III. The Postclassical Period, 500–1500 > G. The Americas, 1000–1525
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See The End of Prehistory (1500 C.E. to Modern Times))
G. The Americas, 1000–1525
1. Pre-Columbian South and Central America and the Caribbean, 1200–1530
The aborigines of America developed social organizations that ranged from stateless tribes to kingdoms and imperial states. Many groups remained simple hunters and gatherers, while others built complex agricultural systems. Iron was unknown, as was the utilitarian application of the wheel. Estimates of pre-Columbian populations are highly debatable. Especially controversial are estimates that assess population at the time of the European invasion, since they have been used politically to justify or to condemn Spanish and Portuguese conquest.  1
The Mexica (Aztecs) were originally a minor tribe of the greater Nahua group. After the disintegration of the Toltec domination of the valley of Mexico (about 1200 C.E.), the Acolhua confederation and the Tepaneca confederation struggled for hegemony in the region. With help from the Mexica, the Tepanecas defeated the Acolhuas in 1370. The Mexica founded Tenochtitlán on an island in the lake of Texcoco during the first half of the 14th century. They organized a monarchical system, with a prince of Toltec ancestry as king, or tatloani. Owing to their military prowess, the Mexica gained political importance and formed the Triple Alliance with the chiefs of Tacuba and Texcoco, which defeated the Tepanecas (1426–28).  2
The Mexica promoted regional innovations in astronomy, agriculture, architecture, jewelry, and picture writing. Their basic social organization was the calpulli, a kinship group with access to land and resources to be distributed among its members. Each calpulli had its own school, temple, and company of warriors. The calpulli was internally stratified: the majority of members of the calpulli were peasants and workers (macehualtin), who toiled on the land and manufactured products. Slavery developed when impoverished commoners sold themselves to wealthier persons. The slaves could buy their freedom, but as the practice of human sacrifice expanded, the enslaved condition became more precarious. An elected chief governed the calpulli with the help of a council of elders. Warriors received prizes, and tributes were paid directly to them by defeated populations, who became serfs (mayeque). With the consolidation of Mexica dominance, a military aristocracy displaced the traditional hierarchy in the calpulli. The merchant class (popochca) also extended its influence. After the defeat of the Tepanecas, a council of four lords monopolized the election of the king.  3
Mexica religion was polytheistic. With the increasing role of war and warriors in society, the state promoted the cult of Huitzilopochtli, a war god. His worship led to the practice of human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism on an unprecedented scale for the area.  4
War allowed the Mexicas to capture victims for sacrifices, and to compel defeated populations to pay them tribute. As the population of Tenochtitlán grew, problems of supply and famine developed. Mexica rulers pressured conquered populations to provide more resources, and there were constant rebellions against Mexica exactions. The Tlaxcalans and the Tarascans, the inhabitants of Oaxaca and Yopitzingo (in present Guerrero), maintained their independence from the Mexica. Moctezuma II (1503–19) tried to conquer these independent peoples, to consolidate the Mexica state. He centralized power in Tenochtitlán, which alienated the support of Texcoco. His attempts to limit access to the ranks of the nobility caused dissatisfaction among upwardly mobile merchants and bureaucrats. Estimated population at the eve of the conquest was 9 million.  5
The Mayas were established in the Yucatán Peninsula, Tabasco, and Chiapas; in northern, central, and eastern Guatemala; and in western Honduras (See Teotihuacán). Between 200 and 950 C.E., religious centers of considerable importance developed (including Tikal, Copán, Nakum, Palenque, Uxmal). Supported by masses of agriculturalists, a class of priests and warriors developed the arts, architecture, mathematics, engineering, and astronomy. They formulated the conception of zero, a vigesimal numerical system, and a calendar more accurate than the Julian. Picture writing was employed in codices formed for religious and astronomical purposes. The Mayas preserved orally a body of traditions, history, and religious prophecies.  6
During the 9th century, many Mayan centers went into irreversible decline. Around 925, invaders from Mexico took control of Mayan lands and brought with them Toltec influence. They promoted the cult of their mythic ancestor Kukulcán, or Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent). Chichén Itzá became the most important center of power. In 1200, however, the league of Mayapán became hegemonic in the Yucatán, and the Quiché chief gained power in Guatemala. About 1450, extensive warfare destroyed the predominance of Mayapán and the Quiché, and small chieftainships emerged as the main political units for the Mayas. The estimated population in the Yucatán was 400,000 to 500,000 at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards.  7
