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A History of Latin America and the Caribbean

Chapter 1: Ancient America, Part III

Before 1492

This chapter is divided into three parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

The First Americans
Before the First Horizon
The Mysterious Olmecs
The Chavin Culture: Peru's Great Leap Forward
The Paracas: Dream Weavers
The Zapotecs
Rise of the Maya
Teotihuacan, the City That History Forgot

Part II

The Moche: Masters of Clay
The Nazca: Lines In the Desert
The Magnificent Maya: The Early Classic Era
The Magnificent Maya: The Late Classic Era
       Tikal and Calakmul
The Collapse of the Teotihuacan and Maya Civilizations
Tribes of the Caribbean
The People of El Dorado
Tiahuanaco, the City of the Altiplano
The Huari Empire

Part III

The Toltec Middlemen
Yucatan: The Maya Epilogue
The Mixtecs
Forerunners of the Incas
The Tepanecs and the Rise of the Aztecs
The Bloody Splendor of the Aztecs
The Inca Conquests
On the Threshold
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The Toltec Middlemen

The first trend after the fall of Teotihuacan and the Classic-era Maya was a partial return to barbarism. The ninth and tenth centuries saw dozens of communities in Mesoamerica, none of them as advanced or as strong as the civilizations they replaced. The Maya were reorganizing themselves in northern Yucatan, as we will see in a later section. The Valley of Mexico became home to two tribes descended from Teotihuacan: the Otomi, who lived north of Lake Texcoco in a city called Otumba, and to the Culhuas, who had a kingdom based at Culhuacán, a city on the south side of the lake. In Oaxaca, the Mixtecs appeared to challenge the older residents of that state, the Zapotecs. And we have already mentioned the Totonac cities of Cholula, Xochicalco, Cacaxtla and El Tajin, along the Gulf Coast.

With Teotihuacan gone, central Mexico was vulnerable to invasions from the north. The Indians in that region were now on the move; we don't know if they had anything to do with bringing down Teotihuacan, but they certainly took advantage of the event. Like the barbarians who lived on the steppes of Eurasia, these tribes were toughened by life in poor lands, and were ready to swoop down on any rich neighbor who showed signs of weakness. Anthropologists and linguists call them Uto-Aztecans; their descendants include the Ute, Shoshone, Paiute and Hopi tribes of the western United States, and the Huichol and Tarahumara tribes of northwest Mexico. The Nahuatl name for the Uto-Aztecan nomads was Chichimecs, meaning “Sons of the Dog,” which noted that like coyotes, the Chichimecs was strong, brave and resourceful; some Chichimec warriors encouraged this thinking by wearing coyote skins.

Among the Uto-Aztecans, the most important to our narrative were the southernmost group, the Nahua. They spoke the Nahuatl language, and both the Toltecs and the Aztecs would come from this group. Whereas the other Chichimecs were eventually driven back, or returned to the north after they had enough killing and looting to satisfy themselves, part of the Nahua, led by a chief named Mixcoatl (Cloud-Serpent), made it all the way to the Valley of Mexico in the early tenth century. Upon arrival, Mixcoatl formed a triple alliance with the Otomi and Culhuas, and some of the Culhuas joined the tribe. Around 950 Mixcoatl was killed by his brother, who took over. Mixcoatl's pregnant wife fled into exile, where she gave birth to a boy named Topiltzin. Topiltzin became a priest of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god of central Mexico, and when he grew up he gathered a band of followers still loyal to his father, killed his uncle in single combat, and became the new ruler.

At this point, myth becomes true history, because we know Topiltzin existed, but we aren't sure about Mixcoatl. In 968, Topiltzin led his people north out of the valley, to a small river in the state of Hidalgo. There he found an Otomi village on a defensible hill, captured it, incorporated those Otomi who weren't killed or driven away into the tribe, and founded his own city on the site. He called the city Tollan, meaning the Place of the Reeds; later the Spaniards would shorten the name to Tula. From this the Nahua got the name they gave to Topiltzin's people: Toltecatl, or Toltecs. Besides meaning men of Tollan/Tula, the term “Toltec” would also come to mean “civilized,” as opposed to the barbarian Chichimecs.

In some areas, Mesoamerica's population had declined to the point that members of different ethnic groups banded together to defend themselves. With today's diverse societies such unions happen fairly often (e.g., think of Belgium or Switzerland), but in ancient times, the language barrier was so hard to overcome that only a desperate situation could make different ethnic groups cooperate for long. Well, we know times were hard in the ninth and tenth centuries because more than one multi-ethnic community appeared. Not long after the Toltecs settled down, they met a group called the Nonoalcas, who also wanted to make a home there. Nonoalca means “deaf and dumb people,” probably because they did not speak or understand the language of the Toltecs. Originating in the state of Tabasco, the Nonoalcas were related to the Maya, and as they migrated north to Hidalgo, they passed through the homelands of the Teotihuacanos and Huastecs, and picked up some of those peoples. Because both the Toltecs and the Nonoalcas had members who traced their ancestry to Teotihuacan, they decided they should not fight over Tula, but share it, so the Nonoalcas joined the Toltec nation. Many Nonoalcas were painters, sculptors, architects and laborers, so with their help, the Toltecs were able to build a finer city.

The Toltecs were the oldest nation that the Aztecs knew much about, so to give themselves a better lineage (anyone's lineage was better than that of the Aztecs, as we will see later), they claimed the Toltecs as their ancestors. As with other tall tales, the stories they told about the Toltecs exaggerated the truth, and grew grander until it was difficult to tell if the stories were about men or gods. As the Aztecs put it, the Toltecs excelled at everything they did; one oral tradition said that “Nothing was too difficult for them, no place with which they dwelt too distant.” They went on to describe the Toltecs as great farmers, artisans, warriors and statesmen, and that Tula was a paradise city with gold and jade palaces, where ears of corn grew as big as grinding stones.

However, if you look at Tula, even in its present ruined state, the impression you will get is not paradise, but of a stern, militarist state. The Toltecs ran a more tightly organized society than any that had come before; this was the closest thing to fascism that ancient America produced. Tula itself shows less planning than Teotihuacan; as Mexican archaeologist Jorge Acosta put it, the architecture “was of majestic conception and mediocre execution.” The main feature is a giant temple where the roof is gone, but the supporting columns still stand. The columns are carved to look like warriors standing at attention, each wearing a breastplate and feathered headdress and carrying weapons like arrows or an atlatl. Wall reliefs show images of eagles, coyotes and jaguars, which under the Aztecs would represent elite military units, so they may have meant the same thing here. One wall had a row of eagles on it, eating human hearts. Next to the city's ball court was an altar marked with skulls and crossbones, where human sacrifices were made. Here and in other Toltec cities, a common architectural feature was an unusual reclining statue called a chac mool; it is believed that offerings, including the hearts of sacrificed victims, were burned on the plate each chac mool holds on its belly.

Toltec warriors.

Chac mool statue.

The warrior statues and chac mool of Tula. Source:

A widely told legend, the best known Mesoamerican story besides the Popul Vuh, explains how Topiltzin's reign ended. If it can be trusted, Toltec society was not always joyless. After the Toltec-Nonoalca union, Topiltzin added Quetzalcoatl to his name. As a result, when the Aztecs read and told this story, they weren't sure whether they were talking about Quetzalcoatl the king, or Quetzalcoatl the god. Anyway, like in other Mesoamerican societies, the Toltec king was a high priest as well as a civil ruler. Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl was called the wisest, most pious of kings, who taught the Toltecs all the arts and sciences. Under him, the Toltecs were so peaceful and prosperous that he stopped the practice of offering human sacrifices, offering flowers, jade and butterflies instead. However, there was a faction in the kingdom that opposed him and favored another god: Tezcatlipoca, also called the Smoking Mirror, god of the summer sun, sorcery and war, the giver and taker of life.(55) When Tezcatlipoca could not take over Tula by legal means, he resorted to dirty tricks. One day he appeared at Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl's court as an old man, when the king was ill, and he offered the king a medicine to cure him. The king tried the elixir, liked it, and drank it all. But instead of being medicine it was pulque, agave liquor. He became drunk, and Tezcatlipoca made sure Topiltzin's sister was nearby, so he would ravish her. Topiltzin was so virtuous that he had never had sex before, so when he woke up and realized he had committed two awful sins (drunkenness and incest), he felt such shame that he went into exile.

After leaving Tula, Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl's first stop was Cholula, and he stayed there for twenty years. Different versions of the story disagree on what happened next. One had him sail east across the sea on a raft made of snakes. In another account, he threw himself on a funeral pyre; birds flew out of his burning body, and his heart rose into the sky to become the Morning Star, so Quetzalcoatl became the Mexican name for the planet Venus. In both cases, he promised to return someday and take back his throne from Tezcatlipoca. In one of the most remarkable coincidences of history, the date of his return was calculated at 1519 A.D.; we'll see in the next chapter what happened when the Spaniards came to Mexico in that year, and the natives thought they were Quetzalcoatl and his entourage.

From Tula, the Toltecs went forth in all directions; by 1000 all of central and southern Mexico was conquered or within the Toltec sphere of influence. The most spectacular Toltec conquest was tied to the story of Quetzalcoatl on a raft. In 986 or 987, a Toltec force invaded northern Yucatan and conquered the Maya cities there. They chose one of those cities, Chichen Itza, for their headquarters, and turned it into a second Tula by installing all the things they were used to at home: a pyramid, jaguar warrior societies, and human sacrifice. We will talk more about this city in the next section. Later it was said that when Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl sailed away from Mexico, he didn't just disappear, but that he led the military expedition to Yucatan. However, this would have happened more than thirty years after the founding of Tula, and with life expectancy in those days not running much longer than that, we now believe the Toltecs had at least two kings named Quetzalcoatl, one at Tula, and the other at Chichen Itza.

If you didn't know about the Toltecs before reading this work, it is because altogether they were not as impressive as other Mesoamerican civilizations. Part of the reason is that they are in the unenviable position of the middleman, with Teotihuacan before them, and the Aztecs after them. Nor were they the masters of culture that the Aztecs made them out to be; if anyone deserves that honor, it is the Maya. At its peak, Tula had perhaps 30,000 people, with maybe an equal number of peasants in the countryside, meaning that the city was far smaller than both Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan. It enjoyed two centuries of glory, give or take a decade, and then the Toltec hegemony crumbled into ruin. At Tula the temples were burned, and the Serpent Wall was toppled. We do not know if the collapse was caused by an invasion from without, or a rebellion from within; if the Toltecs left any information on what happened, we have yet to find it. It has been proposed that economic difficulties turned the Toltecs' ethnic diversity, previously a source of strength, into weakness; when food and other essentials were in short supply, people formed factions depending on which ethnic group they belonged to, and Tula stopped taking in immigrants. Eventually the people turned against the gods that had forsaken them, and smashed their images. By 1179 Tula was deserted. In the Valley of Mexico, some refugees from Tula gathered at Culhuacán, and there they continued the Toltec legacy until 1377, when they were conquered by the Tepanecs. Later on the Aztecs would rebuild Tula as one of their own cities; in so doing they removed much of the debris that archaeologists like to study, making it harder for us to learn about the people the Aztecs were trying to glorify (besides themselves).

