"The Maya and the Aztecs"


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"The Maya and the Aztecs"
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Wagley, Charles
Charles Wagley ( donor )
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Folder: "The Maya and the Aztecs"


Subjects / Keywords:
Anthropology--United States--History
Galvao, Eduardo Eneas
Gurupa (Para, Brazil)--Photographs
Indians of South America--Brazil
Tapirape Indians
Tapirape Indians--Photographs


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Full Text

i-,.M. j.. c139

The Maya and the Aztecs


Oharles X Wagley

The basis for a native civilization in the Western Hemi-

sphere was laid with the discovery of agriculture. This discovery,
which was made independently of that in the old World, liberated

man from the constant search for food through hunting, fishing,

and gathering. With the source of food a certainty, man could
settle down in permanent villages and support larger numbers of

people. A certain number of people were freed of the daily search
for food and were able to devote themselves to specialized

activities. Largo villages developed into cities and public

projects were carried out. Temples, irrigation systems, and roads
were built. The discovery of agriculture was the great step

toward civilization and man has made the step twice -- once in

Asia Minor and once in the New World.
Just where in the New World the American Indian discovered

agriculture is still not exactly known. It seems probable that

maize (oorn), the most widespread American crop, was the first

plant to be domesticated. At present, scientists consider the
southern Brazil-northern Paraguay area as the most likely spot

for a wild ancestor of maize. The evidence is that the domestioate

action of maize took place several thousand years ago and that

beans and squash, two other basic American crops, were domesticated

soon afterwards* By the Christian Era, the American Indian had
developed agriculture all along the South American Andean

Cordillera, in Central America and Mexico, and in the southwest

of the United States. There existed at that time a rather

homogeneous primitive society of small villages. The people were

agriculturists who made pottery and small idols of terra cota,

9--;- -------


and used implements of stone, bone, and wood. It was out of
these villages that have been termed the "Middle Culture" that

such civilizations as the Maya and Aztec developed. Other equally
complex civilizations grew up in Middle America, but it is because

of the excellent documentary descriptions of the Aztecs and Mayas

by 16th Century European writers, the extensive excavations

carried on in their regions, and the fact that they were b6th

on top politically when the Spaniards arrived, that we have chosen

to describe the Maya and Astec civilizations*

The early fluorescence of the Maya civilization, the so-

called Old Empire, took place in the low Peten jungle region of
northern Guatemala and western Honduras* At such famous cities

as Copan, Uaxactun, Piedras Negras, palenque, Quirugua, and

Tikal, the Maya Old Empire reached its golden age, beginning as
early as the 4th Century AnDo, and lasting until the end of the

10th Century. It was a period of great prosperity. The population

must have been dense and.city after city was built. The finest

architecture, the most elaborate stone sculpturing, fine pottery,

the development of astronomy, and the invention of the Maya

calendar (see p. ) are attributed to this period. By the end

of the 10th Century, however, all of these lowland cities of the

Maya Old Empire had been abandoned one by one.

Many theories have been advanced to explain why these Old
Empire cities became ghost-towns. Such explanations as climatic

changes, epidemics, foreign conquest, civil war, and earthquakes
have been suggested. But the most acceptable theory involves the

system of agriculture used by the Maya* Not having traction

_ i.,

animals and plows, they did not turn the earth. Maize was planted

in a hole made by a sharpened stick. Each year or so it was

necessary to out and burn a new area of forest for garden sites,

Repeated burning gradually did away with forest areas and exhaust-

ed the land. The people were forced t6 seek garden sites farther

and farther away from their city, until finally they abandoned
it to build another closer to their gardens. Gradually, the Maya

moved north into Yucatan which was already occupied by provincial

Maya peoples. By the 10th Century, the Maya New Empire was begin-

ning to flourish. The New Empire was somewhat different from

the classical Maya. Though they were the heirs ft the Old Empire

civilization, they seem to have borrowed heavily from the

Toltecs of Mexico, A new series of cities such as Mayapan, Uxmal,

and Chichen Itza were the centers of Maya civilization when the

Spaniards arrived in the 16th Century. Our knowledge of Maya

New Empire made by these Spaniards, yet scientists think that
there had been few changenssince the Golden Age of the Old