In the circum-Caribbean, the Muiscas (Chibchas), the Taironas, and the Cenú were the predominant chiefdoms before the European invasion. They developed a long-distance system for the exchange of sumptuary goods of religious character, such as emeralds, gold jewelry, fine textiles, and fine seashells, as well as war slaves. The populations were mostly of agriculturalists organized into kinship groups, who paid tribute and worked their lords' lands. Estimated population of this area was 3 million. In the Caribbean islands, the indigenous population was about 750,000, with most of the people living on the island known as Española (Santo Domingo). There were three ethnic groups in the islands: the Ciboney or Guanahuatebey, the Taino Arawak, and the Carib. The Ciboney were the oldest settlers, having migrated in several waves from the mainland (1000 B.C.E.–1000 C.E.). They were hunters and gatherers, organized in independent nomadic clans. The Arawak migration (1100–1450) displaced and absorbed the Ciboney. The Arawak formed chiefdoms based on agriculture. The Caribs formed a highly mobile society, being the last migrant group to enter the Caribbean. By 1500 they dominated all of the eastern Caribbean islands. They settled in places that facilitated both agriculture and fishing. Land was communally held by the extended family. The head of the family supervised productive activities, settled internal disputes, and served in military groups of the most experienced warriors in raids against surrounding populations, to seize women for the local young men. Warfare was a central activity of Carib males, and ritual cannibalism was practiced. Caribs believed in the existence of spirits, and shamans were in charge of religious activities.  8
The Incas, with their capital in Cusco, extended their control over the area from Ecuador to central Chile along the coast and inland to the eastern slopes of the Andes, including the Bolivian Plateau (See Chimu). Expansion was particularly rapid from the 14th century onward. Inca myths claimed that, previously, Andean peoples had lived in a primitive state, but that the Inca institutions were based on those developed earlier in the area.  9
In the Andes, the fundamental social unit was the ayllu, a kinship group with a common ancestor. Women were organized matrilineally and men patrilineally, with marriage being endogamous. The chief of the ayllu was called the kuraka. The ayllu had access to land, and the ayllu families cultivated assigned plots and had reciprocal duties in community activities. Leadership in war was provided by elected chiefs, called sinchis.  10
Frequent skirmishes among tribes in the Cusco area helped to consolidate warrior leadership among the Incas, eventually producing a monarchial system. Oral tradition preserved a list of 13 kings (Incas), but imperial expansion only began with Pachacútec, the ninth Inca king (1438–71). In 1438, the Chancas put Cusco under siege, but the Incas under Pachacútec defeated them completely. After Pachacútec, Túpac Inca (1471–93) and Huayna Cápac (1493–1525) continued rapid military expansion. Plebeians who distinguished themselves as warriors could obtain positions in the administration and a secondary nobility.  11
The Incas subjected different ethnic groups, recognizing their original chiefs (kurakas) and making them responsible for the fulfillment of labor corvées on Inca lands. The royal ayllus, called panacas, inherited all the properties of the dead sovereign, to preserve the cult of his mummy. To secure manpower to cultivate lands of the nobility as well as the Inca and state lands, a class of perpetual serfs (yanas) was formed. The Incas displaced original populations to establish loyal settlers (mitmaqkuna) who would deter rebellions and expand cultivation of maize for the state. Rebellions against state exactions were constant. Huayna Cápac subdued uprisings in Ecuador, and Túpac Inca Yupanqui suppressed them on the Titicaca Plateau. Inca expansion confronted insurmountable obstacles in the eastern tropical lowlands and in the southern area dominated by the Araucanians (Mapuche).  12
Inca religion included a heaven god, the cult of the ancestors (especially the deceased Inca kings), and huacas (objects and places considered sacred). The Inca state emphasized the solar aspect of the heaven god, as the Incas claimed to be children of the sun (Inti).  13
After the death of Huayna Cápac, his sons Atahuallpa and Huáscar warred over the kingdom. Atahuallpa, son of a secondary wife, gained the nobility's support, and a civil war began (1529–30). In 1532 the war ended with the defeat of Huáscar, but by that time the Spaniards had already destroyed the Inca domination of Peru. Population at this time was estimated at 9 million.  14
The area of the Río de la Plata was occupied by several tribes who combined hunting and gathering with agriculture. In the lower Paraná resided the Charrúas and the Caingang. The more numerous of the Guaycuru inhabited the Chaco, and were divided into the Abipón, Mocovi, Toba, Mbayá, and Caduveo tribes. The Guaraní expanded in the Paraná basin and practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. In Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, the Ona and the Tehuelche lived as hunters of guanacos and rhea. In the area of the Beagle Channel and on the islands, Alacaluf, Yahgan, and Chono tribes were migrant fishermen. In the south of Chile, the Mapuche, Araucanian, and Huilliche groups subsisted on llama husbandry and agriculture that combined rotating-field and slash-and-burn methods.  15
Brazil was inhabited by groups from four linguistic families: Tupi-Guaraní, Gê, Carib, and Arawak. The Tupi-Guaraní were established along the Atlantic coast, from the mouth of the Amazon River to south of present São Paulo. They were divided into many tribes and frequently engaged in war. Tupi, Arawak, and Carib tribes populated the Amazon basin. The Gê tribes lived in central Brazil. All of Brazil's native populations were organized in seminomadic communities. Hunting and gathering were important activities, complementing slash-and-burn agriculture. The estimated population in the Amazon basin was 5 million; for the rest of Brazil, 6.8 million.  16
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.