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The Aztec Account of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico
 
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 Cultural Stages of Ancient Mexico

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PostSubject: Cultural Stages of Ancient Mexico   Tue Jun 30, 2009 8:08 am

The grandeur that the conquistadors beheld in the Aztec capital was obviously not the result of spontaneous generation. It was the last phase of a long cultural sequence beginning well before the Christian era. In this brief review of the evolution of culture in ancient Mexico, we will attempt to correlate the various stages with well-known events in the history of the Old World.

Although man has existed on earth for at least half a million years, the first human beings to reach the American continent appear to have arrived only about twenty thousand years ago. Man is an even more recent phenomenon in the Valley of Mexico, since the most ancient human fossil-discovered in Tepexpan, near the famous pyramids of Teotihuacan-is probably no more than ten thousand years old.

The development of superior cultural forms also came much later in America than in the Old World. Egypt and Mesopotamia had contrived modes of writing as far back as the fourth millennium before Christ, but in America-specifically in Mexico-we must wait until the middle of the second millennium B.C. before we can discover the earliest vestiges of systematic agriculture and the making of pottery.

The most ancient architectural remains in Mexico, indicating the presence of ceremonial centers, date from about five hundred years before Christ, a time when the Old World had already heard the words of the Biblical prophets, and when the first pre-socratic philosophers had already spoken in Greece. Perhaps the earliest cultural ferment of any importance in pre-Columbian Mexico took place on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. A number of extraordinary artifacts have been found there, along with the oldest calendar inscription yet discovered. For lack of a better name, these mysterious artificers have been called the Olmecs, an Aztec word meaning "people of the region of rubber." At a later period their art, techniques and religious ideas influenced a number of groups which had migrated from the distant northern shores of the Pacific Ocean. This cultural influence was to have significant and widespread consequences.

At the beginning of the Christian era, while Rome was consolidating her empire and Christianity had begun to spread through the Mediterranean world, Mexico witnessed the emergence of what can also be called true empires. The foundations of the earliest sacred cities of the Mayas- Tikal, Uaxactun, Copan and Palenque -were constructed in the jungles of Central America. And in the central region of Mexico, about thirty-five miles north of the modern capital, the great "city of the gods"-Teotihuacan -began to rise. Its pyramids, palaces, sculptures, frescoes and inscriptions would become a paradigm and inspiration for the artists and artisans of later peoples. Many of its inscriptions and representations of the gods were reproduced in the Aztec art and codices of the Conquest period. The apogee of Mayan and Teotihuacan culture coincides in time with the fall of the Roman Empire.

During the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. inscriptions based on apartly ideographic, partly phonetic mode of writing became extremely abundant, especially among the Mayas. They testify to the fact that these cultures possessed a profound sense of time and history. The Mayan calendar is further proof, for it was slightly closer to the astronomical year than our own present-day calendar, and much closer than that being used in Europe at the same period.

The great ritual centers at Teotihuacan and in the Mayan area began to decline in the eighth and ninth centuries and were eventually abandoned. The causes are for the most part unknown. Some authors have attributed their downfall to the arrival of new tribes from the north; at least it is certain that the northern barbarians like the Germanic tribes in the Roman world -were a constant threat to established cultures. In Europe the ninth century saw the consolidation of feudalism; a little later new kingdoms were founded within a cultural milieu composed of Greco-Roman and barbarian elements. A new state also arose in central Mexico and culturally it was also a composite, having been greatly influenced by the Teotihuacan civilization. This was the so-called "Toltec Empire," composed of people from the north who spoke the same Nahuatl tongue which a few centuries later became the language of the Aztecs.

