Maya, Aztec and Meso-American civilizations

Maya, Aztec and Meso-American civilizations

MAYA, AZTEC AND INCA: ever heard of Pre-Columbian civilizations?

Even for someone like me who has studied archeology, it is not easy to enter the study of ancient American cultures. There are many reasons, certainly the most obvious is the distance, physical and ideological, and the considerable geographical separation that has always made us consider America as another world, the “New World”, not simply another continent.

We have always felt light years away from those populations considered inferior to us for centuries, simply because they participate in an evolution different from ours and for this reason exploited, massacred and even relegated to oblivion of uninteresting subjects, undeserving of study and deepening.

Then there is the fact that America is a boundless continent to consider (so much so that we often speak of two continents, North American and South American) and that it is not easy to place geographically and chronologically all the populations and cultures that they forged and shaped it, transforming it into the complex melting pot of wonders it is today.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, 40 million natives lived here who had built
evolved and refined cultures; we are talking about complex and very original civilizations compared to those of Asia, Africa or our continent. It seems a bit unfair to continue to classify these magnificent populations only on the basis of the arrival of a European explorer, don’t you think? Considering that these existed well before Columbus was born and he certainly doesn’t deserve the credit for having discovered them, since he thought he had arrived in the Indies!

Fortunately, in the last two centuries archaeologists from all over the world have felt the need to shed light on these extraordinary cultures, ignored for too long and new exceptional discoveries come to light every year, increasing our knowledge about them. More importantly, local communities and national institutions have rediscovered the importance of their cultural heritage and have put themselves at the forefront of rediscovering and disseminating it to the whole world.

Geographical division: MESOAMERICA and the ANDES.

Based on this enormous archaeological heritage and the conspicuous scientific material that has been extrapolated from it, I can simplify the matter by telling you that archaeologists today divide the most ancient civilizations of this continent into two main areas of interest: Mesoamerica and the Andes.

By Mesoamerica we mean that area of Central America which includes the current states of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, with particular attention to the Valley of Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula; right here, between 300 and 900 AD, when the Roman Empire collapsed in Europe and new powers followed one another in bloody battles, two splendid civilizations were developing in all their splendour: the Mayas and the Aztecs.

Ok, let’s make two more fundamental premises:

1. No, the Incas have nothing to do with Meso-American cultures, they are instead part of the Andean cultures, which developed along the majestic Andes cordillera in the middle of the South American continent, between Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and the northern edge of Chile .
In this enormous territory the Incas appeared around the 13th century and remained there for just 150 years building a true empire…but this is another story that you will be able to read, hopefully soon, in another article in the Cultures from the World section!

2. No, obviously these are not the only civilizations that have colonized the Americas; over the years archaeologists have collected countless testimonies of dozens of different civilizations that have inhabited practically every corner of this immense continent, but only these 3 have managed, in a relatively short time, to build something grandiose, which has left an indelible mark on the territory conquered by them (So deep, that even the ravages of the Spanish conquest could not erase it!). Last but not least, these are the 3 civilizations with which the Spaniards came into direct contact when they arrived in the New World: at the time their aim was only conquest, certainly not archaeological research! So from the 16th century onwards the Old World continued to hand down the memory of only the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas, as if there had never been any other form of life in the Americas.


The most fascinating aspect of the Meso-American cultures is that although they did not have contact with the Old World until the 16th century and although with different stages of development from population to population, they demonstrate that they have followed the same stages of evolution as other cultures of the world and to have reached, with their times and according to their needs, the same discoveries: agriculture, ceramics, weaving, writing, architecture, etc.
Nonetheless, the fascination that surrounds these cultures lies precisely in what is not yet known or has not been able to understand; even today the questions that archaeologists and anthropologists ask themselves are many and without a single answer.
The Meso-American civilizations produced men of genius in the fields of engineering and architecture, in an incredibly arduous context, above all from a geographical-climatic point of view: it is difficult for us to imagine mountain ranges of 3,000-4,000 meters in altitude to cover only on foot, as there is no pack animal; or think of unproductive land and rainfall so scarce that not even a blade of grass can grow! Nevertheless the Mesoamericans circumvented these problems and managed to survive, but not to prosper. Although their survival was always put to the test, their best men and most of their energies were destined for, we could say, “impractical” purposes and yes, they really reached the highest levels. Many scholars still wonder today how it is possible that the Mayan scholars managed to draw a magnificent map of the celestial vault, but not to invent the wheel. To provide themselves with a conception of eternity such as a semi-civilized people has never formulated, but not knowing how to build an arch or at least once.

