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The Pre-Columbian American Empires

The First Americans

Who are they and where did they come from? A question of some considerable debate ever since Columbus discovery of the New World in 1492 and his errant classification of its inhabitants as Indians. Some speculations seeking to explain the existence of these various peoples of the New World have been posed at different times and include: Early settlers who crossed the Atlantic before Columbus. Were they the lost tribes of Israel? They were Phoenician seafarers from Carthage. Were they refuges from the lost continent of Atlantis? What do these differing explanations have in common? Is there any truth to theses explanations?

Beringia Theory or Reality?

A 16th Century Italian monk first proposed the idea of a land bridge once connecting the Old World with the New why? By the mid-19th Century the concept of a land bridge that had once connected the land mass of Europe/Asia to the Americas gains wider acceptance as a result of the Darwinian concepts of evolution and their increasing use in social sciences Social Darwinism In the mid-20th Century, DNA evidence and recent archaeological discoveries confirm the similarities between peoples of early America and those of northwestern Asia, while marine archaeologist discover evidence of a land bridge and its inhabitants in the Bering Sea http://www.geo.umass.edu/projects/chukotka/berhome.html

Human Habitation of the New World

Although evidence suggests that nomadic peoples migrated across Beringia (possibly in a series of waves) between 50,000 and 12,000 years ago. Recent discoveries suggest that some early settlers came from Africa, across the sea, rather than by land This issue continues to be debated and recent discoveries may yet demonstrate that people began inhabiting the New World even earlier. Research Virginias Cactus Hill Archaeological Site. Anthropologist have uncovered evidence in North Carolina that suggests habitation there 48,000 years earlier that is similar to discoveries of early civilizations ranging as far south as Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America at the same time

Early Societies
Paleolithic Neolithic Hunter gathers, nomadic communities, live close to food source Technology and trade
Agriculture starts earlier, but evidence of cultivation of crops can be traced to 5000 B.C.E. corn, beans, and squash The Clovis projectile point makes its earliest appearance in North American southwest approximately 8,000 years ago
Improves the hunters ability to kill large game The spread of the Clovis point correlates to the gradual extinction of North Americas big game

Meso-American Cultures
The Olmecs (1500 400 BCE), although not the original inhabitants of MesoAmerica, are one of the earliest known civilizations to establish themselves. One product of the Olmec culture to survive to the present day is the Kakow plant, a.k.a. cocoa, from which they used the leaves to make a highly prized drink and also for monetary exchanges.

The Olmec Culture

Originally occupying the swampy lowlands of Meso-America, the Olmec civilization can be characterized by intensive agricultural production (typically corn and beans) along muddy river banks where they also hunted and fished, the carving of stone ornaments, use of tools, and construction of large stone monuments for religious purposes. Their written language system consisted of hieroglyphics (yet undecipherable to modern man) similar to that used by the Mayans The Olmec played a ceremonial ball game that consisted of passing a ball through a hoop and had some religious significance. The losing team was sacrificed

Teotihuacn: Americas First Metropolis Construction of Teotihuacn originally begins around 100 BC, however, little is known about the citys founders. By 200 AD the city has approximately 60,000 80,000 residents and has become a center for trade and religion. And, by the 4th century AD, the population has increased to 125,000 150,000 people making Teotihuacn the 6th largest city in the world at the time. After nearly 1,000 years in existence, the city seems to have collapsed in 800 AD as mysteriously as it appeared.

The Mayan Civilization

Older than and as sophisticated as the society that constructed and inhabited Teotihuacn, the Mayan civilization extended from the Yucatn Peninsula down through Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Mayan were an agricultural society who grew corn, yams, manioc (a tuber), and cocoa. They developed regional trade in foodstuffs and obsidian and established a number of smaller, less powerful city-states throughout the region (at its height, Tikal, the largest city-state, may have had a population of 100,000). These urban centers served the religious needs of the surrounding population As a society, the Mayan had rigid social classes, but as the wealth of the population grew, the artisans and craftsmen emerge as a growing middle-class takes form. Approximately 85% of the population were agricultural workers and work was normally divided along gender lines where males were the hunters, warriors, and tradesmen while women performed domestic duties and prepared cornmeal, the staple food

Mayan Culture
Mayans were polytheistic and many of their gods were based upon natures creatures most were good spirits, but some, such as the jaguar god of night, were evil. The Mayan religious beliefs shared many characteristics with those of surrounding peoples. Their supreme god, named Itzamna, or Lizard House was but one of many gods, which ranked in order of importance, may have been manifestations of one supreme god-head Huracan. Huracan, along with Chipi-Caculha and Raxa-Caculha, comprise the three divinities of the Mayan god-head. Mayans practiced blood-letting ceremonies and human sacrifice to propitiate their gods Mayan urban centers were constructed around a ceremonial core that included a central and dominant pyramid surmounted by a shrine (or altar) to the gods, temples, palaces (as the nobility liked to be close to their gods, and a sacred ball court. The Mayans were preoccupied by their preparations for and conduct of wars. Seized captives were enslaved, used as victims for ritual sacrifice often by beheadings, or as sex slaves. Mayan cities were plagued by urban sprawl, often segregated the poorer elements of society and the middle classes to the suburbs. The forerunner of strip malls could be found in these cities where merchants often sold goods to travelers and the poorer elements of Mayan society.