Maya cities seem to have been more religious and

administrative centers than great urban cities, although the

Spanish conquistadores do describe several takga settlements of

people in Yucatan. The common people probably lived in the surround-

ing countryside and only visited the city" periodically for

religious ceremonies, to attend courts, and buy and sell in the
market. Most of the buildings of the city were temples, public

buildings, and the homes of nobles and priests. During the Old

Empire, each city seems to have been a city-state in itself like



those of ancient Greece. In Yucatan, by the time of the conquest,
several cities had combined into a league or confederation. Each

city center had several pyramids on the top of which were built
large structures with many rooms, probably temples of the gods.
Maya structures were narrow because they did not know how to
form the true aroh with a key stone, but had to depend upon the
false arch by which stones are balanced one on another* The
facades of the temples were decorated with elaborate low relied
sculpturing. There were open plazas in which the populace must

have gathered to witness ceremonies, and ball courts shaped

something like an S where a game somewhat similar to basket ball

was played with a solid rubber ball. The civic and religious

center of Tikal, the largest and probably the oldest city of the

Maya Old Empire, covered about one square mile. There were five
great pyramid-temples which rise between 155 feet and 229 feet i

above the ground level. Oopan, which was the second city of the
Old Empire and is sometimes called the Alexandria of the Maya

World, consisted of a main group of structures about seventy-
five acres. The so-called "Acropolis" of Copan, a series of
pyramids, terraces, and temples, covered twelve acres and rose
125 feet at its highest point. In Yucatan, the best known New

Empire city is Ghichen Itza. There are two sacred wells near the

city which sacrifices of valuable objects and human victims were

thrownv- The architecture of this city shows clearly the influences

from Mexico, especially in the use of columns in the form of a
feathered serpent There were many other Maya cities in the Peten

jungle and in Itucatan. One authority lists 116 known sites where

~i~i;barsi .I

remains of Maya civilization are found. In the vicinity of
Uaxactum, it has been estimated that there were as many as
271 people per square mile, approximately the same density as
that of the State of New York today,
Maya civilization was intensely religious and their religion
was intimately related to their complex calendar system based on
accurate astronomical observations, There were a multitude of

goda, the most important of which were connected with fertility
and agriculture. Among them were the Rain Gods, the Chacs; a
Sky God, Itzamna, a Sun God Khich Ahan; a God of Corn known as
a God (his specific name is unknown) and a multitude of others,
Each of the gods was represented graphically by a figure or style.
ized drawings which appeared in Maya sculpturing, in painted
frescoes on the walls of temples, and in hieroglyphic writing.
The ceremonies for the deities were celebrated in accordance

with the Maya calendar. This calendar system had, in its simplest
form, two types of years. One type was a year of 365 days which
they divided into 18 months of 20 days each, plays an extra five
day period (for calculating long periods of time, these 5 days
wrre omitted). The other calendar year was one of 260 days divided
into 20 periods of 15 days. By this dual system, they were able to
calculate long periods of 7,200 days called Katuns, cycles of
14.,000 days called Baktuns, and even Great Cycles of 8,000 years,

20 Baktuna. It was customary during the Old Empire to erect
monuments at the end of long periods of the calendar, such as the

7,200 day Katun. The exact dates wbre engraved on these monuments.
We are now able, therefore, to correlate the Maya calendar with

__ I

our own and to fix exactly certain occurance in Maya cities.

The complexities of laya religion, astronomy, the calendar

system, and hieroglyphic writing were known only to a class of

priests especially educated for their positions. In the sense

that the higher offices among the priesthood seem to have been

limited to nobles, Maya society was a theocracy* The great mass

of people were cormmoners and humble corn farmers. They knew little

or nothing of the complexities of religion and the calendar, and

depended upon their priests to advise them when a ceremony for

the gods should be performed. They paid tribute to the nobility

and did the heavy work in the construction of buildings and temples*

Below these commoners was a small body of slaves made up of

orphans, thieves, prisoners of war, and people purchased from

foreign groups* Slaves were sometimes sacrificed to the gods, but

human sacrifice was never as prevalent among the Mayas as it was

among the Aztecs of Mexico.

