Exam preparation materials


There were three great civilizations in what is now Central America and South America that developed before the arrival of the Europeans. One of the civilizations, the Maya, actually began around the time of the major classical civilizations and were discussed in the previous chapter. The other two civilizations, the Incas and Aztecs, were conquered by the Europeans after 1450. They will be discussed again in the next chapter. That said, we are including all three of them in this chapter so that you can review the cultural characteristics of these three civilizations in one place. We’ll talk about their conquests in the next chapter.

Mayan Decline: Where Did They Go?

As a review, the Maya were organized in city-states ruled by a single king. Their largely agricultural peasant population was bound to nobility by ties of loyalty and religion. They occupied poorly drained lowlands in Central America and adapted by building terraces to trap the silt drained by numerous rivers. Some of these cities grew to be quite sizable—10,000 to 40,000 inhabitants, and engaged in long-distance trade as far north as central Mexico. But the cities were often at odds with one another and in Mayan territory, war was about capturing slaves or sacrificial victims.

The decline of the Maya remains a source of debate. They began to abandon their cities around 800 C.E. Environmental degradation and overuse of land, political dissension and social unrest, natural disaster, and outside invaders have all been proposed as causes of their decline.

The Aztecs: Trade and Sacrifice

The Aztecs, also known as the Mexica, arrived in central Mexico in the mid-1200s and built their capital at Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City). More than anything else, the Aztecs are known for their expansionist policy and professional army, which allowed them to dominate nearby states and demand heavy taxes and captives. Warriors were the elite in the Aztec social structure (the majority of the people were peasants and slaves). Through conquest and alliances, the Aztecs built an empire of some 12 million people. But despite the huge size, they didn’t use a bureaucratic form of government. The conquered areas were generally allowed to govern themselves, as long as they paid the tribute demanded of them. Roads were built to link the far-flung areas of the huge empire, and trade flourished.

Aztec women had a subordinate public role but could inherit property. Like women in most all other traditional civilizations, Aztec women were primarily charged with running the household, but they were also involved in skilled crafts, especially weaving, and—to some extent—in commerce.

Notably, the Aztec religious system was tied to the military because one of the purposes of the military was to obtain victims for human sacrifice. Tens of thousands of men and women were killed annually; many would be sacrificed simultaneously for an important religious occasion, such as the dedication of a new temple.

Compare Them: The Aztec Civilization and the Roman Empire

Although the Aztecs and Romans developed large civilizations, continents and centuries apart, they were similar in at least two major respects. First, they tied together their vast empires by building roads. Second, they generally allowed the people they conquered to govern themselves, as long as they paid their taxes or tributes. Because of the improved transportation systems (roads) and the diversity of cultures under their control, both the Aztecs and the Romans were able to adapt ideas from the people they conquered and use them for their own purposes. In other words, the Aztecs and the Romans were conquerors, but also borrowers.

The Incas: My Land Is Your Land

The Inca Empire, set in the Andes Mountains in Peru, was also expansionist in nature. At its zenith, it is thought to have controlled more than 2,000 miles of South American coastline. The Incas controlled this territory using a professional army, an established bureaucracy, a unified language, and a complex system of roads and tunnels.

Like the Maya (and the Aztecs), the Incas had no large animals, so the prime source of labor was human. A large proportion of the population was peasants, who worked the land or on construction projects. They were expected to give a proportion of their harvest to support the ruling classes and to provide famine relief. These surpluses eventually became large enough to support large cities. The capital at Cuzco may have had as many as 300,000 people in the late 1400s.

Incan women were expected to help work the fields, weave cloth, and care for the household. They could pass property on to their daughters and even played a role in religion. The Incas were polytheistic, but the sun god was the most important and was at the center of the state religion. Like the Aztecs, the Incas practiced human sacrifice, but in much smaller numbers, usually choosing instead to sacrifice material goods or animals. Incan religion also had a very strong moral quality, emphasizing rewards for good behavior and punishments for bad. Like the Egyptians, Incan rulers were mummified after death and became intermediaries between the gods and the people.

For the Incas, the concept of private property didn’t exist. Rather, the ruler was viewed as having descended from the sun and therefore owning everything on Earth. The military was very important because each new ruler needed to ensure his place in eternity by securing new land, and that meant conquest. There was a state bureaucracy, manned by the nobility, which controlled the empire by traveling on a complex system of roads.

The Inca were excellent builders, stone cutters, and miners. Their skills are evident from the ruins of the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco and the temples of Machu Picchu. They never developed a system of writing. However, they were able to record census data and keep an accounting of harvests on quipu, a set of knotted strings.

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