Modern history

Mapping Global Frontiers

to 1585


In 1519 a young Indian woman named Malintzin was thrust into the center of dramatic events that transformed not only her world but also the world at large. As a young girl, Malintzin, whose birth name is lost to history, lived in the rural area of Coatzacoalcos on the frontier between the expanding kingdom of the Mexica and the declining Mayan states of the Yucatan peninsula. Raised in a noble household, Malintzin was fluent in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica.

In 1515 or 1516, when she was between the ages of eight and twelve, Malintzin was taken by or given to Mexica merchants, perhaps as a peace offering to stave off military attacks. She then entered a well-established trade in slaves, consisting mostly of women and girls, who were sent eastward to work in the expanding cotton fields. Malintzin was apparently sold to a Chontal Mayan village along the Tabasco River near the Gulf of Mexico. As a slave, Malintzin was among thousands of workers who planted, watered, weeded, and harvested the cotton or beat and carded the raw fibers into thread and spun and dyed the yarn. She may also have been forced into a sexual relationship as the concubine of a landowner. Whatever her situation, Malintzin learned the Mayan language during her captivity.

In 1517 Mayan villagers sighted Spanish adventurers along local rivers and drove them off. But in 1519 the Spaniards returned. Well armed and sailing huge boats, they traveled up the Tabasco River and attacked local villages. The Maya's cotton armor and wooden arrows were no match for the invaders'

steel swords, guns, and horses. Forced to surrender, the Maya offered the Spaniards food, gold, and twenty enslaved women, including Malintzin. The Spanish leader, Hernan Cortes, baptized the enslaved women as Christians, though they neither understood nor consented to the ritual. He assigned each of them Christian names, including Marina, which was later changed to Malintzin. Cortes then divided the women among his senior officers, giving Malintzin to the highest-ranking noble.

Already fluent in Nahuatl and Mayan, Malintzin soon learned Spanish. Within a matter of months, she became the chief translator between the Spaniards and native peoples. As Cortes moved into territories ruled by the Mexica (whom the Spaniards called Aztecs), his success depended on his ability to understand Aztec ways of thinking and to convince subjugated groups to fight against their despotic rulers. Malintzin thus accompanied Cortes at every step, including his triumphant conquest of the Aztec capital in the fall of 1521.

At the same time that Malintzin played a key role in the conquest of the Aztecs, Martin Waldseemuller sought to map the frontiers along which these conflicts erupted. Born in present-day Germany in the early 1470s, Waldseemuller enrolled at the University of Fribourg in 1490, where he probably studied theology. He would gain fame, however, not as a cleric but as a cartographer, or mapmaker.

In 1507 Waldseemuller and Mathias Ringmann produced a map of the world, a small globe, and a Latin translation of the four voyages of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. The map and the globe, entitled Universalis Cosmographia, depicted the “known" world as well as the “new" worlds recently discovered by European explorers. The latter included an elongated territory labeled America, set between the continents of Africa and Asia. A thousand copies of the map were produced, each consisting of twelve sections engraved on wood and covering some 36 square feet. The map offered a view of the world never before attempted.

Meeting of Hernan Cortes and Montezuma, from the Duran Codex, 1579. Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, Spain Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library

In 1513 Waldseemüller and Ringmann published the world's first atlas, which included a Latin edition of the works of Ptolemy, the Greco-Egyptian mathematician and astronomer. Three years later, Waldseemüller produced an updated map of the world, the Carta Marina. Apparently in response to challenges regarding Vespucci's role in discovering new territories, he substituted the term Terra Incognita (“unknown land") for the region he had earlier labeled America. But the 1507 map had already circulated widely, and America became part of the European lexicon.

THE PERSONAL HiSTORiES of Malintzin and Martin Waldseemüller were both shaped by the profound consequences of contact between the peoples of Europe and those of the Americas. Both Malintzin and Waldseemüller helped to map the frontiers of an increasingly global society.

It took much longer in the sixteenth century than today to travel from continent to continent and to communicate across such vast distances. Nonetheless, animals, plants, goods, ideas, and people began circulating regularly among Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas during the sixteenth century. Malintzin and Waldseemüller, in their very different ways, were part of these dramatic transformations.

Native Peoples in the Americas

It is likely that the first migrants to the Americas were northeast Asians who arrived some 13,000 to 15,000 years ago. By the time Malintzin participated in the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in the early sixteenth century, the Americas probably had a population of 60 million to 70 million people. The Nahuatl- and Mayan-speaking groups whose lands bordered the Gulf of Mexico were among hundreds of native societies that covered this vast landmass. Most lived within a few hundred miles of the equator, while only about 6 million to 7 million people likely lived in present-day North America. Despite its isolation, the Americas, like other regions of the world, were home to diverse and dynamic societies, ranging from nomadic hunter-gatherers to large and sophisticated city-centered empires.

