- Historic Sites
“Savages Never Carved These Stones”
Magnificent Central American ruins, overgrown by the thickening jungle, testify to a sophisticated culture already ancient when Columbus sailed
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
There was comparatively little cultural development in the region of what is now the United States: none of the great Indian cultures ever penetrated north of the Mexican highlands. The so-called Mound Builder culture of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys produced superbly mottled abstract forms that we know as birdstones and banner stones and which probably were used as weights for throwing sticks; Indians in the copper-bearing regions around the Great Lakes made fine copper adzes and objects at a very early date, while the Mexican Indians did not learn this skill until close to 1000 A.D. But essentially, North America was a very sparsely populated region inhabited by Indians of a comparatively simple level of development. In some areas, such as Arizona, archaeologists have found cultural enclaves dating back to early Archaic times. For example, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries A.D. and even later, Indians in Arizona continued to make pots of a type associated with the earliest clay vessels: pots built up out of coiled clay rings and decorated with a basket pattern.
But it is also from these primitive hunting grounds of what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern United States that successive waves of barbarians probably coursed down to the fertile valleys and prosperous cities of Central America. Their assaults—like those of the barbarians who threatened Rome—were beaten back, except when the great cultures were weakened. Then the barbarians prevailed, conquered, amalgamated with the local population, and in turn produced another culture.
The empire-building Aztecs must have come to the Mexican highlands in a way somewhat like this. They do not appear on the scene until very late, and at first only as a small, wandering tribe which was finally forced to settle on an inhospitable island in the midst of a swampy lake. Here their second chieftain, Tenoch, founded in 1325 the city named after him—Tenochtitlán, on the site of present-day Mexico City. In less than a century the strategic island became a powerful city-state, expanding its domination first over the entire Valley of Mexico and eventually to the shores of the Gulf Coast and the Pacific, and south as far as Guatemala. Their city became a metropolis which awed the Spaniards with its splendors, its fine roads, the long causeways between island and mainland, the well-aligned streets, and the networks of canals filled with loaded canoes. Aztec nobles were haughty and refined—the Spaniards were much impressed by their extreme cleanliness and the fact that they held flowers to their noses whenever they had to approach a Spaniard. Yet they faithfully served an increasingly bloody religion, and sacrificed literally tens of thousands of captives on their altars. The brutality and oppression of the Aztec empire made it possible and even relatively easy for Cortes to win allies among the subject Indian nations, without whose help his conquest would not have been possible. These Indians fought in increasing numbers against the hated Aztecs, and it was only with their help that Cortes was able to lay siege to and capture Tenochtitlán in 1521.
Once the military conquest was completed, it was a relatively simple matter for the Spaniards to keep the Indians in permanent subjugation. The culture, the art, the knowledge and tradition of the Indian civilizations had always been held by an elite caste of priests and warriors. The Spaniards were aware of this, and successfully destroyed the culture by eliminating its leaders. The fervor of the missionary friars and the terrors of the Inquisition helped to stamp out or at least drive underground the old religion, and with this and the death of its warriors the old culture came to an end. Soon little remained but enslaved peasants—and glories of the past buried in the earth.
In looking back at the achievements of the Indian cultures, it is astounding to realize how much they accomplished with how little. Unlike the peoples of Europe and Asia, these peoples never had animals they could domesticate and herd—no horses, no cattle, not even any goats. The Indians never developed a nomadic herdsman culture. Their civilization was built on their unique development of Indian corn.
One example of the limitations which Nature’s stinginess seems to have put on the Indians is their failure to exploit the wheel. We know that they had discovered it, for wheeled toys have been found in tombs dating back as early as 400 A.D. Even at the time of the Spanish Conquest, however, there was not a single wagon or cart: everything was carried (albeit over good roads) on human backs, probably because without draft animals carts made little sense. So the momentous invention of the wheel remained unapplied for a thousand years!