Chapter 11 – The Americas on the Eve of European Expansion
Postclassic Mesoamerica, 1000-1500 C.E. 240
Major political and social changes occurred with the collapse of Teotihuacán of central Mexico and
the abandonment of the Mayan cities in the 8th -century.
This is the story of how those changes came about, starting with the arrival of the first organized
civilizations into what we now call Mexico and Central America.
From the north, nomads called the Toltecs moved into the richer, more fertile region of central Mexico.
They took up a sedentary lifestyle (which means that stayed put where they stopped) and brought
a more militaristic ethic with them.
The capital was Tula (est. 968) and the Toltecs brought with them a cult of sacrifice and war.
There is a legend that tells of a leader named Topiltzin, a priest dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl (the
Feathered Serpent); a leader who found himself, in later legend, merged with his god.
He endured a power struggle where he and his followers fled to the Yucatan (this is the peninsula
of eastern Mexico).
Centuries later, the legend of Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl was known to the Aztecs and may have
colored their reception of the Spanish when they arrived.
The Toltec empire expanded over much of central Mexico – around 1000, the Toltecs conquered
Chichén Itzá in the Yucatan (remember, this is that bit of Mexico that sticks out into the Gulf of
The region and states south like Guatemala, were either controlled directly by the Toltecs or
the Mayans under Toltec influence.
Toltec influence is also suggested as far north as the American southwest where groups there
survived on the trade of turquoise (that would be modern New Mexico and Arizona).
The Hopewell peoples of the lower Mississippi valley were seemingly influenced by outside force
between 1200 and 1500 and a likely candidate for that source would be a Mexican influence.
They survived on maize and bean in towns and villages along the Mississippi River.
They were known for stepped temples and burial mounds and seemed good at pottery that was
associated with ritual executions or sacrifices of servants and/or wives.
Some of those mounds can be found outside of Nacogdoches in east Texas.
There is a suggestion that the Hopewell had social stratification (that means people were broken
down into classes) in their societies.
The Cahokia lived near modern-day East St. Louis, covering 5 sq. mi. and may have had more than
Their earthen pyramids, as well as certain artistic traits and subjects (including feathered
serpent), indicate some contact with Mesoamericans but there is no direct evidence.
Around 1150, nomadic invaders from the north destroyed the Toltecs.
Toltec destruction left a void in the region filled by a shift of power from central Mexico to
the valley of Mexico with three lakes connected by marshes at its center.
Densely populated settlements lay on shores of the waters of these three lakes.
This region became a center of postclassical Mexico (remember, that is after 600 CE) and many
wanna-be leaders tried to jockey for position in controlling this region.
The Aztecs (they called themselves Mexica – that is where the name Mexico comes from) won control
over the region.
The Aztecs would turn out to be one of the great civilizations but at the beginning, they were an
unlikely candidate for controlling the region.
Legend has it that the Aztecs knew agriculture and “civilized” life because they once lived in
the valley but were kicked out some time ago.
They lived in exile at a place to the north called Aztlan (some think this may have been
the modern-day western half of the United States).
This story cannot be totally trusted – others say that authors of the story were Aztecs
themselves, told to suit their own purpose.
What we do know for sure is that the civilization had about 10,000 people who migrated to
the shores of Lake Texcoco, one of those three lakes in the central valley of Mexico
People living in the region at the time were Chichimec migrants and divided into small political
units that claimed authority on the basis of military strength and a connection to the
They spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Toltecs, and because the Aztecs also spoke this
language, it made their rise more acceptable.
Several powerful city-states made up the region:
Azcapotzalco was a real power but was challenged by an alliance centered on Texcoco.
Culhuacan – formally part of the Toltec empire, it laid claim to the legacy of the Toltecs
and created alliances by marrying off princes and princesses.
The Aztecs were warlike and aggressive and other powers of the region did not trust or like them
but their fighting skills landed them jobs as mercenaries.
They were normally allowed to settle for a while before being driven out as a threat.
The Aztecs were both admired and feared as fanatical warriors, dedicated to their gods and
offering human sacrifices.
Their legend said they would stop wandering when they saw an eagle on a cactus with
a snake in its beak.
The Aztecs apparently saw it and settled in the marshy island in Lake Texcoco.
1325 – the Aztecs founded their capital city of Tenochtitlán and later, on a neighboring
island, established the city of Tlatelolco.
By 1428, the Aztecs emerged as an independent power.
1434 – Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and the smaller city of Tlacopan (all Aztec) united in a
triple alliance that controlled much of the central plateau.
