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If Columbus Had Not Called

What would have happened if the native Americans had been left to their own devices? Brian Fagan probes the rise and fall of Aztec and Mayan society and proffers some intriguing observations.

'These great towns... and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision... Indeed some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream'. Conquistador Bernal Diaz wrote his description of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, when an old man in his eighties. So vivid were the memories left by his first glimpse of Aztec civilisation that it is as if he had gazed at the gleaming city only yesterday. Diaz relished an old man's memories, then added: 'Today all that I then saw overthrown and destroyed'.

'Nothing is left standing...' Diaz wrote the literal truth. Today, the architectural, cultural, and material legacy of the Aztecs lies beneath the streets of modern Mexico City. Thousands of Aztecs perished from exotic diseases, others from harsh treatment and the rigours of forced labour. Zealous friars burned priceless codices and did all they could to destroy all traces of the old order. 'Know ye that we are much busied... to convert the infidel... five hundred temples razed to the ground', reported Bishop Zumarraga a decade after the Conquest.

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