Lecture 27: Incas and Aztecs, Mesoamerica to 1500

Last time we ended with the fall of the Teotihuacan and Mayan civilizations. Today I want to begin by looking further south to Mesoamerica’s Andean civilizations. Sometime around 12,000 BC the hunter-gatherers that had moved from Siberia into North America reached Central America and began moving into South America, particularly into the Andes. These people remained nomadic hunter-gatherers for years. In the highland regions they hunted, pursuing creatures such as deer, llama, and alpaca. Along the coastal lowlands, the settlers turned to the sea, learning to fish and hunt shellfish. In addition, since the climate in both areas was moist and temperate, wild squashes, gourds, and potatoes were easy to gather.
Around 8,000 BC, however, the favorable climate began to change, becoming warmer and drier. At this point, the human communities had to learn settled agriculture in order to survive, and soon villages and other permanent settlements began to appear. By about 1000 BC, these villages had become complex and wealthy enough to generate distinct civilizations. The very earliest Andean societies developed largely independently of societies further north, though there was some minor influence through trade. The cultivation of maize and squash, as well as artistic objects, for example, moved from the north to the south, while Andean metallurgical skills traveled north. Andean society was centered on the regions that now make up Bolivia and Peru, a mountainous region that not only impeded trading routes with other societies further north but also isolated Andean societies from each other. The region is full of sharp valleys and swift rivers that discouraged empire building, though several civilizations managed to overcome these problems.
Farming techniques had spread through most of the Andean region by 2000 BC. The local people cultivated beans, sweet potatoes, and peanuts as their major crops. The also grew cotton, with which they made the twine that went into their textiles and fishing nets. The coastal communities developed first, since they had access to greater resources. But civilization did move further up into the Andes over time, particularly as the cultivation of the potato spread. By 1800 BC, so many incipient societies had appeared that distinctive differences became apparent in things like pottery and textiles, and these various peoples began to build large ceremonial centers that included pyramids and temples. After about 1000 BC a large religious center appeared in the central Andes that is now called the Chavín Cult. This religious cult spread across Peru between 900 BC and 800 BC, but disappeared by 300 BC. As was the case with the Maya, the reasons for the decline remain obscure. The nature of this cult is not clear, nor do we know its original name. It is named Chavín after Chavín de Huántar, its most prominent site. The religious centers devoted to this cult included large temple complexes with intricate stone carvings of jaguars, hawks, eagles, and snakes.
As the Chavín cult spread, life became ever more complex across the Andes, as it witnessed by the increasing complexity of cultural objects. Elaborate textiles with intricate patterns spread across the Andes. Light and strong fishing nets began to spread along the coasts, while the basic principles of metallurgy were discovered and distributed widely. Gold and silver jewelry as well as copper tools began to spread across the entire region. The Chavín cult was, however, never a full-blown state. Its rise and spread points us in a different direction. As the Andes region became ever more economically productive, cultural patterns emerged that were characteristic of civilized societies. Moreover, like some Mayan religious centers, some of the Chavín Cult’s religious complexes evolved into full-blown cities. Huari, Pucara, and Tiahuanaco all developed into cities that had populations over 10,000, with separate ceremonial and residential areas.
After developing large cities the Andeans began to move toward regional states. The first such states arose when conquerors were able to unify various river valleys into a larger organization. These conquerors then managed the economy centrally, building irrigation networks and overseeing trade. This was an important change for the Andeans, because it united highland, valley, and lowlands economies into a larger market. Highland economies produced potatoes, llama meat, and alpaca wool. The valleys produced corn, beans, and squash. Finally, the coasts produced sweet potatoes, fish, and cotton. As these goods moved freely through the various zones, the states that controlled the region became richer. It is important to recall, however, two important aspects of these developments. First, the rising Andean states were based on military conquest and control. Second, the nature of this control and the belief systems associated with it are mostly lost to us, since these civilizations did not use writing. This latter theme will be important late.