Along with increased territories, there was also a political and social transformation.
Conquests strengthened the position of nobles – the ruler of Tenochtitlán emerged from this
group as supreme ruler with growing powers, matched by growing boundaries.
Aztec domination, while allowing for smaller independent states among them, stretched
as far north as 100 miles north of modern-day Mexico City southward to the Maya
Subject (conquered) peoples were forced to pay tribute, surrender land and sometimes,
serve in military.
As result of the conquests, Aztec society became a highly stratified one and the central figure in
these changes was Tlacaelel, who served as the prime minister and advisor to three rulers
from 1427 to about 1480.
He rewrote many of Mexica’s history, stating they were chosen to serve the gods.
Human sacrifice was greatly expanded and wars were fought to provide slaves for the
Sacrifice became a practice of political terror.
By time of Moctezuma II, society was dominated by the king who was the
political (civil) power and also the representative of the gods on earth.
Religion was vast, uniting and, at times, oppressive – there was little distinction between the worlds of
the gods and the natural world.
Many of the gods worshiped by the Aztecs represented natural forces (rain, fire, water, etc.)
Each deity had a female consort or feminine form (this is similar to the deities within Hinduism).
The notion of a female side came from a basic duality recognized to be in all things.
Some gods, like in Hinduism, had at least five different versions of themselves.
There were three major groups of gods that a year of festivals and sacrifices surrounded:
Gods of fertility and agricultural cycle – examples being Tlaloc, god of rain and gods
of water, maize and fertility.
Gods of creation – this played a central role of Aztec cosmography.
Tonatiuh, the warrior god of sun and Tezcatlipoca, god of night sky were the most
powerful and respected gods to the people of central Mexico.
Gods of warfare and sacrifice was a notion built upon a tradition of Toltec beliefs and it
established a cult as based on gods like Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec tribal patron and others
including Tezcatlipoca and Tonatiuh.
The Aztecs had a great respect for traditional deities such as Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl, the ancient
god of civilization.
Huitzilopochtli was identified with the old sun god and was seen as a warrior in the daytime sky
fighting to give life and warmth to the world against the forces of the night.
As these gods needed strength to do their job, sacrifices needed human life in the form of
hearts and blood.
The Aztecs took militaristic images from the Toltec and took it further – the types and frequency of
sacrifices increased, including ritual cannibalism, which developed as a part of a cult.
Debate continues today as to whether sacrifices were due to religion or state terror.
While polytheism reigned, there was an undercurrent of spiritual unity.
Nezhualcoyotl, the king of Texcoco, wrote of an invisible, creative force but this
monotheistic trend, like the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten who tried to convince his
subjects of the same one- god thing, was not widespread or influential.
The Aztec civilization also wrestled with the same questions as others – is there life after death,
what is the meaning of life, what were the elements of a good life and where was the
evidence of the existence of gods.
Do flowers go to the land of the dead? In the beyond, are we dead or do we still
live? Where is the source of light, since that which gives life hides itself?…Are
you (the gods) real, are you fixed? Only You dominate all things; The Giver of
Life. Is this true? Perhaps, as they say, it is not true.
Nezhualcoyotl, Aztec ruler and poet
Aztec art combined their respect of natural things (flowers and birds) as well as hearts and blood to
provide fuel for the gods.
The Aztec calendar was based on religion and people’s thinking was cyclical – they felt the earth
had been destroyed several times and would be again (rather fatalistic thinking, no?)
Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, was considered a sacred space – the “foundation of heaven.”
The idea of a city-state with its ruler-spokesman was a key Mexican concept and it applies here.
The stone masonry and the woodwork are equally good; they could not be bettered anywhere.
Hernán Cortés, Spanish conquistador
The city, like others in the region, had residential districts, palaces and markets but the king also
enjoyed the use of a zoo and gardens.
By 1519, the capital covered 5 sq mi and had a population of 150,000 which was larger than
cities like Seville, Spain and Paris, France.
On an island, Tenochtitlán connected to the shores by a series of causeways and canals for water
Gazing on such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether what appeared before
us was real, for on one side, on the land, there were great cities and in the lake ever many more,
and the lake was crowded with canoes, and in the causeway were many bridges at intervals, and
in front of us stood the great city of Mexico.
Spanish foot soldier upon seeing the city in 1519
Present-day Mexico City was built upon the foundations of the Aztec capital.
Now, one of the big problems that any civilization has is how to feed the population.
