Mayans, Toltecs, Aztecs, and Incas
by Sanderson Beck
Part 1 The Mayans
Humans may have lived in the western hemisphere more than fifty thousand years ago as indicated by legends of ancient Lemuria or Mu. A land bridge from Asia to North America was apparently used by migrating hunters between 40,000 and 8,000 BC. The oldest physical evidence by radiocarbon dating is from southern Chile about 33,000 years ago, though some archaeologists dispute this is human evidence. Generally accepted radiocarbon dating goes back about 19,000 years. Paleo-Indian hunting peoples pursued large game between 30,000 and 8,000 BC. Stone artifacts have been found from about 15,000 years ago. Stone spear points indicate that the Clovis people in the New Mexico area were hunting mammoths about 11,000 BC. About 9,000 BC as the glaciers were melting, the climate became warmer and drier. Mexica culture began developing about 7,000 BC. The Mexico area cultivated maize (corn) by 5,000 BC and beans by 4,000 BC. These and squash became the staple foods. Chili peppers and avocados were also domesticated.
Another ancient culture developed between the Andes mountains and the Pacific coast in what is now Ecuador, Peru, and northern Chile. By 4000 BC settlers had established villages cultivating squash, gourds, kidney and lima beans, and cotton. Coincidental with similar activity in Egypt, pyramids were built between 2800 and 2600 BC by progressively filling in the lower rooms of the mounds. These pyramids indicate that there must have been a hierarchy of power, probably associated with religion, that could get workers to construct increasingly large public buildings. Irrigation must have been mastered to support communities in such arid country. About 2000 BC U-shaped buildings were built on top of the mounds at La Galgada. In the second millennium BC pottery became very refined, and intensive farming with corn (maize) developed with an improved variety used in the ninth century BC. Religion became even more important. Burials were deep in the ground with accompanying objects of art, and temples became larger.
The Chavin people apparently worshipped a feline symbol representing a jaguar or puma. Evidence of bows and arrows have been found, but the primary weapons were the spear and spear-thrower. To these people religion seems to have been much more important than war or widespread trade. Coca plants were grown, and an oracle was established at Pachacamac and other sites. Trade and communication seems to have been good along the central Peruvian coast. The Chavin culture spread from the northern highlands south and, after a devastating tidal wave inundated the coastal area about 500 BC, into that region following its climatic deterioration. However, after about two centuries of intensive influence in most areas the Chavin culture began to fade away. Unfortunately there is no writing describing this religious movement.
The Olmec culture developed civilization about 1500 BC. These people lived on the southern shore of the Gulf of Mexico where they practiced slash-and-burn farming. They supplemented their diet with deer, wild pigs, and fish. They built with adobe bricks, creating mounds and platforms for the dwellings of the elite who ruled. The Olmecs provided for most of their own needs but traded for obsidian to make cutting blades. They carved jade and stones and are perhaps best known for the colossal heads between five and ten feet tall. These heads, which seemed to be fitted with helmets, remind us today of football helmets, and they may have been used for a ball game that they played as well as for war. Respect for the jaguars of the jungle somehow developed into a powerful religious symbol, and the Olmecs may have been called the people of the jaguar. The terraced platforms eventually became large pyramids.
During the final centuries BC the Olmec culture gradually influenced and became absorbed by other people living nearby. The Izapa lived in the Pacific plain where the prized cacao grew. Izapan art depicts jaguars captured and used in human rituals, bird gods flying, gods in canoes on waves with fish beneath, gods descending headfirst, seated humans tending incense, and a warrior decapitating an enemy.
Pyramids were built in the Chiapas area in the sixth century BC. Pottery found there indicates a diversity of trading partners. A link between the Olmecs and the Maya seems to be the Zoque people who lived there and spoke a Mixe-Zoquean language that has a common origin with Mayan language. As population increased and spread, agricultural land became more valuable. Eventually elite groups of people formed to protect and manage the best land, as indicated by larger temples and funerary constructions. In the south Kaminaljuyu controlled the highland products such as obsidian and jade. Nakbe became a trading center by controlling the ports of the river routes at the base of the Yucatan peninsula in the lowlands. Colha provided quartz chert and Komchen salt. Gradually the Mayans absorbed or replaced the Mixe-Zoqueans and established their authoritarian political institutions with hereditary rulers, who began to commemorate themselves with dates and hieroglyphic texts in the first century BC.
Although they did not use the wheel, metal tools, horses, money, or alphabetic writing, the people in the western hemisphere developed prosperous civilization. In central Mexico by 300 CE the city of Teotihuacan had about 80,000 people. Raids and small wars resulted in captured warriors being ritually sacrificed. Teotihuacan would be a leading power for the next five centuries, though building slowed about 550. Urban dwellers lived as families in large apartment compounds. Obsidian was used for tools and traded. Metals were not used in Mesoamerica until after 800 CE; then gold and silver came from the south. Alloys were not popular until the 13th century. A great goddess was the primary deity in Teotihuacan, though there was also a storm god and the feathered serpent that was to become famous as Quetzalcoatl. Art did not depict human individuals until later during the decline. Much of Teotihuacan was smashed and burned in a major fire about 750. Because foreigners were probably not involved, this was likely a revolution against the ruling elite. Zapotec people in the Oaxaca valley, who seemed to have co-existed peacefully with Teotihuacan for so long, also ended centralized government by 900.