The first great civilization to emerge from the ferment of the Chavín period was the Mochica, which takes its name from the Moche River Valley. It dominated the valleys and coast of northern Peru from about AD 300 to 700. Most of what we know about this civilization comes from pottery remnants, which reveal a warlike society that was also socially and economically complex. The Mochica was only one of many civilizations that rose up in the post-Chavín period. No single state was, however, able to unify all the valleys, mountains, and coasts, so that by AD 1000, the Andes hosted a diverse array of civilizations each of which cultivated its own, radically different culture. One example is the Chucuito, a people that dominated the highlands around Lake Titicaca after the twelfth century. The Chucuito cultivated potatoes and herded llamas and alpacas. They were highly organized politically, as is evidenced by the extensive terraces that they built to grow potatoes, maize, tomatoes, greens, and chiles. In the lowlands another civilization called the Chimu emerged in the tenth century, dominating the Peruvian coast until the arrival of the Incas. Chimu civilization was large and complex, having extensive irrigation networks and a lively local economy. Its capital city Chanchan had a population of about 50,000 and boasted massive brick buildings that indicated the ability to direct resources to specific projects, and the city itself was organized tightly around clans. Each clan owned one city block and coordinated with other clans to make the city function.
The various civilizations that appeared after the Chavín period flourished until the mid-fifteenth century with the rise of a warlike people known as the Incas. The Incas migrated for centuries throughout the Andean region, but were repeatedly expelled by local peoples. They finally settled around Lake Titicaca around the mid-thirteenth century. Initially, they lived peacefully. But around 1438 and Inca ruler named Pachacuti (1438-1471) launched a series of military campaigns that subdued the Incas’ neighbors. After gaining control of the highlands, Pachacuti then turned on the Chimu, whom he subdued by getting control of their water supply. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Inca Empire extended from Quito to Santiago and had a population of about 11.5 million.
The Inca Empire was ruled by warrior-administrators. Inca armies were composed of troops of subject peoples and a well-trained bureaucracy that extended deeply into the Empire. Obedience to the government was obtained by the practice of taking family members as hostages and forcing them to live at the Inca capital Cuzco. When subject peoples rose up, the Incas made the rebellious population move to a new area and settled their own peoples in the vacant area. The Empire’s administrators relied on a unique method for storing information called quipu. Quipus were knotted strings that helped people to remember administrative information, such as taxes and labor services owed by various communities. The system was cumbersome, but it worked, as the empire was well administered. The Inca, for instance, built an extensive road system that extended to 10,000 miles. With it the administrators in Cuzco could communicate easily with the entire empire, as a corps of official runners was kept on staff to pass messages from one end of the empire to the other.
The Inca organized their society well, but they were also jealous of alternate sources of power. All long distance trade was, for example, run wholly by the government. Thus, the Inca never developed a merchant class that could threaten the priests and elite administrators. Throughout all of its life, the Inca priests and bureaucrats held privileged positions. Aristocrats ate the best food, wore the best clothing, and had extensive rights and privileges. Most of society consisted of peasants, and their lives were controlled by extensive labor services that the state required of them. The Incas also controlled power through their religion. The elite worshipped the sun as a god, whom they called Inti. The other heavenly bodies and natural forces were considered divine. In Cuzco four thousand priests, attendants, and virgin devotees served the great sun god. The great temple there also attracted pilgrims from all over the empire. The high priests engaged in extensive sacrifices of animals in order to placate the gods. This highly complex, though authoritarian, society then collapsed before the Spanish invasion of 1532.
With the fall of the Incas, we now turn our attention to the north, where life continued after Teotihuacan’s fall. After Teotihuacan fell several regional states rose on the Mexican highlands and authority fractured. This area was unified again with the appearance to two peoples the Toltecs and the Mexica. The Toltecs migrated into the area during the eighth century, from the arid lands of northwestern Mexico, settling at Tula. This people proved adept at waterworks, as they tapped the Tula River to water their crops of corn, beans, peppers, tomatoes, chiles, and cotton. Between about AD 950 and 1150 this civilization became wealthy enough to support a population of about 60,000 people in the capital city, with another 60,000 in the surrounding region. The Toltecs were a warlike people, maintaining a large army that they used to subdue surrounding peoples. These peoples paid tribute which was then used to beautify the capital city. As a result, Tula became an important political and cultural center. Its artisans made textiles, pottery, and obsidian for export, while importing jade, turquoise, and animal skins from the rest of Mesoamerica.
