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The History of Ancient America. Mayan, Aztec, and Inca civilizations.


Cultural areas of America

A jar with a jaguar in it. Mochica culture (Peru). I thousand n. e

A jar with a jaguar in it. Mochica culture (Peru). I thousand n. e

By the time Spanish ships arrived off the eastern coast of the New World, this vast continent, including the islands of the West Indies, was inhabited by many Native American tribes and peoples at various levels of development. Most of them were hunters, fishermen, gatherers, or primitive farmers; only in two relatively small areas of the western hemisphere — Mesoamerica and the Andes — did the Spaniards encounter highly developed Native American civilizations. On their territory, the highest cultural achievements of pre-Columbian America were born. By the time of its “discovery”, in 1492, up to 2/z of the entire population of the continent lived there, although these areas were only 6.2% of the total area in terms of their size. It was here that the centers of origin of American agriculture were located, and at the turn of our era, original civilizations of the ancestors of the Nahua, Maya, Zapotec, Quechua, Aymara, etc. arise.

In the scientific literature, this area is called Middle America or the Zone of High Civilizations. It is divided into three districts:

  • northern — Mesoamerica
  • South-Andean region (Bolivia-Peru)
  • intermediate area between them (southern Central America, Colombia, Ecuador)

In the intermediate zone, the development of local peoples, although it has reached a significant degree, has not yet risen to the heights of statehood and civilization. The arrival of the European conquerors interrupted any independent development of the aboriginal population of these regions. Only now, thanks to the work of several generations of archaeologists, are we finally beginning to understand how rich and vivid the history of pre-Columbian America was.

Historical processes

The New World is also a unique historical laboratory, since the development of local culture generally took place independently, starting from the Late Paleolithic era (30-20 thousand years ago) – the time of settlement of the continent from Northeast Asia through the Bering Strait and Alaska-and until it was put an end to the invasion of European invaders. Thus, in the New World, almost all the main stages of the ancient history of mankind can be traced: from the primitive mammoth hunters to the builders of the first city centers of early class states and civilizations. A simple comparison of the pre-Columbian path traversed by the indigenous population of America with the milestones of the Old World’s history provides an extraordinary amount for identifying general historical patterns.

The term “discovery of America” by Columbus, which is often found in historical works of both domestic and foreign authors, also requires some clarification. It has been rightly pointed out more than once that this term is actually incorrect, since before Columbus, the coast of the New World was reached from the east by the Romans, Vikings, etc., and from the west by the Polynesians, Chinese, Japanese, etc. It should also be taken into account that this process of interaction and interchange of two cultures was not one — sided. For Europe, the discovery of America had enormous political, economic, and intellectual consequences.

Cultural contacts of the New and Old World

Jade anthropomorphic mask. The "Olmec" culture. 1 thousand BC

Jade anthropomorphic mask. The “Olmec” culture. 1 thousand BC

So, at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries, two worlds met in the western hemisphere that were completely different from each other and stood at different stages of cultural and historical development: while the most advanced Indian civilizations in the Old World corresponded in their level to the most archaic forms of the states of the Ancient East, Europe had already passed Nevertheless, Native Americans had a lot to share with the newcomers from their cultural achievements accumulated over millennia of independent development. Thanks to them, potatoes, tobacco, beans, tomatoes, corn, cocoa, as well as quinine, rubber, etc.have become firmly established in the everyday life of all mankind. This is also evidenced by the abundance of words taken from Indian languages: geographical names, plant names that Europeans first met in America, the names of animals, fish, birds, objects perceived by the Indians.

Indian civilizations of the New World managed to reach their apogee without the most important technical achievements of antiquity, which included the smelting of iron and steel, the breeding of domestic animals (especially draft and pack animals), wheeled transport, the potter’s wheel, plow farming, the arch in architecture, etc. In the Andean region, the processing of non-ferrous metals, gold and silver was carried out as early as the second millennium BC, and by the time of the arrival of Europeans, the Incas widely used in their practice not only bronze weapons, but also bronze tools. However, in Mesoamerica, metals (except iron) appeared already at the end of the civilizations of the classical period (I millennium AD) and were used mainly for the manufacture of jewelry and religious objects.


A vessel with a polychrome fresco painting. Teotihuacan culture. I millennium AD

A vessel with a polychrome fresco painting. Teotihuacan culture. I millennium AD

The rapid progress of archaeological research in the most important centers of Mid-America, combined with the efforts of linguists, ethnographers, historians, anthropologists, etc. It allows us now, even in the most general form, to trace the main stages of the development of an ancient civilization in the New World, to identify its characteristic features and features.

