HIST 1111 – Mesoamerican Civilizations


In this video we will be discussing the region
of the Americas known as Mesoamerica, which roughly refers to Mexico and Central America. Together, North and South America stretch
for about eleven-thousand miles in length from north to south. That grand scope of land encompasses multiple
climates and ecosystems, including mountains; plains; deserts; rainforests; jungles – and
the diversity of the geography, the diversity of the terrain has resulted in diverse societies
emerging. From the Inuit Eskimos of northern Canada
to the sophisticated city-builders of Central America, there is no one American experience
or Native American experience that we can talk about in the period prior to the arrival
of the Europeans. Rather, we must talk about a variety of experiences,
and in this video we’ll be focusing on the experiences of the civilizations of Mesoamerica. The first Native Americans arrived in the
New World much later than Homo sapiens emerged elsewhere. Reliable evidence suggests to the population
of the Americas through three migratory waves. Those waves occurred between 30,000 and 10,000
BCE and arrived from Asia, crossing over a land bridge that connected Siberia with modern-day
Alaska, a land bridge called Beringia, and during the last Ice Age – the Pleistocene
Era – these migrants would make their way southward, moving between glaciers along the
Pacific coastal plain to eventually populate the entirety of the Americas. By the late 15th century, three types of American
societies had emerged. There were nomadic groups, sedentary or semi-sedentary
groups, and groups living in large population settlements supported by agricultural surpluses. This third group really only existed in Mesoamerica,
supported by the vitality and fertility of the soil in what is modern-day Mexico and
Central America. The agricultural revolution emerged in the
central part of Mexico around 5500 BCE and spread relatively quickly throughout Mexico,
Central America, and down into the coastal highlands of South America in the region of
Peru. The agricultural revolution in Mesoamerica
supported a variety of crops, including maize; potatoes; pumpkins; beans; squash – and
it was incredibly productive. Many archeologists suggest that the average
farmer in Mesoamerica was able to grow enough in eight to ten weeks to support his family
for an entire year. Now obviously they didn’t just grow for
eight to ten weeks, and so the result were tremendous surpluses, stockpiling and trading
goods to create vibrant and thriving civilizations, like the Olmec, the Maya, the Aztecs, the
Toltec, or the Inca. So let’s look at a few of the characteristics
of some of these civilizations so that you can understand what united, or what these
Mesoamerican civilizations had in common, and how they differed. So I’ll start with the Olmec. The Olmec established the first major civilization
in Mexico. They lived in the tropical lowlands of south
central Mexico and dominated the region from 1500 to about 300 BCE. We have a number of holes in the historical
record, so there’s a lot we don’t know about the Olmecs, but what we do know is that
they set a foundation for many of the later civilizations of the region. For example, the archeological record suggests
that the Olmec had an organized religion with a priesthood; human sacrifices; and pyramids
– all of which would be borrowed by the Maya and later civilizations. The Olmec built significant cities, such as
San Lorenzo and La Venta, and traded goods like obsidian; jade; and rubber. They didn’t necessarily consider themselves
a united group. There is evidence of infighting within the
Olmec civilization. But the things that they shared – like social
organization; religion; trade; urban life – would become a foundation for later Mesoamerican
civilizations, like the Maya. Around 300 BCE, a weakened Olmec civilization
fell to the rise of the Maya. As the Olmec civilization collapsed, the Mayan
civilization began to emerge, and the Mayan civilization would build one of the world’s
most advanced civilizations. For a long time historians only knew – historians
and archaeologists only knew about the Mayan world by virtue of elaborate stonework in
pictures that were left by the Maya as they recorded their daily activities. They did have a written language – that
is the Mayan script – which was deciphered piecemeal by archeologists; linguistic experts;
and historians. Deciphering that written language took most
of the 20th century and in spite of very recent advancements still only about ninety percent
of the Mayan script has been deciphered. So there is still much to learn about the
Mayan world, but what we do know is that they had a written language; an accurate calendar;
a complex understanding of mathematics, far more advanced than much later Europeans. We know that by about 300 CE the Yucatan Peninsula
in Mexico was governed by a hierarchy of Mayan city states ruled by hereditary kings, and
that as many as fourteen-million people lived in this group of cities, villages, and the
surrounding countryside – making it one of the largest civilizations in the world
of its day. We know that they were organized around elaborate
cities and that urban life was at the core of the Mayan existence. The Maya built public buildings of amazing
dimensions. They had temples; palaces; ball courts; assembly
grounds; places where people gathered for religious purposes, for economic purposes,
