Knowledge about pre-Columbian civilizations comes from two main sources: archaeological remains and the accounts written by European men. The latter include a first group of explorers who described the alien worlds they encountered (and destroyed), and a second group of priests, scholars, and administrators who interviewed the survivors who remembered the past, and later their descendants, who retold the tales they had heard in their youth. The first chroniclers viewed native societies through a self-confident, conservative, and unquestioning Catholic lens; fiercely religious themselves, they emphasized religion as the central force of native life. Although some, such as Bernal Diaz, express awe at the cultural, artistic, and technical achievements of Native Americans, for the most part these texts dismiss native societies as primitive and their religious ideas as confused and fundamentally wrong. Some use the term pagan; others assume that exotic practices such as polytheism and ancestor worship, common to many Native American societies, were synonymous with devil worship. Serious attempts at what in the early twenty-first century might be termed ethnographic and linguistic scholarship were nevertheless undertaken, mostly by religious writers. For the most part, as in the famous "Extirpation of Idolatries" texts, these were motivated by the need for more effective evangelization when, after years of conversion efforts, religious authorities realized that native understanding of Catholicism was spotty and shallow at best. Friars such as Bernardino de Sahagun of Mexico and Domingo de Santo Tomas of Peru began to study native languages and culture to facilitate intercultural communications and to explore native belief systems. Later, major extirpation campaigns yielded page after page of proceedings in which native witnesses tried to explain, usually through interpreters, the rationales for their persistent worship of their ancestral gods. The study of these records and the material record of these societies have led to the more relativistic prism through which most modern scholars have come to view these societies.
These early written sources are invaluable for understanding those civilizations that existed at the time of the encounter with the Europeans, most notably the Aztecs and Incas. The Aztecs, or Mexica, are believed to be migrants into central Mexico from the arid regions to the north, home to less settled tribes. As recent arrivals into an area that had for centuries been one of the great urban centers of art, architecture, religion, wealth, and political might, the Mexica at first served as mercenaries to some of the established city-states in the vicinity of Lake Texcoco. Their rapid rise to power appears to have been the result of a series of political intrigues, among other factors. But after the fact, the Aztecs, like other imperial peoples, came to see their own hegemony as foreordained by supernatural powers. According to their own origin myths, as recorded after the conquest, they had left their mythic home-land of Aztlán, led by their priest-god Huiztlipochtli, and traveled until they settled where they saw a pre-ordained sign—an eagle with a snake in its mouth, resting on a rock. This rock happened to be in the middle of Lake Texcoco, so it was there that they began to construct their capital of Tenochtitlan. They later allied with two other city-states—Texcoco and Tlacopan—and, with their combined power, began their expansion. The Aztecs came to dominate the Triple Alliance and, at the time of contact with the Europeans, they occupied lands from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific, north toward the Rio Grande, and south through Tehuantepec.
The Aztecs worshiped a plethora of gods. They included creation gods such as Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, who was also the wind god; Huehueteotl, the god of fire; Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror, the god of the night and darkness; Tlaloc, the rain god (one of the oldest and most widely worshiped Mesoamerican deities); and their own patron deity Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. Besides these gods, there were gods of certain social groups, like the pochteca (merchants) and lineage gods. For example, the pocheta chose Quetzalcoatl—god of creation and the bearer of culture, and often regarded as the maize god—as their patron and protector.
Their religious ideas provided the Aztecs and other Central Mexicans with an explanation of their origins, an expectation about life, and a method to influence the present and the future. Aztecs believed, as Friedrich Katz so ably states, that "a hard fate, filled with gloom and privation" awaited most of humankind (p. 161). They believed that life on earth was a short illusion. Only the warriors who fell in battle, the prisoners sacrificed to their deities, the women who died in childbirth, the persons who died in natural catastrophes, and children could hope for a more comfortable afterlife. Hope rested with the gods who could be placated through sacrifice. Human blood, for example, was shed to nourish the sun, which would be extinguished without such sustenance. Child sacrifices placated the rain god Tlaloc. Thus did ordinary individuals, some taken as prisoners in combat and others transferred to the state as tribute, contribute to the future of Aztec civilization. It is worth noting that in the twenty-first century, scholars such as Elizabeth Brumfiel have cautioned, however, that recorded Aztec religion is largely the religion of the male elite; its glorification of warfare and early death is probably not representative of the beliefs of the majority of the people, farmers, merchants, and artisans who may well have had a more pragmatic and life-affirming view of the cosmos.
The Aztecs adopted some of the gods and practices of their subject peoples. In Tenochtitlan a special temple housed the idols of vanquished peoples, but the Aztecs did not require subject peoples to worship their own deities; indeed, they reserved that right for the chosen few. They allowed the subject peoples to continue speaking their own language and practicing their own cults and culture. For these reasons, scholars have described the Aztec empire as a loose confederation of distinct peoples.
The Incas, like the Aztecs, were one of many relatively small polities in the Andean region of South America that rapidly expanded into an empire encompassing many peoples with distinct traditions and identities. According to the histories told by Inca royalty to Spanish writers, the precipitating experience for expansion was the challenge from the leader of another polity, called the Chanca, for the claim of being the son of the sun. Once the Incas defeated these rivals, they began to expand, conquering the recalcitrant and allowing others to submit peacefully.
Inca imperial religion was built upon long-standing Andean beliefs and traditions, in which the worship of the ancestors and of sacred places played an important part. Each provincial people worshiped their forbearers, some of whom had been transformed into or identified with rocks or mountains. These ancestors, like the Sun, the apical ancestor of the Incas, were believed to have influence over daily life. In return for fertility, health, and success in battle, the natives sacrificed to and danced and sang for their gods. Sacrifices included corn beer and cakes, camelids, guinea pigs, and other foodstuffs. On special occasions, such as the death of an important ruler, humans were sacrificed. The paradigm can be summarized as "to feed and be fed,"
These lineage cults gave these agricultural and pastoral peoples their social and cultural identity at the local level. Expansive and ambitious polities such as the Inca state and its predecessors built larger political identities out of these localized traditions; the Inca constructed a complex state religion in which, out of the capital city of the Cuzco, radiated a set of sacred lines, called ceques, which were conceptualized as enveloping each of the local sacred places of lesser lineages into a single sacred landscape. This schema, at once religious and political, allowed individual peoples to retain their sense of cultural and religious autonomy and their distinctive deities, while still claiming a place within the larger imperial hierarchy. Within the capital city and other Inca centers, a highly stratified hierarchy of male priests and female acllas or "chosen women," tended to the state religious cults, working in tandem with administrators and the military to fuel the imperial expansion.
The Andean civilization that built magnificent stone ceremonial cities, such as Cuzco and Huanuco Viejo, irrigated the hot desert coast; constructed footpaths linking what has become southern Columbia to the middle of Chile, and from the Pacific into the Andes mountains to Bolivia and southwestern Argentina, impressed the Spanish with its magnificence. Still, like the Aztecs, it was only the latest in a long line of impressive civilizations stretching back thousands of years, each of which contributed unique architectural, artistic, and intellectual legacies. The arrival of Europeans and Africans, and the vast, violent set of transformations that followed destroyed much of what had been, leaving only fragments and ruins. But archaeologists, ethnohistorians, and other scholars have reconstructed much of these lost social worlds, and the resurgent Native American political and cultural movements of recent decades have proudly reclaimed this history, serving as a reminder that if European culture has dominated in Latin America for the last five hundred years, the great Native American civilizations held sway for millennia before.
Susan Elizabeth Ramirez
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