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.
By 1530, not only the Aztecs but dozens of ether Mesoamerican kingdoms large and small had crumbled in the face of the newcomers. More than 3,000 years of indigenous civilisation disintegrated within a few generations, replaced by totally alien cultural traditions. Few civilisations in history have come to such an abrupt full stop, which prompts a fascinating question: what would have happened if the conquistadors had not arrived, if these remarkable, complex societies had continued to flourish and evolve in isolation? Some telling clues from prehistory provide at least a partial answer.
By sixteenth-century standards, Aztec civilisation was big business, an empire ruled by a tiny nobility that controlled the destinies of more than 5 million people. The boundaries of the empire extended from northern Mexico into Guatemala, from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific Ocean. Aztec domains encompassed mountainous highlands, harsh deserts, and lowland tropical rain forests. When Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors landed in Vera Cruz in 1519, the Aztec emperor Moctezuma presided over a kingdom at the height of its power and prosperity. He held his empire together with a network of alliances, by a ruthless system of tribute and tax collecting, by force, and through a compelling religious ideology. Everything in this uneasy kingdom flowed to the centre, to Moctezuma's capital, Tenochtitlan.
Tenochtitlan came as a shock to the conquistadors. Its vast market rivalled those of Seville and Constantinople. Diaz estimated that more than 20,000 people frequented it daily, 50,000 on market days. Canals linked the central plaza and market with outlying communities and the patchwork of swamp gardens that fed more than 600,000 people in the vicinity of the capital. Products from every corner of the Aztec empire flooded into Tenochtitlan – gold and silver, bright tropical feathers, capes and jade ornaments, and food stuffs of every kind. Brightly painted pyramids and temples overlooked the central precincts. Atop the highest, stood the bloodstained shrines of Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, where hundreds of human sacrificial victims climbed to their deaths each year; the blood from their ripped-out hearts nourishing the sun in the heavens.
The Temple of Huitzilopochtli stood, it is said, on the spot where the small hamlet, known as Tenochtitlan, 'the place of the prickly pear cactus', was founded in about the year 1525. Two centuries later, Tenochtitlan was the greatest city in the Americas and one of the largest in the world. Like Maya civilisation, the great city of Teotihuacan, and other Mesoamerican states, Aztec civilisation arose with dizzying speed. Within two centuries, the Aztec rose from complete obscurity to become rulers of the Mesoamerican world. Hardly surprisingly, the Aztec rulers were at pains to legitimise their ancestry. They promulgated a view of history that took their ancestry far back into the glorious past – the past of the warrior Toltecs and of Teotihuacan, where the Aztec world began:
It is said that when all was in darkness, when yet no sun had shone and no dawn had broken – it is said – the gods gathered themselves together and took counsel among themselves there in Teotihuacan. They spoke; they said among themselves:
'Come hither, O gods! Who will carry the burden? Who will take it upon himself to be the sun, to bring the dawn?'
The Aztecs believed that their world of the Fifth Sun began on the summit of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan. But it was a finite world, one destined to end in a swarm of earthquakes. There was a strong undercurrent of fatalism in Aztec thinking, which may have played a role in their rapid collapse at the hands of Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors.
In many respects, the Aztec rulers' official histories were correct. The economic, political, and religious institutions of both the Aztecs and their highland predecessors, the Toltecs, and the people of Teotihuacan, have much earlier roots. Their cultures and religious beliefs owe much to Maya and Olmec civilisation on the lowlands as well as to earlier societies on the highlands. What is remarkable, however, is the extreme volatility of all these societies. There is a cyclical pattern to native American civilisations, repeated in many areas, not only on the highlands and lowlands of Mesoamerica, but in the Andes as well.
A case in point is the Maya civilisation of the tropical lowlands, whose political history ranks among the most volatile of pre-industrial states. For centuries, centres like Copan, Palenque, and Tikal competed ferociously with one another, as the focus of economic and political power shifted from one city-state to another. These were small-scale kingdoms, ruled by competitive lords, unified only by common religious beliefs and a symbolic world so powerful that every ceremonial centre, however modest, was a replica of the spiritual world.