Feeding the Aztec population in the capital was done through agriculture and Aztec innovations.
At times, they would appropriate conquered lands and demand a tribute in the form of massive
quantities of food.
Also, they set up artificial islands in which food grew using water from the lake upon which the
island rested (referred to as chinampas).
Most of these chinampas were about 17 feet long and 100-300 feet wide.
Four corn crops a year was possible using the chinampas – apparently, this system
had been used in pre-classic days but higher water levels prevented its
As water levels lowered again, the Aztecs were able to grow at a higher level than the
old methods of agriculture.
Dikes were also built to separate freshwater from brackish waters elsewhere (the floating
gardens of Xochimilco in modern-day Mexico represents the last bit of evidence of the
The Aztec peasants provided the basic foods where each community’s land was appropriated by the
Individual nobles might have their own estates (large plantations) which were run by peasant
workers or slaves.
Much of the trade was done by barter, especially in the local markets that ran in accordance to
the Aztec calendar.
In Tlatelolco, the market opened daily and was controlled by the pochteca (a special merchant
The markets were highly regulated and under the control of inspectors.
Despite the markets’ importance, this was not a market (capitalist) economy as we
understand it today.
Most resources were controlled by the state and redistributed accordingly.
Tribute was paid in accordance to whether the group fought the Aztecs or not.
If group did not fight, they paid less tribute (does that sound reasonable?).
Redistribution went heavily towards the nobility – redistribution interfered with the market and
created an odd mixed economy.
Aztec Society in Transition 246
In the U.S., there are various classes of people and that is usually determined by how much money they
make – not fair but there it is.
Initially, the Aztec society was divided into seven calpulli (clans).
Once in power, clans were not just based on the family but also residential groupings.
Each calpulli was responsible for distributing land, organizing labor gangs and war units.
Each calpulli was headed by a council of family heads but not all families were equal, just as
not all calpulli were equal in status.
The power and scope of calpulli increased as the Aztec power increased and as the empire grew
It was possible for commoners to rise to a noble class but nobility were generally a born-into
While birthright entitled one a chance, talent and competence ensured success.
Nobles controlled the leadership of priesthood and military.
Military was highly ritualized with several orders of warriors – jaguar, eagle and other
groups were differentiated by uniforms, banners and insignia.
As the Aztec grew in power, society became more stratified (divided) with a widening gap between
nobles and commoners.
The egalitarian principles disappeared as it did in the warring German tribes of early medieval
Europe (social distinctions are made clear by the use of/restrictions on clothing,
hairstyles, uniforms and other insignia and symbols).
As nobles grew in power and land-holding, a serf- like class developed that had more rights
than slaves but did not own land they worked.
Other social groups like scribes, artisans, healers and merchants had jobs associated with
towns and cities.
Merchants were used by the Aztec military for spies but state control limited the
merchants political and economic power (much like merchants in Kievan Rus’).
Some historians have used this information to suggest a growing social strife but various groups
cut across social levels and tensions associated with corporate groups were more
apparent and violent.
Aztec women did work outside of the home but their main focus was on the household and child-
The older women of a group were responsible for the education of younger women where
virginity was highly valued in brides and monogamy was the rule among commoners
(polygamy was common within the nobility).
Aztec women had “equality” but in terms of social and economics, they were behind men.
The lack of technology greatly affected the role of women and their day-to-day lives.
Egyptian and Roman women had animal and water-powered mills to grind corn and such
where Mesoamerican women spent six hours a day grinding by hand.
Most recent estimates suggest that the Aztec state had a high population and population density.
With population thought to be as high as 20m, demographic statistics point to the power of
the Aztec state to control large number of people.
The Great Speaker was the ruler of the city-state and came from the nobility class – an emperor that
took on the position of a living god.
The prime minister also had great power and influence and normally was a close relative of ruler.
The governing council, while important, gave way to the ruler and his chief advisor.
As the Aztecs grew and expanded, the ruler took on more absolute power while prime minister brought
the cult of sacrifice into a position of religion and state.
Tribute (that is the money that conquered people paid to those who took them over) served a
political and economic purpose (as long as city-states paid tribute, they were generally
Tribute was collected in the capital, making it a concentration of power and wealth.
The frontier region had independent states such as Tarascans of Michoacán while others such as
Tlaxcala served as loyal and fierce opposition to the Aztecs.
The Aztecs ruthlessly put down uprisings.
The Aztec successes in ruling over large territories are the same as the Mongols and Romans.