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Yucatan: The Maya Epilogue

The collapse of the Classic Maya civilization did not affect northern Yucatan as badly as it did the other Maya-settled areas, so in the tenth century this area went from being the least important part of the Maya realm, to the most important part. Most history texts call this phase of Maya history (909-1519) the Post-Classic era. However, we no longer see this as an abrupt break with the Classic era; many of the Post-Classic cities were founded before the great cities in Guatemala and Honduras fell. Nor is there evidence of refugees fleeing from the south to the north, as was once believed.

Like the Classic era cities, the Post-Classic cities were often rivals. The most densely populated area was the Puuc Hills, in the northwest part of the peninsula. Here were located Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil and Labná; food must have been in abundant supply, because these cities were spaced only fifteen miles apart. However, the most important Yucatan city was Chichen Itza, and it was located in the lowlands near the northern coast. A network of roads linked the Yucatan cities, and trade routes went out from there to other parts of Mesoamerica. Unlike the jungles to the south, northern Yucatan is arid, and existing rivers run underground, so the most attractive locations were those near cenotes, sinkholes that served as natural wells.

Chichen Itza's main rivals were Uxmal and Cobá. Like Chichen Itza, both did well during the Classic era (Cobá was founded even before the Classic era began, no later than 100 A.D.). Not much is known about the history of Uxmal, but among the Puuc cities, it gave us the most beautiful and the most complex architecture. The buildings here were well-preserved even before archaeologists restored them, so visitors to Uxmal don't need much imagination to see what a Maya city looked like in its glory days. Among Uxmal's buildings, the most interesting are the 330-foot-long Palace of the Governor; the House of the Magician, a pyramid that is oval in shape, instead of having the usual four sides; another government palace which was named the Nunnery by the Spaniards; and yet another ball court. We now believe that Chichen Itza inflicted a catastrophic defeat on Uxmal and conquered the city in the tenth century, because no major buildings were built after 1000.

Cobá may be the most unique Maya city of all. With an area of 25 square miles and an estimated population of 50,000, it was larger than all Classic-era cities, though not as large as El Mirador. The city had access to good farmland and water, but it looks like the main source of wealth came from commerce, due to Cobá's location near Yucatan's east coast, and well preserved trade routes. Most unusual is a network of raised stone-and-plaster roads, called sacbe (Mayan for “white road,” the plural is sacbeob). The typical sacbe is 10-15 feet wide and elevated 1-3 feet above the ground (one goes up as high as 21 feet at one point, making that road resemble the Great Wall of China). So far fifty sacbe roads have been found, the longest running sixty-two miles west to the city of Yaxuna. Nobody knows why so much effort was put into building roads, inasmuch as all travel had to be done on foot, in a country without wheels or large animals; defense or religious processions have been suggested as the roads' main function. Finally, Cobá has several pyramids, the largest standing 138 feet high.

The Post-Classic Maya were at least as warlike as their predecessors, and curiously, their cities appear to have been ruled by an oligarchy of nobles, instead of a priest-king. We saw why they were different in the previous section; a Toltec invasion conquered Chichen Itza, most likely in the year 987, and made that city the capital of the region.(56) Hailed as one of the wonders of the world, Chichen Itza is so well known that it is often the place people think of when asked to name a Maya city. Still, Chichen Itza's famous architecture is really a combination of Maya and Toltec styles; the latter included feathered-serpent carvings, statues of warriors, and chac mools. The principal structures are a 79-foot pyramid called El Castillo, Mesoamerica's largest ball court, an observatory called El Caracol, and the Temple of the Warriors.

El Castillo.

El Castillo. Source:

To the Maya, however, the most important features of Chichen Itza were natural ones: two cenotes spaced a mile apart. One provided water for the city and irrigation; the other, called the Well of Sacrifice or the Sacred Cenote, had green water and was surrounded by gloomy walls, so it came to be seen as a gate between earth and the underworld, the place where the rain god Chac held his court. Sixteenth-century sources tell us that in times of drought, the Maya sacrificed people and valuable objects by throwing them into the well, and archaeologists have verified this custom by recovering human bones and objects made of gold, jade, ceramics and incense, from the well's depths.

Even with roads in the neighborhood, Chichen Itza was too far away from the Toltec domain to be ruled directly; like the Maya cities conquered by Teotihuacan, the new aristocracy would have been on its own, almost from the start. Still, the Toltec conquest brought two centuries of prosperity to Chichen Itza. On the other hand, it looks like the Toltecs never conquered Cobá; that city does not have any Toltec-style art. They could have defeated Cobá in battle, though, because Cobá was inhabited as late as 1500, but the buildings raised after 1000 were shoddy compared with older structures, a sign that the city had fallen on hard times.

Like so many other pre-Columbian cities, Chichen Itza was suddenly destroyed, and we don't know who did it, or why. The date is uncertain, too, but it probably happened in 1194 or 1221. According to the Books of Chilam Balam (see below), one day Chichen Itza made sacrifices at the Sacred Cenote, and one of the victims was Hunac Ceel, the ruler of Mayapan, a vassal city sixty miles to the west. Hunac Ceel either jumped in or was thrown into the well, and unlike most who make the seventy-foot plunge into the Well of Sacrifice, he survived. According to Maya custom, anyone not accepted by the god (meaning anyone who survived being offered) would gain the gift of prophecy, and Hunac Ceel prophesied that he would become a great ruler. The next part of the story is bizarre; when the lord of the city of Izamal got married, Hunac Ceel gave the lord of Chichen Itza a love potion made from the plumeria flower, and the lord of Chichen Itza was overcome with passion for the bride. The lord of Izamal was understandably enraged, and when Hunac Ceel revolted against Chichen Itza, the lord of Izamal joined him. Together the rulers of Mayapan and Izamal marched on Chichen Itza and sacked it.

Of course the story in the previous paragraph sounds more like a myth than a true account of what happened. Indeed, recently it has been suggested that Mayapan had nothing to do with Chichen Itza's destruction, and that it happened closer to 1000 A.D. Myself, I think that theory takes liberties with the facts we do know, so hopefully we'll be able to piece together the true story at a later date. Anyway, Chichen Itza and Uxmal suffered the same fate as other great Maya cities; first elite activities stopped, than the sites were depopulated. However, they weren't completely abandoned; pilgrims were still visiting both Chichen Itza and Uxmal when the Spaniards took over in the sixteenth century.

After Chichen Itza fell, Mayapan took its place as the dominant city in Yucatan. But while it may have had as much authority as Chichen Itza, Mayapan's architecture was a poor copy of the older city. Instead of a city plan that created a feeling of openness, Mayapan had a jumble of buildings in different sizes, connected by narrow alleys instead of wide, straight roads. The only important religious structure was a pyramid that imitated El Castillo, but was smaller and cruder; most worship appears to have been conducted at small family shrines. Overall, the impression we get is that the inhabitants of Mayapan were more interested in trade, and less interested in religion, than their ancestors had been. The city was ruled by the Cocom clan, Hunac Ceel's descendants.

Mayapan has been more heavily studied by archaeologists, than any other city in Yucatan. It is ironic that Western civilization named the Maya after Mayapan, when it was their last important city, and far less impressive than those built in the “good old days.” It fell in 1441, a date close enough to the European arrival that the Maya were able to tell the Spaniards what happened. According to Bishop Landa, the leader of the Cocom clan started doing business with the Aztecs, who had conquered the Gulf coast around Veracruz. Aztec influence was spreading even to the Maya realm; since the late fourteenth century, Mayapan artists had been producing works that imitated the central Mexican style. In return, Aztec artists were now lavishly using a paint called “Maya blue”; to make this pigment, they needed a rare clay that came from Mayapan. To encourage trade and strengthen his rule, the Cocom leader hired mercenaries from the state of Tabasco, where the Aztecs had their nearest outpost.(57) However, the other nobles saw the mercenaries as the beginning of a new tyranny, and they rallied behind Ah Xupan, the leader of the Tutul Xiu, a clan which traced its lineage to ruined Uxmal. In the uprising that followed, the Cocom leader and all but one of his sons were slain (the surviving son was on a trading expedition).

Mayapan had been sacked and burned, so instead of rebuilding the city, the families living there abandoned it to seek their fortunes elsewhere in Yucatan. Even the Tabascan mercenaries, who were pardoned by the Tutul Xiu and allowed to leave, founded a colony of their own, near the modern port of Sisal. The Tutal Xiu themselves founded a new city near the Puuc Hills, which they appropriately named Mani, Mayan for “it is passed.” Yucatan was now divided in sixteen minor city-states, none of them strong enough to dominate any of the others. Not learning from their previous mistakes, the Maya civilization's heirs fought petty wars among themselves, where the objectives were to burn the crops of enemy cities and to capture young men, either for soldiers or for sacrifices. Art and architecture continued to decline; one small town in the area, Tulum, had such shoddy construction (e.g., crooked columns, unmortared walls, undersized doorways), that later visitors spread a story about hunchbacks building the place. In the 1480s, a local epidemic drove away Mayapan's last residents. With the fall of Mayapan, the Maya were left in disarray, soon to be hit by an even greater catastrophe: the arrival of the Spaniards.

For the Maya, we are now at the end of the pre-Columbian era. A few decades later came the Spanish conquest. Our best source for Maya thought after the fall of Mayapan comes from the Books of Chilam Balam, a collection of texts about history, mythology, calendars, medicines, prophecies and Spanish traditions, supposedly written by a seer named Chilam Balam. The nine existing books are handwritten, and date to the eighteenth century, but the content was copied from much older manuscripts; the language used is Yucatec Maya, written in the Latin alphabet, and in some places it looks like the author was translating from Mayan hieroglyphics. The author tells the people that they should accept their Spanish “guests,” because they have fallen from glory, and the wisdom they once had is lost: “There were no more lucky days for us, we had no sound judgment.” Still, he hoped that someday historians would vindicate the Maya civilization, using words that are remarkable when one recalls that the Spaniards knew nothing about the Maya before the post-Classic era: “At the end of our loss of vision, and of our shame, everything shall be revealed.”

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The Mixtecs

While the Toltecs dominated the heart of Mexico, and the lucky days for the Maya were running out in Yucatan, the Indians in the state of Oaxaca, the Zapotecs, got some aggressive new neighbors. These were the Mixtecs, who lived in small mountain villages in western Oaxaca, and also the nearest parts of Puebla and Guerrero; they called themselves the Cloud People because their legends claimed their oldest ancestors descended from the sky to their highland homes. Like the Moche and the Maya, the Mixtecs were very talented artists--they did exceptional work in gold and pottery--and they were also brave warriors. On top of all that, they were famous among Mesoamericans for their knowledge of medicine, astronomy, history and geography. The Spaniards considered the Mixtecs to be the most unusual Mexican tribe, because the women often painted themselves yellow and the men painted themselves black.

Mixtec pectoral.

A gold pectoral from a tomb at Monte Alban, cast using the lost-wax method. The skull face is thought to represent the Mixtec god of death.