Around AD 1125, the Toltecs began to descend into internal conflicts. At the same time as this was occurring nomadic peoples entered the region and by 1175 the Toltec state was destroyed. Archeological evidence indicates that the city was burned, though people still lived at Tula afterward. By the middle of the thirteenth century another people showed up in the Mexican plateau who called themselves the Mexica. They moved around a bit before settling on Lake Texcoco and founding their capital Tenochtitlan. This site offered several advantages. The lake was full of fish and fowl, and it provided a ready source of irrigation for Mexica agriculture. The wealth that this area produced made the Mexica powerful enough by the early fifteenth century to begin attacking their neighbors. Under a series of powerful kings, the Mexica went from being a wealthy civilization to an empire in a very short time. Under Itzcóatl (1428-1440) and Motecuzoma I (1440-1469) the Mexica moved against Oaxaca, before turning to the Gulf coast, conquering the cities with whom they had been trading. In the middle of the fifteenth century, the Mexica then entered into an alliance with two other cities, Texcoco and Tlacopa (Tacuba). This is the origin of what we now call the Aztec Empire. The term Aztec derives from Aztlán, which is the Mexica’s mythical homeland. The aim of this new empire was to exact as much tribute from neighboring regions as possible. From all over central Mexico, goods poured in to the center to enrich the empire. In the end, the Aztecs used their increasing wealth to impose their rule on over 21 million people.
Unlike the Incas, but like the Mongols, the Aztecs never developed an extensive bureaucracy. After conquering a region, the Aztecs assessed the annual tribute and left the local populations to manage their affairs. Armies were only raised on an ad hoc basis. What kept people in line? The Mexica had a fearsome reputation as warriors and no one wanted to face them in battle, so most regions simply paid up. At the empire’s high-point, 489 territories were paying tribute, which made Tenochtitlan a very wealthy place. As a result, this city also became very large, reaching a population of 200,000 people by the early sixteenth century. (Few European cities could have equaled this number at the time.)
We know more about the Aztecs than we do the Incas, since some of their records survived the European invasion. (The Spanish burned many Aztec texts as a way of spreading Christianity.) What we do know of the Aztecs is that their society was rigidly hierarchical and was dominated by a military elite. Noble men were trained to fight in war and were expected to show their prowess on the battlefield. Public honor was bestowed only on those who went into battle. Much as in the Inca world, this elite ate the best food and wore the best clothes. There were even sumptuary laws that required commoners to wear coarse burlap garments, while the warrior elite were allowed to wear cotton. Alongside this warrior aristocracy was a priestly class that received special training in ritual lore and calendars. Priests ensured the continuation of society by placating the gods and watching the calendar. There was also a large merchant and artisan class that trafficked in gems, animal skins, and bird feathers, but they were clearly subordinate to the warriors. Finally, there was everyone else that worked the fields.
When the Mexica migrated to the Mexican plain they adopted many of the cultural traditions that they found. The Mexica already spoke Nahuatl, which had been spoken in the region since the Toltecs’ rise. They adopted the Olmecs’ ball game and their calendar. In addition, they accepted local gods such as Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcóatl, which dated back to the days of Teotihuacan. The Mexica believed that the gods had set the world in motion through individual sacrifice. It was the spilling of divine blood that first wetted the earth, allowing crops to grow. Consistent with that belief the Mexica and later Aztecs placed great emphasis on spilling blood, both their own and the blood of human sacrifices. The perceived need to spill blood became very strong after the Mexica began worshipping Huitzilopochtli. Huitzilopochtli became the patron deity of the Mexica warriors early in the fourteenth century. As the Mexica’s military victories mounted, Huitzilopochtli’s priests demanded ever more sacrifices in the name of the war god, which included ripping the still beating hearts out of the victim’s chest. These ritual sacrifices were not, however, forms of entertainment. For the Mexica they were an essential part of keeping the world going. The blood of the sacrificed assured that the sun would shine and moisture would persist.
When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in 1519 they found a strange and fascinating society. For them Tenochtitlan was a land full of gold and other unimaginable wealth. They did not know that the wealth was the product of tyranny. Nor did they hesitate to institute a new tyranny that was based on religious proselytizing and economic exploitation. When the last great Aztec king Motecuzoma II (1502-1520) fell in battle, Mesoamerica’s native traditions fell far, going from being official culture to a base culture. The same would happen in the Andes, where native tongues and religions became something for the common people to practice. And with this lecture, in particular, we can look to the rise of powerful kings in Europe, since it was European monarchies that projected power over the world’s waters. Keep that theme in mind as we move through the last section of this course.