It was a case of political domination rather than administrative one.
The internal weakness of the empire was ruthlessness and terror spread by the
government that brought about its fall.
Twantinsuyu: World of the Incas 252
At same time as the Aztecs stretched across Central America, another group called the Incas began to
rise in the Andes of South America (west coast) and stretched over 3,000 miles.
The Incas used past Andean cultures and showed a knack for state organization and bureaucratic
control over a heterogeneous (that is a fancy way of saying multi-cultural) population.
They established a level of integration not known before in the Americas.
After the decline of the “horizon states” of Tihuanaco and Huari (c. 550-1000 CE), smaller states
reigned that were much stronger and influential than the power vacuum left in Central America
after decline of Toltecs.
Strongest of these smaller states was Chimor, a coastal kingdom centered on its capital of
Chan-Chan and one that lasted from 900 until its defeat at hands of Incas in 1465.
Groups emerged around Cuzco (modern day Peru), including several clans – ayllus – that lived under
influence of Huari.
1438 – these ayllus defeated their hostile neighbors in area.
At this point, the leader or Inca, Pachacuti (1438-1471), launched a series of attacks and
constructed military alliances to control area from Cuzco to northern shores of Lake
Pachacuti’s son, Topac (not Tupac) Yupanqui (1471-1493), extended the empire north to take
the former area of Chimor, taking its irrigation system before continuing north to
the southern area of modern-day Ecuador.
The Incas went south to modern-day Chile and battled some stiff resistance from the
By 1527, the Inca (or Twantinsuyu) Empire stretched from modern-day Columbia to Chile
and eastward towards modern-day northern Argentina.
The reasons for the Inca expansion and conquest included some of the normal desires of economic and
political power (as good a reason as any) but others are more in keeping with Inca culture.
Cult of ancestors – rulers were mummified and venerated as intermediaries with gods.
Split inheritance – from the Chimor kingdom and carried on by Incas, when a ruler died, his
power was given to his successor but material possessions went to male descendents.
To secure eternal life and empower his own cult, each Inca needed land and wealth that
could be gained by additional conquests.
In essence, the system created the need for expansion, directly tied to ancestor worship and the
cult of royal mummies.
Like with the Aztecs, social and political sphere was dominated by religion and the Inca was considered
the direct representative of the sun god but he did not forbid worship of other gods.
The Inca religion was a devout form of animism – huacas (holy shrines) could be temples but
also mountains, rivers and caves.
Temples were overseen by priests and women who not only officiated the religion but also
conducted the festivals.
Twantinsuyu (remember, this was another name of the Inca Empire) was divided into 4 provinces, each
under a governor, then split again.
Many local traditions and culture were allowed to continue under Inca rule.
This would make it easier for the Inca to maintain control if people could continue to
do their own thing.
Curacas or local rulers were allowed to maintain their position and given privileges by the
Incas in exchange for their loyalty (today, Curacas is the name of a city in Columbia).
For extra measure, local rulers’ sons were taken to Cuzco for “education.”
If the ruler decided to get too independent- minded, something could happen to
Major infrastructure projects were built throughout the kingdom to move the colonists and
conquered people to different parts of Inca territory.
Way stations or tambos were placed along the routes, about a day apart, to serve as inns,
storehouses and re-supply centers.
The conquered peoples were expected to serve the state, either in a civil and military capacity,
and were given access to the wealth and technology of the Incas in exchange for loyalty.
All conquered lands were divided into three parts: lands for people, lands for the state
and lands for the sun (religious purposes).
Unlike the Aztecs, the Incas did not require direct tribute but wanted labor for lands belonging to
the state and sun.
Women were required to weave high quality cloth for state and religious usage.
Some women were taken as concubines while others to serve in the temples.
While the Inca had an imperial system, they also had in place a sensitivity to local cultures,
regional differences and ethical ones as well.
Each community was self-sufficient and only depended on the state for unavailable items.
The ayllus (those were the clans) of each community controlled land; men worked the land and
women worked at home.
The Andean peoples recognized a parallel descent, meaning a lineage followed along both male
and female lines (women passed down to daughters and men to their sons).
While it is under debate that women had any roles of authority before the Incas, women in power
during the Inca period was uncommon.
The focus on military virtues put women at disadvantage and inferior to men.
Women tended to worship female deities like the moon, earth and corn, as seen in artwork of the period.
Inca’s senior wife (also his sister…I know, that’s gross) was linked to the moon goddess.
