The Americas on the Eve of Invasion summary




The Americas on the Eve of Invasion summary


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The Americas on the Eve of Invasion summary

Chapter 17   The Americas on the Eve of Invasion

  1. Introduction

Although American societies remained completely isolated from other civilizations during the postclassical period, they continued to display diversity and sophistication based on classical American foundations. By 1500, the Americas were typified by a high population in many places. The greater American civilizations developed advanced agricultural systems, urbanization, social and economic diversity, and centralized political institutions.

  1. Postclassic Mesoamerica, 1000-1500 C.E.
    1. Introduction

The most important of the Mesoamerican civilizations were those of the Toltecs and Aztecs. The Toltecs migrated into central Mexico from the north and adopted a militaristic ethic from sedentary peoples already living in the area.

    1. The Toltec Heritage

From the establishment of their capital at Tula in 968, the Toltecs were able to establish a significant empire in central Mexico and the Yucatan. Some later Maya rulers were clearly under Toltec influence. Toltec influence may have extended as far north as the American Southwest, where some evidence of their trade network can be found. There is less agreement about the possibility of Toltec influence in the Mississippian culture of the Ohio River valley.

    1. The Aztec Rise to Power

Nomadic invaders destroyed the Toltec capital of Tula around 1150. Thereafter the center of Mesoamerican power shifted to the region surrounding a group of lakes in the valley of Mexico. Various groups contested for supremacy in the valley. Among these groups were the Aztecs, who probably migrated into the valley around 1325 following the fall of the Toltec empire. Three city-states Azcapotzalco, Texcoco, and Culhuacan dominated the lakesides of the valley. Eventually the Aztecs, after a period of serving as mercenaries, settled on an island in Lake Texcoco and established their capital of Tenochtitlan. Through a series of alliances with and against the other city-states, the Aztecs were able to emerge as an independent power. By 1434 the Aztecs were the most powerful partners in a triple alliance linking Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan.

    1. The Aztec Social Contract

The series of wars leading to Aztec dominance caused social changes. The Aztec ruler, supported by a nobility, became vastly more powerful. Eventually Aztec dominance spread to encompass most of central Mexico. Social stratification became pronounced. The architect of social change was Tlacaelel, a prime minister for three rulers. The use of human sacrifice as part of Aztec ritual was expanded under his influence. Some areas were purposely left independent in order to make wars possible. The intent of the wars was to secure captives for human sacrifice.

    1. Religion and the Ideology of Conquest

The Aztecs venerated the traditional pantheon of Mesoamerican gods. Yearly festivals and complex rituals supported the numerous deities. Gods were organized into the major cults of fertility, creation, and warfare. The last included rituals of human sacrifice and became the cult of the state. The central deity of the cult of the state was Huitzilopochtli. Under both the Toltecs and Aztecs, frequency and scale of human sacrifice increased. Although human sacrifice dominated Aztec religion, worship also concerned the afterlife, creation myths, and a cyclical view of history based on a distinctive calendar system.

    1. Tenochtitlan: The Foundation of Heaven

The Aztecs considered their capital city a sacred space. The city became a great metropolis and the heart of an empire. The nearby market town, Tlatelolco, was also impressive. Tenochtitlan, an island-city with canals, was divided into wardseach controlled by a calpulli, or kin group.

    1. Feeding the People: The Economy of the Empire

To feed their enormous population, the Aztecs constructed a tribute system from conquered peoples. In addition, the Aztecs developed an intensive form of agriculture utilizing floating beds and artificial islands, or chinampas. Yields from chinampa agriculture were high. In each Aztec community, clans distributed available land for cultivation. Some land was reserved for the nobility and worked by slaves. A merchant class operated the markets that provided for the exchange of food and luxuries. The state actually controlled all trade and managed the collection and redistribution of tribute.

  1. Aztec Society in Transition
    1. Introduction

Aztec society became increasingly hierarchical. Eventually the growing population could not be sustained on the basis of the tribute system.

    1. Widening Social Gulf

The basic social unit of Aztec society was the calpulli, or clan. By the sixteenth century, there were about twenty major clans. These groups controlled land distribution, labor, and military service. Beyond the clan structure of Aztec society, a nobility, the pipiltin, developed from elite families within the calpulli. The nobility held private land and political office within the empire. Nobles controlled the priesthood and military, which was in turn divided into ranks depending on an individual's success in taking captives. The nobility was closely associated with the ritual of human sacrifice.
As the Aztec empire grew, the gulf between commoners and the nobility expanded. As the nobility separated from the calpulli, a class of semi-free laborers with low social status emerged to work on noble estates. . Another intermediate group consisted of scribes, artisans, and healers. Merchants comprised a separate calpulli. By the sixteenth century, it is possible to see some conflict between the calpulli of commoners and the nobles.