It is therefore not strange to note that in most of the translated Mayan texts we do not find information on traded material goods or foodstuffs or even accounting records, all purely technical data but which have provided us with very interesting information on the culture of many other civilizations. The main theme that we see continually repeated in the thought of the Mesoamerican civilizations is instead the passing of time: from the greatest awareness of the mystery of the eternal to the more precise one of the division of time into fractions of centuries, years, months, days. The Maya, for example, were enchanted by the concept of temporal rhythm: what they considered as the mystical transfer from the eternity of the future to the eternity of the past.

I’ll be honest, mysticism is not a fashionable theme nowadays, so many authors tend to underline only the material aspects of ancient civilizations, specifically American cultures where the themes of spirituality, the mystery of the universe, time are even stronger and accurately reported by numerous texts now translated with certainty. It is perhaps precisely for this reason that the most interesting historical questions remain those related to the Mayan and Aztec mentality, probably anomalous for us, but… up to what point?
The most heartfelt questions are still: how did they really see the world? How could a mentality so distant from ours be formed only here? What were their religious conceptions? Can an “impractical” culture like theirs be considered successful, at least evaluating it with a different yardstick from ours?
For me it is these mysteries that make the Meso-American civilizations an extremely fascinating subject of study, because they distance us from our conception of culture, from our mental schemes, it pushes us to go further and also to embrace that mysticism of which we are today completely deprived, as a society at least.

Clearly the behavior of a given people should be studied above all on the basis of its own history, i.e. on the basis of direct or indirect written testimonies that have come down to us, in which, however, it is the people themselves who speak of themselves, not through someone else’s eyes (perhaps a conqueror).
Unfortunately for us, most of the inhabitants of the New World never had a script and it is impossible to extrapolate its history only by comparing the shards of terracotta and flint weapons with those found in our world or in Asia, especially since we know there are no they were never direct contacts or influences. Even the most refined and exceptionally crafted products, such as the incredible textures of Peru, the jade jewels of the Maya, the feather crowns of the Aztecs, can tell us little about their mentality and the philosophical ideas of their authors.
Therefore, if so far I have quoted translated texts or written sources, I was referring to the product of the only pre-Columbian civilization that we can compare with the Old World: that of the Mayas, because they alone had an evolved hieroglyphic writing.
The surviving hieroglyphic texts on monuments or in original codes and in Latin transcriptions, together with the anthropological study of the descendants of the ancient Mayas, contribute to providing us with a complex of indications on the thought of this people, remarkable enough to allow a comparison between the Maya civilization and the civilizations of our continent. We know for example that we have developed many similar ethical and behavioral norms: even the Mayans used to say “the end does not justify the means”. Another rule is very similar to a famous phrase uttered by Jesus: “Whoever lives by the sword dies by the sword”. Isn’t it fascinating to note how such an ancient civilization, which has never come into contact with our world, has developed a thought so close to ours? Mind you, these rules do not tell us that the Mayas had the same patterns of behavior as us, entering the field of ethics is a thorny affair, herein lies the difficulty of studying lost civilizations, that almost nothing is as it seems and clarifying means putting continuously discussing everything: different behaviors can originate from the same ethical assumption, because the reading of it can be different from culture to culture. For us it was ethically unthinkable to sacrifice a human being, for them it was a common and ordinary practice: is it a different ethics? Perhaps, or it is just a matter of a vision of the world different from ours and it is in that gap that the researcher fits.

J. Eric S. Thompson, the greatest scholar of Maya civilization, said “The great discoveries are made only by those who, obeying their curiosity, go beyond the traced paths”.

The only certainty that has been achieved so far is that the Meso-American civilizations have achieved notable success even following paths different from ours, something that many people of the old continent still struggle to believe: the study and dissemination of these civilizations could finally provide us with proof in support of a truth reluctantly admitted in our world, especially the contemporary one, namely that for nations, as for individuals, moral, religious, spiritual values count more than economic prosperity and the Mesoamerican civilizations have given us a great example of this .

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