Post-classical history

Part Two



Chapter Twenty-Six



Around 1200, a Mayan empire grows in Central America, and the Inca slaughter the villagers of the Cuzco valley

ACROSS THE ATLANTIC, two new stories were unfolding.

On the Central American land bridge, the city of Chichen Itza, ruled by Toltec invaders, was itself facing invasion.* Its king carried out bloody rituals of human sacrifice, pouring out the sacred earth-restoring liquid in an attempt to keep his kingdom safe. But the sacrifices failed him. Sometime around the turn of the century, the Mayan king Hunac Ceel launched an attack against Chichen Itza’s imposing walls. To carry out his assault on his huge neighbor, he had hired seven generals and their troops from the fragmented lands farther to the southeast.

With the help of these mercenaries, he captured Chichen Itza; the city fell, a slightly later chronicle tells us, “because of the treachery of Hunac Ceel,” which suggests that the conquest may have come about through trickery and betrayal, rather than simply through force of arms. However it began, the invasion ended with Chichen Itza sacked and burned, its sacred reliefs shattered and defaced, the places of offerings laid waste; the people fled outwards and took refuge in other cities.1

This was only the beginning of a larger campaign. Over the next decade, Hunac Ceel conquered a good part of the Yucatán peninsula and made his home city, Mayapan, the center of a small but vigorous Maya empire. Mayapan was smaller than Chichen Itza, but carefully laid out as a military fortress: it was easy to defend, hard to besiege.2

Hunac Ceel’s descendants ruled over the northern Yucatán peninsula for the next two centuries. The empire survived in part because of the strong central control wielded from Mayapan itself; the conquered aristocrats were required to live in the capital city, under the eye of the kings, while their estates farther away were administered by stewards on their behalf. It was a strict and unforgiving regime, but effective; and the empire flourished. “The natives lived together in towns in a very civilized fashion,” wrote the Spanish bishop Diego de Landa, who saw the empire of Mayapan in its final years. “In the middle of the town were their temples with beautiful plazas, and all around the temples stood the houses of the lords and priests. . . . They had their improved lands planted with wine trees, and they sowed cotton, pepper, and maize, and they lived thus close together for fear of their enemies.” The well-guarded borders held; force of arms had finally brought a long period of peace and prosperity to at least one part of the fragmented landscape.3


26.1 Central America

BY THE TWELFTH CENTURY, myths and rituals had begun to illuminate the Mesoamerican world. But South America remained largely voiceless. The ruins left behind suggest that large empires were much more common here than in the equally silent lands of North America; for centuries, these empires rose, flourished, and fell without leaving words behind them.

They left us puzzles instead.


26.2 South America

The Andes Mountains march along the western coast of the entire continent: a range over four thousand miles long (the longest in the world), three hundred miles wide, its highest peak soaring up to nearly twenty-three thousand feet.* South of the equator, the mountains create a rain shadow: a stretch of desert blocked by the peaks from moisture-bearing winds. The winds, hitting the mountains first, drop all of their water; by the time they flow over the summits and down to the desert, they are entirely dry. The Atacama Desert, on the South American coast, gets less than an inch of precipitation per year.4 On its driest sands, rain falls perhaps once every forty or fifty years.

But in scattered places across the desert, underground rivers rise abruptly to the surface. Around the oases created by this subterranean water, the Nazca people lived.

They left pottery and ruins behind them: no chronicles, no legends, no lists of kings. Instead, they created enormous patterns on the dry ground by sweeping stones and debris away from the desert floor to reveal the lighter sands beneath. The lines of lighter ground form enormous spirals, grids, and figures of animals: a spider, a bird in flight, a fish, a monkey. The pictures are enormous: a hummingbird 305 feet long, a parrot whose head is nearly 70 feet across, a 150-foot spider. The outsider, standing in the desert, would see only a random path stretching to the horizon. The Nazca initiate saw instead the tip of a bird’s wing, the end of a lizard’s tail, the hand of a dancing man. Only from very high up can we see what the Nazca line drawers held in their minds.5


26.1 Nazca lines: Spider.
Credit: © Charles and Josette Lenars / Corbis


26.2 Nazca lines: Dancing hands.
Credit: © Kevin Schafer / Corbis

No single explanation accounts for the Nazca lines. The archaeologist Maria Reiche, who first mapped out the figures in the 1940s, believed that the lines charted astronomical movements, but many of the lines can’t be associated with any known movement of the stars. Some of the drawings, but not all, seem to mark out underground water flow. Possibly the paths were used for sacred walking rituals, a practice carried on in later Andean cultures—but there is no way to know whether the rituals existed this early. The only certain conclusion is that the Nazca people carved themselves into the landscape of their home. In the words of the art historian George Kubler, the lines “inscribe human meaning upon the hostile wastes of nature.” The lines carry a story; we may never know what the meaning of the story is.6