Mayan Mysteries
Many of the original Mayan writings were destroyed by the Spanish who believed that the Mayan writings were the work of Satan. Mayan hieroglyphics largely remained undecipherable until the discovery of the Mayan calendar. The Mayans had a tremendous knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. Scientist have been able to decipher the clues to calendar and from there interpret the hieroglyphics, which were both ideographic and phonetic at the same time. Much of what has been learned regarding the Maya has come from the archeological work accomplished at Palenque, the city of the 7th Century CE king, Pacal. Pacal defied the patrilineal practices of the day and he transformed his mother into a divine representation of the first mother goddess. Pacal ordered the construction of the Temple of Inscriptions in the mid-seventh century and modern archeologists have found his body and clues to deciphering the hieroglyphics at the tomb of Pacal in the temple. The physical position of the temple aligns with the spring equinox and from a platform on the temple one can watch setting of the sun. The arrival of the planet Venus was the traditional time to prepare for war.

The Aztecs
The Aztecs are among the most widely known of these early PreColumbian societies largely as a result of their conflicts with the Spanish conquistadors under Hernn Cortez. However, their origins are less well-known than their demise at the hands of Spain. The Aztec are among a handful of societies that move into the upland Valley of Mexico following the fall of Teotihuacn. Legend tells us that the Mexica people, from an island in the lake of Atzln, left their homeland during the 12th century. They carried with them their patron deity, Huitzilopochtli, on a long trek that ended when they arrived in the Valley of the Moon

Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Aztec consolidated their control over a vast region of modern day Mexico, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and extending as far south as Guatemala. The Aztec state was a collection of semi-autonomous territories united under common religion beliefs.

Politics and Society of the Aztecs

Like other societies, the Aztec state was authoritarian with power vested in the monarch whose authority had both a divine and secular dimension. The Aztec ruler claimed descent from the gods and served as an intermediary between the material and metaphysical worlds. Unlike other, old world rulers, the Aztec monarch did not ascend to his position by means of hereditary right, but would be chosen from within the royal family by a small group of senior officials, themselves members of the royal family and therefore eligible for selection to rule. Once placed on the throne, the Aztec ruler was assisted by a small council of lords headed by a prime minister who served as the chief executive of the government, and a bureaucracy. Power of the ruler beyond the capital was limited as local territories subject to the Aztecs were allowed considerable autonomy in their day-to-day operation and governance in return for paying tribute to the central authority.

Positions in the bureaucracy were exclusively filled by members of the hereditary elite whose members could trace their family origins to the founding families of the Aztec clan Male children of the nobility were sent to temple schools where they were educated in a rigorous regime of manual labor, military training, memorization of information pertaining to Aztec society and religion As adults they would opt for careers in the priesthood, government bureaucracy, or military. They would be rewarded with large estates and they alone had the right to hire communal labor.

Women had fewer rights than did their male counterparts, chastity and obedience were the desired feminine traits sought after in Aztec society. Some women entered the priesthood, but few other vocations. Aztec women had more legal rights than did women of other cultures, however, marriages were arranged, and at times between social classes to secure important social or strategic alliances. Women had the right to own and inherit property and to enter into contracts. While marriage was normally monogamous, noble families sometimes practiced polygamy. Aztec society was rigidly divided, but provided limited opportunities for advancement due to merit, however, commoners could never enter the nobility. The children of a noble women would be considered as noble by birth even if the father was of common birth

Aztec Religion and Culture

The Aztec were a polytheistic society with over 100 different deities; some were nature spirits, such as the rain god, Tlaloc, and others were patron deities as was the symbol of the Aztecs themselves, Huitzilopochtli. Their cosmology was based upon the existence of two worlds, the material and the spirit (both good and evil). Ometeotl, the supreme deity represented an all-powerful and omnipresent force of heaven, but was rather remote and had little impact on the Aztecs daily lives, unlike Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent who represented the forces of creation, virtue, learning and culture a powerful daily influence on the nobility and commoners alike, helping to maintain the class distinctions. According to legend, Quetzalcoatl, a god-like being, left the Valley of the Moon in the 10th century promising to return. The Aztecs mistook the Spanish conquistador, Cortez, for the returning Quetzalcoatl in the early 16th century a fatal mistake for them!

