Civilization in the Western Hemisphere
CIVILIZATION IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE
During this assignment, you should learn to identify and discuss the
following names and terms:
- Maize, Maya, Aztecs, Cortez, Montezuma, Inca, Francisco Pizarro.
and you should have considered the following questions:
- When and from where did the first inhabitants of the Americas come?
- What was their level of culture at the advent of the Spanish?
- How can one account for the relatively slow development of the inhabitants
of the New World?
- How were the Aztec, Mayan, and Inca civilizations organized?
- What were the bases of their economy?
- Why did they fall so easily to the small armies of Spanish?
- How did matters of health influence European discovery and exploration?
European explorers were not surprised to find evidence of rich civilizations
in what they came to call "the New World." There had been fabulous travel tales
around for a long time, such as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and
variations of The Voyages of Sindbad, as well as tales of the immense
wealth of lands beyond the seas. What they found in the Western Hemisphere was a
peculiar mixture of wealth and poverty, sophistication and backwardness.
The first humans to reach the Americas emigrated across the Bering Straits
between Alaska and Siberia during a time when the Ice Age had locked up so much
of the world's water that the level of the sea was considerably lower than it is
now, and North America and Asia formed a single land mass. No one is quite sure
when that was, but it may have been between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. At any
rate, the Sibero-Americans, whom we call "Indians" since the Columbus and his
immediate successors thought that they were in India, came to the Western
Hemisphere as Palaeolithic hunters and gatherers, just as all other humans were
Palaeolithic hunters and gatherers.
If the first Europeans to view the Aztec, Maya,
and Inca civilizations had been aware of that, they might have
been less impressed with the wealth and accomplishments of these civilizations
and have wondered why, since the inhabitants had started from the same point as
the residents of the Old World, they had not progressed further. Most of North
America was inhabited by peoples who were still Palaeolithic hunters and
gatherers, although there were some areas, such as the east coast of what is now
the United States, the Ohio River Valley, and the American Southwest supported
societies at an early stage of Neolithic agriculture. The population of all of
North America was probably only a little over one million. The civilizations of
Mexico, and Central and South America were more populous, but were also
curiously backward. They used copper, but not (except for the Inca) bronze, and
built temple cities not unlike the early Sumerian cities of bout 4000BC. They
possessed very complex and limited forms of "writing" and used pictures for the
most part to record events. Their religions were propitiatory and their rulers
were considered divine. Although they had complex transportation networks, they
had not developed draft animals or even the use of the wheel. The Mayans
did use the wheel, but only for pull toys.
It is difficult to account for the fact that the peoples of North America did
not progress at the same rate of those of Eurasia, and various reasons have been
suggested. One is that the game of North America was so abundant that there was
little impetus for people to abandon the hunting and gathering life. It may be
that, for some reason, most peoples of the America's chose not to make that
transition into the more laborious and oppressive life of the agricultural
village and city-state. Then, too, the common food staple throughout the
Americas was corn, what the Europeans call maize. The
domestication of corn and its development to the point where it could form the
basis of a adequate diet was more difficult and would have taken longer than the
domestication of wheat, millet, or rice, and this may account for the fact that
agriculture arose at a considerably later date than in the Old World.
The civilizations that did arise each developed a special agricultural
technique that assured high yields without depleting the soil in which they were
grown. Only a few years ago, satellite photos showed curious gridiron patterns
in the jungles of Central America. When these areas were explored on the ground,
they were found to be the remains of the ancient "fields" of the great Mayan
cities. The Mayans dredged long, parallel canals through the swamps of the area,
periodically cut the water hyacinths that soon clogged the canals, and threw the
vegetation between the canals. This slowly built up the level of the land
between the canals to the point where it formed well-drained strips capable of
producing corn, land that was regularly fertilized by new loads of water
hyacinths. Meanwhile, the Mayans would net the fish that thrived in the canals.
Fish and corn formed their basic diet.
The Aztecs settled on an island in a large and shallow lake and built large
rafts out of the reeds along its bank. They then periodically piled upon these
rafts the weeds that the cut from the floor of the lake, thus forming large
floating gardens. Some of these still exist in Mexico City (Xochimilco) and are
favorite places for tourists to visit.
The Incas of South America lived high in the Andes and their basic foodstuff
was the potato. the potato does not deplete the soil as does grain, and modern
potatoes will produce up to 25,000 pounds per acre of land. Like other Indian
peoples, they had corn, as well as various kinds of squash and beans, pumpkin
and tomatoes, and other vegetables. All Indian peoples appear to have
supplemented their diet with the meat of dogs, their only domesticated animal,
but the Incas also raised guinea pigs and llamas.
Each of the civilizations differed in certain important respects. The Aztecs
were a warlike people whose gods demanded human blood. They subjugated
surrounding peoples and took men and women as tribute from them, men and women
whom they sacrificed and, apparently, later ate. When Cortez and
his small army advanced on the Aztecs, they were quickly joined by the
Tlascalans, a people whom the Aztecs had oppressed for some time. Once
Montezuma, the Aztec king regarded as a god by his people, was
captured, Aztec resistance collapsed.
Mayan society was organized in several city-states. Not unlike the
city-states of ancient Greece, they were often at war with each other, and Mayan
society was in a state of decline when the Spanish arrived and could offer
little resistance to the invaders.
The Inca had formed a great Andean empire, well-organized and tightly
regimented. The Inca roads and bridges, as well as their massive stone cities,
were witnesses to the power of the Inca state and the emperor who held absolute
authority. When Francisco Pizarro captured the Inca emperor, the
ability of the Incas to resist was crippled. Although there were revolts against
the Spanish, their leaders could never assert the authority that had died with
Historians today are fond of pointing out that the diseases introduced by the
Spanish, diseases for which the native populations had no resistance, were
instrumental in destroying the Indians ability to resist Spanish domination.
During the era of discovery and exploration of the New World, wave of measles,
small-pox, and tuberculosis swept through the native populations, wiping out
thousands. It should be remembered, however, that the Spanish also were
encountering new diseases, such as syphilis, gonorrhea, yellow fever, and other
for which they had no resistance. It has been estimated that fifty
percent of the Europeans coming to the New World died within a year of their
arrival and that their death rate remained high when compared to that back in
This brings up a couple of matters worth considering. The first is that the
Europeans had to have found things that they considered very valuable in order
to gamble their lives in such a manner. The second is that, with both the Indian
and European populations suffering in such a fashion, it was clear that, if the
riches of the New World were to be exploited, the Europeans would have to find
another source of labor.
This text was produced by
Lynn H. Nelson,
Department of History
University of Kansas.
25 February 1998