In what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the Mayan populations in the first centuries CE increased and began building monumental temples and tombs. Those at Kaminalijuyu controlled obsidian and jade and dominated the southern area. Others at Nakbe and El Mirador controlled local resources and trade. Powerful hereditary rulers emerged who commemorated their deeds in dated hieroglyphic sculptures. In the third century CE the city of Tikal began building large pyramids. In 378 Great Jaguar Paw recorded the conquest of Uaxactun, where the warrior Smoking Frog was put in charge. Symbols of war and sacrifice were adopted from Teotihuacan icons, and wars were timed according to the planet Venus. The Mayans excelled in mathematics and astronomy; their calendar was extremely accurate. In the late 5th century Kan Boar’s portraits abandoned the war and captive motifs of his predecessor Stormy Sky, and Tikal seemed to prosper with some social mobility. However, they were defeated in a war led by Caracol ruler Lord Water in 562. Caracol waged wars for more than a century, also timing their battles to the movements of the planet Venus. Caracol’s Lord Kan II claimed to defeat and sacrifice Naranjo captives in 631.
From the mid-7th century until the decline, two centuries of wars occurred as massive fortifications were erected. A Tikal prince founded Dos Pilas about 640, but later he defeated Tikal in two wars. The 25th ruler of Tikal, Shield Skull, was captured and sacrificed by this first Petexbatun ruler in 679 according to the hieroglyphics at Dos Pilas. The second Petexbatun ruler Shield God K (r. 698-727) expanded his kingdom by military force in the southwestern lowlands, while Naranjo’s Smoking Squirrel raided the Yaxha region in 710. The third Petexbatun ruler in 735 portrayed the Seibal king beneath his feet and married a princess from Cancuen. Petexbatun power, which controlled the largest lowland Mayan kingdom ever, was suddenly curtailed in 760 when the 4th king after ruling twenty years was captured and sacrificed at Tamarindito, and the capital at Dos Pilas was overcome. The kingdom broke up into warring chiefdoms for a half century, and then the area was abandoned. At Bonampak wall paintings depicted bloody sacrifices of nine captives.
To the west of Petexbatun, Yaxchilan managed to weather a conflict with Copan in 653 and with Palenque the next year as Six Tun Bird Jaguar ruled for half a century until 681; then his son Shield Jaguar II ruled Yaxchilan to 742, claiming he captured five places. Palenque king Pacal reigned from 615 to 683 and only recorded one war in 659 with Yaxchilan. His son Chan-Bahlum (r. 684-702) continued his father’s building, as did another son, Kan Xul II (r. 702-25), who was captured in 711 raiding his southern neighbor Tonina. However, Palenque was one of the first cities to collapse, as its last date was recorded in 799. Tikal demonstrated revitalized power in 695 when its 26th ruler Ah Cacau claimed to capture Jaguar Paw of Calakmul. After a reign of half a century Ah Cacau was succeeded by his son in 734; but the power of Tikal gradually declined, and 889 was the last date they recorded. Yaxchilan king Shield Jaguar III recorded several conquests in the last five years of the 8th century, but the last date recorded at Yaxchilan was 808.
In the southeast (Honduras) the people of Copan expanded their territory during the long reigns of Butz Chan (578-628) and Smoke Imix (628-95). Great Copan building was continued by Eighteen Jog (Rabbit); but he was captured and sacrificed in 738 by Quirigua ruler Cauac Sky, who celebrated their increased power by inaugurating a century of building. Copan declined, and its last monument was dated 822. Quirigua’s power seems to have been more suddenly eclipsed by occupation, and their last record was in 810. Most of the Mayan cities in the southern and central lowlands declined during the 9th century, and the last known inscriptions of Palenque and Piedras Negras, like those of Yaxchilan, related to military issues. Numerous causes for the decline have been suggested, such as disease, overpopulation, ecological disasters, revolutions, fatalism, wars, conquest by the Putun Maya, and trade isolation. Probably it was some combination of these factors. Yet it can also be argued that the end of the period of massive architecture and inscriptions glorifying their rulers did not mean the end of Mayan civilization but merely the end of an era in which a powerful elite ruled large numbers of peasants. When the large kingdoms broke up, social mobility became more possible.
In the 9th century Seibal was invaded by Putun and Itza Mayans. The Itza Maya began their domination in the northern Yucatan peninsula when, led by a Chontal Mayan named Kakupacal, they occupied Chichen Itza in 850. Kakupacal and others expanded the Itza realm by force and trade. Most of their building was in the late 9th century, but their capital at Chichen Itza thrived until about 1200. In the west the Puuc city of Uxmal was prominent; the Puuc built many causeways between their communities. In the east Coba maintained its independence from Itza incursions and was connected to Yaxuna by a causeway of 100 kilometers. The Itza were driven from the Yucatan area by the Mayapan ruler Hunac Ceel about 1221. Mayapan did without ball courts, sacrifices, sweat baths, and had few religious buildings, as the upper class dealt with commerce. The Quiché Maya left the chronicle, Popol Vuh, which recounted their migration to the north led by Balam Quitze and their conquest of the Pokomam Maya in the east in the 13th century. Quiché Mayans expanded in the 14th century and reached their maximum power in the mid-15th century; but the Cocom dynasty was massacred as Mayapan was destroyed in a revolt led by Ah Xupan Xiu in 1441.