The Mixtecs got the break they needed because the Zapotecs did poorly after the fall of Teotihuacan. Around 900 A.D., the Zapotecs abandoned their thousand-year-old citadel at Monte Alban, moving to Mitla, a site twenty-five miles away. But this did not reverse their decline, so after a generation or two Mitla was abandoned as well. In the middle of the century the Mixtecs moved in and occupied both sites; they restored Monte Alban's cemetery, and made Mitla their own holy city. After that, the Mixtecs pushed north toward the edge of the Valley of Mexico, and south to the Pacific coast. Sometimes the Mixtecs intermarried with, or allied with the Zapotecs; in either case, the Zapotecs continued to lose ground, even when the two groups weren't fighting each other. By 1200, the Zapotecs were faced with a choice; they could submit to Mixtec rule, or get out of Oaxaca. Those who chose freedom migrated east on the Pacific coast until they reached the city of Tehuantepec, and seized it from the local tribes.

Mixtec map.

The Mixtec realm. From

The Mixtecs never had a supreme ruler, and were a confederation rather than a unified state. The princes of the Mixtec states had different ranks, like the nobility of feudal Europe, and the only way to get promoted to a higher rank was to marry someone from a higher-ranked family. Also important was the clergy, who were led by three oracle priests. Each of these priests, the Mixtec equivalent of popes, dressed as a different god, and their job was to pass judgment, to keep the fights between princes from becoming too bloody; they possessed armies of their own to enforce their decisions.

Mixtec wars were commonplace, but they followed a set of rules. Cities were rarely conquered, because they were in high places and fortified; the places and dates for battles were prearranged, and before the battle the women and children would be moved to a safe spot, like on top of a mountain. However, if a city was taken, the men of the defeated royal family were sacrificed, and the victor or his sons married the women. Mixtec rulers were not limited by monogamy, so a prince was considered powerful if he had taken many wives as a result of his battles.

Unlike the situation with the Maya, we have several Mixtec books. These are also folded codices, but written on deerskin instead of bark. Though the oldest dates to 692 A.D., they tell us nothing about where the Mixtecs came from originally. Currently the language is not completely understood; apparently it is related to the language of the sixteenth-century Olmecs (not the Olmecs we covered previously) on the Gulf coast.

The most celebrated Mixtec ruler was Iya Nacuaa Teyusi Ñaña, a name which translates into English as Eight-Deer Ocelot-Claw. Originally he was simply called Eight-Deer, because his birthday on the calendar was called Eight-Deer day, and the name Ocelot-Claw was added after he became a chieftain. The son of a high priest, he took charge of his clan in 1084, at the age of nineteen, and proved he had skills in both combat and intrigue. Through a string of successful campaigns and political marriages, he became the only Mixtec king to rule cities in both the highlands and along the coast. One of the keys to his success was an alliance with Four-Jaguar, the Toltec king of Cholula; for supporting Four-Jaguar in his campaigns, he was awarded a turquoise nose-ornament, a symbol of Toltec authority. However, Eight-Deer tolerated no opposition. When the ruler of Xipe-Bundle, a distant city, died and it wasn't clear who would succeed him, Eight-Deer and Four-Jaguar marched there, captured all the candidates (these included Eight-Deer's half brother, Twelve-Earthquake), and sacrificed them to the gods, except for the youngest, Eight-Deer's brother-in-law Four-Wind (1101). Fourteen years later Four-Wind formed an alliance against Eight-Deer, and Eight-Deer was in turn defeated in battle, captured, and sacrificed on his enemy's altar. To paraphrase a well-known saying, live by the war club, perish by the war club.

Four-Jaguar meets Eight-Deer.

A meeting between Four-Jaguar and Eight-Deer. Eight-Deer's name is represented in the top right corner, as eight circles connected to a deer's head.

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Forerunners of the Incas

For the history of Peru and surrounding countries, our narrative is now up to the oldest memories of the Incas. Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish humanitarian we'll be hearing from in Chapter 2, knew that the Incas were not the first civilization of the Andes; they had conquered the states that were established before them, and before those states, there was anarchy in South America. Around 1550 he wrote, “This early period lasted about five or six hundred years. During this time the country was divided into a great number of chieftaincies, some larger than others but none of any great extent. . . . Between the peoples of adjacent communities there was a primitive kind of commerce whereby products of one kind were bartered for those of another. There was, therefore, some slight trade between neighboring states, but none at all between widely separated localities. These idyllic conditions lasted for some time, but later on wars and discords gradually came into being, chiefly provoked by questions relative to land and water-rights.” What this means to us is that we no longer have just artifacts to go on, when trying to tell the story of pre-Columbian South America. Now we can add the oral traditions that Spain put down in writing after conquering Peru, so henceforth this narrative will read more like a true history, and have fewer unanswered questions.

If you will harken back to the table near the beginning of this chapter, the Huari-Tiahuanaco co-dominion existed during the Middle Horizon period, and this section covers the next time frame, the Late Intermediate period (1000-1476). We saw earlier that a severe, century-long drought was the most likely reason for the fall of the Middle Horizon states. In the chaos that followed, local Andean chiefs battled over scare water and food supplies, while refugees from those raids fled to frigid, windswept hideouts, some of them more than 13,000 feet above sea level. As with the Chichimecs in Mexico, groups of people divided and came together to form new tribes, new nations, each with its own styles of pottery and textiles, its own political/economic systems, and its own legends. For example, the Lupaca, the tribe that inherited Lake Titicaca, appears not to have had a centralized state, but an alliance of small communities that traced their lineage to a common ancestor. Others tried moving to the eastern side of the Andes, where there was always more rain.

Another sign that these were hard times is visible in the change in architectural priorities. Instead of ritual centers, the most important construction projects involved building walled towns and other fortifications. Moreover, the towns were not in valley floors but in defensible locations like hilltops and ridges; obviously good protection outweighed the need to be near farmland or water. Raids or invasions must have been a real threat, to convince people to live in an inconvenient, cold location.

Late Intermediate period map.

There were at least a dozen cultures in Peru during the Late Intermediate period. The reader may notice that one of the minor cultures at this stage was that of the Incas. We will talk about them in another section, for reasons that will soon be obvious.

This section will concentrate on the three most important cultures preceding the Incas: the Sican, the Chimu, and the Chachapoyas; we will just say a few words about the rest. One reason is to keep the narrative flowing. The second reason is that for most of these cultures, all we know about them comes from the artifacts they left. Although the Incas and the Spaniards came into contact with these people, neither one of them wanted to promote the nations they had just conquered; as the saying goes, history is written by the winners. Finally, most of the languages spoken in Peru, except for Quechua (the language of the Incas) and Aymara, became dead languages by 1600. For example, most of the speakers of Quingnam, the chief language of the Chimu, were killed by the disease epidemics that struck with the Spanish conquests; to survive in the modern world, the remaining Quingnam speakers had to learn Quechua and Spanish. As in other places, people lost much of their history and heritage when the old languages went out of use.

Chancay tomb guardian.

Among the minor cultures, the author's favorite is the Chancay (pronounced “Shahn-kye”), which lived on a small stretch of Peru's central coast. Their buildings were made by casting sections of adobe with molds, a form of construction called tapia. Artifacts coming from them include fine textiles, dolls, and ceramics with a comical appearance. The most unusual of the latter are cuchimilcos, tomb guardian figurines with outstretched arms that come in pairs, male and female (the picture shows one).

The Late Intermediate period saw the continuing development of a social hierarchy, in which the upper class continued to accumulate wealth and hoard luxury goods. The ancestors of today's Aymara showed it with a new custom, the building of above-ground tombs for the nobility. They continued to mummify the dead like previous South American civilizations, but now instead of burying them, they sealed them in short towers of stone or adobe called chullpas. The preferred locations for these structures were on the edges of settlements, or on hilltops. Today the best-preserved chullpas are at Sillustani, a site on the Altiplano near modern Puno, Peru. We believe that later on the Incas adopted this custom, but as you will see in the next chapter, the Spaniards looted/destroyed any native burials they found.

We will look at the Sican culture first, because it was the oldest; it got started early in the Middle Horizon period (see footnote #34), and ended before the Late Intermediate Period did. The name “Sican” means “temple of the moon,” and it comes from Izumi Shimada, the archaeologist who has done more than anyone else to study this civilization.(58) Don't confuse it with Sipán, which is a site from the earlier Moche culture. Another name used is the Lambayeque culture, after the main river on this part of Peru's north coast. Shimada divides the Sican culture into three periods:

  1. Early Sican period (750-900): The time when the elements which distinguished Sican culture from the Moche culture appeared, including excellent metal work and black-polished ceramics. Because they were under Huari rule, the Sican political system has not yet developed. Poma in the La Leche valley, also called Batan Grande, becomes the largest Sican city, and a center for the production of copper and bronze.(59) During this and the Middle Sican period, Batan Grande would become the site for ten of thousands of burials, and thirty adobe platforms.
  2. Middle Sican period (900-1100): The peak years, when the Sicans had their own ideology and art styles. Extensive irrigation made the desert productive, important people were given elaborate burials, and they traded with places as far away as Colombia, Chile and the Amazon basin. Late in this period, droughts afflicted the land from 1020 to 1050, and the temples of Batan Grande were burned, probably because the gods had failed to prevent the droughts; then a catastrophic flood struck in 1100. Both events were possibly caused by bad El Nino cycles.
  3. Late Sican period (1100-1375): Because Batan Grande was devastated by the above disasters, and by the riots that followed, the government moves to a new site, El Purgatorio (also called Tucume), at the junction of the La Leche and Lambayeque valleys. Eventually twenty-six major mounds and enclosures were built at this site. Images of the chief god from the Early and Middle periods are no longer made, presumably because he was blamed for all the trouble; instead animals become the chief art subject. This period ends when the Sicans are conquered by Chimor (see below).
Burials for the elite were in the form of shaft graves, near the platforms/pyramids.(60) The richest Sican tomb found so far was excavated by Shimada in 1995. It contained more than a ton of precious metal in the form of jewelry and of ritual artifacts; the occupant of the tomb has been dubbed “The Lord of Sican.”

The Sican state was a theocracy, and its religion and ideology were centered around a mythical figure named Naymlap. Miguel Cabello de Balboa, a sixteenth-century writer, wrote down the story of Naymlap for us. He reported that Naymlap and his wife, servants and court officials, crossed the sea on balsa rafts and landed at the mouth of the Lambayeque valley. He founded the first Sican city, built a pyramid named Chot, and left a green stone image of himself in it. The myth goes on to say that when Naymlap knew he was about to die, he went into his tomb and commanded his servants to tell everyone he sprouted wings and flew off to heaven. A son named Cium took over; meanwhile the eldest son, Zolzdoni, had twelve sons, and each of them founded another city.(61) All of those cities formed a confederation, each with a huge mound complex as its administrative center. For the rest of the time the Sican culture existed, the rulers of each city claimed descent from Naymlap. After this the accounts disagree on whether the official dynasty had twelve or nine rulers, but they agree that it ended with a ruler named Fempellec. This character moved Naymlap's green stone idol and caused a disaster--thirty days of rain (the 1100 A.D. Flood?). Another version of the story claims that the flood happened when Fempellec took a beautiful woman to bed, and she turned out to be a devil in disguise. The priests and nobles responded to the flood by tying up Fempellec and throwing him into the sea, ending the dynasty and leaving the Sicans disunited for the rest of their history.

