Mesoamerican Civilizations The “big three”: Aztec, Maya, Inca James Bannigan
Aztecan ReligionThe Aztecs were a polytheistic people, worshipping several dozen gods; chief among these was Quezalquohuatl, the Feathered Serpent God who ruled the sky, the winds, and all other gods. The priesthood of the Aztecs was extremely zealous in their practice, sacrificing prisoners and committing cannibalism on the corpses.To the Aztecs, everything in nature had at least one god; to not sacrifice something , be it food, art, or other people, was a crime against them.
Aztecan PoliticsThe Aztec empire was initially ruled through three allied city-states that made conquest central to the Aztec identity. They were eventually united under the rule of Montezuma II, who controlled the vast area from the “floating” city of Teotihuacán, also known as Tenochtitlan, where present-day Mexico City lies... The emperors had great power, but they would always consult a council of merit-proven advisors before going to war or changing something.
Aztecan EconomyThe Aztec empire was only as good as its food supply... The main dish was maize, and most families would grow their own gardens in order to add fruits and vegetables to the diet; fish was the main protein that the Aztecs ate, due to the fact that hunting was difficult... The only animals that could provide meat—panthers, for example—could fight back.The Aztecs had no pack animals, so merchants would have to carry their wares by their own power. This was risky, though, due to the Aztec nature of human sacrifice...
Aztecan SocietyThe Aztec social structure was divided into five different parts: the Emperor, nobles, commoners, peasants, and slaves. Slaves were considered property, but their children were not born into the same social class; of these classes, slaves were the ones most often given to the sacrificial altar... Their military used weapons of wood, stone, and obsidian to conquer neighboring tribes of Mesoamericans.
Aztec Artistic SidesThe Aztecs, and many other pre-conquest Mesoamerican cultures, did not have a specific word for art; the closest that they came was Toltecan, meaning “of the Toltecs,” an earlier civilization that had been decimated by war.Much of Aztec art, no matter the medium, reflected a deep appreciation for the natural world. The Aztecs worked in wood, stone, precious metals, gems, and animal pelts, to create great pieces of art... Sadly, the Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez melted many of these treasures down.
Aztecan IntellectThe Aztecs had well-developed schools for the military, astronomy, mathematics, theology, and trades. They had a written language, called Nahuatl, that was essential to their empirical success. They had a counting system for use in trades and military, and even grasped the difficult concept of the number zero. They were essentially a civilization emerging from the Stone Age, due to the beginnings of smelting and smithing in their society at the time of their destruction...
Maya MythosThe Maya people had a view of deific ideals that was similar to their northern neighbors; they saw a god in every aspect of the natural world, and respected it greatly; they saw the sun god, Kinich Ahau, as their paternal figure... Their pantheon consisted of very few female figures, and was dominated by overly-masculine gods of everything from war to solar eclipses. Human sacrifice was a central ideal to them, and they later identified with the Christian idea that a god would shed his blood for his people.
Mayan PoliticsThe Maya were less a kingdom, and more an amalgam of allied city-states that shared a language and a religion; despite this, though, they were a society built on the blood of thousands of sacrificial victims from dozens of brutal wars... Their kings passed rulership down to sons, and no settlement was truly permanent—they lived as much in the jungle as in their small temple-centered towns.
Mayan ArtsThe Mayans didn’t have much metalsmithing, so most of their work was done in stone; their murals and ceramics were dyed in a color known only as “blue Maya” and the technique to produce the beautiful shade has been lost to time... Perhaps the best-known show of Mayan artistry are their multiple famous step-pyramids that dot the jungles of southern Mexico—the greatest of these, the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon at Chichenitza, correspond to the solar and lunar years so well that, five centuries later, they are only off by a few seconds...
Mayan AdvancementsThe Maya had extremely advanced masonry skills and a heavy emphasis on astronomy. Their mathematics system was a series of lines and dots, and could go into the millions... They raised terraces and created irrigation channels for easier farming, and their calendars were only slightly off. Most impressive, though, was their pictographic and logosyllabic system of written communication that allowed for swift messages to be carries from city to city, and took approximately four centuries to convert into modern English.
Mayan Social StructureThe Mayan society was exceedingly religious, regularly making sacrifices to their gods; slaves were often the offerings of these sacrifices. The small settlements, and the empire formed of them, created a delicate paradox that survived until the Spanish came... The most important non-noble and non-military personages were the Maya scribes, who wrote the multiple sets of codex that carried the Mayan history and allowed anthropologists to decode their language.
Mayan Economic StateThe Mayan people were very simple in their economic outlook; they farmed what they couldn’t hunt, traded when they couldn’t hunt, and fought when they couldn’t trade... Their irrigation and terracing techniques are probably what allowed them to be so successful as a civilization—compared to relative cultures, they were years ahead of their time. Their weaponry was Stone Age in material, with the beginnings of metalwork appearing by the time of their downfall...
Incan PantheonThe Inca believed not in the sun as their ultimate god, as most other Mesoamerican civilizations did, but instead turned to Viracocha Raska, the Condor God who controlled everything. They had gods for all of nature’s creations, a common theme in the Americas, but the condor was the greatest—its coming foretold the life-giving rains that allowed the Inca to survive. The two other gods that the Inca saw as most important were Inti and Qilla, the sun god and moon goddess. They also believed in Chakana, a planar “Tree of Life” with three levels: Snake, Puma, and Condor.
Incan AdvancementsThe Inca were probably the most technologically advanced American civilization until their destruction; they ground stones to create exact fits, they created a road system the size of the Roman empire’s own, they built ships from reeds and wood, they could successfully perform brain surgery, they had advanced metalsmithing, their astronomy was exceedingly accurate, and they were able to create several different dyes by natural processes. They valued their weaving—called quipus—more than their gold, as quipus was their system of accounting and mathematics... Their language was called Quechua, and it remains spoken—even in this day and age— by the descendants of the Inca people.
Inca Social LivesThe Inca were almost like early an early Mediterranean civilization; their women were no more than housewives, and they were empirical conquerors in the most extreme sense of the phrase... What sets them apart is the fact that jewelry meant exceedingly little to them.
Incan EconomicsThe Inca were a very agricultural people, farming for almost all of their food; they grew over two hundred different kinds of potatoes and sweet potatoes, maize, chili peppers, tomatoes, and nuts... In addition, they hunted and fished for meat. They grew cotton for their clothing, and also created vast storage warehouses that prevented a city’s death from prolonged starvation.
Politics of the IncaThe Inca were a class-based society, nearly feudal in structure, which lasted from their rise until their demise. The Incan empire, called Tawantinsuyu and ruled by Sapa Inti, “the Child of the Sun,” was formed of four federalistic provinces: Chinchay to the northwest, Antichay to the northeast, Kuntichay to the southwest, and Qullachay to the southeast. The kings were inheritors of their title, believing that the sun truly was their ancestor...
Incan ArtistryThe Inca were not as artistic as many of their Mesoamerican counterparts, like the Aztec, Maya, Toltec, Olmec, or even the Mexica, their architecture was centuries ahead of anything those other civilizations could produce; using no more than the raw physical power provided by man and beast, they built massive stone cities that had no space whatsoever between their bricks... Their textiles had the highest thread count in the world, often higher than six thousand, until the industrial revolution in the 1800s, and their metalwork was much more professional than any other American civilization until their annihilation.