatherings were both markets for bartering of goods but also community religious gatherings designed to control the seasons and to yield successful crops.
These small roads were the offshoots of larger ones that converged on cities with taller pyramids with more elaborate and brilliantly painted temples of carved stone. Stone must have been constantly worked by the Mayans to have produced and to have maintained all they built in six centuries. They also produced pottery and elaborate costumes. The larger cities were most likely hubs of constant activity and, interestingly, were so uniformly spread across Mayan land that no firm capital city dominated the rest. The cohesion of such a society lay entirely in the rituals of a collective belief in the need to do everything the priests said in order to appease the gods. Priests ranged from what were probably part-time farmers in small ceremonial centers to what would be comparable to aristocrats at the large cities.
The priests were thus free to think, read, and write books on bark paper so long and hard as to come up with the concept of zero long before Europeans. Priests also must have carefully made astronomical observations over long periods of time because they made exceedingly accurate calendars including the fractional 365 ¼ days per year. Mayan carvings in stone were thus accurately dated. With this power of prediction priests so entirely dominated Mayan culture that we have no indication a secular government ever existed, and soldiers and merchants were both merely servants. As in Egypt, only this type of collective religious belief could harness the energies of ancient peoples to cooperate in the support of a priestly class and perform incessant building.
The wars with barbarian Indians that plagued the people of Teotihuacan seem not to have touched the Mayan civilization. Minor revolts are evidenced by a few desecrated religious relics, and priests are depicted in carvings as controlling prisoners. A brief period of around 50 years of turmoil likely associated with the collapse of the people of Teotihuacan ceased all ceremonial building, but then the Mayan prospered for about 300 more years. By 800, decline set in that culminated in the collapse of Mayan civilization by around 900. Surviving Mayan peoples remained in the Yucatan where their descendants were conquered by the Spanish, but the Mayan regions of Guatemala were vacated entirely and are largely unpopulated even today. While disease or soil depletion or both could have played a role in this collapse, it is thought that the rise of more brutal religious practices in the surrounding regions of Mexico had a destabilizing impact on the stable Mayan theocracy. The rise of new powers in Mexico supplanted what is called the classical culture of Central America, but at what cost? We’ll pick up that question tomorrow, but first we’ll go south to look at Incan civilization, every bit the rivals of the Mayan civilization in leaving eerie stone echoes.
As in Mexico, whatever the Incan civilization became was built on the cultural foundations of several peoples whose origins and even demise are lost. We only know some of what they did and what the Incans called them. The most ancient were jaguar-cult worshippers like their contemporaries, the Olmecs. These Chavin were the first Americans to work gold. Paracas were a people who produced brilliant textiles. After the birth of Christ the Mochica built huge pyramids while the Nazca made designs in the deserts of Peru that can really only be appreciated from an airplane. The earliest people known as Incans arrived in the Cuzco valley around 1200 to supplant a budding culture known as the Chimu, and that incursion predates the rise of the Aztecs in Mexico. That is why we have come south down the Andes to what is today Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile to deal with Incan civilization next.
A most striking feature of Incan civilization is that it accomplished all it did without the benefit of the wheel, a written language, or a means of exchange like money. The closest the Inca had to an ability to communicate ideas other than orally was a system of keeping accounts with knotted strings called quipus. What the Inca could do best was to organize. While their own origins are obscure, they were able to build on the political structure the Chimu had begun and build an empire only to be eclipsed in the Americas by that of the Spanish. Before the word inca came to refer to all of these people it merely was the title of their ruler, and apparently there were eight incas over the first 200 years of Incan history before Inca Pachacuti became the first great ruler. Under the assault of a neighboring people Pachacuti’s father and his elder brother fled to the mountains, but Pachacuti rallied the people and proved himself a skillful military leader by repulsing the invaders. He took over the throne of in about 1438 and had the presence of mind to create a corps of historians to memorize everything else he did. He is therefore the founder of the Inca empire.