A little farther to the north, in slightly more hospitable surroundings, the Moche people constructed mud-brick buildings instead of desert patterns. In the northern valley that served as the center of a growing empire, the Moche built two gigantic hill complexes of temples, palaces, courtyards, administrative buildings, and cities of the dead: the Place of the Sun, the Huaca del Sol, and the Place of the Moon, the Huaca de la Luna. Their craftsmen produced 143 million adobe bricks for these buildings, each stamped with the symbol of its maker.7

As the Moche conquered their way into the surrounding hills and valleys, they built a grid of wide, well-designed roads and put into place a sophisticated system of communication: relay runners traveled the roads, carrying messages marked with cryptic symbols on lima beans. At its height, the Place of the Sun and the Place of the Moon lorded it over fifteen thousand square miles of territory. Vast irrigation canals, some running nearly a hundred miles through the Moche state, provided the growing villages with water. Figurines and paintings preserve the likenesses of the Moche kings and noblemen, but we know no names.8

By the twelfth century, both the Moche and the Nazca were long gone. The Nazca were brought low by a drought that probably dried up even the underground rivers of the Atacama Desert, at least for a time. The uninhabitable desert preserved the mysterious Nazca glyphs in the sand for centuries. In the rain shadow, no water fell to wash the lines away.

Farther to the north, the Moche suffered from the double blows of alternating drought and flood. The ruins in their valley reveal that crop-killing dryness alternated with torrential downpours caused by more and more frequent El Niño events: warm currents that raise the surface temperature along the coast and produce strong, disruptive thunderstorms. Floods and mudslides ravaged the Moche valley. Winds and tides drove coastal dunes farther and farther inland, spreading sterile sand across fertile fields.9

At the height of the floods and storms, the Moche tried to appease whatever deities governed the sky and winds. Three children, sacrificed together, are buried in a ceremonial plaza at the Place of the Moon, at the edge of a drastic mudslide. More sacrificial victims, buried in at least two different ceremonies, lie above and beside them. But the bloodshed did not stop the violent weather, or halt the slow and eventual collapse of the Moche empire. The sands covered the cities on the outskirts. The irrigation canals, blocked by mud and cracked by earthquakes, were abandoned; and, like the Nazca, the Moche faded away.10

The peoples who succeeded them, some time later, were known as the Chimu. They built their towns partly on top of Moche ruins and did not try to spread their empire over nearly as great an area. The smaller kingdom survived into the fifteenth century, long enough to leave an oral history behind it; later Spanish historians, recording the stories they had heard from the conquered Chimu, tell of a bearded man named Tacaynamo who arrived on the South American coast from the sea. He beached his balsa wood raft and settled in the old Moche land. His son and his grandson conquered more and more of the nearby river valleys and established a royal dynasty.11

By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Chimu capital, Chan Chan, covered some nine square miles and was home to perhaps thirty thousand people. This was a fairly sparse population, for such a large city (the ancient Central American city of Teotihuacan had occupied about the same area and had over two hundred thousand inhabitants), and ruins suggest that Chan Chan was more a center for pilgrimage than an actual living city.12

The Chimu were still flourishing when, right around the year 1200, an unimportant tribe called the Inca settled on their southern border. They began to build tiny scattered villages on the rocky sides of the central Andes. Even the most prosperous of these villages, known as Cuzco, was a shabby agricultural outpost, occupied by llama herders and farmers scratching out a living in cold high-altitude fields.13

Later, the Inca would claim that their first king began to rule in Cuzco at this time. His name in legend was Manco Capac; he was the oldest of eight siblings who (in the way of mythical founders) “had no father or mother.” Instead, the eight brothers and sisters emerged from a hill covered with gold, and immediately embarked on conquest: “Let us seek out fertile lands,” they said to each other, “and where we find them, let us subjugate the people who are there, and take their lands, and wage war on all those who do not receive us as lords.”14

The truth behind the story lies in the Inca will to conquer: they had taken the site of Cuzco away from its original inhabitants. The conquest had also been savage: Manco Capac and his family tore the unfortunate villagers into pieces, ate their hearts and lungs, ripped pregnant women open. The natives of the Cuzco valley, the stories conclude, “were utterly destroyed.”15

For the next two centuries, the Inca would remain in the valley they had conquered. But the seizing of Cuzco was only the first act in their history. The second act would more than match the first for bloodshed.


*See Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, pp. 574–582.

*Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Andes, has an elevation of 22,841 feet. It is the second-highest mountain among the “Seven Summits,” the nickname for the highest elevations on the seven continents; among the Seven Summits, only Everest (29,029 feet) is higher. Over a hundred peaks in the Himalaya range are taller than Aconcagua, but the Andean mountain is the highest summit outside Asia.

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