We will, of course, only talk about the most prominent Indian civilizations of Mesoamerica and the Andes.

A special cultural and geographical area-Mesoamerica (or Mesoamerica) — is the northern region of the zone of highly developed civilization of the New World and includes Central and Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize (ex. Brit. Honduras), western regions of El Salvador and Honduras. In this area, which is characterized by a variety of natural conditions and a diverse ethnic composition, by the end of the first millennium BC, there was a transition from a primitive communal system to an early class state, which immediately put the local Indians among the most developed peoples of Ancient America. During the more than fifteen hundred years that separate the emergence of civilization from the Spanish conquest, the borders of Mesoamerica underwent significant changes. In general, the era of civilization within this cultural and geographical area can be divided into two periods:

  • early, or classical (turn of AD-IX century AD)
  • late or postclassic (X-XVI centuries AD)

In the first millennium AD, the high culture zone of Mesoamerica did not include Western and Northwestern Mexico. The northern border of the civilization then ran along the Lerma River and coincided with the northern borders of the Teotihuacan culture. The southern borders of Mesoamerica were also the southern border of the Maya civilization, which ran along the Ulua River in Western Honduras and the Lempa River in Western El Salvador. In the postclassic period, the western (Tarascan state) and part of the northern (Zacatecas, Casas Grandes) regions of Mexico are also part of Mesoamerica, thereby significantly expanding its total territory.

“The Olmec problem»

A giant stone head wearing a helmet. The "Olmec" culture. La Venta (Tabasco, Mexico). I millennium BC

A giant stone head wearing a helmet. The “Olmec” culture. La Venta (Tabasco, Mexico). I millennium BC

Among the most significant Mesoamerican cultures of the classical period are Teotihuacan (Central Mexico) and Mayan (southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, western El Salvador and Honduras). But first, a few words about the” first civilization ” of Mesoamerica-the “Olmec” culture on the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico (Tabasco, Veracruz). The population of these regions at the beginning of the first millennium BC (800-400 BC). At that time, the first “ritual centers” appeared in La Venta, San Lorenzo and Tres Zapotes, pyramids were built from adobe (adobe) and clay, and carved stone monuments with mainly mythological and religious themes were installed.

Among the latter, giant stone anthropomorphic heads in helmets stand out, sometimes weighing up to 20 tons. The “Olmec” style of art is characterized by low-relief basalt and jade carvings. The main motif of it was the figure of a crying chubby child with the features of a jaguar attached to it. These” jaguar babies “were decorated with elegant jade amulets, massive Celtic axes (the Olmecs had a cult of the stone axe as a symbol of fertility), and giant basalt steles. Another notable feature of the “Olmec” culture was the following ritual: in deep pits in the central squares of settlements, caches were arranged with offerings to the gods in the form of hewn blocks of jade and serpentine, Celtic axes and statuettes made of the same materials, etc., with a total weight of tens of centners. These materials were delivered to the” Olmec ” centers from far away: for example, to La Venta-from a distance of 160 and even 500 km. Excavations at another” Olmec “village, San Lorenzo, also revealed giant heads and rows of ritually buried monumental sculptures in a purely “Olmec” style.

Pyramids of the Moon and Sun. Teotihuacan. Beginning of the first millennium AD.

Pyramids of the Moon and Sun. Teotihuacan. Beginning of the first millennium AD.

According to a series of radiocarbon dates, this refers to 1200-900 BC. It is on the basis of the above data that the hypothesis was formulated that the “Olmecs” were the creators of the earliest civilization of Mesoamerica (1200-900 BC) and all the other highly developed cultures of Mesoamerica — Zapotec, Teotihuacan, Maya, etc. – are already descended from it. At the same time, today we have to say that the “Olmec” problem is still very far from being solved. We do not know about the ethnicity of the native speakers of this culture (the term “Olmec” is borrowed from the name of those ethnic groups that settled on the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico on the eve of the conquest). There is no clarity about the main stages of the development of the Olmec culture, the exact chronology and material features of these stages. The general territory of distribution of this culture and its socio-political organization are also unknown.

