Aztec, A History, Part Eight

History Of The Conquest Of Mexico, The Aztecs (part eight)

The Postclassical Era

Book: Chapter 17: The Americas On The Eve Of Invasion

Author: Prescott, William H

Date: 1992

Analysis and Conclusion

Analysis: The "Troubling" Civilizations Of The Americas

From the first encounter with the peoples of the Americas, European

concepts and judgments about civilization, barbarism, morality, power,

politics, and justice were constantly called into question. The American

Indian societies had a number of religious ideas and practices that shocked

Christian observers, and there were aspects of their social and familial

arrangements that also clashed with European sensibilities. Those

sensibilities were often influenced by religious and political considerations.

Many of those who most condemned human sacrifice, polygamy, or the despotism

of Indian rulers were also those who sought to justify European conquest and

control. In contrast, not long after the Spanish conquests in the 16th

century, defenders of Indian rights came forward to argue that despite certain

"unfortunate" habits, Indian civilization was no less to be admired than that

of the ancient (and pagan) Romans and Greeks. Not only conquest and power were

involved in the ways Europeans viewed and used Indian cultures. Occasionally,

European thinkers, such as the French writer Michel de Montaigne in his essay

"On Cannibals" (1580), might ironically contrast Indian cultures with European

society in order to point out the deficiencies of Europe. By the 18th and 19th

centuries, aristocratic whites in Mexico, Brazil, and Peru extolled the

glories of the Indian past as a way of criticizing the colonial present. For

them, Indian civilization became a justification and metaphor for American


For Western civilization, evaluating and judging non-Western or past

societies has always been a complex business which has mixed elements of

morality, politics, religion, and self-perception along with the record of

what is observed or considered to be "reality." That complexity is probably

just as true for Chinese, Persian, or any culture trying to understand the

"other." Still, Western society seems to have been particularly troubled by

the American civilizations with their peculiar combination of neolithic

technology and imperial organization. At times this has led to abhorrence and

rejection - as in the case of Aztec sacrifice - but at other times, it has led

to a kind of utopian romanticism in which the accomplishments of the Indian

past are used as a critique of the present and a political program for the


The existence of "Inca socialism" is a case in point. While some early

Spanish authors portrayed Inca rule as despotic, others saw it as a kind of

utopia. Shortly after the conquest of Peru, Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a

Spaniard and Indian noblewoman, wrote a glowing history of his mother's people

in which he presented an image of the Inca Empire as a carefully organized

system in which every community collectively contributed to the whole and the

state regulated the distribution of resources on a basis of need and

reciprocity. In the 20th century, Peruvian socialists, faced with the problems

of underdevelopment and social inequality in their country, used this view of

Inca society as a possible model for their own future. Their interpretation

and that of historians who later wrote of Inca "socialism" tended to ignore

the high degree of hierarchy in the Inca Empire and the fact that the state

extracted labor and goods from the subject communities to support the nobles

who held extensive power. The utopian view of the Incas was no less political

than the despotic view. Perhaps the lesson here is that what we see in the

past often depends on what we think about the present or what we want for the


But if Inca socialism or despotism was a matter that has fascinated

students of the past, Aztec religion has caught the imagination of historians

and of the general public. It causes us to ask how a civilization as advanced

and accomplished as this could engage in a practice so cruel and, to us, so

morally reprehensible. Perhaps nothing challenges our appreciation of the

American civilizations more than the extensive evidence of ritual torture and

human sacrifice, which among the Aztecs reached staggering proportions - on

some occasions thousands of people were slain, usually by having their hearts

ripped out.

First, we must put these practices in some perspective. Cruelty and

violence can be found in many cultures and to a world that has witnessed

genocide, mass killings, and atomic warfare, the Aztec practices do not stand

in such marked contrast to what our own age has witnessed. Certain customs in

many past civilizations and in present cultures seem to us strange, cruel, and

immoral. We find Aztec human sacrifice particularly abhorrent, but we should

be aware that such practices were found among the ancient Canaanites and the

Celtic peoples and that the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament,

while its message is against such sacrifice, reflects what was a known

practice. Human sacrifice was practiced in pre-Christian Scandinavia and in

ancient India. Although by the time of Confucius, human sacrifice of wives and

retainers at the burial of a ruler was no longer practiced in China, the

custom had been known and the issue of suttee, the Hindu ritual suicide of the

widow on the funeral pyre of her husband, raged in India in the 20th century.

The Aztecs were certainly not alone in the taking of human life as a religious

rite. Whatever our moral judgments about such customs, it remains the

historian's responsibility to understand them in the context of their own

culture and time.

How have historians tried to explain or understand the extent of Aztec

human sacrifice? Some defenders of Aztec culture have seen it as a limited

phenomenon, greatly exaggerated by the Spanish for political purposes. Many

scholars have seen it as essentially a religious act central to their belief

that humans must sacrifice that which was most precious to them, life, in

order to receive in return the sun, rain, and other blessings of the gods that

make life possible. Others have viewed Aztec practice as the intentional

manipulation and expansion of a widespread phenomenon that had long existed

among many American peoples. In other words, the Aztec rulers, priests, and

nobility used the cult of war and large-scale human sacrifice for political

purposes, to terrorize their neighbors, and to keep the lower classes

subordinate. Another possible explanation is demographic. If central Mexico

was as densely populated as we believe, then the sacrifices may have served as

a kind of population control.

Other interpretations have been even more startling. Anthropologist

Marvin Harris has suggested that Aztec sacrifice, accompanied by ritual

cannibalism was, in fact, a response to the lack of available protein. He

argued that in the Old World human sacrifice was replaced by animal sacrifice,

but in Mesoamerica which lacked cattle and sheep, that transformation never

took place. The Aztec Empire was, as Harris called it, a "cannibal kingdom."

Other scholars have strongly objected to Harris's interpretation of the

evidence. But it is clear that the shadow of human sacrifice shades all

assessments of Aztec civilization.

These debates ultimately raise important questions about the role of

moral judgments in historical analysis and the way in which our vision of the

past is influenced by our own political, moral, ethical, and social programs.

In thinking about the past and about societies other than our own, we cannot,

and perhaps should not abandon those programs, but we must always try to

understand other times and other peoples in their own terms.

Conclusion: American Indian Diversity In World Context

By the end of the 15th century, two great imperial systems had risen to

dominate the two major centers of civilization in Mesoamerica and the Andes.

Both of these empires were built on the achievements of their predecessors,

and both reflected a militaristic phase in their area's development. These

empires proved to be fragile - weakened by their own internal strains and the

conflicts that any imperial system creates, but also limited by their

technological inferiority when challenged by Eurasian civilization.

The Aztec and Inca empires were one end of a continuum of cultures that

went from the most simple to the most complex. The Americas contained a broad

range of societies, from great civilizations with millions of people to small

bands of hunters. In many of these societies religion played a dominant role

in defining the relationship between people and their environment and between

the individual and society. How these societies would have developed and what

course the American civilizations might have taken in continued isolation

remains an interesting and unanswerable question. The first European observers

were simultaneously shocked by the "primitive" tribesmen and astounded by the

wealth and accomplishments of civilizations like that of the Aztecs. Europeans

generally saw the Indians as curiously anachronistic. In comparison with

Europe and Asia, the Americas did seem strange - more like ancient Babylon or

Egypt than contemporary China or Europe - except that without the wheel, large

domesticated animals, the plow, and to a large extent metal tools and written

languages, even that comparison is misleading. The relative isolation of the

Americas had remained important in physical and cultural terms, but that

isolation came to an end in 1492 - often with disastrous results.

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