The Aztecs lived in a similarly volatile world, but on a larger scale. Their empire extended from coast to coast, encompassing every kind of environment imaginable. Moctezuma and his predecessors presided over an empire that was an uneasy patchwork of conquests and alliances, held together by harsh tribute assessments and centralised government. They used all the devices open to despots to maintain their hold on power. In 1487, for example, the tlatoani (ruler) Ahuitzotl dedicated the Temple of Huitzilopochtli at ceremonies attended by every subject leader in his domains. Hundreds died on Tenochtitlan's sacrificial altars. Ahuitzotl showed 'his grandeur to all the nations, the magnificence of the empire and the courage of his people' according to Diego Duran. His vassals watched as tribute from all corners of his domains was paraded before them. 'They saw that the Aztecs were masters of the entire world'.
By 1519, the empire was in trouble, although the panoply of Aztec rule glittered brightly on the surface. Tenochtitlan and its gods fed on conquest, more conquest, and still more conquest. The Aztec rulers were obsessed with prestige, appeasement of the gods, and military prowess. They were locked into a vicious cycle that forced them to expand and conquer simply to obtain more victims and tribute. By the time Moctezuma ascended the throne in 1502, the empire was over-extended and the god Huitzilopochtli in desperate need of a more temperate diet.
Part of the problem was the duality of Aztec beliefs, which combined ardent militarism with profound humanistic beliefs. Thousands of young warriors died to nourish the Sun God as he shone over Cemanahauc, the world. At the same time, Aztec wise men, living in the shadow of the great symbol of Mexican wisdom, the Feathered Serpent god Quetzalcoatl, puzzled over the meaning of life, over the fragile quality of human existence. They concluded that life on earth was temporary, destined to end, in spite of constant human sacrifice. Truth was to be found in 'that place which lies beyond us, in the region of the dead and of the gods'.
Mexican historian Miguel Leon-Portilla believes Aztec wise men turned to what he calls 'flower and song', poetic inspiration that contained glimpses of the truth. 'To know the truth was to understand the hidden meanings of things, to have self-understanding. Aztec culture was one of metaphors and mathematical calculations, of ardent militarism opposed by a philosophical search for beauty, combined with more pacifist ideals. Such contrasting beliefs may have caused deep stress in the educated classes of Aztec society, especially when increasingly distant conquests made prisoners harder to acquire. Thus, the appearance of Cortes in the year One Reed, the year of Quetzalcoatl's predicted return, had a powerful effect on educated men schooled in a world of violence and deep humanism. Their fatalism may have played an important role in the collapse of Moctezuma's empire in the face of Spanish steel and fire. In the end, the wise men simply gave up. 'If, as you say, our gods are dead, it is better that you allow us to die too', said the last of the Aztec philosophers to the first Catholic friars to arrive among them.
On the surface, Aztec society was intensely militaristic, one where to die in battle or as a prisoner of war on the sacrificial altar was an ultimate privilege. This was the 'Flowery Death', the belief that a young warrior would then ride with the sun in the heavens. The Flowery Death was part of an elaborate network of beliefs that bound the people to their ruler, and to the gods. The Aztec state depended on conformity and conquest, on the anonymous labours of tens of thousands of people in the service of the gods, and of a tiny minority of privileged rulers and nobles. In this respect, it was no different from much earlier pre-industrial states in distant Mesopotamia, which also rose and declined with great rapidity as the authority of rulers waxed and waned.
By the late fifteenth century, the old strategies of conquest, tribute gathering, and punitive expeditions were running into trouble. Moctezuma's domains were so large that his armies could no longer campaign effectively at a distance, or feed themselves off the land. They lacked draught animals or wheeled carts, having to carry not only their weapons, hut their fd, on their backs. It was virtually impossible to maintain armies in the field for any length of time, or to mount sustained military campaigns far from base.
By all accounts, the Aztecs were haughty, ruthless imperialists. Their armies were harsh and their tribute demands rapacious. Delinquency resulted in much higher assessments and punitive expeditions. For all their harshness, Moctezuma and his predecessors were at the helm of a glittering empire that had gone out of control, beset by potential rebellion on every side. The sheer logistics of occupying and administering conquered lands were beyond a state without wheeled transport, beasts of burden, and horses.
Native Americans domesticated a truly astounding range of plants, not only maize, beans, and hundreds of varieties of potatoes, but a myriad of lesser crops too. They were among the most expert of farmers in the world in 1492. Today, these crops and others like amaranth, feed millions of people all over the world. But the Aztecs tamed only a handful of animals – the alpaca, the llama, the turkey, and the dog among them. All of them were relatively small, none of them capable of carrying heavy loads or pulling carts.