In our opinion, the “Olmec” culture with all its manifestations reflects a long path of development: from the end of the second millennium BC to the middle-last centuries of the first millennium BC. It can be assumed that” ritual centers ” with monumental sculpture appear in Veracruz and Tabasco approximately in the first half of the first millennium BC (perhaps even in 800 BC), as in La Venta. But everything that is represented there archaeologically in 800-400 B.C. is quite consistent with the level of “chiefdoms”, “tribal unions”, i.e., the final stage of the primitive communal era. It is significant that the first known examples of writing and calendar appear on “Olmec” monuments only from the first century BC (stele C in Tres Zapotes, etc.). On the other hand, the same “ritual centers” – with pyramids, monuments and calendar hieroglyphic inscriptions-are represented in Oaxaca from the VII-VI centuries BC, and without inscriptions-in mountainous Guatemala, among the Mayan ancestors, at least from the middle of the first millennium BC. Thus, the question of the” ancestral culture ” that gave rise to all the others now disappears for Mesoamerica: apparently, there was a parallel development in several key areas at once-the valley of Mexico, the valley of Oaxaca, mountainous Guatemala, the Maya plains, etc.


50 km north-east of Mexico City, where high mountain ranges part to form a large and fertile valley (this is a branch of the valley of Mexico), there are the ruins of Teotihuacan-in the past, the capital of the oldest civilization in Central Mexico, an important cultural, political, administrative, economic and religious center not only of this region, but of the entire Mesoamerica in the first millennium AD.

Mask of the deity in the form of a bat. Jade. Zapotec culture. Monte Alban. I millennium AD

Mask of the deity in the form of a bat. Jade. Zapotec culture. Monte Alban. I millennium AD

According to scientists, by 600 AD — the time of its highest heyday-the total territory of the city was over 18 square kilometers, and the population – from 60 to 120 thousand people. The main ritual and administrative core of Teotihuacan, which was already established by the first century A.D., was carefully planned around two broad streets-axes that intersect at right angles and are oriented around the countries of the world: from north to south Avenue Road of the Dead is over 5 km long, and from west to east — nameless Avenue up to 4 km long.

Interestingly, at the northern end of the Road of the Dead is a giant array of the Pyramid of the Moon (height 42 m), built of mud bricks and lined with uncut volcanic stone. In its design and appearance, it is an exact copy of its older sister Pyramid of the Sun, located on the left side of the avenue and is a grandiose five-tiered structure with a flat top, on which the temple once stood. The height of the colossus is 64.5 m, the length of the sides of the base is 211, 207, 217 and 209 m, the total volume is 993 thousand cubic meters. It is assumed that the construction of the pyramid required the work of at least 20 thousand people for 20-30 years.

At the intersection with Cross Avenue, the Road of the Dead ends in a vast complex of buildings built on one giant low platform and united under the common name “Ciudadela”, which means”citadel” in Spanish. One of the main researchers of the city, R. Millon (USA), believes that this is the “tecpan” (Aztec palace) of the ruler of Teotihuacan. In this ensemble of elegant buildings, a temple stands out in honor of the god Quetzalcoatl-the Feathered Serpent, the patron saint of culture and knowledge, the god of air and wind, one of the main deities of the local pantheon. The temple building itself is completely destroyed, but its pyramidal base, consisting of six gradually decreasing stone platforms placed on top of each other, is perfectly preserved. The facade of the pyramid and the balustrade of the grand staircase are decorated with sculptural heads of Quetzalcoatl himself and the god of water and rain Tlaloc in the form of a butterfly. At the same time, the teeth of the Feathered Snake’s heads were painted with white paint, and the eyes of butterflies had false pupils made of obsidian disks.

Gold and turquoise jewelry. Late Zapotec (Mixtec) culture. Yanhuitlan. XII century AD

Gold and turquoise jewelry. Late Zapotec (Mixtec) culture. Yanhuitlan. XII century AD

To the west of Ciudadela is an extensive complex of buildings (approximately 400×600 m). which archaeologists consider as the main city market. Along Teotihuacan’s main avenue, the Road of the Dead, are the ruins of dozens of lush temple and palace structures. By now, some of them have been excavated and reconstructed, so that anyone can get a general idea of their architecture and painting. For example, the Quetzalpapalotl Palace or the Palace of the Feathered Snail (some of the rooms of the palace have square stone columns with low-relief images of a Feathered Snail). The palace is an extensive complex of residential, public and storage spaces grouped around courtyards.