The Toltecs settled in Tula, about fifty-five miles northeast of the City of Mexico, and under the aegis of their great culture-hero, Quetzalcoatl, they gradually extended the civilization created at Teotihuacan. A number of indigenous texts describe the Toltecs in detail: they were superb artisans, devout worshipers, skillful tradesmen-extraordinary persons in every way. Their prestige became so great that for the Aztecs the word "Toltec" was a synonym for "artist." The cultural achievements of the Toltecs spread far beyond their city at Tula; in fact their influence even reached down into Yucatan and Central America, where it can be clearly be discerned in the Mayan religious center at Chichen-Itza. As a result of these Toltec influences, the Mayas experienced a major cultural renascence.

But Tula, like other cities before it, was finally abandoned, perhaps because of fresh invasions from the north. Quetzalcoatl departed eastward, promising that some day he would return from across the sea. The new arrivals adopted the cultures of Teotihuacanand the Toltecs, and a number of city-states began, to form along the shores of the great lake in the Valley of Mexico. This was the beginning of another cultural renascence, almost exactly contemporaneous with the early Renaissance in Italy.
Tenochtitlan

In the thirteenth century two of the city-states achieved considerable splendor. One of them, the famous Culhuacan, was located on the southern shore of the lake, near what is now the University of Mexico. Much of its greatness resulted from the fact that many of its inhabitants were of Toltec origin. The other state, Azcapotzalco, which now forms part of the northeastern sector of the capital, was a mixture of a great many ethnic groups. Its people were especially gifted as warriors and administrators, and Azcapotzalco therefore became a good deal more powerful than its neighbor to the south.

The Aztecs or Mexicas were the last of the many nomadic tribes to enter the Valley of Mexico from the north. They arrived during the middle of the thirteenth century, and attempted to settle in one or another of the flourishing city-states, but wherever they appeared, they were violently driven away as undesirable foreigners. It is true that they spoke the same language as the old Toltecs, but otherwise they were almost totally uncultured. The only heritage they brought with them, besides the Nahuatl tongue, was an indomitable will.

After a whole series of defeats and humiliations, the Aztecssucceeded in establishing themselves on an island in the lake; the ancient codices state that their city was founded in the year 1325. A little more than a century later, incredible as it may seem, this destitute tribe had been able to assimilate the old cultural traditions and, at the same time, to achieve complete independence. Then they began their career as conquerors, extending their rule from the Gulf coast to the Pacific and as far south as Guatemala-and again they accomplished all this in only one century. Their capital grew rich and powerful, much more powerful than Teotihuacan or Tula had ever been. Its temples, palaces and gardens were so magnificent that the Spanish conquistadors gaped in astonishment.

During this same period, however, the Old World had begun to discover new regions. Portuguese navigators reached Madeira and the Azores between 1416 and 1432- the first step toward the discovery of the New World. Other explorers crossed the Equator off the coast of Africa in about 1470, and in 1487 Bartolomew Diaz sailed as far as the Cape of Good Hope. Less than a decade later Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of America. Hence, the "explosion" which spread Aztec rule and planted Aztec culture over vast regions was contemporaneous with another expansionist movement, and the latter, with superior weapons, techniques and tactics, proved much the more powerful. When the Old World and the Aztecs in the New World met face to face on that November day in 1519, their attitudes toward each other very different. The Aztecs, as we have said, thought the strangers were Quetzalcoatl and other gods returning from over the sea, while the Spaniards-despite their amazement at the splendors of Tenochtitlan-considered the Aztecs barbarians and thought only of seizing their riches and of forcing them to become Christians and Spanish subjects.

This confrontation, vividly described both by the conquistadors and the natives, was something more than a meeting between two expanding nations; it was the meeting of two radically dissimilar cultures, two radically different modes of interpreting existence. Spain had recently brought the long wars of reconquest against the Moors to a triumphant conclusion and was now the greatest power in Europe. The Aztec state had also reached a climax, and its magnificence was evident in its capital city and its vigorous religious, social, economicand political structure. To understand more clearly the tragic loss that resulted from the destruction of indigenous culture, it will be useful to view the great city as the "gods" viewed it before they leveled it to the ground.
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