for social purposes. We know that religious belief ordered society. The Mayan religion was polytheistic, meaning
that they believed in many gods, and it wasn’t what we would consider to be ethical – instead
they believed that the gods could intervene in peoples’ lives. Gods played multiple roles in human affairs
and those roles weren’t always beneficial, so these gods needed to be appeased – and
one of the ways of keeping the gods happy was with a steady diet of human blood – and
so this resulted in the practice, the ritualistic practice of human sacrifice. Human sacrifices were common, but he Maya
emphasized quality over quantity, meaning that it was more important to sacrifice a
powerful individual than to sacrifice a hundred nobodies. Their advanced knowledge of science and mathematics
allowed them to date events for more than two-thousand years, creating one of the most
accurate calendars of the pre-modern world. And then we know that somewhere around the
year 900 they began to decline. There have been a variety of suggestions as
to why this happened. Was it drought, overextension of the empire,
decades of nearly constant warfare? We don’t know. But what we do know is that beginning around
900 CE this once great civilization began to break up, and by the time the Europeans
arrived, by the time the Spanish arrived – in the 15th and 16th centuries – there would
be little more than a few villages remaining of this once-great civilization. Another civilization of Mesoamerica were the
Aztecs, and the Aztecs developed out of a group known as the Mexica, or more specifically
they grew out of a triple alliance between the Mexica, the Texcoco, and the Tlacopan. The Mexica were the dominant tribe and would
become an important force in the expansion of the Aztec Empire, from a group of nomadic
people to a huge state that organized millions of Mesoamericans. In this Aztec Empire they governed from the
city of Tenochtitlan, one of the largest in the world, and they built on earlier civilizations
like the Olmec and the Maya but they also developed their own unique characteristics,
particularly pertaining to militarism. In many ways the Aztec world was organized
around conquests, so that their ruling group was a militaristic group of aristocrats. They, too, practiced a polytheistic religion
that engaged in ritualistic human sacrifice, believing that their gods needed to be appeased
with a steady diet of human blood and in this case it was often quantity over quality in
order to keep nature functioning the way that it was supposed to, to avoid catastrophe. The Aztec would be conquered by the Spanish
when they arrived in the central part of Mexico in the 16th century. The last great civilization that we want to
talk about today were the Inca, and the Inca were in coastal South America in the region
of Peru. Incan civilization developed out of the fertile
valleys of the Incan – of the Peru highlands. Archeologists don’t really know how the
Inca people, how the people of the Andes Mountains developed agriculture but they know that it
arrived somewhere around 200 BCE, so significantly later than in the northern part of Mesoamerica,
in the central part of Mexico. But this agriculture, this mountain agriculture
would become essential to the vitality and power of the Incan civilization. The Inca believed that their ruler descended
from the sun god, and that meant nearly absolute authority for the Incan emperors. The emperors would use this power to expand
their empire until it included more than sixteen-million people and extended from modern-day Ecuador
and Columbia down to the southern part of modern-day Peru. Incan society was organized around the ayllu,
or clan¸ which were more or less self-sustaining regions normally inhabited by extended family
members. They were organized and kind of worked on
the basis of obligations. All members of the ayllu had obligations to
each other. Marriage was mandatory and the Inca practiced
polygamy. Women were often charged with procreating,
with having children. Men performed public duties called the Mita
system, and paid tribute – in the form of taxes – to the Incan emperor. As the Incan empire grew, this system was
imposed on conquered people, and land was often used as a bribe or as a mechanism of
control. This rapid expansion and conflict over land
produced political and social stress so that by the time the Spanish arrived in 1532 the
Incan empire had been weakened by nearly a decade of civil war, and would eventually
fall to Spanish conquest. So we see, with our concluding thoughts here,
we see that Mesoamerica gave rise to vibrant civilizations who shared some common characteristics,
but also had some differences – and those differences would set them apart from other
parts of North and South America, from those nomadic; sedentary; and semi-sedentary groups
that we referenced earlier in the video. So it’s important to understand that there
was no such thing as a singular Native American experience prior to the arrival of the Europeans,
but rather these Native American experiences must be understood as the complicated and
diverse systems that they actually entailed. Thank you.




Comments
  1. I don't belive that the first Americans came from Asia crossing that freaking giant bridge, HOW ANCIENT HUMANS COULD SURVIVE THAT LONG ICE BRIDGE I DONT THINK IS POSIBLE

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