The walls of buildings are made of adobe or stone, plastered and often either painted in some bright color, or (especially inside) have colorful frescoes. The most outstanding examples of Teotihuacan fresco painting are also displayed in the Temple of Agriculture, in the groups of Tetitla, Atetelco, Sacuala and Tepantitla. They depict people (representatives of the elite and priests), gods and animals (eagles, jaguars, etc.). A peculiar feature of local culture is also anthropomorphic (apparently portrait) masks made of stone and clay (in the latter case — with multi-color coloring). In the III-VII centuries AD. in Teotihuacan, the original style of ceramics (cylindrical vessels-vases on legs and without them with frescoes or carved ornaments and veneers) and terracotta figurines is widely used.

The architecture of the city is dominated by buildings on pyramidal bases of various heights, while the design of the latter is characterized by a combination of vertical and inclined surfaces (the style of a vertical “panel and slope”).

A fragment from the pictorial "Codex Nuttal". The Mixtec culture. XIII-XV centuries AD

A fragment from the pictorial “Codex Nuttal”. The Mixtec culture. XIII-XV centuries AD

The ritual and administrative center of Teotihuacan described above was surrounded on all sides by residential areas in the form of clusters of block houses (up to 60 m long), planned according to the countries of the world along a regular network of narrow straight streets. Each block consisted of residential, utility, and utility rooms arranged around rectangular courtyards that served, apparently, as a habitat for a group of related families. These are one-story, flat-roofed buildings made of mud bricks, stone, and wood. They are usually concentrated in larger units — “quarters” (Spanish for “neighborhoods”). barrio), and those in turn — in four large “districts”.

Teotihuacan was the largest center of craft and trade in Mesoamerica. Archaeologists have found in the city up to 500 craft workshops (including 300 workshops for processing obsidian), quarters of foreign merchants and “diplomats” from Oaxaca (Zapotec culture) and from the Maya territory. The products of Teotihuacan masters are found in the first millennium AD from Northern Mexico to Costa Rica. There is no doubt that the cultural, economic (and probably political) influence of the city at its peak extended to much of Mesoamerica.

And suddenly, at the end of the seventh century AD, a huge city suddenly dies, destroyed by the flames of a giant fire. The causes of this disaster are still unclear. However, it should be recalled that Teotihuacan was the northern outpost of the Mesoamerican civilization zone in the first millennium AD. It directly bordered the motley and turbulent world of the barbarian tribes of Northern Mexico. Among them we find both settled farmers and wandering tribes of hunters and gatherers. Teotihuacan, like the ancient agricultural civilizations of Central Asia, India, and the Fore-East, constantly felt the pressure of these warlike tribes on its northern border. Under certain circumstances, one of the enemy’s campaigns into the interior of the country apparently ended with the capture and destruction of Teotihuacan itself. After this terrible defeat, the city never recovered, and new, more powerful forces are coming to the forefront of Mesoamerican history — the city-states of Ascapotzalco, Cholula, Xochicalco and later, from the IX century AD, the Toltec state.

Maya civilization of the classical period (I-IX centuries AD)

Geography and history of the Maya

"Temple of Inscriptions". Mayan culture. Palenque. VIII century AD

“Temple of Inscriptions”. Mayan culture. Palenque. VIII century AD

The Maya, as if defying fate, settled for a long time in the inhospitable Central American jungle, building their white-stone cities there. Fifteen centuries before Columbus, they invented an accurate solar calendar and created the only developed hieroglyphic script in America, used the concept of zero in mathematics, and confidently predicted solar and lunar eclipses. Already in the first centuries of our era, they achieved amazing perfection in architecture, sculpture and painting.

But the Maya did not know metals, the plow, wheeled carts, domestic animals, or the potter’s wheel. In fact, based on their tool kit alone, they were still Stone Age people. The origin of the Mayan culture is shrouded in mystery. All we know is that the first “classical” Maya civilization dates back to the turn of our era and is associated with the forested plains of southern Mexico and northern Guatemala. For many centuries, there were populous states and cities. But in the IX-X centuries, the period of prosperity ended with a sudden and severe catastrophe. Cities in the south of the country were abandoned, the population plummeted, and soon the tropical vegetation covered the monuments of former greatness with its green carpet.