The Chimu culture, like the Muchik and Sican, was descended from the Moche. Indeed, Chan Chan, the Chimu capital, was in the same neighborhood as ancient Moche, the Huaca del Sol and the Huaca de la Luna. Because it was a coastal culture, the Chimu looked to the sea, rather than the mountains, for food and wealth.

The Chimu state was called Chimor, and like the Sicans, the Chimu believed their state's founder came with his followers on rafts from the sea. This founder was named Tacaynamo, and he established a dynasty of ten kings. The next king, Tacaynamo's son Guacricaur, brought the Moche valley under Chan Chan's rule. He was in turn succeeded by Nancenpinco, who conquered Chimor's neighbor to the south, the Sican state, around 1375. Six more kings followed, who continued to expand the Chimu empire, and then came the last ruler of the dynasty, Minchancaman.

Chan Chan is the largest city in the world built with adobe bricks, covering an area of fourteen square miles. In the middle of the city are ten palaces, called ciudadelas (citadels). Each palace is surrounded by an adobe wall, ten feet thick at the base, thirty feet high, and decorated with reliefs of birds and fish; originally there were perishable cane-walled buildings around the structures, too. Also interesting is the fact that each compound had only one or two entrances, a sign that not many people were allowed in. We now believe that each king built and used a ciudadela while he was alive, and after his death, it became a tomb and mortuary temple, where people regularly visited to take care of the mummy, pay their respects and make offerings to it. Some palace compounds also had satellite burials, presumably for relatives of the late king who did not rule in their own right. Some of the offices, court chambers and storerooms in the palaces may have even continued to serve their administrative functions, after the next king built his new palace. We will see very similar practices among the Incas later on.

The above king list suggests that Chimor was founded around 1300, if we assume a reign of twenty-five years for each of the early kings. However, we saw that Chan Chan itself was founded four hundred years earlier, so maybe from 900 to 1300 the Chimu did not have a unified state. Some scholars have suggested that the accomplishments of several kings were lumped together under Tacaynamo, Guacricaur and Nancenpinco; other cultures in other times and places have thus recorded a whole dynasty as the reign of a single great king. And there may have been more; Michael Moseley, one of the archaeologists involved with the excavation of Chan Chan, proposed that Chimor had two rulers at any given time, and one of the rulers was a figurehead, like the constitutional monarchs seen in some modern nations. If either of these theories are true, then at least half of the ciudadelas were used by more than one king; perhaps only the last four kings were rich enough to build palaces just for themselves. It also means that over time, government grew more expensive; every time a new ciudadela was built, taxes had to be raised or new lands had to be conquered, to support the new bureaucracy. Skilled workers in conquered lands, like the Sican metalworkers, were brought back to Chan Chan to work for their new masters, just as the Incas would later bring Chimu artisans to Cuzco. Eventually both the Chimu and the Inca states would expand beyond economically sensible limits, for the same reason.

The Chimu continued the Peruvian traditions of excellent work in textiles, copper, silver, gold and bronze. Their pottery, however, was drab compared with their predecessors. Most of it was polished blackware, instead of painted works, and they don't show as much originality as what the Moche produced, suggesting that the Chimu had set up some kind of mass production for ceramics. The combination handle and spout (“stirrup handle”) remained popular. Common subjects were animals, or people standing, sitting or committing sex acts. It has been estimated that at its peak, Chan Chan had 35,000 people, of which 26,000 were craftsmen; by contrast, farmers and fisherman had to stay outside the capital's city limits.

By the mid-fifteenth century, Chimor was largest pre-Inca state. King Minchancaman brought the empire to its peak, conquering everything from Tumbes and Guayaquil in the north, to a point just short of Lima in the south, a stretch of coastline nearly 700 miles long. A century later, Spanish explorers reported at least five languages, including Quingnam, were spoken in the lands the Chimu ruled. But while Minchancaman was a great warrior, his Inca counterparts, Pachacuti and Tupac Inca Yupanqui, were even more fearsome, and they conquered Chimor in 1471. The Incas imposed a light yoke on Chan Chan; they took Minchancaman back to Cuzco with them, but let his descendants serve as provincial governors. Even so, the Chimu resented being demoted to secondary status, and rebelled against the Incas at least once. When the Spaniards arrived in the Andes, many of the Chimu may have initially seen them as allies.(62)

Only recently have the Chachapoyas been given much attention. Living in the cloud forests on the eastern slopes of the Andes, they were called the “Warriors of the Clouds” by the Incas; we don't know what they called themselves. Because the terrain they lived in is so rugged, they were among the last peoples the Incas conquered; Tupac Inca claimed to have done it around 1475, but they continued to rebel, so Huayna Capac had to reconquer them (see Chapter 2). All first-hand accounts of the Chachapoyas come from their opponents, the Incas and the Spaniards, sources we can't count on for unbiased information. The most unusual description comes from Pedro Cieza de León, a sixteenth-century conquistador and historian, who said this about them: “They are the whitest and most handsome of all the people that I have seen in Indies, and their wives were so beautiful that because of their gentleness, many of them deserved to be the Incas' wives and to also be taken to the Sun Temple (...)” This has led to speculation on whether the Chachapoyas were really Caucasian, or (more likely) if they were just unusually light-skinned, as Native Americans go.

Despite their location on the edge of the Amazon jungle, artifacts from the Chachapoyas resemble those of south Andean cultures, not Amazon cultures. This tells us that they migrated from the neighborhood of Bolivia. All of their communities were fortified, telling us that they had enemies from the start. The oldest and most impressive structure that they built was Kuelap, a massive fortress with seventy-foot-high walls, containing more than four hundred buildings, perched on a ten-thousand-foot-high mountain. Radiocarbon dating shows that construction started on the site in the sixth century A.D., so they may have built it to defend themselves from the Huari, who had strongholds nearby at Cajamarca and Huamachuco. No Huari-style pottery or artifacts have been found here, a sign that the defenses of Kuelap succeeded in keeping the Huari out. The Spaniards never found Kuelap, and only the local villagers knew about the ruins until 1843, when their existence was reported to the rest of the world. Though it has been called the “Machu Picchu of the north,” Kuelap's remote location means it is less famous (the first dirt road to it was only built in 1971), and it receives far fewer visitors. Other prime examples of Chachapoya architecture are round stone houses with conical roofs.

Kuelap's walls.


Though the Chachapoyas lived in a wet climate, hundreds of their mummies have been found so far, because they put the dead in dry places, either in caves or in cliffside tombs. The first picture below shows six Chachapoyan sarcophagi, made of clay and grass, on a cliff facing the rising sun. The second shows some mausoleums on a cliff, which resemble the chullpas mentioned previously. At this stage in learning about the Chachapoyas, we do not know which of these burial customs were purely their own, and which were introduced by the Incas after they took over.

Chachapoya sarcophagi.

Chachapoya mausoleums.

Aside from Kuelap, most Chachapoyan buildings, graves and mummies have been discovered since 1996. A second citadel on top of a cliff was discovered in 2008; in 2010 explorer Keith Muscutt reported finding a vast structure with a plaza, which has been named Penitentiary Ruin. It's a safe bet that more discoveries are being made in this part of Peru, as we go to press.

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The Tepanecs and the Rise of the Aztecs

With the Toltec Empire gone, central Mexico experienced another power vacuum, and Chichimec raiders came in from the north again. A new set of ceremonial centers emerged, and a few of them gained considerable power in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In 1224 Xolotl, the chief of a Chichimec tribe, seized Tenayuca on Lake Texcoco's northern shore, and under his descendants, Tenayuca led a league that included about half of the fifty or so communities in the Valley of Mexico. On the Gulf coast, the city of Cempoala held a similar position among the Totonacs, while in northern Yucatan, we saw Chichen Itza and then Mayapan become the foremost Maya cities. However, none of the new centers could serve more than local needs, and the other important Mesoamerican peoples (the Huastecs, Tarascans, Mixtecs, Zapotecs and Highland Maya), each had more than one place like that. And between these peoples were several minor tribes, each with its own traditions and sacred meeting places.

One of those minor tribes called itself the Aztecs, the “People of the Reeds.”(63) In the fifteenth century the Aztecs would become very important, but at this stage they were just another group of Chichimecs, nomadic warriors who traveled around with an image of their war god, Huitzilopochtli. The god's name sounds harmless--in Nahuatl it means “Left-handed Hummingbird”--but non-Aztecs considered Huitzilopochtli an especially bloodthirsty deity, and that's saying something in a part of the world where every god demands blood at one time or another. According to their traditions, originally they and all other Nahua tribes came from a place named Aztlan, which they described as an island in a lake or lagoon surrounded by reeds and herons. They also claimed that they left Aztlan in 1116, and reached the Valley of Mexico in 1168; this migration may have had something to do with the fall of the Toltecs. By then, after decades of wandering among deserts and mountains without a map or compass, they had lost track of where Aztlan was. Most of today's scholars think it was somewhere in northwest Mexico, possibly a small island in the Gulf of California, while Chicano nationalists like the MEChA group argue that Aztlan was in New Mexico or California.

Because the Aztecs were literate, and at their peak when Europe made contact with them, we have more than one story on how they got started. Most historians only believe the oldest stories, written before the Aztecs enjoyed success, and according to these, the early history of the Aztecs was not glorious at all. After they entered the valley, other tribes looked down on them the way most Europeans looked down on the Gypsies. Part of it was because of their status as Johnny-come-latelys, and part of it was because of their disgusting behavior: they ate vermin (mostly snakes, bugs and worms), kidnapped women and took captives to sacrifice to their brutal god. In 1248 they settled at Chapultepec (Grasshopper Hill), a site on Lake Texcoco's western shore. However, the sedentary peoples nearby did not want anything to do with these barbarians, calling them “people without a face,” and the strongest group in the vicinity, the Tepanecs, threw them out. What the residents of the valley did not realize was that they may not have been interested in the Aztecs, but the Aztecs were interested in them.

By 1299, the Aztecs, weary and discouraged, straggled into the city of Culhuacán. The Culhuas knew that the Aztecs had one useful skill--they were good at slaughtering their enemies--so they took them in on condition that the Aztecs serve them as mercenaries. In what must have been a cruel joke, Cocoxtli, the ruler of Culhuacán, told the refugees they could stay at Tizapan, a bare patch of volcanic rock infested with snakes. Instead, as one chronicle put it, they thrived: “They rejoiced greatly as soon as they saw the snakes, and they roasted and cooked them all and ate them all up.” The Culhuas were impressed at the Aztec toughness, and were pleased by the Aztec performance in battles over the next few years.

In 1323, the Aztecs asked the current ruler of Culhuacán, Achicometl, for his daughter, so she could marry their god. Achicometl sent his daughter, but Huitzilopochtli had other plans for her. The priests killed and skinned the daughter, and then they invited Achicometl to come and take part in the ceremony where his daughter would become a goddess. When the king arrived, the Aztec temple was dark, and he placed gifts of blood and flowers at the feet of the idol. Then he offered incense, and the fire from that offering lit up the temple enough for him to recognize that one of the priests, like the priests of Xipe Totec in ancient Teotihuacan, was dressed in his daughter's skin!

