Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ancient South American Cultures

Back in grade school in Bavaria, when studying geography, our teacher asked us to draw maps using colored pencils. In consequence we learned our geography—and for most of us, I think, going by Brigitte’s and my memories, delighted in such homework. Today I engaged in such a task again—having learned how to learn. I didn’t draw the maps but I colored them, all in an effort to sort out the three largest by-gone South American cultures, the Mayans, Incas, and the Aztecs.

But why would I bother? Well, this is a forward-looking venture. We’re approaching an important date, December 21, 2012. On that day, supposedly, according to the long-count Mayan calendar, a Great Age will come to an end. That projection, in its turn, has induced scores of people to predict a Great Change on that day, call it Doomsday, End Times, Apocalypse, what have you—possibly the collision with an alien celestial body! And I plan to make a posting on that day here on Ghulf Genes—provided, of course, that Doomsday is delayed. But to say anything meaningful about that event, I thought it wise, minimally, to know where the Mayans actually lived—and, surprise, I didn’t have the foggiest. Unless you are yourself extraordinarily learned, with fantastic memory, you’ll know the feeling: faint images of pyramids, strange stonework, very high mountains. But was that the Mayans? The Aztecs? The Incas? Let’s sort it out. I’ll do that today in terms of space and time.

Above you see an image of Middle and South America, the virtue of which lies in suggesting that Mexico is shaped like a whale; to the right of that I’ve colored in, if only approximately, the regions where the Aztecs, Mayans, and the Incas once flourished. Now I had the Mayan’s location, in the whale’s right flipper, where, going roughly clock-wise from 9:00 o'clock, we find today the cities of Campeche, Merida (the largest, 11:00), Cancun (2:00), and Chetuma (4:30). Not a region of great extent. The Aztecs dominated a region to the east and north. And the Incas had the West Coast of today’s South American continent all to themselves.

Now let us fix the time dimension:

  • Mayans. They came first; scholars put their beginnings into very ancient times, 2000 BC. We are, of course, not talking about civilizations yet—unless the Mayans had more than one. The classical period of the one we know, thus analogous to the Greek classical period, extended from 250 to 900 AD. Thereafter the Mayan culture entered its “post-modern period,” meaning that its coherence, cultural and political unity shattered.
  • Incas. They came next. They are dated from roughly 900 AD, but their expansion, and therefore the Inca empire, is dated to 1438; it ended in 1533 by conquest from Europe. The empire spread to the Atlantic from Cuzco (the current Cusco in Peru, thus roughly halfway in the illustration), spreading north, south, and west. This civilization had a very sophisticated numerical record-keeping system, using knotted string, but no writing.
  • The Aztecs. They were last to get going. Their beginnings are put around 1300 AD; their period of empire, centered on Tenochtitlán, today’s Mexico City, began in 1427 and lasted until 1519. They too succumbed to the conquistadores.

Enough for a start. But there will be other posts as, driven by the clock, we approach the End. But the impatient among you might wish to look at this quite superb and short slide-show (link), produced by Angie Matheny. It has multiple virtues, among them a comprehensive summary, vivid images, and some information that might come as a surprise.

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