Most archaeologists agree that the Mayans were governed by an elite class. When rivals or enemies from the elite were captured, they were often sacrificed, while most prisoners were probably made slaves, servants, or laborers. Orphans gained by purchase or kidnapping were also used for human sacrifice; slaves were bought and sold. Ceremonies and a ball game played on a court with a rubber ball were very important to the Mayans. According to the Spanish missionary Las Casas, men retired to a special building, and while separated from their wives they fasted and made daily offerings of their blood for up to a hundred days prior to a major festival. The priesthood, like the rulers, was headed by a hereditary elite family, which directed the sun priests, diviners, and seers whose visions were induced by peyote. Others assisted in the human sacrifices that cut out the heart of the victim. Such sacrifices were probably not performed as often as the Aztecs later did. Mayan rituals often focused on the sacred corn (maize).
Later Mayan hunters would pray for understanding before they would take life or disrupt the forests. These attitudes may have long endured and might have been learned from the hard experiences during the decline after population had increased. Later Mayans, like the Mexican Itza and the Spanish, were criticized in the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel for having lost their innocence in carnal sins, causing lack of judgment, bad luck, and sickness. The great teachings of heaven and earth had been lost. Before these came, this author claimed there was no robbery, greed, tribute, nor violent strife.
Popol Vuh, the Maya Quiché book of counsel containing creation stories and legends, probably developed over centuries and was written down in a Roman alphabet by 1558. The Earth is formed from sky and sea by Maker, Modeler, Bearer, Begetter, Heart of the Lake, Heart of the Sea, and Sovereign Plumed Serpent in discussion with Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth, Newborn Thunderbolt, Sudden Thunderbolt, and Hurricane. They sow the earth with seeds that sprout, and their first try produces animals that squawk, chatter, and howl. The second attempt to create humans fails when they dissolve without reproducing. Then they consult the grandmothers Xpiyacoc and Xmucane, a divine matchmaker and a divine midwife. The next people have no hearts and minds and are destroyed in a flood and abused by killer bats and jaguars; for having eaten animals these people are eaten. Their descendants are the monkeys. The second part of Popol Vuh tells how the two divine boys Hunahpu and Xbalanque defeat and destroy Seven Macaw and his two sons, a maker of mountains (Zipacna) and Earthquake, because of their self-magnification and in revenge for the four hundred boys that Zipacna killed.
In the third part ball playing offends the lords of the underworld at Xibalba; so One and Seven Hunahpu journey there to play One and Seven Death. They face several tricks, traps, and tests, and they are buried at the Ball Game Sacrifice; but the head of One Hunahpu causes a calabash tree to bear fruit. Blood Moon becomes pregnant by his skull and escapes sacrifice, returning to Xmucane on Earth to give birth to Hunahpu and Xbalanque. They learn how to overcome the animals that prevent clearing the forest for gardening. Rat helps them find the ball game equipment, and they too are challenged to play at Xibalba. Before they leave, Hunahpu and Xbalanque plant corn as a sign of their death and rebirth. The heroic twins overcome the tricks of Xibalba with the help of mosquito; they lose the game, but ants get them the flowers they wagered. They endure more tests, but a bat cuts off Hunahpu’s head, which is replaced by a squash. Playing ball with Hunahpu’s head, they knock it out of the court, and a rabbit helps them switch it with a squash. Hunahpu and Xbalanque are ground up and reborn again and finally get the Xibalbans to limit their attacks on humans to those with weaknesses or guilt.
Meanwhile Xmucane mourns the death of the corn and rejoices when it sprouts again. With the corn flour Xmucane makes the first real humans-Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Not Right Now, and Dark Jaguar, the ancestors of the Quiché people. At first they have complete vision and perfect understanding, but Heart of Sky fogs up their vision so they can see clearly only what is close; they are given beautiful wives, and they multiply. They get fire from Tohil, but he and two other gods are turned to stone when the sun rises for the first time; now the gods can only speak to them in spirit form. Followers of these gods try to appease them by abducting people, sacrificing them, and rolling their heads onto the roads. So the Quiché send two radiant maidens to seduce their three boys. This fails, and the enemy tribes prepare for war. The Quichés are victorious and force the tribes to pay tribute regularly. Rebellions that occur are defeated, and victims are sacrificed. The Quiché king takes the title of Plumed Serpent, and the capital at Rotten Cane has three great pyramids and 23 palaces. Religious retreats involve fruit fasts lasting from 180 to 340 days. Wars occur, ending in tribute, and the lineage is recounted up to the Spanish period.