A worse diplomatic faux pas cannot be imagined; indeed, the Aztecs later claimed that Huitzilopochtli had ordered them to demand the king's daughter and wear her skin, to provoke a fight with the Culhuas. Needless to say, the enraged king banished them from his territory, and they were forced to hide in the marshes around Lake Texcoco. While there, they decided to explore a muddy island that had recently emerged from the slowly shrinking lake. A priest named Tenoch prophesied that when they saw an eagle perched on a prickly pear with a snake in its beak, that would be the sign that they had found their permanent home. Sure enough, on the island they saw an eagle which fit that description; in 1325 they founded their city on that spot, and named it after the priest, hence Tenochtitlan. The decision to settle on the island started the Aztecs on the path upward; the modern Mexican flag shows the eagle, snake and cactus, in commemoration of that vision.(64)

Despite the disastrous end to the Aztec-Culhuacán alliance, a few marriages took place among them during the next fifty years; the rulers of each city in the valley rated themselves on the Mexican pecking order by whom they married to.(65) Therefore, when the top position among the Aztecs became vacant in 1375, the tribal elders decided they needed a leader who was descended from a non-Aztec ruler. The candidate they elected was Acamapichtli, the son of an Aztec noble and a Culhuacán princess. Moreover, because Culhuacán was the last Toltec city, this choice gave the Aztecs a leader with Toltec ancestry. At the time, Acamapichtli was living with his mother in the city of Texcoco, so he was brought back to Tenochtitlan, and he ruled from 1376 until his death in 1395. In 1382 Acamapichtli was officially crowned as the first tlatoani, or ruler of the Aztecs. His reign saw the Aztecs come under the rule of the Tepanecs, and he began construction on the Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan's great pyramid. Remodeled many times during the next century, this structure would grow to become a double pyramid, with twin shrines to Huitzilopochtli and the rain-god Tlaloc on top. In the past, Aztec leaders did not have to come from any particular family, but Acamapichtli got so many things done that the Aztecs made sure all future rulers would be descended from him. The first of those successor kings was Huitzilihuitl (“Hummingbird Feather”), who ruled from 1395 to 1417.

Family tree of the Aztec kings.

The Aztec royal family. Kings are light green, women are yellow.

But currently another tribe, the Tepanecs, dominated the Valley of Mexico. Like the other valley communities, the Tepanecs were a Nahuatl-speaking tribe. Apparently they arrived in the valley before the Aztecs, and settled down at some point in the thirteenth century, because one legend asserts that the Chichimec ruler Xolotl welcomed them. Under a chief named Acolnahuacatl, the Tepanecs took over Azcapotzalco, a city on the western shore of Lake Texcoco, from the previous inhabitants. Later they captured other cities in the neighborhood, but Azcapotzalco remained the most important. Then in the last quarter of the fourteenth century, the Tepanecs put together the first unified state since the fall of the Toltecs. This empire was the personal achievement of Chief Tezozomoc of Azcapotzalco, who in the course of a long reign (1371-1426, according to oral tradition), used both military force and diplomacy to conquer the entire valley, and then added parts of the Toluca and Morelos valleys.

The same oral tradition asserted that Tezozomoc was born in 1320, meaning he lived to be 106. Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxochitl, a seventeenth-century governor and historian, must have known about this claim, because he described Tezozomoc as follows: "The most cruel man who ever lived, proud, warlike and domineering. And he was so old, according to what appears in the histories, and to what elderly princes have told me, that they carried him about like a child swathed in feathers and soft skins; they always took him out into the sun to warm him up, and at night he slept between two great braziers, and he never withdrew from their glow because he lacked natural heat. And he was very temperate in his eating and drinking and for this reason he lived so long."

Like other emperors, Tezozomoc demanded taxes and tribute from the cities he controlled, and as long as those cities were loyal, they paid up. His subjects included the Aztecs; at first he just took foodstuffs from them, but because of the Aztec reputation as fighters, he drafted them into his army from 1385 onward. The Aztecs helped him to win battles against the city-states of Chalco, Cuauhnahuac (modern Cuernavaca) and Xochimilco, so they became his favorite military unit. This meant the Aztecs were treated better than other tributary tribes; eventually he even gave his daughter in marriage to the Aztec king, though he must have heard how dangerous a marriage to the Aztecs was! In fact, the son they had, Chimalpopoca, became Tezozomoc's favorite grandson. Just before his death, Tezozomoc approved a proposal to build a wooden aqueduct across the lake from Chapultepec to Tenochtitlan, so that the Aztecs would have a reliable fresh water supply.

The toughest opponent of the Tepanecs was Acolhuacan, a state on the east shore of Lake Texcoco, run by a city that was also named Texcoco. In the first confrontation between them, Acolhuacan was better prepared; it even had a grandson of Tezozomoc, Cihuacuecuenotzin, as its commanding general. When Tezozomoc provoked a fight, he lost and was forced to sue for peace. After this, Tezozomoc waited until the king of Texcoco, Techotlalatzin, was dead before trying a rematch. He did better against the next king, Ixtlilxochitl (1409-18), both defeating and killing him. Because the Aztecs served him in this campaign, Tezozomoc gave them Texcoco, making that city the vassal state of a vassal state.(66)

Tepanec hegemony over the Valley of Mexico did not long outlast Tezozomoc's reign. He had five sons, and gave the throne to one of them, Tayatzin, but a year later Tayatzin was overthrown by his brother, Maxtla. Maxtla thought the vassal states had been granted too many privileges, so Tayatzin conspired with the current Aztec tlatoani, Chimalpopoca, to overthrow Maxtla and regain his throne. Instead, Maxtla won (Tayatzin was probably poisoned by him), and Chimalpopoca died in a Tepanec prison. Chimalpopoca's uncle, Itzcoatl (1427-40), took the throne in his place.

The next year saw Itzcoatl of Tenochtitlan join forces with Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco (see the previous footnote) and Totoquilhuaztli of Tlacopan (a city next to Azcapotalco), and together they revolted against Maxtla. However, the real power behind the alliance was Tlacaelel, a son of Huitzilihuitl who was appointed commanding general. According to one account, Tlacaelel made the first move by going to Azcapotalco and issuing a declaration of war against the Tepanecs, without consulting anyone outside the Aztec royal family! It is easier to stop a war than to start one, so when Tlacaelel returned with this fait accompli, it didn't take much to persuade the Aztecs to support the war effort. Before 1428 was over the three allies defeated the Tepanecs in battle, wasted Azcapotzalco, and set up a new empire of their own. In theory this was also a joint enterprise, but from the start Tenochtitlan was powerful enough to dominate the other two cities. Because Tlacopan was the weakest city, the taxation system was set up so that Tenochtitlan and Texcoco each received two fifths of incoming tribute, while Tlacopan received one fifth.

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The Bloody Splendor of the Aztecs

or, I Left My Heart In Tenochtitlan

Three men from the same family were responsible for the sudden rise of the Aztecs in the fifteenth century: King Itzcoatl and two of his nephews, the previously mentioned Tlacaelel, and Moctezuma Ilhuicamina (better known as Moctezuma I). The Aztec tlatoani did not choose his heir; a council of Aztec leaders elected him, choosing from among candidates in the royal family. Accordingly, Tlacaelel refused offers to become the next tlatoani, choosing instead to serve as the chief advisor of four kings, until his death in 1487. As for Itzcoatl, his next act after the destruction of Azcapotzalco was to lead several campaigns against the cities of Xochimilco, Mixquic, Cuitlahuac, and Tezompa, which conquered the chinampas on the south shores of Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco (1430-33). At the same time that he secured control over those farms, he conquered the cities of Culhuacán and Coyoacán, beginning eighty years of Aztec expansion. Now that most of the Valley of Mexico was under Aztec control, he launched the first Aztec campaign outside of the valley in 1439, against Cuauhnahuac. At home he built temples and roads, including one of the causeways spanning Lake Texcoco to connect Tenochtitlan with the mainland. Finally, Izcoatl engaged in propaganda; he ordered the burning of all books which recorded the history given in the previous section, and produced a newer, grander history of the Aztecs, which portrayed them as Huitzilopochtli's chosen people.

They were the chosen people because the gods had given the Aztecs a special assignment. Huitzilopochtli and all the other gods the Aztecs worshiped were on a strict diet--human blood and human hearts--and according to their mythology, the Aztecs were responsible for supplying it. Every night, the sun god struggled with the moon and stars so he could rise again the next morning, and there were also key dates when the gods needed exceptional strength, like at the end of a 52-year cycle. In order to win those battles, the gods needed to be fed by the Aztecs; all life would end if the gods went hungry! In a pinch, animal blood would do, but the Aztecs always believed that human offerings were better. We no longer believe that the Aztecs offered human sacrifices every day, but they definitely did it on every holiday. And while we saw that other ancient American tribes practiced human sacrifice, nobody did it on the scale that the Aztecs did, offering as many as ten thousand victims in a typical year. Yes, Aztec pyramids were real-life "temples of doom."

A disco video about Aztec priests, from the British comedy "Horrible Histories." Moctezuma, meet the Bee Gees!

The most common form of butchery was a method that had been practiced by the Maya and the Toltecs. The victim, usually a prisoner of war, would be taken up the steps of a pyramid, and at the top he would be seized by four priests. They would hold the victim down on a large stone, each priest grabbing an arm or a leg, while a fifth priest, using an obsidian knife, would quickly cut open the victim's chest, rip out the still-beating heart, hold it up to the sun, and then cast it into a fire. Then the heartless corpse would be rolled down the temple steps.(67) So when you see pictures of Aztec pyramids, imagine them covered with blood, because that is how they looked when they were in use. Later the head would be chopped off and added to a skull rack called a tzompantli; the arms and legs of the victim might be consumed in ritual cannibal feasts, while the torso was usually fed to the animals at the king's zoo.(68)

Some gods required special sacrifices. For the rain-god Tlaloc, children were drowned; if they cried while being taken to the ceremony, that was seen as a good sign, because tears from the kids reminded the priests of rain. Victims to the fire-god Xiuhtecuhutli were drugged and thrown alive onto burning pyres, then dragged out before they were completely dead so their hearts could be removed. For the corn goddess, they would choose young women to represent the goddess, and then behead them to symbolize the harvesting of ears of corn. And the priests of Xipe Totec continued to wear the flayed skins of their victims. The most unusual sacrifice involved a physically perfect youth who was chosen to represent Tezcatlipoca, the god of magic. For one year, he was allowed to live a life of honor and pleasure; he learned music, smoked tobacco, wore gold jewelry and fancy clothes, and had eight attendants. Twenty days before the year was up, he was married to four maidens, who represented goddesses. On the last day of his life, the youth would go up the steps of Tezcatlipoca's temple. On each step he would play a song with a clay flute, and then break the flute; at the top of the steps he would be sacrificed in the manner described in the previous paragraph. Immediately after that ceremony, a new youth would be chosen to represent the god for the next year.

If there ever were a group of people dedicated to warfare, it was the Aztecs. Indeed, if you were not born into a noble family, the best way to rise to the nobility was to become a warrior and be good at it. All Aztec men received some military training; you could say it started when the midwife cut the umbilical cord of a newborn boy and told the child, “Thy home is not here, for thou art an eagle or a jaguar. Here is only the place of thy nest. War is thy task. Thou shalt give drink, nourishment, food to the sun.” At the age of ten, a boy's hair was cut, except for a lock on the nape of the neck; that had to stay until he participated in the capture of a prisoner. At the age of fifteen, they were taught the use of weapons like spears, bows, and the war club edged with obsidian blades; they would also learn appropriate dances and songs. Once he killed or captured four enemy warriors, he would be promoted through the ranks. Those who performed best of all would become eligible to join one of two elite military orders, either the Eagle Warriors or Jaguar Warriors. These orders were the Aztec equivalent of knighthood, and members belonging to them would wear costumes that made them look like eagles or jaguars; they were seen as being fearless and swift, just like those animals.

