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Central and South America
Chapter 13
The Region
Aztec Civilization
The Aztecs leave their homeland of Aztlan in northern Mexico and begin
their journey south. Over the next 225 years the Aztecs will move many
times until they finally settle down at the city of Tenochtitlán.
Tenochtitlan was the capital city and center of the Aztec Empire. It was
founded in 1325 and served as the capital until the Aztecs were conquered
by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in 1520.
The Aztecs built causeways and canals for transportation to and
from the city. A causeway is a raised road that allowed the
people to easily travel over the swampy and wet areas.
There were three major causeways that led from the island city
to the mainland. There were also bridges built into the
causeways that allowed small boats and canoes to travel under
them. These bridges could be removed when the city was being
The Aztecs also built many canals throughout the city. The canals
acted like water roads that allowed people to easily travel around
the large city in boats. The city was well planned and laid out in a
grid that made traveling around the city easy.
Often a whole area of a city would be dedicated to religious activities. Some
monuments would be made to specific gods. Some were built for specific
celebrations. The buildings you probably associate with the Aztec religion are
the great pyramids. These were four sided, stable structures that can withstand
the earthquakes that are common in the area. These would have stairs up one
side, and a flat top, often with a shrine on the top.
Temple Mayor
Templo Mayor was a part of the sacred area of the city of Tenochtitlan, now
Mexico City. It was only one of perhaps 75-80 buildings which included other
pyramids, ornamental walls, gathering places, shops and, of course, bathrooms.
Since the city was build on swampy ground, the temples would often sink and
needed to be repaired and built up over the years.
Aztec Writing
The Aztecs wrote using symbols called glyphs or pictographs. They didn't
have an alphabet, but used pictures to represent events, items, or sounds.
Only the priests knew how to read and write. They would write on long
sheets made of animal skins or plant fibers. An Aztec book is called a codex.
Most of the codices were burned or destroyed, but a few survived and
archeologists have been able to learn a lot about Aztec life from them.
The Olmec
The Olmec civilization prospered in Pre-Classical (Formative) Mesoamerica from
c. 1200 BCE to c. 400 BCE and is generally considered the forerunner of all
subsequent Mesoamerican cultures such as the Maya and Aztecs. Centered in
the Gulf of Mexico (now the states of Veracruz and Tabasco) their influence and
trade activity spread from 1200 BCE, even reaching as far south as present-day
Nicaragua. Monumental sacred complexes, massive stone sculpture, ball games,
chocolate drinking and animal gods were features of Olmec culture which
would be passed on to all those who followed this first great Mesoamerican
The most striking legacy of the Olmec
civilization must be the colossal stone
heads they produced. These were carved
in basalt and all display unique facial
features so that they may be considered
portraits of actual rulers.
The heads can be nearly 6 feet high and 8
tons in weight and the stone from which
they were worked was, in some cases,
transported 80 km or more, presumably
using huge balsa river rafts. 17 have been
discovered, 10 of which are from San
The ruler often wears a protective helmet
(from war or the ballgame) and
sometimes show the subject with jaguar
paws hanging over the forehead, perhaps
representing a jaguar pelt worn as a
symbol of political and religious power.
The fact that these giant sculptures depict
only the head may be explained by the
belief in Mesoamerican culture that it was
the head alone which bore the soul.
The Olmec Heads
A great stone head from the Olmec
civilization at the Smithsonian Institution
Mayan Civilization
The Maya Empire, centered in the tropical
lowlands of what is now Guatemala, reached
the peak of its power and influence around
the sixth century A.D.
The Maya excelled at agriculture, pottery,
hieroglyph writing, calendar-making and
mathematics, and left behind an astonishing
amount of impressive architecture and
symbolic artwork.
Most of the great stone cities of the Maya
were abandoned by A.D. 900, however, and
since the 19th century scholars have debated
what might have caused this dramatic decline.
Maya Court
Dominated by the king, the
Maya court was the focus of
religious and political life.
Within palace chambers and
behind curtains, the king
ruled from his throne, where
he reclined on jaguar. Dwarfs
and hunchbacks served as his
trusted counselors, while
musicians played wooden
trumpets and horns made
from conch shells.