    1. Overcoming Technological Constraints

Aztec women provided some agricultural labor, but their primary responsibility was the household. Although politically subordinate, Aztec women did have recognized legal rights. Lack of machines for grinding forced Aztec women to spend a disproportionate amount of time grinding maize into flour. Population density within the Aztec empire appears to have been high.

    1. A Tribute Empire

A speaker chosen from among the nobility ruled each Aztec city-state. The speaker of Tenochtitlan, the capital, was the emperor. A powerful prime minister, often chosen from the same family, assisted the emperor. As the empire matured, the position of the emperor and the central government became more powerful and the cult of the military became the cult of the state. The empire never developed strong ties to local administration, which often remained in the hands of local rulers. City-states were left relatively free to govern their subjects, so long as they recognized the Aztec rulers and paid tribute. There were many rebellions against Aztec rule. In the long run, the rise of the nobility and the continued reign of terror contributed to the downfall of the Aztec empire.

  1. Twantinsuyu: World of the Incas
    1. Introduction

The establishment of the Inca empire was contemporary with the Aztec expansion in Mesoamerica. The Incas built on the cultural traditions of earlier Andean societies, but provided a greater degree of political and cultural centralization. Following the decline of the "horizon" states of Tihuanaco and Huari around 1000 C.E., many regional political units continued to survive. The most important of these regional cultures was the coastal kingdom of Chimor, which flourished between 900 and 1465.

    1. The Inca Rise to Power

While Chimor controlled the coast, several clans, or ayllus, contested for supremacy in the Andean highlands. The most successful group of ten clans controlled a region near Cuzco. By 1438 these clans, under the leadership of their ruler, or Inca, Pachacuti, were able to establish their government over much of the highland region. Inca Topac Yupanqui defeated Chimor. By 1527 the Inca empire stretched from what is now Colombia to Chile in the Andean region.

    1. Conquest and Religion

One of the chief incentives to continued expansion was the Inca practice of split inheritance. Following the death of a leader, political power passed to his successor, but all movable wealth and real property was retained to support the cult of the dead Inca's mummy. Each new Inca thus had to expand his territory to increase his wealth and provide for his afterlife. The Incas regarded the sun as the chief deity and identified the ruler as the sun's earthly representative. In addition to the sun, other major deities as well as local gods continued to be worshiped. Inca religion was strongly animistic. Prayers and rituals were offered to holy shrines, or huacas.

    1. The Techniques of Inca Imperial Rule

The capital of the Inca empire was Cuzco, from where the Incas ruled as semi-divine figures. The empire was divided into four major provinces, each of which was subdivided into local administrative units. Local rulers were often permitted to retain power in return for securing tribute for the Incas. Loyalty was secured by the practice of colonization, in which loyal groups were imported into newly conquered territories or disaffected populations were forcibly moved to new regions. Roads served to secure communications throughout the empire.
The Inca state engendered loyalty by its management of a complex system of collection and redistribution, state enhancement of the infrastructure, and opportunity for sharing in the spoils of conquest. Tribute was largely collected through labor on state lands and building projects. Local ayllus controlled land distribution and labor requisitions in each community. Property passed through both the male and female line in Inca social hierarchies, but women did not commonly serve as heads of ayllus during the Inca period. Some women were forced into concubinage of the royal family or dedicated to various temples. Over the heads of the ayllus were members of the Inca nobility. Those members of the nobility related to the royal family enjoyed highest status. Unlike Mesoamerica, the Inca empire lacked a distinct merchant class. Although the Inca empire functioned efficiently for nearly a century, a system of royal multiple marriages eventually produced civil strife in the sixteenth century.

    1. Inca Cultural Achievements

The Inca were particularly proficient metallurgists. Like the peoples of Mesoamerica, the Inca did not develop the wheel. The Incas were relatively unique in that they lacked a system of writing. They did use quipus, knotted strings, to record information. Monumental architecture and road building were highly developed among the Andean people.

    1. Comparing Incas and Aztecs

Both the Incas and the Aztecs represented the imperial stage of political development. Both states relied on intensive agricultural systems to support massive populations and managed redistribution networks to circulate necessities and luxuries. In both regions, the nobility served as the administrative bureaucracy. Both empires allowed the continued existence of local governments subject to the payment of tribute, the collection and redistribution of which provided the primary source of trade. Trade and markets were far more developed among the Aztecs than the Incas.
Basic similarities existed in religious beliefs, cosmology, and social structure. Whether by direct contact or parallel development, Indian societies in the Americas shared many common traits.

