The Aztec, Inca and Maya

The Aztec, Inca and Maya : The Illustrated History of the Ancient Peoples of Mesoamerica & South America

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The Aztec, Inca and Maya charts the rise and fall pre-Columbian civilizations in Mesoamerica and South America, from the Maya to the Aztec and Inca empires, as well as the Zapotec, Olmec, Teotihuacan and Toltec civilizations. From government structures to marriage rites, from pyramids to human sacrifice, from agriculture to textiles, astronomy to hieroglyphics to ball games, the book explores the history of what today we call Latin America from its early kingdoms up to the crippling of the societies with the arrival of conquistadores and smallpox. The biggest Mesoamerican cities, such as Teotihuacan, Tenochtitlan and Cholula, were among the largest in the world. Mesoamerican civilisations are credited with many inventions: building pyramid-temples, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, writing, highly accurate calendars, fine arts, intensive agriculture, engineering, an abacus calculator, and complex theology. In South America, the Inca Empire, the largest empire in pre-Columbian America, was, at its height, possibly the largest in the world. And yet it achieved this without wheeled vehicles, animals to ride or draft animals, without using iron or steel, or developing a written script. Easily accessible and illustrated with 180 colour and black-and-white photographs, maps and artworks, The Aztec, Inca and Maya is a fascinating account of Mesoamerican and South American civilisations from the 2nd century BCE to the 16th century CE.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 224 pages
  • 186 x 244 x 13mm | 600g
  • London, United Kingdom
  • English
  • 180 photos, maps and artworks; 180 Illustrations, unspecified
  • 1838861262
  • 9781838861261
  • 27,084

Table of contents

The settlement of the Americas before Columbus.


Preclassic (2000 BCE-250 CE)
The first Maya cities developed around 750 BCE, and by 500 BCE these cities possessed monumental architecture, including large temples with elaborate stucco facades. Hieroglyphic writing was being used in the Maya region by the 3rd century BCE.

Classic (250 - 950 CE)
Emergence of city-states, greater trade networks, construction of sculpted monuments. In the Maya Lowlands two great rival cities, Tikal and Calakmul, became powerful. The Classic period also saw the intrusive intervention of the central Mexican city of Teotihuacan in Maya dynastic politics.
9th century: political collapse, internecine warfare, abandonment of cities, northward shift of population.

Post-Classic (950 - 1539 CE)
The Post-classic period saw the rise of Chichen Itza in the north, and the expansion of the aggressive K'iche' kingdom in the Guatemalan Highlands.

Maya Society - Concept of 'divine king'. Commoners. Later rise of aristocracy.
Warfare - wars and warriors
Religion - Human sacrifice and deities.
Agriculture and Trade
Literature, art and architecture - The Maya created art using both perishable and non-perishable materials, including wood, jade, obsidian, ceramics, sculpted stone monuments, stucco, and finely painted murals. The principal architecture of the city consisted of palaces, pyramid-temples, ceremonial ballcourts, and structures aligned for astronomical observation. A literate elite, hieroglyphic writing (the Maya Calendar), Mayan texts.

(500 BCE-1500 CE)

The population of the Olmecs flourished during Mesoamerica's formative period, dating roughly from as early as 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE.

At its zenith, perhaps in the first half of the 1st millennium CE, Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with a population estimated at 125,000 or more, making it at least the sixth largest city in the world during its epoch. The city is thought to have been established around 100 BCE, with major monuments continuously under construction until about 250 CE. The city may have lasted until sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries CE, but its major monuments were sacked and systematically burned around 550 CE. The later Aztecs saw these magnificent ruins and claimed a common ancestry with the Teotihuacanos, modifying and adopting aspects of their culture.

(ca. 900-1168 CE). The Aztecs saw the Toltecs as their intellectual and cultural predecessors.

New Lands
In the early 14th century, the Aztecs were subjects of the Culhuacan city-state, when they sacrificed the daughter of the ruler of Culhuacan in a bid to turn her into a goddess. Then, an Aztec priest appeared wearing the girl's flayed skin. The Aztecs were duly expelled and settled on Lake Tetzcoco, where they founded their city Tenochtitlan, on top of which Mexico City is now built.

The Triple Alliance
Although we talk about the Aztec Empire, it was really a Triple Alliance of city-states Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan. An expanding empire throughout the 15th century, by the reign of Ahuitzotl (1486-1502), the Mexica were the largest and most powerful faction in the Triple Alliance. Even though the alliance still technically ran the empire, the Mexica Emperor now assumed nominal if not actual seniority.
Tribute - rather than exerting extreme authority over its conquered lands, the Aztec empire demanded tribute
The Flower Wars

Aztec slaves could be freed (such as on the death of a master), they could buy their own freedom, slavery wasn't hereditary (slaves' children were free), and a master could not sell a slave without the slave's consent. However, murderers, rather than receiving the death sentence, could be enslaved.
Temples and Pyramids - mysteries of their construction and use. Were they aligned with the stars?
The Aztec 52-year calendar cycle and Aztec codices.
Moctezuma introduced laws, such as adultery being punishable by death and criminalizing public acts of homosexuality, drunkenness, and nudity
Ballgames - rubber balls were first introduced to Europe through Aztecs

Religion & Mythology
While human sacrifice was practiced throughout Mesoamerica, the Aztecs brought this practice to an unprecedented level. Sacrifices were made to please the gods, with victims being skinned and their blood offered to Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the dead.