The Spaniards left descriptions of the way the common man

lived in the New Empire. The Hayas flattened the heads of their

children by binding them in boards several days after birth* This

was done for the same reason that the Chinese formerly tied the

feet of women, simply because they considered it beautiful. Cross-

eyes were also stylish. Mothers hung little balls of resin in front

of their babies eyes to cross them. There was a ceremony resembl-

ing baptism during which the child was blessed by priests. At

puberty, there was another ceremony in which children were introd-
ucedinto adult life. After puberty, all the young unmarried men

of a community lived in a bachelors house apart from their

I_ I 1

families. Marriage took place when a young man was about twenty

years old. The bride was selected for him by his parents. following

the marriage, the husband lived with his father-in-law and worked

for several years in payment for the bride. Maya men evidently did

not practice polygamy, but divorced seems to have been very common.
Maya dress was very colorful. All their garments were woven

on hand looms by the women. Men were a breechclout, a cotton
band which was passed between the legs and tied around the waist.
The ends of the breechclout were decorated with bright feathers.

Men also wore cloaks which were large squares of cotton cloth

ornamented in accordance with the social station of the wearer*

Sandals of deer hide or of henequen fiber were the usual foot-
gear* Women wore a sack-like petticoat which was tied at the

waist. In Yucatan, the women are said to have covered their

breast with a cloth, Men wore their hair long, braided, and

wound around the head with a queue hanging down the back of the

nook, A round patch was burned on the top of the head, leaving a

bald spot, Beards were considered ugly and mothers placed hot

cloths on their sons' faces believing that this would prevent

the growth of hair* Women wore their hair long, sometimes parting
it in the middle and ofthen plaiting it. Young girls dressed

their hair in two or four horn-lime plaits* Except for the breasts,

women tatooed their bodies from the waist upwards. Lip plugs, nose

plugs, earrings, beads, wristlets, and necklaces made of animal
teeth, jade, feathers, gold, and copper were among the many

varieties of personal ornaments worn. On ceremonial occaklonac
priests and dancers adorned themselves In elaborate head dresses



made of the brilliant plumes of tropical birds.

The foods eaten today by the Middle American descendants of
the Mayas are much the same as those of their predecessors. Maize

is their staff of life. The grain is softened by allowing it to

soak overnight in lime and water and the hull of the kernel is
removed. Maize is consumed as tortillas, a griddle cake like bread#

or as a beverage called posol, made of corn boiled in water*

Chocolate was a favorite drink of the Mayas. Chili peppers were

eaten widely and the balok bean was a staple of their diet. An
alcoholic beverage was made of a fermented mixture of honey, water,
and the bark of the balche tree. Great banquets were given,
especially among the nobility, and the Maya shared the very

common custom of repaying a dinner for a dinner. It is said that

if a man died before reciprocating a banquet at which he had been

a guest, his heirs were expected to repay it for him.
The Maya developed a civilization in Middle America as great

as the early Egyptian, Persian, or Phoenician civilizations of
the Old World. In many respects$ their cultural achievements

were greater than those of the ancient world. Maya sculpturing,

art, architecture, astronomy, and mathematics, to mention a few

aspects, were great achievements. But the Maya were also at a
disadvantage when compared to the Old World civilizationso They
never had domestic animals suob as the ox and the ass for

traction and food and they did not h)ve the wheel so important

in moving great loads. Only the turkey and thelpee were domestic-

ated and huge stones for their buildings had to be transported

by brute manpower*

The Aztecs

To the north of the Maya area, in the Valley of Mexico, the
civilization which was to culminate with the Aztecs was developing

simultaneously. The Valley of Mexico, where Mexico Oity is now

located, is a fertile valley seven thousand feet above sea level.

The Valley formerly contained a great salt lake, Texcoco, and two

fresh water lagoons, Xoohimiilco and Chaloo. It was an ideal

place for man to live and the Valley attracted a succession of

The first inhabitants of the Valley of whom we have records
were people of the "Middle Culture" stage already referred to

above. They were probably in the Valley by the beginning of the

Christian Era. By about 400 A.D., the Toltec civilization appear-

ed in the Valley of Mexico. It was this great. civilization which

built the magnificent city of Teotihuacan. The city was a great
ceremonial center of gigantic proportions, and the fact that it

could be built indicates that a large population already inhabited

the Valley. The Pyramid of the Sune the largest structure at

Teotihuacan, is seven hundred feet wide at the base and its four
terraces rise to a height of over 200 feet. Massive stone sulpt-

uring decorated the buildings at Teotihuaoan. The feathered
serpent was a dominant motif and great asulptured heads represent-
ing gods protruded from the facades of the temples. The period

