Part One: The Olmec

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Part One: The Olmec

The Olmec were the first great Mesoamerican civilization. They thrived along Mexico’s gulf coast, mainly in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco, from about 1200 to 400 B.C., although there were pre-Olmec societies before that and post-Olmec (or Epi-Olmec) societies afterwards. The Olmec were great artists and traders who culturally dominated early Mesoamerica from their mighty cities of San Lorenzo and La Venta. Olmec culture was greatly influential on later societies, such as the Maya and the Aztec.

Olmec Culture:

The ancient Olmec had a rich culture. Most of the common Olmec citizens labored in the fields producing crops or spent their days fishing in the rivers. Sometimes, massive amounts of manpower would be required to move immense boulders many miles to the workshops where sculptors would turn them in to great stone thrones or colossal heads. The Olmec had religion and a mythology, and the people would gather near the ceremonial centers to watch their priests and rulers perform ceremonies. There was a priest class and a ruling class who lived privileged lives in the higher parts of the cities. On a more ghastly note, evidence suggests that the Olmec practiced both human sacrifice and cannibalism.

Olmec Religion and Gods:

The Olmec had a well-developed religion, complete with an interpretation of the cosmos and several gods. To the Olmec, there were three parts of the known universe. First was the earth, where they lived: it was represented by the Olmec Dragon. The watery underworld was the realm of the Fish Monster, and the Skies were the home of the Bird Monster. In addition to these three gods, researchers have identified five more: the Maize God, the Water God, the Feathered Serpent, the Banded-eye God and the were-jaguar. Some of these gods, such as the Feathered Serpent, would live on in the religions of later cultures such as the Aztecs and Maya.

Olmec Art:

The Olmec were very talented artists whose skill and aesthetics are still admired today. They are best known for their colossal heads: these massive stone heads, thought to represent rulers, stand several feet high and weigh many tons. The Olmecs also made massive stone thrones: squarish blocks, carved on the sides, which were evidently used for rulers to sit or stand upon.

Olmec Trade and Commerce:

The Olmec were great traders who had contacts with other cultures from Central America to the Valley of Mexico. They traded away their finely made and polished celts, masks, figurines and small statues. In return, they obtained materials such as jadeite and serpentine, goods such as crocodile skins, seashells, shark teeth, stingray spines and basic necessities like salt. They also traded for cacao and brightly colored feathers. Their skill as traders helped disseminate their culture to different contemporary civilizations, which helped establish them as the parent culture for several later civilizations.

Decline of the Olmec Civilization:

La Venta went into decline around 400 B.C. and the Olmec civilization vanished along with it. The great Olmec cities were swallowed up by the jungles, not to be seen again for thousands of years. Why the Olmec declined is a bit of a mystery. It may have been climate change: the Olmec were dependent on a few basic crops and climate change could have affected their harvests. Human actions, such as warfare, overfarming or deforestation may have played a role in their decline as well.

Importance of the Olmec:

The Olmec civilization is very important to researchers. As the "parent" civilization of much of Mesoamerica, they had influence out of proportion with their military might or architectural works. Olmec culture and religion survived them and became the foundation of other societies such as the Aztecs and Maya.
Part Two: The Mayans

The Maya Empire, centered in the tropical lowlands of what is now Guatemala, reached the peak of its power and influence around the sixth century A.D. The Maya excelled at agriculture, pottery, hieroglyph writing, calendar-making and mathematics, and left behind an astonishing amount of impressive architecture and symbolic artwork. Most of the great stone cities of the Maya were abandoned by A.D. 900, however, and since the 19th century scholars have debated what might have caused this dramatic decline.

Excavations of Maya sites have unearthed plazas, palaces, temples and pyramids, as well as courts for playing the ball games that were ritually and politically significant to Maya culture. Maya cities were surrounded and supported by a large population of farmers. Though the Maya practiced a primitive type of “slash-and-burn” agriculture, they also displayed evidence of more advanced farming methods, such as irrigation and terracing.

The Maya were deeply religious, and worshiped various gods related to nature, including the gods of the sun, the moon, rain and corn. At the top of Maya society were the kings, or “kuhul ajaw” (holy lords), who claimed to be related to gods and followed a hereditary succession. They were thought to serve as mediators between the gods and people on earth, and performed the elaborate religious ceremonies and rituals so important to the Maya culture.