Warriors were also motivated by the Aztec view of the afterlife. To them, most dead souls went to an unpleasant realm like the Greek Hades, called the Region of the Dead. There was a Paradise, but it was reserved for the gods, warriors slain in combat, and those who had been sacrificed. Childbirth was seen as another kind of battle, so women who died while giving birth were also seen as warriors, and allowed to go to Paradise, too. According to one myth, before dawn every day, dead warriors would gather at the place where the sun appeared, celebrate by banging war clubs on wooden shields, and escort the sun to its zenith in the sky, where the women who died in childbirth would take over, and keep the sun company until it reached the place of its setting. After four years as “companions of the sun,” the souls of Aztec warriors would be reincarnated in this world as nectar-drinking creatures: hummingbirds, orioles and butterflies. This is a startlingly gentle fate for such tough warriors, who like Japan's samurai, fought believing that an honorable death was better than a good life.

Itzcoatl was succeeded by Moctezuma I (1440-69). Because of the story of the Spanish conquest, covered in the next chapter, this Moctezuma is not as well known as Moctezuma II, though he was a greater ruler; he is not even as well known as his contemporary, Nezahualcoyotl. He had served as an able military leader under Itzcoatl, and thus got to be the next king because he was clearly the most talented among those eligible to rule. It was Moctezuma I who transformed the triple alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan into the Aztec Empire, with Tenochtitlan as its undisputed capital.

First, Moctezuma reconquered those cities which had been conquered by Itzcoatl, but rebelled after his death. This would be a common problem for the Aztecs, because their rule was so unpopular among non-Aztecs. Once those loose ends were tied up, he asked the cities under his control to contribute to a remodeling of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan, and only Chalco refused, so Moctezuma launched a war against Chalco which lasted for several years. Next, he led the armies of the triple alliance east, marching all the way to the Gulf Coast, conquering the Totonacs, and making vassals of the Huastecs. Success in the east provided the Aztecs with exotic goods unavailable at home, like cocoa (cacao beans were sometimes used as a form of currency), rubber, cotton, bright-colored feathers, and shells.

For Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma got the help of engineers from Texcoco, to build a ten-mile-long dike in the lake east of the capital; this kept the lake's brackish water from contaminating the fresh water zone around the city and the chinampas. He also completed the Chapultepec-Tenochtitlan aqueduct proposed a generation earlier, only now it had two channels and was built of stone instead of wood. Indeed, part of the reason why Tenochtitlan grew so big was because it was also a clean city. Aztecs bathed regularly, and the streets were hosed down daily--Europeans were filthy by comparison.

Despite the effort, these projects could not keep the Aztecs safe from a natural disaster. From 1450 to 1454 they were afflicted by a long drought and untimely frosts. This created appalling conditions in the capital; famine decimated the population, and wild animals roamed the streets looking for people to bite. Some Aztecs even sold themselves as slaves to the Totonacs, because their land on the Gulf Coast was getting enough rain. Tlacaelel and the priests told the king that the gods were punishing the Aztecs because they were dissatisfied with the human sacrifices being offered to them; more victims were needed, and they had to be of better quality. The Aztecs preferred getting their victims by going to war, and offering up the prisoners they brought back. Moctezuma made an arrangement with two independent states that also needed human victims for sacrifices, Tlaxcala in modern Puebla and Huexotzinco in Guerrero. These would be a series of staged battles called the Flower Wars, in which the date and place of the battles were chosen in advance, no territory would change hands, and the only objective was to capture enemy soldiers to sacrifice. Thus, when the drought ended, it was taken as a sign that the gods were now getting the blood they needed, and the Flower Wars allowed Tlaxcala and Huexotzinco to keep their independence after the Aztecs overran all their neighbors. Aztec rulers also got into the habit of starting a war as soon as they came to the throne, to make sure they had enough captives to sacrifice at the coronation ceremony.

After the Aztecs recovered from the drought, they marched south to take on the Mixtecs (1458). This time the reason given for the war was that Aztec merchants had been murdered in the city-state of Coixtlahuaca. The Mixtecs got military aid from Tlaxcala and Huexotzinco, but still they were defeated; the Mixtec ruler Atonal was strangled, his family was enslaved, and Moctezuma imposed a large tribute on the land. Then Moctezuma returned to the east, leading campaigns against Cosamaloapan, Ahuilizapan (Orizaba), and Cuetlachtlan (Cotaxtla).

The next three tlatoani were all grandchildren of Moctezuma. Axayacatl (1469-81) removed a nuisance close to home--the breakaway city of Tlatelolco (see footnote #64). Supposedly the reason he gave for attacking Tlatelolco was that he had been “mooned”; he claimed that women from the market of Tlatelolco insulted their neighbors in Tenochtitlan by flashing their buttocks in a sign of contempt. Axayacatl conquered Tlatelolco in 1473, killed its king, installed a military governor, and turned that city into a new neighborhood of Tenochtitlan. However, he came to grief when he marched west, against the Tarascans. These were the ancestors of today's Purepecha Indians, and they had a strong state in modern-day Michoacan, Jalisco, and Guanajuata, with its capital at Tzintzuntzan. Axayacatl captured some Tarascan frontier towns, but was defeated when he tried to take more than that (1479). Though the Tarascan state was smaller than the Aztec Empire, this was the only Aztec failure; there would be no Aztec expansion to the west. Once he recovered from that, Axayacatl led a campaign in the east that increased Aztec control over the Huastecs.

Tizoc (1481-86) was the least effective Aztec monarch; perhaps that is why history remembers him with a shorter name than the others. For his coronation war, he attacked the northern city of Metztitlan, lost three hundred warriors, and brought back only forty captives. He never got over that fiasco, and after a short reign, he was poisoned. As one chronicler put it, “Members of his court, angered by his weakness and lack of desire to bring glory to the Aztec nation, helped him to die with something they gave him to eat.”

Ahuitzotl (1486-1502) more than made up for the incompetence of Tizoc with the conquests he achieved; he was probably the greatest military leader among the Aztecs. His coronation came at the same time as the completion of an expansion project on the Templo Mayor, so to celebrate these two events, Ahuitzotl kept the army busy until it captured 20,200 prisoners (1487). The result was the bloodiest sacrifice of all, when those prisoners were dispatched. Contemporary accounts tell us the prisoners waited in a line two miles long, and that the priests took four days, working around the clock, to sacrifice all of them, with one team taking over when another got tired; Ahuitzotl himself cut out the heart of the first victim.(69) Ahuitzotl's other conquests happened after 1492, so we will cover them in the next chapter.

Aztec thumbnail.

How the Aztec Empire grew. Click on the map to see it full size in a separate window.

As with other empires that lived off the tribute from places they conquered, the Aztecs poured the wealth of central Mexico into their capital. Tenochtitlan grew until it had between 80,000 and 200,000 people, making it larger and more splendid than any city in Renaissance Europe. Because of its canals and causeways, the Spaniards would compare Tenochtitlan with Venice. Those causeways were always busy with pedestrians and porters; because North America had no beasts of burden or wheeled vehicles, all transportation had to be done by boat or on foot. Also on the causeways marched the files of prisoners destined for sacrifice, no doubt the saddest people who came to the city.

The Aztec Empire was strengthened by economic power as well as military power. We mentioned the great market place of Tlatelolco earlier; merchants probably played a more important role in Aztec society than they did anywhere else in the Americas. In fact, Aztec merchants may have formed the only true middle class in ancient America, ranked higher than peasants but below the clergy and nobility. A special type of merchant, called a pochteca, played the role of explorer and spy as well as trader. The life of a pochteca was dangerous--they traveled as far north as Texas and as far south as Panama, and rarely had roads to make their journeys easier--but when they had success, they gained extraordinary wealth. They were so rich, in fact, that they had to be careful to hide their wealth from tax collectors; pochtecas had their own secret society and guild halls, conducted legal affairs in their own courts, had their own god (Yacatecuhtli, “The Lord Who Guides,” an aspect of Quetzalcoatl), and celebrated their own holidays.(70) Because pochteca activities provided military intelligence, they were eventually elevated to the rank of warriors; if a pochteca died abroad he was given the same type of honorable funeral given to a warrior who fell in battle. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the pochtecas were nearly as powerful as nobles, and they might have transformed the Aztec state from a militant empire to a commercial empire, if the Europeans had not shown up at that time.

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Inca Conquests

In the fertile, well-watered valley around Cuzco, Peru, farmers got together and formed one of the small states that appeared after the fall of the Huari Empire. At the time, the climate of the Andes was experiencing a warming trend, and the ancestors of the Incas took advantage of it, by moving as much as 1,000 feet up the slopes of their mountains, and terracing and irrigating this area. The resulting bumper crops fueled a population increase and freed up many workers for jobs in construction or the army. Other communities also made the Cuzco Valley their home. In times of peace the Incas conducted diplomacy; they gave gifts, or struck marriage alliances with their neighbors; their most important allies were the previously mentioned Lupaca. In less friendly times they used their surplus manpower to fight their rivals, until they were the only state left in the valley.

Because their history was an oral tradition before the Spanish arrival, the last century of it can be trusted, but everything that happened earlier is sketchy. Our guess is that the Cuzco community got started around 1200 A.D. We don't even know what these people called themselves originally. Their sixth ruler, Inca Roca, was the first to use the name “Inca,” giving himself the title of Sapa Inca. Officially the name only belonged to the ruler, but later it was applied to his people, hence Incas.

Any Peruvian schoolchild can recite a list of Inca kings: Manco Capac, Sinchi Roca, Lloque Yupanqui, Mayta Capac, Capac Yupanqui, Inca Roca, Yahuar Huacac, Viracocha, Pachacuti, Tupac Inca Yupanqui, Huayna Capac, Huascar, Atahualpa. However, the first eight are little more than names to us; the information we have on them is in the form of legends. The first Sapa Inca, Manco Capac (Manqo Qhapaq or Manku Qhapaq in Quechua), either came from Lake Titicaca or from one of the three caves at Paccaritambo, a site eighteen miles southwest of Cuzco, depending on which legend you're listening to. He was the son of the sun-god Inti and the moon-goddess Mama Quilla, and brother to Pachacamac (the earth god, not the oracle). Manco Capac carried a golden staff from his father, and was told to build a temple to the sun on the spot where the staff sank into the ground; the earth accepted the staff when he planted it at Cuzco, so the Inca state was founded there. The Inca code of laws forbade incest, but that did not apply to the nobility, so Manco Capac married his sister, Mama Ocllo or Mama Cello, and their son became the next ruler. After that, like the pharaohs of Egypt, each Inca king made his sister the empress, or coya.(71)

Some believe that there was a change in royal families between the fifth and sixth kings, meaning there were two Inca dynasties, not one. Whether or not there was such a break, the Incas kept to the valley of Cuzco, and it appears that until the reign of the eighth king, Viracocha Inca, the most distant land they controlled was only twelve miles from the capital. Then came the incident which transformed the Incas from a regional power into an empire. In 1438 Cuzco was attacked by a rival tribe, the Chancas. Part of the Chanca tribe had reportedly been conquered a century or so earlier by the fourth Inca king, so this Chanca leader, Anccu Hualloc, probably saw the campaign as payback. With an awesome force of 40,000 warriors, he began to encircle Cuzco; the danger was so great that Viracocha Inca, his heir Urcon, and Cuzco's best soldiers fled to a mountaintop fortress.

