States and Societies of Mesoamerica and North America

In the period from 1000 to 1500 C.E., certainly before 1492, there was little interaction between the peoples of the Western and Eastern Hemispheres. Any such interaction was random and fleeting. Following the failure of the Viking settlement in Labrador, no serious attempt at settlement by Europeans was attempted, although fishermen often fished in the waters off Labrador and on occasion landed to dry their catch. Within the America’s however, the people of North and South America organized large empires with distinctive cultural and religious traditions. They also created elaborate trade networks which touched almost every portion of the American continents.

Mesoamerica: Teotihuacan, the largest early city in Mesoamerica had accumulated great wealth; but this made it a target for less prosperous but more militarized people in the area. With the decline of that great city, a period of militarization and empire building developed which lasted until the Spanish invasion of the 1500’s. The successor states to Teotihuacan often fought bitterly among themselves. Their capitals were all located on well defended sites on hills, and warriors figured prominently in their works of art.

The Toltecs migrated into Central Mexico around the eighth century, and established a capital at Tula, approx. 31 miles from present day Mexico City. They irrigated crops of maize, peppers, beans, tomatoes, chilies and cotton by diverting water from the Tula River, since the soil in the area is thin and receives little waterfall. By 950 C.E., Tula’s population is estimated at 60,000 people, with an equal number in surrounding regions. They Toltecs maintained a large, powerful army which often campaigned in central Mexico; which enabled them to build a regional empire and also to protect themselves from invasion by nomadic tribes in the area. They exacted tribute from the people under their control, and thereby transformed Tula into a wealthy city in which many residents lived in spacious homes made of stone or adobe, and floors covered with plaster. Tula became an important trade city where residents imported jade, turquoise, animal skins and exotic bird feathers from other areas in Mesoamerica. They maintained close ties with the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula, and often emulated Mayan architectural design.  Tula and the Toltec Empire declined roughly 1175 C.E. This was the result of quarrels between different ethnic groups within the city and incursions by nomadic peoples from the northwest. Evidence indicates a great fire destroyed much of Tula at the same time. As a result, people continued to live in the surrounding areas, but the Toltecs no longer dominated Mesoamerica.

The most powerful and famous of the migrating tribes into the area were those who called themselves Mexica, who were often referred to as Aztecs. (The name derives from Aztlán, literally "the place of the seven legendary caves" which the Mexica considered the home of their ancestors. The Mexica had a reputation for causing trouble. They often kidnapped women and seized land that others had already cultivated. On several occasions, they were forced to move on when their neighbors would no longer tolerate their actions. They spend over 100 years migrating through central Mexico, fighting with other people of the area, and surviving as best they could, sometimes eating only fly eggs and snakes.The Mexica finally settled and built a city known as Tenochtitlan on a marshy island on Lake Texcoco. The site was presumably chosen as they saw a sign which their priests had indicated would indicate the area where they were to settle: an eagle on a cactus devouring a snake. The site offered a number of advantages:  The lake offered plentiful food supplies of fish, waterfowl, and frogs.The Mexica were able to develop a system of agriculture known as chinampa, in which they dredged fertile soil from the lake bottom and built it into small plots of land. Canals were dug leading from the lake to these plots which allowed them to irrigate crops of maize, beans, squash, tomatoes, peppers and chilies year round.  The lake provided a natural defense against enemies. Access to the city could only be had by three causeways which were heavily patrolled by Mexica warriors.

The Mexica were strong enough in the early fifteenth century to overcome their neighbors and demand tribute from them. Later, under the rule of powerful emperors, including Itzcóatl (1429-1440), known as the "Obsidian Serpent and Montezuma I (1440 – 1469) (sometimes known as Moctezuma, or Montecuzoma) they allied with the cities of Texcoco and Tlacopin to form a triple alliance and build a formidable empire by conquering surrounding people. Their rule covered over 21 million people, and included most of Mesoamerica. Having conquered the people of the area, they imposed a heavy tribute upon them. An example is the tribute exacted from a single city for one year: 9,600 cloaks, 1,600 women’s garments, 200 loads of cacao, and 16,000 rubber balls. Much of the tribute was entrusted to Mexica merchants who carried the items to distant areas and traded them for luxury items such as jade, emeralds, tortoise shells, jaguar skins, parrot feathers, etc, as well as vanilla beans and cacao.

The Aztec army had no elaborate bureaucracy or administration; in fact they did not even maintain military garrisons within the empire. Local areas were allowed to govern themselves and collect the necessary tribute. The Mexica’s reputation for military prowess and brutal reprisal was typically enough to keep conquered peoples in line. The Aztec empire at its zenith collected tribute from 489 subject territories, and the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan housed over 200,000 people, with another 300,000 living in nearby areas. It housed a tremendous market with separate sections for merchants selling gold, silver, slaves, cotton cloth, animal skins, turkeys, dogs, fruits, and other food items. The Spanish who first saw it commented that two days were required to walk the length of the market. They compared the city itself favorably to Constantinople.