The Classic Maya built many of their temples and palaces in a stepped pyramid shape, decorating them with elaborate reliefs and inscriptions. These structures have earned the Maya their reputation as the great artists of Mesoamerica. Guided by their religious ritual, the Maya also made significant advances in mathematics and astronomy, including the use of the zero and the development of a complex calendar system based on 365 days.

Though early researchers concluded that the Maya were a peaceful society of priests and scribes, later evidence–including a thorough examination of the artwork and inscriptions on their temple walls–showed the less peaceful side of Maya culture, including the war between rival Mayan city-states and the importance of torture and human sacrifice to their religious ritual.

From the late eighth through the end of the ninth century, something unknown happened to shake the Maya civilization to its foundations. One by one, the Classic cities in the southern lowlands were abandoned, and by A.D. 900, Maya civilization in that region had collapsed. The reason for this mysterious decline is unknown, though scholars have developed several competing theories.

Some believe that by the ninth century the Maya had exhausted the environment around them to the point that it could no longer sustain a very large population. Other Maya scholars argue that constant warfare among competing city-states led the complicated military, family (by marriage) and trade alliances between them to break down, along with the traditional system of dynastic power. As the stature of the holy lords diminished, their complex traditions of rituals and ceremonies dissolved into chaos. Finally, some catastrophic environmental change–like an extremely long, intense period of drought–may have wiped out the Classic Maya civilization. Drought would have hit cities like Tikal–where rainwater was necessary for drinking as well as for crop irrigation–especially hard.
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Part Three: The Aztecs
The exact origins of the Aztec people are uncertain, but they are believed to have begun as a northern tribe of hunter-gatherers whose name came from that of their homeland, Aztlan (or “White Land”). The Aztecs were also known as the Tenochca (from which the name for their capital city, Tenochtitlan, was derived) or the Mexica (the origin of the name of the city that would replace Tenochtitlan, as well as the name for the entire country).

When the Aztecs saw an eagle perched on a cactus on the marshy land near the southwest border of Lake Texcoco, they took it as a sign to build their settlement there. They drained the swampy land, constructed artificial islands (chinampas) on which they could plant gardens and established the foundations of their capital city, Tenochtitlán, in 1325 A.D. Typical Aztec crops included maize (corn), along with beans, squashes, potatoes, tomatoes and avocadoes; they also supported themselves through fishing and hunting local animals such as rabbits, armadillos, snakes, coyotes and wild turkey. Their relatively sophisticated system of agriculture (including intensive cultivation of land and irrigation methods) and a powerful military tradition would enable the Aztecs to build a successful state, and later an empire.

In 1428, under their leader Itzcoatl, the Aztecs formed a three-way alliance with the Texcocans and the Tacubans to defeat their most powerful rivals for influence in the region, the Tepanec, and conquer their capital of Azcapotzalco. Itzcoatl’s successor Montezuma (Moctezuma) I, who took power in 1440, was a great warrior who was remembered as the father of the Aztec empire. By the early 16th century, the Aztecs had come to rule over up to 500 small states, and some 5 to 6 million people, either by conquest or commerce. Tenochtitlán at its height had more than 140,000 inhabitants, and was the most densely populated city ever to exist in Mesoamerica.

Bustling markets such as Tenochtitlan’s Tlatelolco, visited by some 50,000 people on major market days, drove the Aztec economy. The Aztec civilization was also highly developed socially, intellectually and artistically. It was a highly structured society with a strict caste system; at the top were nobles, while at the bottom were serfs, indentured servants and slaves. The Aztec faith shared many aspects with other Mesoamerican religions, like that of the Maya, notably including the rite of human sacrifice. In the great cities of the Aztec empire, magnificent temples, palaces, plazas and statues embodied the civilization’s unfailing devotion to the many Aztec gods, including Huitzilopochtli (god of war and of the sun) and Quetzalcoatl (“Feathered Serpent”), a Toltec god who served many important roles in the Aztec faith over the years. The Aztec calendar, common in much of Mesoamerica, was based on a solar cycle of 365 days and a ritual cycle of 260 days; the calendar played a central role in the religion and rituals of Aztec society.