One prince, however, did not leave the beleaguered capital. This was Cusi Yupanqui, the son of a concubine; because another prince had already been designated heir to the throne, it did not look like Cusi had an exciting future. Nevertheless, Cusi claimed that the sun god had appeared to him; in this vision, Inti told the prince that he would make a more worthy ruler, so Inti would back him in the conquering of many nations. Now with his father and half-brother gone, he had the opportunity to take charge. Henceforth Cusi would be known as Pachacuti (also spelled Pachacutec), “He Who Shakes The Earth.”

Pachacuti led the defenses while wearing the skin of a puma, an animal that represented strength and power to the Incas. He was able to partially offset the Chanca advantage in numbers by bringing in some soldiers from friendly tribes. However, the story of Pachacuti tells us that at the most critical moment, he called for divine intervention, and the stones on the battlefield turned into more soldiers to join him. When the battle of Yawarpampa (“field of blood”) was over, 22,000 Chancas and 8,000 Incas were dead; Anccu Hualloc was wounded and captured.

After this victory, Pachacuti forced his father to make him the heir apparent, so Viracocha Inca and Pachacuti shared the throne for the rest of the time that both were alive. One chronicle asserts that a little bit later, Anccu Hualloc escaped and raised a new Chanca army of 8,000 men, to resume the war and regain lost territory. This time the Incas had the advantages; the Chancas were defeated again, and Anccu Hualloc fled to the jungle, by way of the Urubamba River.

Any strategist will tell you that the best defense is a good offense, so Pachacuti was not satisfied with defending the Inca realm; Cuzco would be really safe as long as wars were fought on enemy territory instead. Previously, warfare in this part of South America had mainly been a matter of raiding an opponent's farms and looting his towns. Pachacuti, on the other hand, had a truly imperial vision; wherever his soldiers won, he would spread the Quechua language, and the Inca religion. But while the soldiers sang a grisly song about what they would do to their enemies(72), he usually tried diplomacy first. He would send emissaries to the enemy and invite them to surrender, telling them about the benefits they would receive if they joined the growing empire: gifts, food in times of famine, paved roads, etc. Conquered peoples could keep their leaders and their gods, though Pachacuti expected them to add worship of the sun god as well. The idols of his non-Inca subjects were given an honored place in Cuzco's most important temple, the Coricancha, but there they were also held hostage; if a community revolted, the Sapa Inca could order their images removed and publicly whipped, an act which would bring great shame upon the followers of those gods.

Pachacuti also used propaganda. Because he claimed the sun god as the source of his authority, he modified the religion so that Inti became the most important god in the Inca pantheon; previously the chief gods had been Viracocha and Illapa, the creator and thunder gods respectively. And one of the new stories he had recited told of a young woman from the Ica, a tribe on the coastal desert about 180 miles south of modern Lima. Pachacuti was attracted to this woman, but she rejected his advances because she loved another man; the emperor admired her even more because of her faithfulness, and offered to give her a reward for that. Instead of taking anything for herself, the woman asked for water for her village, so the Sapa Inca ordered 40,000 soldiers to dig canals in that parched land. Thus, Pachacuti spread the idea that he gave his empire irrigation, covering up the fact that the canals in the Ica region had been dug centuries earlier.

When all else failed to pacify a region, Pachacuti could resort to a resettlement program called mitmaq; whole communities were uprooted and relocated to another part of the empire, while loyal subjects from elsewhere were brought in to take their place. When the Assyrians and Babylonians did this (see Chapters 3 & 4 of my Middle Eastern history), it was solely for the purpose of breaking up rebellious ethnic groups, but for the Incas this practice served three other useful purposes:

  1. It removed the excess population from overcrowded areas.
  2. It opened new lands to farming, by supplying the workers.
  3. It provided a work force for the empire's construction projects.
After the battle of 1438, Pachacuti's most important campaign was in the lands to the southeast, between Cuzco and Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca was important because, as we saw earlier, it had South America's greatest military asset: llamas and alpacas. These animals provided wool, meat, and transportation; even their dung was valuable, for fertilizer and fuel. In addition, the mountains near the lake contained gold and silver. Between the Incas and the Lupaca were an unfriendly tribe, the Colla. After another critical battle in 1445, Pachacuti conquered the Colla, thereby insuring that no other tribe would have the resources to conquer him. Next to Cuzco itself, the Titicaca basin would become the most important part of the Inca Empire.

Modern historians have compared the fifteenth-century Incas with Macedonia in the fourth century B.C. Like the Incas, Macedonia started out with a long line of kings that didn't amount to much; then King Philip conquered enough land to make his state the strongest in all of Greece, and overhauled the government and the army to make them more efficient. By contrast, his son introduced few reforms, but he conquered so much more land than his father that we now call him “Alexander the Great.” Well, the Inca Empire worked in much the same way, except that Pachacuti and his son Tupac Inca Yupanqui (also spelled Tupa Inca or Topa Inca) got along better than Philip and Alexander did, and Tupac had a worthy heir to bequeath the empire to, so that it would not die with him.

In 1463, eight years before his death, Pachacuti put Tupac Inca in command of the army, and Tupac Inca vowed not to stop marching until he reached the farthest sea. First he followed the Andes north to Ecuador; he had a special liking for the city of Quito, which he rebuilt with architects from Cuzco. He returned south by way of the coast, capturing the Chimu capital of Chan Chan in 1471. At this date Chan Chan was larger than Cuzco, and Chimor was politically and technologically more advanced than the Inca Empire. Chimor's best artisans now worked for the Incas, and Chan Chan probably gave the Incas some ideas about how to run their own state.

In the same year as Chimor's conquest, Pachacuti died, so Tupac Inca ruled alone for the next twenty-two years (1471-93). Around 1475 he conquered the Chachapoyas, as mentioned previously, but most of the time he campaigned in the south, adding conquests there to match the ones he had already achieved in the north. This meant taking the rest of Bolivia, and parts of Chile and Argentina. When he finally stopped, he had reached the plains of Patagonia in Argentina, and the Maule River in Chile (170 miles south of modern Santiago); at the latter he fought a bloody but inconclusive three-day battle with the Mapuche Indians. It's not hard to understand why he turned back after the battle; standing at latitude 35o S., he had gone farther south than any other conqueror in history, and was in an environment that looked alien to a native of the tropics.

The Inca Empire.

A map showing the growth of the Inca Empire. At first the Incas only had Cuzco and the land immediately around it. The dark orange area was conquered by Pachacuti (1438-63), and the yellow area was conquered by Tupac Inca (1463-93). Note that many of Tupac Inca's conquests (Lima and the yellow areas north of it) were achieved between 1463 and 1471, when Pachacuti was still alive, so during those years Tupac Inca was the commanding general, not the king. Finally, Huayna Capac (1493-1525) added the light orange areas; that will be covered in the next chapter.

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The Incas called their empire Tahuantinsuyu, the Four Quarters of the World. That name was not just a figure of speech; it also described how the government was organized. The empire was divided into four provinces, which followed the cardinal directions: Chinchansuyu (everything northwest of Cuzco), Antisuyu (northeast), Cuntinsuyu (southwest), and Collasuyu (southeast). The four corners of these provinces met at the center, Cuzco, the “Navel of the World.” Cuzco itself was divided into four parts, each of which had a road leading out to one of the four provinces, and was administered by the prefect of that province. Under those prefects were more than 400 lesser governors, who each managed a small district. Normally these and other important posts were reserved for members of the nobility, but there weren't enough nobles to go around, so “Incas by Privilege” might be appointed by the royal family to fill vacancies; some of those jobs went to the sons of chiefs from conquered tribes. Beneath them were about 300,000 bureaucrats who supervised a certain number of households, or performed various functions in the military and religious institutions.

Because all property and people in the realm belonged to the government, the closest parallel to the Inca Empire in today's world would be a communist state. The population was regularly counted in censuses, and everyone was taxed in both goods and labor. Young adults were expected to make the biggest contributions, while the elderly were hardly taxed at all. Typically crops were divided into equal thirds, of which one third was given to the gods (meaning the temples), one third was given to the Sapa Inca (i.e., the government), and the farmers were allowed to keep the remaining third. Seventy different crops were grown in the empire's various climates, and a large portion of the food taken by the government and temples was piled up in storehouses, enough to last for three to seven years; this was saved for famines and for those too old or sick to work.

The tax in labor came in the form of working on various projects that improved life thoughout the empire, such as roads, canals, agricultural terraces, bridges, temples, storehouses and mines. Men between the age of twenty and fifty could also contribute their labor by serving in the army. Whatever they did, the government made sure they had jobs appropriate for their condition. For instance, miners were sent home if they got sick, and blind people might be kept busy picking seeds from cotton, or husking corncobs.

Among the projects, the most impressive were the roads. There were more than 15,000 miles of roads connecting the empire, and they could range from three to fifty feet wide, depending on how much traffic they were expected to handle. To get across a gorge, ropes would be woven to form a suspension bridge, the first suspension bridges built anywhere. Rest houses and storage buildings would be built for travelers on official business, spaced on the roads about ten miles apart. To make sure communications traveled at maximum speed, a corps of special messengers ran on the roads. The messengers worked in relays; every mile or two there were stations for the messengers, and as one approached a station, he would announce he was coming by blowing on a conch shell, give his message, and then the next messenger would start running down the next stretch of the road. By using this system, a message could travel 150 miles in a day.

Inca masonry.

The Incas produced some of the most marvelous stonework seen anywhere. Instead of making all building stones the same size and shape, they were put together like pieces of a puzzle, and though mortar was not used, they were fitted so tightly that in most cases a knife cannot be inserted between them. One large stone in a wall at Cuzco has twelve sides, but fits perfectly with the stones around it. This type of masonry proved its worth when a severe earthquake struck Cuzco in 1950; buildings from the Spanish era were devastated, but the Inca-built structures underneath suffered only minor damage.

At the center of the whole Inca system was the Sapa Inca, who like the pharaohs of Egypt, was seen as more god than man, both when alive and when dead. His palace was built with the finest stonework, and often decorated with sheets of silver and gold; the palace gardens might also have plants made of gold and silver, right alongside real plants. He was one of the few people allowed to wear garments made of vicuna wool, and he never wore the same outfit twice; once he was done with a piece of clothing, it was given to a relative. When appearing in public or traveling away from Cuzco, he would ride in a golden litter. Despite all these luxuries, his rigid schedule meant he wasn't much freer than his subjects; for example, he was only supposed to have two meals a day, one in the morning and one just before sunset, and while awake, he was expected to spend most of his time tending to government business.