of Toltec domination of the Valley of Mexico was in a sense a

golden age in the growth of that civilization*

The great city of Teotihuacan was abandoned, however, about

1000 A.D. Between 1100 and 1500 is the period in the history of


of the Valley referred to as the Chichimeo period. Those were
chaotic times with many outside groups invading the Valley, There

was a struggle for land and the so-called Chichimecs replaced

the Toltecs as the strongest power in the Valley. The Aztecs were

one of these invading tribes. According to their own legends,

they were a wandering tribe from the northwest. Compared to the

relatively civilized peoples already inhabiting the Valley, they

were evidently barbarians. The Aztecs settled peacefully for a-
whiles but later caused strife by stealing wives from the town

of Tenayuca. There was a punitive expedition in which the main

body of the Aztecs became serfs. One group of them escaped to

the swampy islands of the lake where they built a shrine to their

is rrible tribal god, Huitzilopochtli. They lived a hunted and

miserable life. The Aztecs were warriors and their ability in
war made them useful to the more civilized peoples. By 1325,

they had raised a home city out of the swamps called Tenochtitlan*

situated on the very site of the modern Mexican capital. They became

allies of Tepanec and fought several successful wars. By about

1429, they had formed a triple alliance with the cities of Texcoco
and Tlacopan by which Tenochtitlan (Azteo) and Texcoco were to
receive two shares of the loot apMoo and Tlacopan one share.

When the Aztecs became strong, they used the alliance not only to

subjugate their own allies, but to extend their military control

ovor the whole Valley. Just one hundred years before the Spaniards

conquered the Aztecs, this once barbaric tribe subjugated most of

Mexico south of the Valley. They were the greatest political and

military power in Middle Anerica by 1519 and were still vigorfualy

I "

expanding their empire when Cortez and his band of Spaniards


The Aztecs, in contrast to the peaceful and intellectual

Maya, were a warrior nation. Their religion, ftich was the
dominant aspect of their civilization, reflected war. The Aztecs
brought with them their own tribal god, Huitzilopochtli, the

God of War. They had a pantheon of gods, some of which were
borrowed from other peoples they encountered. There were, to

name a few, Quetzalcoatl, the God of KnowledgeS Tialocos the

Rain God; Tezcatlipoca, a Sky God; and Tonacftecuhtli and
Tonacacihuatl, "our Lord and Lady of Subsistence". The latter
were the original creators and were considered the parents of

the other gods. The Aztecs shared the Maya-type calendar in a

slightly abreviated form, and each day and month was thought of

as divinity, Thus, the Aztecs literally had hundreds of gods,

their religion being further complicated by the fact that a

particular god sometimes had several names*

Though the Azteo gods protected the people, they lusted
for blood and asked in return for the hearts of menn It was

believed that the gods would not live unless they were fed

human blood and hearts. Almost evory ceremony for a god involved
human sacrifice The priests dedicated to the particular god bent

the victim across a sacrificial altar, opened his breast with a

volcanic glass blade, and offered his heart still beating to the
goal. The Aztecs were always at war and the great proportion of
the victims were prisoners of war, although sacrifices were also

made of slaves and even of Aztec people themselves* Women and

children were sometimes sacrificed for fertility, pieces of the

viatims were eaten by the Aztecs in the belief that they would

be endowed with the virtues of the eaten. Success in war was

attributed to the favors of the gods, and these favors in turn

called for more sacrifices. It was a vicious cycle and human

sacrifice reached appalling heights. The Spaniards counted
thousands of skulls before the temples, and at the enlargement

of one temple, some 20,000 victims were said to have been offered

to the gods. Priests were described as stinking of the dried

blood of their victims.

Like the other civilized peoples of Middle America, the

Aztecs were agricultur&sts and maize was their chief food plant.