South American Pre-Columbian Empires

The habitation of South America by Neolithic peoples clearly begins around 10,500 BCE a shown by various artifacts and cave art dated to that period. Recent archaeological findings may suggest an even earlier settlement, but that has yet to be proven. Early complex societies begin to form in South America by 6000 BCE while evidence of agricultural communities, which began to form during the third millennium BCE, has been uncovered by archaeologists in both the Amazon River basin and the Andes Mountains of modern day Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. This evidence includes public buildings, temples, and aqueducts. These early societies include the Chavin (Peru), the Moche ( a coastal society of Peru), and, the Chimor (a later population of the Moche River valley). Typically, these societies were polytheistic, possessed some knowledge of astronomy, practiced advanced agriculture, waged war, developed trade on both land and sea, and practiced human sacrifice

The Inca
In 1492, at approximately the same time that Columbus was preparing for his departure from Spain, Huayna Capc prepared himself to assume the throne a ruler of the vast Incan empire. He would be the last independent heir to a remarkable Andean social tradition grounded in an aggressive politico-cultural and religious proselytism. The Incan word for their empire, Tawantinsuyu, literally, the Realm of the Four Corners, reflects their belief that they conquered the Andean world. It was an empire of immense proportion and diversity that included much of modern day Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina. Geographically it encompassed the rugged mountain slopes and high valleys of Peru, to the arid and unforgiving coastline along South Americas Pacific rim, to the humid, subtropical enclaves of the Amazon Basin that stretches along the eastern boundaries of the Andean massif, and, to the cold, austere high plains of the Titicata Basin of the Peru-Bolivian border region

The Inca: Political and Cultural Issues

At its height, the Incan empire ruled over more than 7 million people, comprised from more than 200 separate ethnic groups who spoke mutually unintelligible languages. The imperial bureaucracy strained to first conquer, then administer to the needs of diverse human populations whose spectrum spanned from the small, dispersed bands of huntergathers inhabiting the dense forested regions of eastern Ecuador to the powerful and immensely wealthy kingdom states of the Pacific coast. To accomplish these feats, the Incas army of over 200,000 was the best trained and organized in the New World. The Inca maintained their army through universal male conscription. Within the span of three generations from the 15th to the 16th centuries, the Inca overcame formidable environmental and social factors to succeed in transforming themselves from a small tribal group on the periphery of the southern Peruvian highlands into the greatest single Indian political entity in the world

The Inca constructed a vast network of over 24,800 miles of highway and roads to facilitate internal communications and to move their army throughout the empire. Two major North-South thoroughfares restricted to official government use, one through the Andes and a second along the coastal plain, allowed rapid travel for people, goods, and services and were equipped with rest houses and storage depots. The Inca built suspension bridges across otherwise impassable gorges. Especially trained messengers carried information along these routes allowing them to travel upwards of 140 miles per day. In addition to these royal roads, Inca stonemasons created cities with palaces, temples, official buildings, and aqueducts. The stones were fitted so perfectly together in a manner that has yet to be understood by modern day scientists For the majority of the population, their daily lives revolved around farming. The Inca made use of terraced slopes and carefully constructed irrigation systems to farm corn (or maize), potatoes, a variety of beans, and manioc. The plots were maintained by collective labor regulated by the state. As in other societies, life for the commoners proved to be harsh and unrelentless as commoners not only worked as collective laborers, but also , served in the army.

Stateless Societies in the New World

The vast expanse of North America, northern Central America, and the Caribbean islands had been inhabited by peoples that historians have collectively called Amerindians. Linguistically they comprise three distinct language groups: Algonquian, Siouian (or Siouan), and N den. Each language group contains numerous dialects which are mutually unintelligible to other native speakers. For much of their existence these various peoples maintained a predominantly stone-aged culture although some tribal groups, particularly those in the southeast and mid-west of the modern US adopted more sedentary agricultural practices and formed large urban centers of economic, political, and religious importance such as the Mississippian and Hopewell cultures.

Culture and Economy of Stateless Societies

Many of these societies adapted well to their environments, but their existence was perilous, subject to changes in climate, weather patterns and migratory habits of their food sources, and political instability, particularly, caused by internecine warfare. An added problem plagued native populations with the coming of the Europeans, all native populations were severely affected by a variety of diseases to which they had no immunity, such as, small pox, dysentery, and even the common cold. In some cases, 90% of the pre-Columbian population died following exposure to a panoply of European diseases

Native populations were influenced by oral traditions they maintained few, if any, documentary records other than tribal historical paintings. Oral tradition embraces the richness of ceremonial practices and displays and stresses the importance of language to a society. Like other tribal societies, the native populations were polytheistic, animist, and their cosmology incorporated both the material world and that of the spirit. Practices included sleep depravation, hunger, and sometimes drug-induced trances to allow one to communicate with the spirits, to see into the future, or to project oneself into another dimension of both time and space. Some cultures incorporated ascetic practices often as a passage to manhood