Pachacuti could probably be referred to as Pack-a-llama because he loaded up the most convenient domestic animal with supplies for his army and swiftly conquered all his neighbors. He deliberately set out to unite all of the diverse peoples of Peru under his command. Few rulers have been so successful in organizing an empire from such disparate peoples, from the Chimu in their walled cities to herdsman milking llamas near the peaks of the Andes to naked savages in the eastern forests all speaking different languages and worshipping different gods. Pachacuti combined ferocity with diplomacy. He always explained why it would be good to join his empire before resorting to bloodshed. Local rulers could still rule. Both commoners and aristocrats would receive peace and prosperity. Local priests could still officiate in local religions that did not cause trouble. Resistance would be met with instant death or torture in pits of venomous snakes or wild beasts. Most people looked at Pachacuti, then looked at his army, then submitted. He also conquered by spreading the Cuzco language, Quechua, across his domain. All local rulers and young people had to learn it.
Pachachuti brought benefits like roads, irrigation, and other public works to his new subjects. He often displaced subjugated people and replaced them with loyal subjects but never made peoples shift the latitude at which they were accustomed to living. The Incan empire planted shade trees along roads and drained swamps. They conquered rivers and gorges with bridges and tunneled through the peaks of the Andes. Mountain roads zigzagged to reduce their slope, and while they were often only wide enough for a man and a llama to walk side by side they were paved with stone. Way stations refreshed tired travelers. All along the roads at one- or two-mile intervals, pairs of messengers called chasquis waited. When running chasquis approached a station the waiting chasquis would run alongside until they memorized a verbal message or could transfer a package or both. At this time this system of communication was the fastest in the world and could deliver messages or items 140 miles per day over three-mile high mountain passes. No other military could rely on such swift intelligence to amass its forces for surprise attacks or to stamp out revolts.
As Pachachuti aged, he left campaigning to his son and concentrated on bettering Cuzco, his capital city. Before the Spanish destroyed it one of their chroniclers wrote, “This city was the richest of which we have any knowledge in all the Indies.” Topa Inca, the son of Pachachuti, conquered even more territory than did his father and became the greatest Incan emperor. He spread the empire north to Ecuador and south to Bolivia and Chile. Conquered peoples were permitted to enter their sons into Incan schools and into the army. When Topa Inca was 1700 miles south of Cuzco and nothing more of interest presented itself, he erected border markers and marched home. He then conquered east until he reached the Amazon basin and decided that wasn’t worth proceeding. He is said to have even sailed as far as the Galapagos Islands 650 miles into the Pacific Ocean but ran into nothing but finches and turtles, apparently, and returned to consolidate his empire in a few years of peace. He died in 1493 shortly after Columbus had also sailed west to find interesting places to conquer. The two intrepid explorers never met.
Topa Inca’s son, Huayna Capac, had little to conquer but everything to administrate. He spent his reign moving along the roads a few miles every day surrounded by courtiers, bureaucrats, concubines, entertainers, soothsayers, soldiers, and servants. Wherever he was became the capital. The personal prestige of the Inca reached its peak here. Several omens portended doom from that point on.
The first Spaniard to see the Incan empire or to be seen by it was a lost sailor helping a Paraguayan Indian tribe attack some Inca outposts in 1523. Then rumors of ships with white sails spread inland from the coast. Then a man asked for an audience with Huayna Capac and presented the emperor with a black box. When the Inca ruler opened it, moths and butterflies flew out, an evil omen. Shortly thereafter a plaque, maybe smallpox or measles, swept the Incan empire going so far as to suddenly kill Huayna Capac before he could name a successor to his throne. When Francisco Pizarro came to Peru he mopped up the pieces left over from a civil war between Atahuallpa and Huascar, Huayna Capac’s sons. Those piles of gold, which the Inca called, “the sweat of the sun,” began their journey eastward back to Spain. Much to the surprise of the Spanish the Inca considered gold so plentiful that they made even fishhooks out of it. That gleam in the eye of the Spaniard who first saw a golden Inca fishhook was a bad sign.