Native Peoples Develop Diverse Cultures

Much of what we know as the Americas was probably first settled by peoples from northeast Asia. Between about 16,000 and 14,000 B.C.E., the growth of glaciers during the Wisconsin period led to a dramatic drop in sea levels and created a land bridge in the Bering Straits, between present-day Siberia and Alaska. Early settlers probably traveled over this bridge, known as Beringia, following herds of mammoths, musk oxen, and woolly rhinoceroses.

While most of these groups settled along the coast or gradually pushed inland, others probably used boats, hugging the shore and landing at various points along the Pacific coastline. Whether on foot or by boat, most groups traveled southward, skirting melting glaciers and seeking better hunting grounds and more abundant plant life. The mammoths and other large game disappeared about 10,000 years ago, and many groups then depended on smaller game, fish, roots, berries, and other plant foods to survive. At the same time, migrations continued across the Bering Straits, with Inuit and Aleut peoples arriving in present-day Alaska about 5,000 years ago.

About 3,000 years ago, some communities in the Americas began establishing agricultural systems that encouraged more stable settlements, population growth, and the accumulation of possessions. In the Americas, horticulture—a form of agriculture in which people work small plots of land with simple tools—first developed in present- day Mexico. There men and women developed strains of maize (or Indian corn) with larger kernels and higher yields than those that grew in the wild. They also cultivated beans, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, and manioc (a root vegetable), providing rich sources of protein. The combination of beans, squash, and corn offered an especially nutritious diet while maintaining the fertility of the soil. Moreover, high yields produced surplus food that could be stored or traded to neighboring communities.

By 500 C.E., complex societies, rooted in intensive agriculture, began to thrive in the equatorial region. Between 500 and 1500 C.E., thousands of separate societies and cultures speaking hundreds of distinct languages developed in the Americas. Small bands of hunters and gatherers continued to thrive in deserts and forests while impressive civilizations marked by gigantic stone statuary, complex irrigation systems, and ornate gold and silver ornaments arose on swamplands and in the mountains.

The Aztecs, the Maya, and the incas

Three significant civilizations had developed by the early sixteenth century: Aztec and Mayan societies in the equatorial region and the Inca society along the Pacific coast in present-day Peru. Technologically advanced and with knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, these societies were characterized by vast mineral wealth, large urban centers, highly ritualized religions, and complex political systems. Unlike their counterparts in Europe, Asia, and Africa, they did not develop the wheel to aid in transportation, nor did they have steel tools and weapons. Since most of their commerce was carried out over land or along rivers and coastlines, they did not build large boats. They also lacked horses, which had disappeared from the region thousands of years earlier. Still, the Aztecs, Maya, and Incas established grand cities and civilizations that rivaled those of the most sophisticated societies in the world.

Around 1325 C.E., the Aztecs, who called themselves Mexica, built their capital, Tenochtitlan, on the site of present-day Mexico City. As seminomadic warriors who had invaded and then settled in the region, the Aztecs drew on local residents’ knowledge of irrigation and cultivation and adopted their written language. Aztec commoners, who tilled communally owned lands, were ruled over by priests and nobles. The nobles formed a warrior class and owned vast estates on which they employed both serfs and slaves captured from non-Aztec communities in the region. Priests promised fertility— for the land and its people—but demanded human sacrifices, including thousands of men and women from captured tribes. To sustain their society, Aztecs extended their

trade networks into surrounding areas. Aztec artisans produced valuable trade goods like pottery, cloth, and leather goods that were exchanged for textiles, food items, and obsidian (the volcanic rock used to make sharp-edged tools) as well as bird feathers, tortoiseshells, and other luxury goods. As Malintzin’s story illustrates, Aztecs also traded in slaves.

When Malintzin was sold to a Chontal Mayan village by Aztec merchants, she was being traded from one grand civilization to another. The Maya had slowly settled the Yucatan peninsula and the rain forests of present-day Guatemala between roughly 900 B.C.E. and 300 C.E. They established large cities that were home to skilled artisans and developed elaborate systems for irrigation and water storage. Farmers worked the fields and labored to build huge stone temples and palaces for rulers who claimed to be descended from the gods. Learned men developed mathematical calculations, hieroglyphic writing, and a calendar. Mayan astronomers also developed an amazingly accurate system for predicting eclipses of the sun and the moon.

Yet the Mayan civilization began to decline around 800 C.E. An economic crisis, likely the result of a drought and exacerbated by heavy taxation, probably drove peasant families into the interior. Many towns and religious sites were abandoned. Yet some communities survived the crisis and reemerged as thriving city-states. By the early sixteenth century, they traded with the Aztecs.