Self-sacrifice was quite common; people, including Moctezuma, would offer thorns, tainted with their own blood and would offer blood from their tongue, ear lobes or genitals. Extracting the heart of humans in sacrifice.
New Fire Ceremony - To ensure the sun's daily journey through the sky, the Aztecs held the New Fire Ceremony, in which all fires were extinguished. That night, a victim was sacrificed. From his open chest a new fire was started. From this fire, new flames were ignited and distributed throughout the empire.
Ritual cannibalism - The Aztecs also practiced ritual cannibalism. Victims, usually prisoners of war, had their hearts cut out at temples and pyramids. The bodies were dismembered and the meat consumed in stews.
Animal sacrifice - even hummingbirds were sacrificed to the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl.
Aztec concept of gods and idols.

Under Moctezuma II
During Moctezuma's reign the Aztec Empire reached its maximal size. Through warfare, Moctezuma expanded the territory. He widened the divide between nobles and commoners by prohibiting commoners from working in the royal palaces. He was still in a process of reforming the Empire when the Spanish invaded.

The Conquistadores
The Triple Alliance reached its largest extent in 1519 just prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, who invaded Mexico and helped instigate revolt in many of the towns under Aztec dominion. Moctezuma played host for three months in his palace to Hernan Cortes and his generals. While Cortes was away, the Aztecs were attacked by the Spanish, because the Aztecs were sacrificing humans the Spanish said. Moctezuma became a hostage. According to a Spanish account, he appeared on a balcony to appeal for peace from his people and was pelted with rocks, fatally wounding him. According to an Aztec account, he was killed by the Spanish. The Spanish were forced to flee the city and formed an alliance with Tlaxcala against the Aztecs.
Moctezuma II's favourite daughter was renamed Isabel by the Spanish and had a daughter by Cortes.

In 1520-1521, an outbreak of smallpox, introduced by the Europeans, swept through the population of Tenochtitlan and was decisive in the fall of the city. Subsequently, the Valley of Mexico was hit with two more epidemics, smallpox (1545-1548), and typhus (1576-1581). In all, 80% of the native population is thought to have died from disease introduced by Europeans.

Earlier civilizations, including Norte Chico civilization (the earliest known civilization in the Americas) in northern Peru, Sican culture (750 and 1375 CE), Tairona and Nazca civilization (c. 100 BCE to 800 CE), Tiwanaku (c. 300-1100 CE), Wari or Huari (c. 600-1100 CE)

INCAN CIVILIZATION (early 13th - late 16th century)
The largest empire in pre-Columbian America and possibly the largest in the world in the early 16th century. At its largest, the empire joined Peru, large parts of modern Ecuador, western and south central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and central Chile and a small part of southwest Colombia.
And yet, it lacked wheeled vehicles, animals to ride and draft animals, iron, steel, and writing.

Kingdom of Cusco and Expansion
Warfare - siege warfare traditional form of conflict
Centralised bureaucracy

Organisation of the Empire - federalist system divided into four quarters which met at Cusco.
Axe-monies - smelted bronze hammered into thin, axe-shaped forms and used as currency
Society - marriage - women were able to leave a marriage in the early stages. Cranial deformation - children of the elite had their heads tightly wrapped when babies, leading to more conical heads, thus distinguishing them from commoners.
Architecture - The prime Inca structures were made of stone blocks that fit together so well that a knife could not be fitted through the stonework. These constructs have survived for centuries, with no use of mortar to sustain them.
Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was constructed as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438-1472).
Textiles - Quipu strings used for recording information
Religion - human sacrifices, including of children. Deities. Coca leaves considered sacred. Festivals. Many local forms of worship persisted in the empire, most of them concerning local sacred Huacas, but the Inca leadership encouraged the worship of Inti - their sun god - and imposed its sovereignty above other cults. The Incas considered their king, the Sapa Inca, to be the 'son of the sun'.
Inca calendars - tied to astronomy.

Spanish conquest
Incan Civil War fought between sides of two brothers.
Smallpox decimating the Inca population. Pizarro and Spanish horseman had technical superiority over the Inca.

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About Martin J Dougherty

Martin J. Dougherty is a freelance writer specialising in military and historical topics. He is the author of Medieval Warrior, The 'Dark' Ages, Vikings, Norse Myths and Battles That Changed History. He lives in northern England.
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