New World empires: Maya, Aztec, and Inca
Hominids first evolved in Africa about 2.5 million years ago, modern humans about 200,000 years ago. But they may not have reached the Americas until as recently as 15,000 years ago.
Africa is the oldest continent, America the youngest. Yet the civilisations of sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas share key characteristics that set them apart from those of Eurasia. Both were constrained in similar ways by geographical barriers.
The Americas run north−south for almost 16,000 km through all the climatic zones. Because of this, what works in one part of the Americas often does not work in others. Different ecosystems require different subsistence strategies, so the value of cultural exchange between climatic zones is less than its value within a climatic zone.
The Americas were well endowed with plant staples – maize, potatoes, squash, beans, and manioc – but not with animal domesticates. Eurasia was home to the wild progenitors of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, hens, oxen, horses, mules, donkeys, and camels. These provided meat, milk, wool, leather, traction, and transport. The Americas, by contrast, had only the llama, the turkey, and the guinea-pig.
In one key respect, Africa and the Americas were different. Africa is not cut off from Eurasia, and African civilisation developed under the influence of Egyptian, Roman, and Arab traders. Crucially, Africa received cattle and iron from Eurasia, and its own production of metals and other commodities was substantially a response to external demand. The Americas received no such cultural endowment. They were cut off from the global exchange of knowledge and techniques that is responsible for most advances in labour productivity. Consequently, the Americans had no wheel, no iron, and no plough.
These constraints limited the development of civilisation in North America. When the Europeans arrived, most North Americans were either Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers or Early Neolithic hoe-cultivators. The proto-urban civilisations of the Pueblo farmers of the South-West (ad 700−1350) and the temple-mound builders of the Middle Mississippi (ad 700−1450) had already disappeared.
In Central and South America, on the other hand, the Europeans encountered extant civilisations that were both fully urbanised and representative of much older traditions – the Olmecs, Maya, Toltecs, and Aztecs in Mexico (1200 bc−ad 1521) and the Chavin, Nazca, Moche, Chimú, and Inca in Peru (900 bc−ad 1532).
The fact that American civilisation developed entirely independently of Eurasia is the ultimate proof of the common biological identity of humanity: all ‘races’ are equally capable of cultural creativity. On the other hand, American civilisation faced severe limitations. Its technology was Stone Age. Gold, silver, and copper were used only for ornaments. Its agricultural method was Early Neolithic, and because productivity was low and the surplus small, American civilisation tended to be brutal. Successful accumulation often required extreme exploitation and violence.
The Mayan civilisation of southern Mexico and Guatemala lasted from c. 300 bc to ad 900. It was divided into rival city-states under hereditary dynasties of kings who identified themselves with deities. The Mayans built monumental ceremonial centres consisting of plazas surrounded by stone-built pyramids crowned with palaces, temples, and altars. A true Urban Revolution occurred in the Classic Maya period (c. ad 300−800), when ceremonial centres like Tikal swelled into jungle cities of up to 50,000 people.
Architecture, sculpture, and painting were developed. Obsidian and jade were worked into objects of quality. Writing, astronomical observation, and calendrical calculation were advanced. But it was the religion and ideology of the ruling class – not the needs of farmers – that underlay these cultural achievements. Art and science were at the service of militaristic god-kings and a theocracy. Wars were fought in part to obtain captives to sacrifice to Mayan gods. Art depicts victims being tortured in the presence of Mayan lords. Despite intensive agriculture, including the cultivation on raised fields of maize, beans, squash, chilli peppers, and root crops, Mayan technique was primitive. Without ploughs or animal fertiliser, soil exhaustion must have been a constant problem.
Against the odds, an Early Neolithic economy had given rise to an Urban Revolution and a network of royal city-states. But the Mayan kings and priests were parasitic, creaming off precious surplus and wasting it on war, pyramid building, and the religious mysticism that legitimised their existence. Like other ancient and medieval civilisations, the Mayan eventually collapsed under its own weight, the cost of the elite and the state bearing down ever more heavily on the economic base of the system.
Waves of barbarian invaders from the north entered the geopolitical space left by Mayan decline. The Toltecs eventually established dominance in central Mexico from c. ad 950 to 1170. This was followed by another period of fragmentation and warfare. The Aztec civilisation which emerged from this chaos bore the preceding period’s hallmarks. It appears to have been an exceptionally brutal consequence of the contradiction between primitive technique and imperial ambition (though we must be cautious, for the Spanish writers who supply much of our information were deeply hostile to native civilisation).
The Aztecs founded their capital and ceremonial centre at Tenochtitlán in ad 1345. Between ad 1428 and 1519 they built an extensive empire. The Aztec state was a centralised autocracy, with a warrior and high-priestly ruling class and a large professional army. There appears to have been no attempt to assimilate subject-peoples or develop productive technique. Tribute – gold, cotton, turquoise, feathers, incense, and vast quantities of food – were sent to Tenochtitlán. Huge numbers of war captives were also taken there to be sacrificed at the Great Temple, their hearts torn out as an offering to the Aztec sun-god, their bodies then tipped down the steps.
The Aztec Empire was a crude military imperialism. Its brutality and futility express in an extreme form the limitations of an Urban Revolution based on Early Neolithic technique. The rate of exploitation, and the terrorism necessary to maintain it, is proportional to the inadequacy of the available surplus. The violence of the Aztec state and the poverty of its subject-people are two aspects of a single contradiction.
The Inca Empire of Peru began to expand in ad 1197, two centuries before the Aztec Empire of central Mexico. But it achieved its greatest extent at the same time – in ad 1493−1525 – and shared some of the Aztec Empire’s essential characteristics. The Inca state was a centralised military autocracy, with a large professional army, and an administrative bureaucracy which attempted to control the daily life of every subject. At the heart of the empire were great monumental complexes, such as the capital at Cuzco, the fortress guarding it at Sacsahuaman, and the ceremonial centre at Machu Picchu.
The Incas controlled an area some 3,200 km long and 515 km wide comprising a mix of coastal plain, high mountains, and dense forests. They constructed a network of roads totalling an estimated 40,000 km, incorporating numerous tunnels, bridges, and causeways, with official rest-houses at intervals of a day’s journey.
Both the Aztec and Inca Empires were anomalies. In central Mexico and the Peruvian Andes, ancient empires, with their ruling elites, professional armies, and monumental complexes, were constructed on a Stone Age economic base. The prodigious waste expenditure of the ruling class required ruthless surplus extraction. Imperial rule, therefore, depended on terror. Aztec and Inca rulers were hated by their subject-peoples. Rebellion was rife.
In consequence, when the Spanish arrived in the early sixteenth century, the Aztec and Inca imperial states shattered. This was not simply a function of the superior military technique of a more advanced social order: it was also because the common people either welcomed the defeat of their masters or even participated actively in the struggle to bring them down.