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Part Four: The Incas

The Inca called their empire Tahuantinsuyu, or Land of the Four Quarters. It stretched 2,500 miles from Quito, Ecuador, to beyond Santiago, Chile. Within its domain were rich coastal settlements, high mountain valleys, rain-drenched tropical forests and the driest of deserts. The Inca controlled perhaps 10 million people, speaking a hundred different tongues. It was the largest empire on earth at the time. Yet when Pizarro executed its last emperor, Atahualpa, the Inca Empire was only 50 years old.

The true history of the Inca is still being written. According to one story, four brothers emerged from Lake Titicaca. During a long journey, all but one disappeared. Manco Capac survived to plunge a golden staff into the ground where the Rios Tullamayo and Huantanay meet. He founded the sacred city of Cuzco.

The Sacred City of Cuzco

Cuzco is nestled in a mountain valley 10,000 feet above sea level. It formed the center of the Inca world. The first emperor, Pachacuti transformed it from a modest village to a great city laid out in the shape of a puma. He also installed Inti, the Sun God, as the Incas' official patron, building him a wondrous temple.

And he did something else — which may explain the Inca's sudden rise to power. He expanded the cult of ancestor worship. When a ruler died, his son received all his earthly powers — but none of his earthly possessions. All his land, buildings, and servants went to his panaqa, or other male relatives. The relatives used it to preserve his mummy and sustain his political influence. Dead emperors maintained a living presence.

A new ruler had to create his own income. The only way to do that was to grab new lands, subdue more people, and expand the Empire of the Sun.

How was this done? Life in traditional Andean villages was fragile. One married couple would help another planting or harvesting crops. They would receive help in their own fields in return. The Inca tailored this practice of reciprocity — give-and-take — to their own needs.

Their cities centered on great plazas where they threw vast parties for neighboring chiefs. Festivities continued for days on end, sometimes lasting a month. Dignitaries were fed, and given gifts of gold, jewels, and textiles. Only then would the Inca make their requests for labor, to increase food production, to build irrigation schemes, to terrace hillsides, or to extend the limits of the empire.

Machu Picchu and Empire

The Inca were great builders. They loved stone — almost as much as they revered gold. At magical Machu Picchu, a frontier fortress and a sacred site, a mystic column, the hitching post of the Sun, is carved from the living rock. Another slab is shaped to echo the mountain beyond.

Spanish leader Francisco Pizarro captured and ransomed the last Inca emperor, Atahuallpa, for 24 tons of gold worth $267 million today. After receiving the ransom from the Inca people, the conquistadors strangled Atahuallpa anyway.

Temples and fortifications at Machu Picchu were constructed from vast, pillowy boulders, some weighing 100 tons or more. Constructed without mortar, the joins between them are so tight as to deny a knife-blade entry. A vast labor force was required. There are records of 20 men working on a single stone, chipping away, hoisting and lowering, polishing it with sand, hour-by-hour for an entire year.

A network of highways allowed Inca emperors to control their sprawling empire. One ran down the spine of the Andes, another along the coast. Inca builders could cope with anything the treacherous terrain required — steep paths cut along mountain sides, rope suspension bridges thrown across steep ravines, or treacherous causeways traversing floodplains. Every mile and a half they built way stations as resting points. Bands of official runners raced between them covering 150 miles a day. A message could be sent 1200 miles from Cuzco to Quito in under a week.

The Inca Empire ranged 2,500 miles from Ecuador to southern Chile before its destruction at the hands of Spanish conquistadors in 1532.

Everyone was expected to contribute to the empire. Land was divided in three. One third was worked for the emperor, one third was reserved for the gods, and one third the people kept for themselves. All were required to pay taxes as tribute.

The Inca could not write. Tax collectors and bureaucrats kept track of things with quipu, knotted strings. Varying lengths, colors, knot-types, and positions, enabled them to store enormous quantities of information.

Despite its glory, the Incas was a brittle empire, held together by promises and threats. When Pizarro executed the last emperor, it rapidly collapsed. Catholic priests demanding allegiance to a new Christian god soon replaced the Children of the Sun. As they had for thousands of years, the hardy peoples of the Andes adapted. They took what they must from their new masters, and held onto as many of their old ways as they could.

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