Without question, Native Americans would have domesticated such animals as wild cattle, horses, and sheep if they had flourished in their homeland. But they were victims of history. In about 9,000 BC, dozens of species of large and medium-sized Ice Age mammals vanished into extinction as a result of sudden climatic change. Some paleontologists believe that human predators were at least partly responsible for this mammalian holocaust. Therein lies one of the great controversies of the American past. Among the animals that vanished were both camelids and equids, which, much later, might conceivably have been domesticated as successfully as the alpaca and llama in the Andes. The future course of American history was shaped by an event that took place 11,000 years ago.
Like all pre-industrial leaders, Aztec rulers presided over states supported by the labour of human hands. In Egypt and Mesopotamia, human labour engaged in mundane tasks like irrigation, agriculture and mining, small building, bricklaying and unskilled labour on elaborate public works. Long before 5,000 BC, the Sumerians and Ancient Egyptians had oxen and asses to carry loads, wheeled carts and large sailing ships that enabled them to transport not only commodities but people, even armies, over long distances much faster than on foot. These innovations released trade from the limitations imposed by human backs, allowed well organised caravans to cross deserts and link communities near and far. By 1,500 BC, the eastern Mediterranean civilisations were part of a much larger economic system based on coasting vessels and caravans. The same transportation systems allowed. neighbouring states to engage in constant diplomacy and armies to campaign far beyond the confines of Mesopotamia or the Nile Valley.
The domestication of the horse on the Eurasian steppes by 4,200 BC had an even more dramatic effect on the course of Near Eastern civilisation. Horse-drawn chariots revolutionised military tactics and enhanced the ability of kings and pharaohs to impose their authority many miles from their capitals. Wheeled carts and chariots needed tracks and roads, formal routes down which the business of governments and merchants flowed. The administration of the state was still highly centralised, still relatively inefficient. But the mechanisms of economic and political control, the potential for conquest and coercion as well as economic dependency, were greatly enhanced. The Mesoamericans did not have these advantages.
Had Cortes not arrived at the gates of Tenochtitlan, we can be certain that the Aztec empire would have collapsed into its constituent parts within a relatively short time. There were serious dissensions within Moctezuma's domains, so much so that Cortes found it easy to recruit powerful Aztec allies to his cause, leaders who saw political advantage in toppling their hated masters. Over-extended, operating militarily at the outer limits of logistics based on human backs, and unable to impose its will, the empire would have collapsed rapidly, leaving a political vacuum throughout Mesoamerica.
In time, the cycle would have repeated itself. Another local kingdom, probably on the highlands, would have risen to prominence through military conquest and coercion, by shrewd trading and diplomatic manoeuvring, just as the Aztec had done. Again, it would have been a tribute state, with strongly centralised government and an elaborate ideology, modified from earlier religious practices. In due course this empire would have faced the same administrative and logistical problems as its predecessor. It, too, would have disintegrated, only for the cycle of conquest and collapse to repeat itself again.
Without the ability to communicate effectively over long distances and varied terrain, it is difficult to see how any Mesoamerican civilisation, however sophisticated, would have achieved a higher level of integration, or greater political stability. Almost certainly, the long-term cycles of sudden prominence and collapse would have continued indefinitely, not because the Mesoamericans were incapable of governing larger polities, but simply because they lacked the domesticated animals to free them from the limitations of human porters and the smaller scale labours of human hands.
There were other constraints, too. At the Conquest, both Mesoamericans and Andeans used gold, copper, and silver for ornamental purposes. These precious metals were highly prestigious, the perquisites of rulers and nobles. Ornaments in precious metal were badges of rank and social status. The native Americans had not yet mastered the arts of alloying bronze with lead or tin to make tough, utilitarian agricultural implements and weapons. They lacked the metal-tipped and for ploughing or the slashing sword, so devastating in hand-to-hand combat. The implements of tillage were adequate for slash-and-burn agriculture, for turning over light soils or cultivating and weeding swamp gardens. They were not the tools for intensive dry agriculture, which would enable people living away from irrigable environments to farm on a large scale. Away from lakesides in the Basin of Mexico or the Mayan swamplands, the Mesoameriean farmer was a victim of the carrying capacity of the land, which, when cultivated with slash-and-burn techniques, rarely supported more than small village communities.