  1. The Other Indians
    1. Introduction

Aside from the imperial cultures of Mesoamerica and the Andes, the Americas were populated by numerous other Indian groups organized at various levels of social complexity.

    1. How Many Indians?

Population density in the Americas prior to European contact was relatively high. Mesoamerica and the Andes supported the most dense population concentrations. The Indian population of the Americas may have been roughly the same as that for contemporary Europe.

    1. Differing Cultural Patterns

Northern South America and parts of Central America shared important cultural traits with the imperial regions. Chiefdoms based on sedentary agriculture existed in the areas of modern Colombia, along the Amazon, and on some islands in the Caribbean. In the North American woodlands, agricultural societies supplemented their food supply with hunting and gathering. There was less social stratification and economic specialization among these groups. Full-fledged nomadic pastoralists were lacking in the Americas prior to European contact.
In North America there was remarkable cultural diversity, with over 200 language groups spoken by 1500. North American societies varied from the hierarchical and agricultural groups in the Southeast and Southwest to less complex social units of hunters and gatherers. With the exception of the imperial states of Mesoamerica and the Andes, most Indian groups remained strongly kin-based with property held communally or by clan.

  1. Conclusion: American Indian Diversity in World Context

By the end of the fifteenth century, two militaristic empires were established in Mesoamerica and the Andes. These empires proved vulnerable to internal disruption and technologically inferior to Eurasian civilizations. Elsewhere in the Americas, other Indian groups demonstrated enormous diversity in social organization and economic development.


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The Americas on the Eve of Invasion summary

                               Pages 230 – 261


Post-Classical Mesoamerica, 1000 – 1500 C.E.

Among the civilizations that followed abandonment of the Maya cities in the 8th century C.E. and the collapse of Teotihuacan were the Toltecs and the Aztecs, who built on the achievement of their predecessors but rarely surpassed them except in political and military achievement. The Toltecs created an empire whose influence extended beyond central Mexico. In the 15th century, the Aztecs rose to create an empire organized for war, motivated by religion, and based on farming.

Aztec Society in Transition

Aztec society became more hierarchical as the empire grew and differentiated social classes developed, although the older organization based on the calpulli never disappeared. Tribute was drawn from subject peoples, but Aztec society confronted barriers that made it difficult to maintain a large population.

Twantinsuyu: World of the Incas

After about 1300 C.E. in the Andean cultural hearth, a civilization emerged and spread its control over the whole region. The Inca empire was a highly centralized system that integrated different ethnic groups into an imperial state. Extensive agriculture supported a state religion and a royal ancestor cult. With notable achievements in architecture and metallurgy, the Incas, like the Aztecs, incorporated many elements of the civilizations that preceded them.

The Other Indians

The civilizations of Mesoamerica and the Andes were high points of an Indian cultural achievement cut short by contact and conquest. However, the Americas continued to be occupied by peoples who lived in different ways, ranging from sedentary agricultural civilizations to kin-based bands of hunters and gatherers.

Conclusion: American Indian Diversity in World Context

These empires proved to be fragile, weakened by internal strains and conflicts that any imperial system creates, but also limited by their technological inferiority. The Americas contained a range of societies. In many, religion played a dominant role in defining the relationship between people and their environment and between the individual and society. By the end of the 15th century, two imperial systems rose to dominate the centers of civilization in the Americas. But the Americas developed in isolation and it retarded many aspects of their development.

What institutions did the Aztecs and Incas inherit from their predecessors?

What was the relationship between war and religion in the rise of the Aztecs?

How did the Aztecs organize their agriculture?

What social, political, and technological problems did the Aztecs face?

What is a tribute empire and what was its relationship to trade?

How did the Inca overcome geographic problems to unite their large empire?

How did the Inca use institutions and policies to unify their empire?

How did Inca trade and tribute differ from other civilizations?

How did contacts affect cultures bordering the classical civilizations?

What characteristics did American Indians share? How were they different?






Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli





Inca socialism


Split inheritance










Map 11.1: Central Mexico (Page 241)
Describe the physical world of the Aztecs.

How might environment have influenced Aztec civilization?

Map 11.2: Inca Expansion; Map 11.3: Ancient Cities of Peru (Pages 252 and 255)
How did geography influence Inca expansion?

What problems would distance create for the Incas?


DOCUMENT ANALYSIS: Aztec Men and Women (Pages 249– 250)

Learning from Documents
In what ways do men and women differ in Aztec society?

How do expectations for proper behavior for men and women differ?

What social, political, and economic divisions does this create?

Writing a Document Based Essay
These documents form a superior document based essay question. Consider writing a DBQ. In 15 minutes, read the documents and plan your essay; use 45 minutes to write the essay.

Prompt: How did occupations and expectations of proper behavior create gender differences within Aztec society?