The Incas developed an equally impressive civilization in the Andes Mountains along the Pacific coast. The Inca empire, like the Aztec empire, was built on the accomplishments of earlier societies. At the height of their power, in the fifteenth century, the Incas controlled some sixteen million people spread over 350,000 square miles. They constructed an expansive system of roads and garrisons to ensure the flow of food, trade goods, and soldiers from their capital at Cuzco through the surrounding mountains and valleys. Pack trains of llamas hauled tribute from conquered tribes to provincial centers and then on to Cuzco.

The key to Inca success was the cultivation of fertile mountain valleys. Cuzco, some eleven thousand feet above sea level, lay in the center of the Inca empire, with the Huaylas and Titicaca valleys on either side. Here residents cut timber from dense forests and cultivated potatoes and other crops on terraces watered by an elaborate irrigation system. Some artisans crafted gold and silver from the rich mountains into jewelry and decorative items, while others excelled at stone carving, pottery, and weaving. Thousands of laborers constructed elaborate palaces and temples. And like the Aztecs, Inca priests sacrificed humans to the gods to stave off natural disasters and military defeat.

Native Cultures to the North

To the north of these grand civilizations, smaller societies with less elaborate cultures thrived. In present-day Arizona and New Mexico, the Mogollon and Hohokam established communities around 500 C.E. The Mogollon were expert potters while the Hohokam developed extensive irrigation systems. Farther north, in present-day Utah and Colorado, the ancient Pueblo people built adobe and masonry homes cut into cliffs around 750 C.E. The homes clustered around a sunken ceremonial room, the kiva. A century later, the center of this culture moved south to the San Juan River Basin, where the Pueblo constructed large buildings that housed the people and their rulers along with administrative offices, religious centers, and craft shops. When a prolonged drought settled on the region in the early twelfth century, many Pueblo moved back north into cliff dwellings that offered greater protection from invaders as well as from the heat and sun. By 1300 these areas, too, were gripped by drought, and the residents appear to have dispersed into smaller groups.

Farther north on the plains that stretched from present-day Colorado into Canada, hunting societies developed around herds of bison. A weighted spear-throwing device, called an atlatl, allowed hunters to capture smaller game, while nets, hooks, and snares allowed them to catch birds, fish, and small animals. For many such groups, hunting was supplemented by the gathering of berries, roots, and other edible plants. These Plains societies generally remained small and widely scattered since they needed a large expanse of territory to ensure their survival as they traveled to follow migrating animals or seasonal plant sources.

Hunting-gathering societies also emerged along the Pacific coast, but the abundance of fish, small game, and plant life there provided the resources to develop permanent settlements. The Chumash Indians, near present-day Santa Barbara, California, harvested resources from the land and the ocean. Women gathered acorns and pine nuts, while men fished along the coastal waters and in rivers and hunted deer and smaller animals. The Chumash, whose villages sometimes held a thousand inhabitants, participated in regional exchange networks up and down the coast. As many as 300,000 people may have lived along the Pacific in a diverse array of societies before the arrival of Europeans.

Even larger societies with more elaborate social, religious, and political systems developed near the Mississippi River. A group that came to be called the Hopewell people established a thriving culture there in the early centuries C.E. The river and its surrounding lands provided fertile fields and easy access to distant communities. Centered in present-day southern Ohio and western Illinois, the Hopewell constructed towns of four thousand to six thousand people. Artifacts from their burial sites reflect extensive trading networks that stretched from the Missouri River to Lake Superior, and from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachian region and Florida.

Beginning around 500 C.E., the Hopewell culture gave birth to larger and more complex societies that flourished in the Mississippi River valley and to the south and east. As bows and arrows spread into the region, people hunted more game in the thick forests. But Mississippian groups also learned to cultivate corn. The development of corn as a staple crop allowed the population to expand dramatically, and more complex political and religious systems developed in which elite rulers gained greater control over the labor of farmers and hunters.

Mississippian peoples created massive earthworks sculpted in the shape of serpents, birds, and other creatures. Still visible in present-day north Georgia, eastern Oklahoma, and southern Ohio and at Cahokia Creek near modern East St. Louis, Illinois, some earthen sculptures stood over 70 feet high and stretched more than 1,300 feet in length. Mississippians also constructed huge temple mounds that could cover nearly 16 acres.

By about 1100 C.E., the community around Cahokia Creek had grown to some fifteen thousand inhabitants. Powerful chieftains extended their trade networks, conquered smaller villages, and created a centralized government. But the rulers proved too weak to maintain their control over numerous scattered towns. To the south, near present-day Tuscaloosa, Alabama, more than twenty flat-topped mounds formed an important ceremonial center in the thirteenth century. By 1400, however, the Mississippians

began to lose power there as well. Over the next century, this once-flourishing culture declined, leaving behind vast temple mounds and stunning earthen sculptures.


• Compare and contrast the Aztecs, Incas, and Maya. What similarities and differences do you note?

• How did the societies of North America differ from those of the equatorial zone and the Andes?

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