The theoretical idea of equality was not put into practice due to the Inca practice of taking the
most beautiful women of a subjugated people to serve in the temples.
The relationship between local and state governorship was created through reciprocity, meaning as long
as the locals provided labor and loyalty, the state in Cuzco provided infrastructure and
The Inca nobility held great privilege (they were all drawn from 10 royal ayllus) and status allowed
them to serve in the bureaucracy.
Now, for all the similarities that can be found, the one big difference between the Incas and
Aztecs was a lack of a merchant class because the Inca stressed self-sufficiency and only
in northern chiefdom of Ecuador did a merchant class exist.
As impressive as the state control over some 3,000 miles of territory was, rival claims for power and
the possibility of civil war (which eventually broke out in 1520s) led to a decline shortly before
the arrival of the Spanish.
Much of the artistic endeavors by the Incas carried on the Andean tradition of pottery and cloth in
Metalworking was the most advanced in the Americas where artisans worked with gold and
silver, as well as copper and bronze for weapons and tools.
Unlike the Mesoamerican peoples, there was no system of writing.
Quipu was a system of knotted strings that were used for record ing numerical and other
The Incas used an abacus-like system to take census or compute other financial records.
The system dealt with a cultural attachment to numerical order that they used in both
population, military and work details.
Inca genius was seen in land and water management, extensive road system, statecraft and architecture
and public buildings.
Both the Incas and the Aztecs were beneficiaries of the previous civilizations in their regions.
Both cultures represented success of imperial and military organization.
Intensive agricultural system that accumulated surplus production – the state controlled
circulation of goods and redistribution to groups or social classes.
Previous dominance of kinship-based institution (ayllu and calpulli) gave way to social
hierarchy that nobility played large part (away from the tribal and a move towards
established, if not rich- favored, governments).
Both groups recognized local ethnic groups and political leaders and allowed for regional
variation as long as loyalty was paid to the state.
The empires were built upon the conquest of sedentary agricultural peoples and extraction of
The major differences include climate and geography and the differences in both civilizations.
Trade and markets were far more developed with the Aztecs than with the Andean culture.
There were differences in metallurgy, writing and social definition and hierarchy.
The Other Indians 257
When considering other native groups, it is best to consider to what extent they possessed a material
culture and social complexity.
Using the “Old World” standards of what is civilized or what constitutes social complexity,
that based on agriculture, the Amerindians would not fall into that group.
The northwest coast of the U.S. and British Columbia had natives that focused on the
activities of fishers and hunters and gatherers.
They also developed hierarchical societies.
Those who see the control of water for agriculture as a starting point for political authority lose
their argument when considering Pimas of Colorado and some chiefdoms of South
America because they practiced irrigated agriculture but did not develop into states.
One of the biggest debates among Mesoamerican historians refers to the size of population in the
Years after the European conquests, many “experts” discounted the stories of large and dense
populations as attempts to make European conquests seem more glorious.
Population Estimate for Western Hemisphere, 1492 (that is when Columbus arrived)
North America 4.4m
Central America 5.65m
Lowland South America 18.5m
World Population, c. 1500
China 100-150m Russia 10-18m
Indian subcontinent 75-150m N. Africa 6-12m
SW Asia 20-30m Rest of Africa 30-60m
Japan 15-20m Oceania 1-2m
Rest of Asia sans Rus.15-30m Americas 57-72m
Europe sans Russia 60-70m Total 389-614m
The major patterns outside the main civilization areas prior to Spanish arrival:
Northern South America and part of Central America shared many features with the Aztecs to
north and Incas to the south.
The chieftainships were based on sedentary agriculture seen throughout Americas.
They were grouped along the Amazon where the river supported complex and possible
The island of Arawaks had farmers organized in hierarchical societies and divided into
On the larger Caribbean islands, chieftainships ruled over dense populations.
By 1500 – agriculture was widely spread throughout Americas.
Some groups combined agriculture with hunting and gathering, such as groups in the eastern
North American woodlands and the coast of Brazil.
Nomadic groups were rare in the Americans in comparison with the rest of world.
Having said that, there were some small, mobile hunters and gatherers throughout the
Of the native American groups, nowhere was diversity more evident than in North America with over
200 languages spoken.
Mostly, native groups (sans the Aztecs and Incans) lived in societies strongly kin-based.
Communal action and ownership of resources were common and the accumulation of wealth
was not stressed at all.
Natives saw themselves as part of an ecological cycle and not in control over it; a big
difference in comparison with European and Asian civilizations.