The Maya commissioned
finely crafted works to
furnish their palaces and
attest to their sovereignty-among them carved thrones.
Sculpted throne back Usumacinta River
region, 700-800, limestone Museo Amparo,
Puebla, México
Cylinder vessel with a court scene
Painted cups and vases for
the elite depict scenes of
court life, while clay
figurines portray members
that attended the king.
Representing servants,
dwarfs, hunchbacks,
musicians, messengers,
and priests, along with
elegantly coiffed women,
these figurines all come
from tombs, where they
Mexico or also
Chichen Itza
The Temple of Chichen Itza, a Mayan pyramid in modern-day
Mexico that features several unique features, including an
echo designed to sound like a bird call.
There are two calendars at work simultaneously
in the Maya system: the Haab, or civil calendar
of 365 days in an 18 month period of 20 days
each, and the Tzolkin, or sacred calendar, of 260
days divided into three groups of months of 20
The Haab and the Tzolkin work together, like
gears interlocking in a machine, to create what is
known as the Calendar Round but cannot
account for dates farther in the future than 52
For longer calculations, the Maya devised what is
known as the Long Count Calendar and is this
which has attracted so much international
attention in recent years regarding the end of
the world on 21 December 2012 CE. As the long
count calendar begins 11 August 3114 BCE, it
goes into its next cycle (known as a Baktun) on
21 December 2012 CE
Mayan Calendar
Incan Civilization
The Inca called their empire the Land of the
Four Quarters. It stretched 2,500 miles from
Quito, Ecuador, to beyond Santiago, Chile.
Within its domain were rich coastal
settlements, high mountain valleys, raindrenched tropical forests and the driest of
The Inca controlled perhaps 10 million people,
speaking a hundred different tongues.
The true history of the Inca is still being
written. According to one story, four brothers
emerged from Lake Titicaca. During a long
journey, all but one disappeared. Manco Capac
survived to plunge a golden staff into the
ground where the Rios Tullamayo and
Huantanay meet. He founded the sacred city of
Situated in the Peruvian Andes, Cuzco developed,
under the Inca ruler Pachacutec, into a complex
urban center with distinct religious and
administrative functions.
It was surrounded by clearly delineated areas for
agricultural, artisan and industrial production. When
the Spaniards conquered it in the 16th century, they
preserved the basic structure but built Baroque
churches and palaces over the ruins of the Inca city.
Cusco or Qosqo was built at 3.400m in the shape of
an enormous puma. The body of the puma
contained the most important palaces, temples and
governmental buildings while the fortress just
outside the city formed the head of this sacred
animal. The square between the legs of the puma is
the Plaza de Armas.
The city today is a strange mixture of Inca
architecture and Spanish-Moorish colonial style.
Unfortunately, the Spanish destroyed most of the
temples in Cusco for building catholic churches.
The Temple of the Sun, the famous Inca building, was designed with six
chapels around a courtyard. The stone of the buildings were covered with
sheets of gold.
Qurikancha (Quechua quri gold, kancha enclosure, enclosed place,
yard, a frame, or wall that encloses, originally named Inti Kancha
(Quechua inti sun) or Inti Wasi (Quechua for "sun house"), was the
most important temple in the Inca Empire, dedicated primarily to
Inti, the Sun God. It was one of the most revered temples of the
capital city of Cusco.
The walls and floors were once covered in sheets of solid gold, and
its adjacent courtyard was filled with golden statues. Spanish
reports tell of its opulence that was "fabulous beyond belief". When
the Spanish required the Inca to raise a ransom in gold for the life of
the leader Atahualpa, most of the gold was collected from
Essay #2 Topics
All Essays are due- Tuesday, April 29th
If you do not have a topic- write on the following:
1. Describe (through the use of art and artifacts) how the
spread of religious beliefs, across multiple cultures and
continents affected the iconography and stylistic
elements of the art in that region.
1. Compare and contrast (through the use of art and
artifacts) the use of human/animal hybridization across
all the prehistoric cultures discussed in class.