Mexica Society: Mexica society was strictly hierarchical, with great emphasis placed on militarism. All males were considered potential warriors, and those of common birth could distinguish themselves on the battlefield and thereby improve their social standing. Even so, those of the aristocracy most often comprised the military elite, received the most careful instruction and intense training, and had the best opportunity to display their prowess on the battlefield. The military elite were showered with wealth and honor. They often received grants of land and tribute from the commoners. Those who were most successful formed a ruling council which selected the Emperor and filled government positions. They ate the best foods (turkey, duck, dear, boar, etc) and consumed most of the vanilla and cacao, which were considered luxury items.

Dress often distinguished members of Mexica society. Commoners were required by law to wear course burlap-type garments while aristocrats wore cotton. Warriors had the right to wear brightly colored capes and lip plus as well as eagle feathers after capturing enemies on the battlefield and bringing them back. Women had no public role in society, did not inherit property, and were subject to the strict authority of husbands or fathers. They were, however, prominent in the marketplace, and often enjoyed high honor as the mothers of warriors. Motherhood was the highest virtue, even for the aristocratic classes. All women married, with the exception of a few who worked at the temples. Bearing children was considered the equivalent of the capture of an enemy in battle; so much so that a woman who died in childbirth had the same fame as a warrior who died valiantly in battle.

Mexica priests were members of the elite. They received a special education in ritual and calendrical studies and presided over religious ceremonies which were considered crucial for continuation of the world. Some even became rulers, such as Montezuma II, the last Mexica ruler.

A substantial portion of the society consisted of persons who cultivated fields allocated to their particular clan. They also worked lands which were awarded to aristocrats and prominent workers, and worked on public works projects. They paid tribute in the form of produce to state agents who distributed it to the elite, and placed the remainder in state owned warehouses. The society also consisted of large number of slaves, who were either criminals sentenced to slavery or younger members of families sold into slavery because of financial burdens. Few if any slaves were foreigners. Merchants and artisans also comprised a substantial element in society. Artisans worked in gold, silver, bird feathers and other items consumed by the elite. Merchants supplied exotic products such as gems and animal hides to the elite and also provided political and military intelligence about the lands they visited. Because of the nature of their business, they often were suspected of profiteering. Aristocratic warriors often extorted bribes from merchants who did not have a powerful protector.

Mexica Religion: The Mexica spoke the Nahuatl language of the region, and adopted a number of religious and social practices common to earlier peoples, including the ritualistic ball game. Two of their principal Gods were Tezcatlipoca, the "Smoking Mirror," the giver and taker of life; and Quetzalcoatl, the "Feathered Serpent" who supported arts, crafts, and agriculture. The Mexica believed that the gods and set the world in motion through acts of individual sacrifice and that by letting their blood flow; they had given the earth the moisture it needed to make crops grow. To keep the gods happy and ensure that the world continued, the Mexica honored their deities through ritual blood letting. The priests regularly performed self sacrifice by piercing their earlobes and penises with cactus spines in honor of the god’s sacrifices. The priests also presided over human sacrifices. Human sacrifice had been considered essential for the world’s survival by earlier Mesoamerican people, but the Mexica placed more emphasis on it than had their predecessors. Sacrifices were made to their god, Huitzilopochtli, the patron deity of the warrior class; and who is often associated with the sun. The priests of Huitzilopochtli demanded large numbers of sacrificial victims to keep him appeased. Reports indicate that on one occasion when the god’s temple was expanded, eighty thousand victims were sacrificed. Spanish conquistadores found racks holding hundreds of thousands of skulls of sacrificial victims. Some victims were Mexica criminals, while others were tribute from conquered people or warriors captured in battle. Human sacrifice was not a form of entertainment, but an essential ritual for the world to survive.

Peoples and Societies in North America: In the North American southwest, the Pueblo and Navajo people irrigated crops of maize, beans, squash, and sunflower which was supplemented with small game. By the year 700, they had constructed permanent stone and adobe buildings. On the Atlantic coast, people cultivated maize and beans. Some larger settlements were surrounded by wooden palisades for protection. In these societies, which included the Iroquois, Mohawk, Oneida, etc., women ran the villages. Men were responsible for hunting, fishing and war, and women were responsible for day to day operations.

The people of North America had no writing, so information about their society comes exclusively from archaeological research. This research indicates that they recognized social distinction and maintained trade with regions throughout the continent. Trade was apparently conducted along the major rivers which were used as trade highways.

Most knowledge of North American pre-Columbian society is lost forever. It is known that they maintained earthen mounds for ceremonies, and sometimes as burial sites. Most such mounds have been destroyed, however the few remaining indicate that they were quite large. The largest surviving mound is at Cahokia, near East St. Louis, Illinois, which is over 100 feet high, 1000 feet long and 650 feet wide. It is the third largest structure in the western hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans and only exceeded by the temple of the sun in Teotihuacan and the temple of Quetzalcoatl in Cholula. Best estimates are that roughly thirty thousand people lived within the vicinity of the mound.