They were late comers in the Valley, however, and lacked

sufficient land for fields. They were forced to live in the

swamps and on the islands in the lake. Theirland problem was

solved, at least partially, by building up "floating gardens"

called chinanpas. These were really artificial islands made

with mad and held together by reeds and roots. After they

became powerful, the Aztecs supplemented their income by other

means. Many became craftsman in pot making, weaving, feather

work, metil work, and stone anulpturing. A special class of

men, who had their own patron god and who lived in a special
quarter of the city, were traders, These traders, the pochteca

as they were called, travelled all over Mexico exchanging the

objects of Azteo crafstman and local agricultural products for

foreign wares. Aztec traders also spied on the towns they visited,

reporting on military strength and the tribute that might be

exacted. They were an efficient "Fifth Column" and were often
followed by warriors. Tribute was an important source of income
for the powerful Aztecs, and war was necessary to their national
economy as well as their religion.
Among the Astecs, politics and religion were intimately
merged. The priests had great political power and the supreme
chief was at the same time a priest, There was a supreme chief
(Montezuma when the Spaniards arrived), and just below him there
was an important chief and priest called, despite the fact he
was always a male, "the Snake Woman", These high officials had
a cabinet of four men, each representing a quarter of the city
of Tenochtitlan. Each quarter of the city in turn had a council
representing the various clans of their quarter. The clan, formed
by a cluster of families, bad such administrative and priestly
officials as a secretary-treasurer and an officer similar to a
sheriff who kept law and order and who acted as military leader.
The clan, or calpIlli as they were called, owned all the
agricultural land and family heads used as much of it as they
needed during their life time. The clans had their own schools
for the children of their members where citizenship, military
training, arts and crafts, traditional lore, and religion were
taught. A seminary for training of priests was also maintained
near the temples of important gods. Theoretically, the Aztecs wore
democratic Officials were elected and an exceptional individual
might rise through the ranks of political and priestly offices to
become a great leader of the nation. A great warrior might gain
fame and political advancement, Actually, the higher offices were

generally selected from the same wealthy and important families,

There were people who might be classified as nobles, there was
the great mass of commoners, and there were slaves, the latter
being composed of prisoners of war, people who voluntarily sold

themselves into bondage, people who were sold by their parents,
and a few criminals. It looked as if social classes were develop-

ing out of a -aice democratic society when the Spaniards brought
Aztec civilization to a close,
Azteo education was strict and rigorous. Until they were
six years of age, the children received simple instructions and
speeches on their behavior. Boys were instructed by their fathers,

girls by their mothers. After they were about eight years of

age, they received severe corporal punishment for misdeeds,
ranging from pricing the hand with a thorn to leaving the
child bound and naked in a mud puddle all night. Boys went

through a strict training for war and for the duties of manhood
when they became fifteen or sixteen years of age. A youth was

ready for marriage at twenty and girls at sixteen* Marriage was
arranged by the parents. The bride and groom had to go through

a four day period of penance and fasting and had to listen to
long winded speeches of advice from the old men and women. Duie to
the great number of deaths in warsp the Aztec men were allowed
to have more than one wife. The first wife, however, was the real
wife and only her children inherited from the father. Under
certain circumstances, divorces were granted among the Aztees.

Aztec law was brutal. Robbery, even pilfering in the
market place) received the'death penalty, and a slanderer had


his lips, and sometimes his ears, cut off. Aztec art, reflecting

the bloodthirsty quality of their gods and the austerity of their

own lives, is grotesque and horrible to our eyes. Huge serpent

heads with gaping jaws were carved from stone blocks for their

temples. Their art was always religious in nature and the best

sculptured pieces were representations of their gods. War and

death as predominating themes of Aztec civilization were as

apparent in their art as in their religion.

The sabry of the downfall of the Aztec Empire has heat

been told by William H. Prescott in his classical The Oonquest

of Mexico. A series of evil signs, such as seeing a comet by

day, lightning without thunder, and sudden waves on Lake Texooco
weakened Aztec national morale. Their enemies and subjects willing-

ly allied themselves with Oortez, The Spaniards had gun powder
and horses which not only gave them a practical advantage in

battle but a psychological advantage as well. The Indians

thought a Spaniard on horseback was some strange terrible beast.

The Aztecs soon collapsed before the European invader and Mexico

became a political possession of Spain. Aztec olvilizat on died,

for the Spaniards, eager to make ChOristians of the Indians, destroy-

ed the native schools, did away with their temples, and prohihitid

native ceremonials. The Aztec people, however, still live. At

least two-fifths of the 25 million people in Mexico are Indian

and almost everyone in Mexico has Indian blood. Many Indian villages

still retain many old Aztec customs and crafts. Hundreds of

thousands of people speak Nahautl, the language spoken by the

Astocs, Despite the great achievements of the Aztecs, warfare
and human sacrifice aocoman nied by a preoccupation with death inti',.
and religion were the seeds of destruction of a great civilization*