It is in the Maya lowlands that the environmental realities of Mesoamerican civilisation surround one on every side. Until recently, conventional wisdom had it that Maya civilisation was based on the labour of slash-and-burn village farmers, whose efforts supported large centres like Tikal – while the population continued to live in the outlying countryside. Then hi-tech science in the form of infra-red radar showed that the Maya had cultivated thousands of acres of swamp gardens. Using the simplest of technology, they carved out artificial landscapes in the midst of swampland, using dugout canoes to irrigate the lands and to take produce to market. These remarkable agricultural schemes gave the Maya the ability to support thousands of non-farmers and dense urban populations with their elaborate panoplies of lords, priests, and nobles.
For centuries, the lords of the southern lowlands waxed prosperous on the labours of their subjects. As local populations rose, more and more swampland was taken under cultivation. As the centuries went on, competition between neighbouring polities sharpened. Competing Maya lords engaged in frenzied diplomacy and constant war, placing ever harsher demands on their subjects, overstressing both society and the environment at every turn. Then Maya society simply collapsed under the weight of its overburden, as crop yields fell and the village farmer was unable to support his lords.
The factors that led to the spectacular Maya collapse of AD 900 in the southern lowlands are still little understood, but a combination of ecological collapse and social stress seems to have caused the structure of Maya society to crumble within a few generations. During the heyday of southern lowland civilisation, a sophisticated, unspoken contract linked the Maya lords with their subjects. The rulers were shaman kings, individuals capable of communicating with the spiritual world and with the gods, of protecting the living and interceding with the ancestors. The people supported them with food and labour in return. In time, however, the lords became arrogant, placing ever higher demands on their subjects. When the environmental crisis came and crop yields fell, the people lost faith in their rulers. They dispersed into smaller communities and villages, abandoning the great centres. The gravity of Maya power moved into the northern Yucatan, to survive in a more cosmopolitan form untilthe arrival of the Spaniards in 1517.
The Aztec rulers presided over a vast domain of conquered states and allied kingdoms. In contrast, the Maya lived in a patchwork of city-states, ruled by highly competitive lords. For centuries, the pattern of sudden rise and dramatic collapse saw the reins of political and economic power flow from one centre to the next. In AD 378, for example, Great-Jaguar-Paw of Tikal conquered neighbouring Uaxactun, then expanded his domains through conquest, long-distance trade, and judicious political marriages. At the height of its powers in the fifth century, Tikal presided over a domain covering 965 square miles. The great city declined rapidly when its neighbours opposed her, for her lords lacked the resources to maintain a standing army. These cycles of political volatility continued in the northern lowlands right up to the Spanish Conquest, as Chichen Itza, then Mayapan rose to prominence.
There are interesting parallels between Maya and early Mesopotamian civilisation. The Sumerians were governed by independent rulers with exceptional ritual powers. They presided over independent kingdoms in a constant state of change and interaction. In both Mesopotamia and the Maya lowlands, larger political units forged by rulers of exceptional ability soon disintegrated into their constituent parts. The small, short-lived local kingdoms were linked to others on the lowlands and highlands by common religious beliefs, alliances, and marriage ties. Despite these ties, however, the realities of social and economic instability militated against the long-term stability of any Maya city-state. Their problems were exactly the same as those as beset the much larger Aztec empire in later centuries. The central institution of both lbfaya and Aztec civilization was kingship, for it was the concept that unified society as a whole. This institution was insufficient to sustain anything larger thana local city-state.
What would have happened if the Aztecs and Maya had owned domesticated asses, cattle, and horses, wheeled vehicles, and ocean-going sailing ships? Would great Mesoamerican empires have extended across the northern Mexican deserts into the south-west? Would seagoing trade routes have linked Tenochtitlan with the Gulf Coast and the powerful chiefdoms of south-eastern North America? We know that balsa rafts from Andean states brought precious metals to Mesoamerica, that there were at least tenuous contacts between the Andes and central America Would wheeled carts and sailing ships have forged a vast native American empire stretching from the highland Andes to Mexico? Given the brilliance and complexity of fifteenth-century American civilisation, one can certainly assume that the future course of local history would have been different. And one can certainly be sure that Cortes and his ragtag adventurers would have been lucky to escape with their lives.
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