The Aztecs (Pages 230, 243, 245, 246, and 247)
In the Aztec state there was a strong connection between war, agriculture, and religion. It was central relationship of Aztec society. How do the photographs depict:




How would these institutions have led to the creation of an empire?


Daily Life (Pages 246, 247, 250, and 259)
How do the photographs depict:
Social classes?



What conclusions can you draw about daily life in the Americas?


STATISTICAL EXERCISE: Population Estimates (Page 258)
Around 1500 C.E. what countries are the most populated? Least?

How does Europe, including Russia, compare to the rest of the world?

How do the Americas compare to Europe and the rest of the world?

What might account for the large American population?

How would the sizes of Indian and Chinese populations affect invaders?

Why might it be difficult to assimilate the Indians and Chinese?

If the Europeans were to eventually conquer the world, why would their population base be a disadvantage and how might the Europeans have overcome their small populations?

Although later civilizations in Mesoamerica borrowed and built on the previous accomplishments of the Olmecs and Maya, later civilizations
were not as war-like as their predecessors had been.
rarely surpassed previous intellectual predecessors.
failed to improve on the political institutions and types of Olmec and Maya states.
abandoned polytheism in favor of monotheism.
abandoned trade.

As happened in the Fertile Crescent, India, and China, the fall of civilizations in the Americas was often due to
migrating nomadic invaders.
crop collapse.
famine and diseases.
civil war.
environmental disasters.

The Aztecs rose to power through all of the following means EXCEPT:
control of water and irrigation.
political alliances with neighboring cities.
marriage alliances.

In the Aztec state, the military, monarchs, and aristocrats
owned the artisans, who were slaves and produced their goods for the gods.
taxed the food trade between the various city-states to raise revenues.
manipulated human sacrifice and used terror as a means to maintain power.
were socially and politically inferior to the priests.
were constantly at odds over policies and offices of the state.

For the Mesoamericans of the Aztec period, religion
was increasingly monotheistic.
developed into idealistic philosophies and intellectual discussions.
taught that humans should live ethical, moral lives.
declined and atheism began to spread widely.
was oppressive and made little distinction between the sacred and secular.

In order to supply food to Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs
obtained food through tribute from conquered city-states.
relied largely on trade for foodstuffs.
used slave labor.
built floating agricultural islands on the lake.
filled in Lake Texcoco to obtain agricultural lands.
Aztec merchants
administered and collected the tribute from allies and defeated enemies.
rarely journeyed far from their homes.
worked part-time in trade and part-time in fields producing food.
were traditionally priests and temple employees.
were nobles.

Around 1500 C.E., membership in Aztec society was hierarchically defined by all of these methods EXCEPT:
social classes.
clans or tribes.
occupational groups.

Because of their level of technological development, Aztec work and production
relied heavily on tools and machines.
relied heavily on the physical labor of humans.
utilized domesticated beasts of burden extensively.
richly rewarded intellectual invention and innovation.
were performed by slaves and conquered or tributary states.

Demographic evidence of the Aztec empire around 1500 C.E. indicates
a falling population base when the Europeans arrived.
decreasing birthrates.
women outnumbered men due to the loses during the frequent wars.
most Aztecs lived in cities.
an extremely high population density.

One reason offered for the expansion of the Inca state was
need for humans to sacrifice to the state gods.
overpopulation and the need for new crop land.
each new Inca ruler had to secure new land and wealth for himself.
changing environment and climate drove the Incas from their homeland.
superior technologies made it easy for the Incas to conquer other peoples.

Religious practices of the Incas included all of these attributes EXCEPT:
ancestor worship.
sun worship.
theocratic government.



The methods the Incas used to rule their empire most resembled the
Aryan caste system of religious castes.
Roman’s practices of citizenship, colonies, and local autonomy.
Zhou system of feudalism.
Greek city-states.
Ghanaian practice of controlling trade in salt and gold.

All land in the Inca state
belonged to the priests.
was owned by merchants and traders.
belonged to the oldest woman of the family.
was owned by those who worked the land.
was owned by the state but assigned and redistributed to others.

Notably absent in Inca society was a class of



Compare and contrast the debts the Aztecs owed the Toltecs with either of these relationships: Greeks and Etruscans to Romans or Teotihuacan to the Maya.

Compare and contrast the Aztec and Inca cultures.

Compare and contrast the Aztec or Inca to any classical or post-classical civilization.

Compare and contrast the Aztec religion to any one of these: Hinduism, Mesopotamian, or Egyptian religion.

Compare and contrast Inca methods of ruling with Roman practices.

Compare and contrast Mesoamerican technological developments with similar developments in peripheral regions of the world such as Japan, southeast Asia, West Africa, or Polynesia.




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