Regarding the subject of death, we often say, “You can't take it with you,” but the Inca rulers did! After each king and queen died, they were mummified in a sitting position, taken back to their palaces, and treated as if they were still alive. Servants continued to take care of the deceased, and members of the royal family regularly visited their ancestors to ask for advice (a nearby oracle gave answers to the questions). Sometimes the mummies would be taken to visit one another, or they might be present at dances and parties. Every year in August, before the potato crops were planted, all the royal mummies were carried to the main city square of Cuzco, where offerings were made to them in a public ceremony. The dead even continued to own the property they had in life, forcing each king to construct a new palace for himself, because he couldn't just move into one that his predecessors used. This also encouraged each king to expand the empire, because it cost a lot to keep the estates and families of both living and dead monarchs in style, and that cost increased with every generation. In fact, one of the reasons why Huascar, the twelfth Inca monarch (see the next chapter), was unpopular was because he suggested it was time to cut back on the expenses earmarked for the dead; critics saw this as an act of sacrilege.

Unfortunately we do not have any royal Inca mummies today (in the next chapter you will see that the Spaniards gave them the same treatment that they gave to the Maya books), so we do not know how they were embalmed or wrapped. Some of the mummies that we do have from Inca times are naturally freeze-dried corpses, the bodies of sacrificed children found on the tops of mountains in Peru, Chile and Argentina. For this form of sacrifice, the Incas would drug the victim with coca, take him or her to a sheltered spot in the mountains, maybe dispatch the victim with a blow to the head, and leave him or her up there to die. One of the best-preserved mummies found to date was discovered in 1995 and named “Juanita the Ice Maiden.” Click here for the joke President Bill Clinton made, when he saw the Ice Maiden on a tour of the US. We also know how the common people were buried, because in 2001 a cemetery containing thousands of mummies was discovered under a shantytown, on the outskirts of modern Lima.

The Inca Empire has been called the first welfare state, because it gave security to the common folk in time of need. But like the welfare/socialist/communist governments of today, it did so by taking away their freedom, and forcing the vast majority of the people to live a lifestyle that was a lot poorer than the officials looking after them. Throughout their lives, the empire's subjects were not allowed to own more than what was necessary for survival, unless given special permission by the emperor. Likewise, food was boring; most of the time they ate just soups and stews made from corn, potatoes and related crops; meat was saved for special occasions and usually only came from guinea pigs or llamas. The poverty of the peasants shows up in the law code, which had no fines because the peasants had nothing to pay them with. In the end, the appearance of security was largely an illusion. Like other governments that promise to look after you, the Inca regime could only do that to a point; it could rescue its subjects from famines and other disasters that came from within the empire, but they could not protect them from foreign invaders who used weapons and tactics they were unfamiliar with, even when they vastly outnumbered those invaders.

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On the Threshold

With all the narratives in this chapter, we are now up to 1492, the year that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Nearly everyone agrees that this is the most important date in the history of the western hemisphere. Other explorers (e.g., Leif Ericson) may have crossed from the Old to the New World previously, but any discoveries they made were soon forgotten. On the other hand, after Christopher Columbus made contact, America stayed “discovered.” Therefore 1492 is a good point for us to end this chapter.

In 1492, Tupac Inca was still master of the Andean realm, and Ahuitzotl was still emperor of the Aztecs. Because Columbus landed in the Caribbean, and completely missed the action centers of the Americas, it would take several more years for Europeans to find the Aztec and Inca empires, so both would enjoy one more generation of glory, peaking in the first years of the sixteenth century.

In terms of scale the Inca Empire was unique, ruling about a third of South America, and while the Aztecs were just the latest and nastiest nation-builders in Mesoamerica, the rate of their growth also gave them confidence. Both empires grew out of need; the Incas needed to feed their government, which like our government, grew as time went on, while the Aztecs needed to feed their gods. Would they have grown much larger, had they never met the Europeans? The author does not think so. The Inca state had probably reached the limits of how much could be managed with bronze age technology and no writing, while the Aztecs could only continue to expand if they conquered their neighbors, not an easy task if everyone is your enemy and they are ganging up on you (just ask the Assyrians).

Throughout the Americas, native populations had overcome the challenges nature had sent them, and the Aztecs and Incas had overcome all human rivals, allowing them to build spectacular cities that would amaze everyone who saw them. So, understandably, the successors of Tupac Inca and Ahuitzotl would be overconfident, when they met small groups of Europeans. But only three decades after Columbus arrived, the Aztec Empire would lie in ruins; four decades after Columbus, the Incas would suffer the same fate. The reason for the sudden collapse was the extraordinary isolation of those two civilizations, from each other and from the rest of the world. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had acted as a shield for the New World, keeping out the larger populations, virulent diseases, and more advanced technology of the Old World. Once the oceans were crossed, the New World was as defenseless as a city or castle that suddenly loses its walls; the New World had no experience in dealing with the alien cultures of the Old World, just as they had built up no immunity to Old World diseases. The result was that the barrier of the oceans was a two-edged sword; it held back progress in the New World and protected it at the same time. In the next chapter we will cover the details of what happened, after that barrier was removed.

The dreaded pyramid of Itzilichlitlichlitzl!

Despite what you may be thinking, the Aztecs did not fall because they ran out of vowels!

This is the end of Chapter 1.


55. Tezcatlipoca may have been the original Toltec god, before they learned about Quetzalcoatl. Though Tezcatlipoca is the villain in this story, this did not stop the Toltecs and Aztecs from worshiping him, just as the Egyptians venerated Set, the evil god of their mythology.

56. Chichen Itza means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza,” and is named after the ruling clan, the Itzas. However, it is not clear if Itza is another name for the Toltecs, or the name of a local group who brought in the Toltecs as allies or mercenaries. Either way, their Maya subjects did not like them very much, and gave them epithets like “those who speak our language brokenly,” “tricksters and rascals,” “foreigners,” and “people without fathers or mothers.”

57. Mayapan is the only Maya site where bows and arrows have been found. These weapons may have been introduced by the mercenaries.

58. Whereas tribes in the Andes like the Incas worshiped the sun, tribes in the coastal deserts preferred the moon, probably because the damage caused by too much sunshine was obvious to them. The moon-worshiping tribes claimed that the moon is more powerful than the sun, because you can see it in both the day and the night.

59. Bronzemaking had just been introduced from northwest Argentina and Bolivia, where the techniques had apparently been developed during the Middle Horizon era. At this stage South American metallurgists mixed copper with arsenic; though Bolivia is rich in tin, the usefulness of that metal had not yet been discovered.

60. One looted burial had approximately 200 artifacts, including gold and silver necklaces, gold cups (keros), mummy masks, tumi (knives with a semicircular blade and a handle shaped like a man), shells, turquoise, lapis lazuli, emerald inlays, pendants, and beads. Another tomb had skeletons from seventeen human sacrifices, spondylus (red spiny oyster shells, used as a kind of money), more lapis lazuli and gold, and more than half a ton of copper, mostly as stacks of plates.

61. Both the Sicans and the Chimu preferred giving the throne to a brother of the previous ruler, rather than to a son. Consequently the succession was not likely to go to the next generation until everyone in the old generation was dead.

62. When the Spaniards came to Chan Chan, some sixty-five years after it fell to the Incas, the city was partially abandoned, but still rich. The Spaniards mined the ruins for gold, and huaqueros have been digging there since then, leaving few artifacts for the archaeologists.

63. The Aztecs also called themselves Mexica, a name you don't see as often in textbooks. The meaning of Mexica is unknown, but obviously that is where Mexico got its name: the land of the Mexica/Aztecs.

64. Part of the Aztec tribe moved to an island next to the one containing Tenochtitlan and founded their own city, Tlatelolco. In 1337 the residents of Tlatelolco declared themselves independent of Tenochtitlan, and installed their own ruling dynasty. In the fifteenth century, Tlatelolco would become a great market place, handling an average of 25,000 people each day. Because the Aztecs had no coins, all transactions were done by barter, and everybody had to keep track of the value of cacao beans in relation to feathers, clothing, slaves, etc. A century later, Spanish visitors were impressed by the market place's size, variety of goods, and orderliness. Click here for a humorous picture of an Aztec market (opens in a new window).

65. There is a story which the author could not verify, where the Aztecs imported a prolific breeder with a high social standing. This was a Culhuacán prince, and he was given twenty Aztec wives--instant aristocracy! The Aztec rulers you will be reading about were reportedly among his descendants.

66. Before leaving to fight the Tepanecs, Ixtlilxochitl crowned his son Nezahualcoyotl, in case he didn't come back. Though this was a wise move, Nezahualcoyotl had to flee into the mountains, because Tezozomoc wanted to kill him, too. Chimalpopoca, now king of the Aztecs, persuaded the Tepanec king to let the prince go, but Nezahualcoyotl waited until after Tezozomoc died to crown himself king of Texcoco. After the Tepanecs were overthrown, he loyally served the Aztecs, and ruled until 1472. Besides being a warrior and builder, Nezahualcoyotl was a philosopher and poet, rare talents in central Mexico. Strangest of all, he reported meeting an "Unknown, Unknowable Lord of Everywhere," built a temple without idols for that deity, and allowed no blood sacrifices of any kind there. This reminds the author of the experience in Acts 17, where the Apostle Paul saw an altar in Athens dedicated to an unknown god, and preached a sermon around it. Still, most pagans are tolerant of gods besides their own, and Nezahualcoyotl, like King Solomon, allowed other temples to practice freely, even with human sacrifice, within the city limits of his capital. He was succeeded by a very similar son, Nezahualpilli (1472-1515), who also was more of a thinker than a fighter.

67. At the foot of the steps of the Templo Mayor, an image was carved into the ground of Coyolxauhqui, the evil sister of Huitzilopochtli. Bodies of victims sacrificed on the pyramid would land on the picture, signifying the defeat of that goddess.

68. Today some politically correct scholars will play down the sacrifices and cannibalism. They might suggest that the Aztecs killed so many people as a primitive form of population control. Or they might point to the fact that Mesoamerica had no large meat animals like cows or pigs, and assert that the Aztecs were cannibals because they were suffering from a protein shortage. Myself, I doubt if the Aztecs were farsighted enough to worry about overpopulation (no ancient culture did). As for the cannibalism, no other culture did it because they were tired of a vegetarian diet. If that was the case, then you'd have to worry about waking up with teeth marks on your leg, if you slept with a vegan in the same room! And if anybody among the Aztecs thought there was too much bloodshed, it looks like they felt they had better keep that opinion to themselves.

69. Like the rest of Tenochtitlan, the Templo Mayor was destroyed by the Spaniards in the early sixteenth century. Excavation of the pyramid's ruins began in 1978, and rich grave offerings have been discovered there since 2007. The Aztecs reported that three tlatoani were cremated and buried in the pyramid; Ahuitzotl was one of them. Check out the November 2010 issue of National Geographic for details on what may be Ahuitzotl's tomb.

70. Most merchant expeditions led by pochtecas were careful to leave and enter Tenochtitlan under cover of darkness, so that others would not see how rich they really were.

71. See also what I wrote about that in Chapter 9 of The Genesis Chronicles.

72. “From his skull we shall drink. We shall adorn ourselves with his teeth. His bones will serve as our flutes. With his skin for a drum, we shall dance.”

© Copyright 2011 Charles Kimball

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