After the tenth century, the development of the Maya culture, although already somewhat modified by the influence of foreign invaders-the Toltecs, who came from Central Mexico and the Gulf Coast — continued in the north — on the Yucatan Peninsula — and in the south-in the mountains of Guatemala. The Spaniards found there more than two dozen small constantly warring Indian states, each of which had its own dynasty of rulers. By the beginning of the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. The Mayans occupied a vast and diverse territory that included the present-day Mexican states of Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo, as well as all of Guatemala, Belize, and western El Salvador and Honduras.

The boundaries of the Maya region in the first millennium AD, apparently, more or less coincided with those mentioned above. Currently, most scientists identify three major cultural and geographical areas or zones within this territory:

  • Northern (Yucatan Peninsula)
  • Central (Northern Guatemala, Belize, Tabasco and Chiapas in Mexico)
  • South (mountain Guatemala)

The beginning of the classical period in the low — lying forest areas of the Maya was marked by the emergence of such new cultural features as hieroglyphic writing (inscriptions on reliefs, stelae, lintels, ceramic paintings and frescoes, small plastic objects), calendar dates for the Maya era (the so-called Long Count-the number of years that have elapsed from the mythical date 3113 BC), monumental stone architecture with a stepped “false” vault, the cult of early stelae and altars, ceramics and terracotta figurines, original wall paintings.


Dresden hieroglyphic manuscript. A fragment. Mayan culture. XII century AD

Dresden hieroglyphic manuscript. A fragment. Mayan culture. XII century AD

Architecture in the central part of any major Mayan city of the first millennium AD is represented by pyramidal hills and platforms of various sizes and heights. Inside, they are usually constructed from a mixture of earth and crushed stone and faced outside with slabs of hewn stone held together with lime mortar. On their flat tops there are stone buildings: small buildings of one or three rooms on high tower-like pyramids-bases (the height of some of these pyramid-towers, such as in Tikal, reaches 60 m). These are probably temples. And long multi-room ensembles on low platforms framing open courtyards are most likely residences of nobles or palaces, since the ceilings of these buildings are usually made in the form of a stepped vault, their walls are very massive, and the internal rooms are relatively narrow and small in size. The only source of light in the rooms were narrow doorways, so the interior of the surviving temples and palaces is cool and semi-dark. At the end of the classical period, the Maya developed ritual ball courts — the third type of major monumental buildings in local cities. The basic unit of planning in Mayan cities was rectangular paved squares surrounded by monumental buildings. Very often, the most important ritual and administrative buildings were located on natural or artificially created elevations — “acropolises” (Piedras Negras, Copan, Tikal, etc.).

Ordinary dwellings were built of wood and clay under roofs of dried palm leaves and were probably similar to the huts of the Maya Indians of the XVI-XX centuries, described by historians and ethnographers. In the classical period, as well as later, all residential buildings stood on low (1-1. 5 m) platforms lined with stone. A detached house is a rare Mayan phenomenon. Usually residential and utility rooms form groups of 2-5 buildings located around an open courtyard (patio) of rectangular shape. This is the residence of a large patrilocal family. Residential “patio groups” tend to be grouped into larger units-like a city “block” or part of it.

Monumental sculpture and painting

In the VI-IX centuries, the Maya achieved the highest success in the development of various types of non-composite art, especially in monumental sculpture and painting. The sculptural schools of Palenque, Copan, Yaxchilan, and Piedras Negras achieve at this time a special subtlety of modeling, harmony of composition, and naturalness in the transfer of depicted characters (rulers, priests, dignitaries, warriors, servants, and prisoners). Famous frescoes of Bonampaca (Chiapas, Mexico) dating back to the 8th century AD. They represent a whole historical narrative: complex rituals and ceremonies, scenes of a raid on foreign villages, the sacrifice of prisoners, a festival, dances and processions of dignitaries and nobles.

Thanks to the works of American (t. Proskuryakova, D. Kelly, G. Berlin, J. Kubler, etc.) and Soviet (Yu. V. Knorozov, R. V. Kinzhalov) researchers were able to convincingly prove that the monumental sculpture of the Maya of the first millennium AD-stelae, lintels, reliefs and panels (as well as hieroglyphic inscriptions on them) are memorial monuments in honor of the deeds of the Mayan rulers. They tell about the birth, accession to the throne, wars and conquests, dynastic marriages, ritual rituals and other important events in the life of the secular lords of almost two dozen city-states that existed, according to archaeology, in the Central Maya region in the first millennium AD.

The purpose of some pyramid temples in Mayan cities is also determined in a completely different way. If before they were considered sanctuaries of the most important gods of the pantheon, and the pyramid itself was only a high and monolithic stone pedestal for the temple, then recently, under the bases and in the thickness of a number of such pyramids, it was possible to find magnificent tombs of kings and members of ruling dynasties (the discovery of A. Rus in the Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque, etc.).

New in Mayan City Research

Ideas about the nature, structure, and functions of major Maya “centers” of the first millennium AD have also undergone significant changes in recent years. Extensive research by US archaeologists in Tikal, Tsibilchaltun, Etzna, Seibal, Bekan, and others. They revealed the presence of a significant and permanent population, handicraft production, imported products and many other features and characteristics characteristic of the ancient city in both the Old and New World.

Aztec pyramid with a temple. Santa Cecilia. XII-XV centuries AD

Aztec pyramid with a temple. Santa Cecilia. XII-XV centuries AD

A real sensation in Mayan studies was the discovery by American researcher Michael Ko of polychrome painted ceramics from the most magnificent burials of Mayan aristocrats and rulers of the first millennium AD. Comparing the plots presented on these clay vases with descriptions of the exploits of twin heroes in the underworld from the Mayan epic Kiche “Popol Vuh” (XVI century), the scientist drew attention to their partial coincidence. This allowed Ko to assume that the images and inscriptions on each vessel describe the death of the Mayan ruler, the long journey of his soul through the terrible labyrinths of the realm of the dead, overcoming various obstacles and the subsequent resurrection of the lord, who eventually turned into one of the heavenly gods. All the twists and turns of this dangerous journey completely repeated the myth of the adventures of the twin heroes in the underworld from the epic “Popol Vuh”. In addition, the American researcher found that the inscriptions or individual parts of them, represented on almost all painted polychrome vases of the VI-IX centuries AD, are often repeated, i.e. they have a standard character. The reading of these ” standard inscriptions “(the so-called renaissance formula) was successfully carried out by the Soviet scientist Yu. V. Knorozov. Thanks to this, we have now opened up a completely new, previously unknown world — the mythological ideas of the ancient Maya, their concept of life and death, religious views and much more. The Mayan civilization is a more detailed description.

The Aztec Civilization

State formation

Shaped ceramics. Mochica culture. Coast of Peru. I millennium AD

Shaped ceramics. Mochica culture. Coast of Peru. I millennium AD

After the death of Teotihuacan, Central Mexico for many decades becomes the scene of dramatic and turbulent events: more and more waves of warlike barbarian tribes” Chichimeca ” invade here from the north and northwest, sweeping away the remaining islands of Teotihuacan civilization in Ascapotzalco, Portesuelo, Cholula, etc. Finally, at the end of the 9th — beginning of the 10th century, as a result of the merger of these two streams — the alien (“Chichimeca”) and the local (Teotihuacan) – in the northeast of the region, a powerful Toltec state with its center in the city of Tule Tollan (Hidalgo, Mexico) appears.

But even this state formation proved to be short-lived. In 1160, the invasion of new groups of barbarians from the north overwhelmed Tollan and marked the beginning of another period of instability in the political history of Mesoamerica. Among the warlike newcomers were the Tenochi Aztecs (Astecs), a semi-barbaric tribe directed to seek a better life by the instructions of their tribal god Huitzilopochtli. According to legend, it was divine providence that predetermined the choice of the site for the construction of the future Aztec capital-Tenochtitlan in 1325: on the desert islands in the western part of the vast Lake Texcoco. At this time, several city-states were competing for leadership in the valley of Mexico, among which the more powerful Ascapotzalco and Culhuacan stood out. The Aztecs intervened in these intricacies of local politics, acting as mercenaries for the most powerful and successful masters.

Shaped ceramics. Mochica culture. Coast of Peru. I millennium AD

Shaped ceramics. Mochica culture. Coast of Peru. I millennium AD

In 1427, the Aztecs organized the “triple League” -an alliance of the city — states of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan (Tacuba) – and began to gradually conquer the neighboring regions. By the time the Spaniards arrived in the early sixteenth century. the so-called Aztec Empire covered a huge territory — about 200 thousand square kilometers – with a population of 5-6 million people. Its borders stretched from northern Mexico to Guatemala and from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf of Mexico.

The capital of the Aztecs is Tenochtitlan

The capital of the “empire” — Tenochtitlan-eventually turned into a huge city, the area of which was about 1200 hectares, and the number of inhabitants, according to various estimates, reached 120-300 thousand people. The island city was connected to the mainland by three large stone causeways, and there was also a fleet of canoe boats. Like Venice, Tenochtitlan was cut through by a regular network of canals and streets. The core of the city was formed by its ritual and administrative center: the “sacred site” — a 400 — meter-long walled square, inside which were the main city temples (“Templo Mayor” – the temple with the shrines of the gods Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, the temple of Quetzalcoatl, etc.), the homes of priests, schools, a playground for ritual ball games. Nearby were ensembles of magnificent palaces of Aztec rulers – “tlatoani”. According to eyewitnesses, the palace of Montezuma II (more precisely, Moctezuma) consisted of up to 300 rooms, had a large garden, a zoo, and baths.

Zotlotaya mask. Inca culture. XII-XV centuries.

Zotlotaya mask. Inca culture. XII-XV centuries.

Around the center were crowded residential areas, populated by merchants, artisans, farmers, officials, soldiers. In the huge Main Market and smaller quarter bazaars, local and imported products and wares were traded. The general impression of the magnificent Aztec capital is well conveyed by the words of an eyewitness and participant in the dramatic events of the conquest-soldier Bernal Diaz del Castillo from the Cortez detachment. Standing at the top of a high step pyramid, the conquistador gazed in amazement at the strange and dynamic picture of life in a huge pagan city: “And we saw a huge number of boats, some coming with various loads, others… with a variety of goods… All the houses of this great city… were in the water, and from house to house could only be reached by suspension bridges or by boat. And we saw… pagan temples and chapels resembling towers and fortresses, and they all shone white and caused admiration.”

The demise of the Empire

Tenochtitlan was captured by Cortes after a three-month siege and fierce fighting in 1521. And right on the ruins of the Aztec capital, from the stones of its palaces and temples, the Spaniards built a new city — Mexico City, the rapidly growing center of their colonial possessions in the New World. Over time, the remains of Aztec buildings were overlaid with multi-meter layers of modern life. Under these conditions, it is almost impossible to conduct systematic and extensive archaeological research of Aztec antiquities. Only occasionally, during the excavation work in the center of Mexico City, stone sculptures are born-the creations of ancient masters.

Therefore, a real sensation was the discovery of the late 70-80-ies of XX century. during the excavations of the Main Temple of the Aztecs – “Templo Mayor” – in the very center of Mexico City, on Zocalo Square, between the cathedral and the presidential palace. Now the shrines of the gods Huitzilopochtli (god of the sun and war, head of the Aztec pantheon) and Tlaloc (god of water and rain, patron of agriculture) have already been opened, remains of frescoes and stone sculpture have been discovered. Especially prominent are a round stone with a diameter of more than three meters with a low — relief image of the goddess Coyolshauhca-the sister of Huitzilopochtli, 53 deep hiding pits filled with ritual offerings (stone figures of gods, shells, corals, incense, ceramic vessels, necklaces, skulls of sacrificed people, etc.). The newly discovered materials (their total number exceeds several thousand) expanded the existing ideas about the Material Culture, religion, trade, economic and political ties of the Aztecs during their heyday. states in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

Civilizations of South America

What tribes and peoples inhabited Peru in ancient times? The vast majority believe that they were the Incas. And it feels right. When the Spanish conquistadors set foot on Peruvian soil in 1532, the entire country, as well as Ecuador, Bolivia, and Northern Chile, was part of the giant Inca Empire, or, as the Incas themselves called their state, Tauantinsuyu. The total length of Tawantinsuyu along the Pacific coast was over 4,300 km, and the population was at least 6 million people. However, the Incas were only an external facade of ancient Peru, which, like in Egypt or Mesopotamia, hid a long and glorious past.

Early civilizations — Chavin, Mochica, Nazca, Tiahuanaco, Chimu

Gold products of the Chimu and Inca cultures. Peru. XIII-XV centuries.

Gold products of the Chimu and Inca cultures. Peru. XIII-XV centuries.

At the end of the second millennium BC, the mysterious Chavin culture suddenly appeared in the mountains of the north-eastern regions of the country, synchronous with the “Olmec” monuments of Mesoamerica and close to them in character (the cult of the cat predator-jaguar or cougar, stone pyramidal temples, elegant ceramics, etc.). From the turn of our era, the Mochica civilization appears in the coastal zone of Peru in the north, and the Nazca civilization in the south. At the same time, or a little later, a dynamic and original Tiahuanaco culture was formed in the mountains of Bolivia and Southern Peru (named after its central settlement, Tiahuanaco, near the southern shore of Lake Baikal). Titicaca). What is characteristic of all these early Peruvian-Bolivian civilizations?

First of all, they were born independently, simultaneously or almost simultaneously with the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica, but without any noticeable connections with them. Further, although the ancient Peruvians did not create a hieroglyphic script or a complex calendar, their technology was generally more advanced than that of the Mesoamerican population. At a time when Mesoamericans still lived entirely in the Stone Age, the Indians of Peru and Bolivia from the second millennium BC. they knew metallurgy, worked gold, silver, copper and their alloys and made them not only jewelry and weapons, but (as in the case of copper) even the tips of agricultural tools — “digging sticks” and hoes. They, especially the creators of the mochik culture, produced magnificent ceramics with polychrome painting and figure modeling. Their cotton and wool fabrics were fine and perfect. But especially elegant types of these products — tapestries, decorative fabrics, brocade and muslin-have perhaps no equal in the ancient world. Their beauty was only enhanced by the brightness of dyes made from various plants (for example, indigo) and minerals. These three important components of the local culture — metal products, ceramics and fabrics (well preserved in the dry and warm climate of the coast) – give a unique identity to all these ancient Peruvian civilizations of the first millennium AD.

The subsequent period (from the tenth century AD and later) was marked by an increase in the expansion of the population of mountainous regions (especially Tiahuanaco) to the Pacific coast zone. Then there are several new states, the largest of which is Chimu, located in the north of this area, approximately from Timbeg to Lima. Its capital, Chang-Chan, covered an area of about 25 square kilometers and had a population of up to 25 thousand people. In the center of the city there were ten huge rectangles of 400 x 200 m, enclosed by walls 12 m high — palace ensembles of local kings. Around them are smaller residences where officials, artisans, and other groups of citizens lived. After the death of the king, he was buried in his palace with all the riches, and the successor built himself a new building that looked more like a castle or fortress than an ordinary house. It was in Chimu that a combined network of irrigation channels was first created and roads were built connecting the mountains and the coast. This, in turn, explains both the impressive achievements of local culture and the significant concentration of the population in cities and villages.

The Inca State

General view of the Inca fortress of Machu Picchu. Mountain Peru. XIII-XV centuries.

General view of the Inca fortress of Machu Picchu. Mountain Peru. XIII-XV centuries.

At the same time, in the mountainous zone with its rugged terrain, a large number of almost isolated valleys and rivers, a number of small warring states simultaneously emerged. But only one of them — the Inca state in the Cuzco Valley — with a better organization of the army and power apparatus and distinguished by the belligerence of its inhabitants, managed to break the resistance of its neighbors and become the dominant force in the region. This happened only a century before the arrival of the Spaniards, in the 15th century AD.

The size of the Inca Empire grew at an unprecedented rate. Between 1438 and 1460, the Inca Pachacuti conquered most of the mountainous regions of Peru. Under his son Topa Inca (1471-1493), a significant part of Ecuador and the territory of the state of Chimu were captured, and a little later-the south of the coastal Peruvian zone, the mountains of Bolivia, and the north of Chile. At the head of a huge power was the divine ruler Sapa Inca, who was assisted by a hereditary aristocracy related to the ruler by blood, as well as a priestly caste and a whole army of officials who controlled all aspects of life.

Rural communities bore a heavy burden of all kinds of taxes and labor duties (work on the construction of roads, temples and palaces, in mines, military service, etc.). The population of the newly conquered lands was forcibly moved from their native places to remote provinces. The Empire was connected by an extensive network of stone-paved roads, along which, at certain intervals, there were post stations with recreation facilities and warehouses with food and necessary materials. Runners on foot and llama riders regularly plied the roads.

Spiritual life and matters of worship were entirely in the hands of the priestly hierarchy. Worship of the creator god Viracocha and the heavenly planets was performed in stone temples decorated with gold inside. Depending on the circumstances, sacrifices to the gods ranged from the usual llama meat and maize beer to the killing of women and children (during the illness or death of the supreme Inca).

However, this largest and best-organized empire of pre-Columbian America fell easy prey to a handful of Spanish adventurers led by Francisco Pizarro in the sixteenth century A.D. The assassination of the Inca Atahualpa in 1532 paralyzed the will to resist of the local Indians, and the powerful Inca state collapsed in a matter of days under the blows of European invaders.

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