Pre-Columbian Culture in Modern World History
In 1520, just as Luther’s Reformation was launched, the German artist Albrecht Dürer viewed a special exhibition by the Spanish Habsburg Emperor Charles V during his visit to Aix-la-Chapelle in Paris of newly received gifts from Mexico’s Azetan capital city Tenochtitlán. These were gifts and rich tokens of art that the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés had received while on his way to conquer central Mexico during the previous year. Dürer was awestruck with the arts and gifts on display and described various objects, including:
a sun all of gold a whole fathom broad, and a moon all of silver of the same size…. All the days of my life I have seen nothing that has gladdened my heart so much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marveled at the subtle ingenia of men in foreign lands. Indeed, I cannot express all that I thought there.
While we cannot be sure of the actual objects that Dürer saw, these have now been lost, other surviving art works and archaeological evidence suggest representations of what Dūrer saw.
In one of his letters, Hernán Cortes described the rich markets and ordered structure of the Aztecan capital of Mexico.
This city has many public squares, in which are situated the markets and other places for buying and selling. There is one square twice as large as that of the city of Salamanca, surrounded by porticoes, where are daily assembled more than sixty thousand souls, engaged in buying and selling; and where are found all kinds of merchandise that the world affords, embracing the necessaries of life, as for instance articles of food, as well as jewels of gold and silver, lead, brass, copper, tin, precious stones, bones, shells, snails, and feathers. There are also exposed for sale wrought and unwrought stone, bricks burnt and unburnt, timber hewn and unhewn, of different sorts. …. Different kinds of cotton thread of all colors in skeins are exposed for sale in one quarter of the market; which has the appearance of the silk-market at Granada, although the former is supplied more abundantly. Painters' colors, as numerous as can be found in Spain, and as fine shades; deerskins dressed and undressed, dyed different colors; earthen-ware of a large size and excellent quality; large and small jars, jugs, pots, bricks, and endless variety of vessels, all made of fine clay, and all or most of them glazed and painted; …. finally, everything that can be found throughout the whole country is sold in the markets, comprising articles so numerous that to avoid prolixity, and because their names are not retained in my memory, or are unknown to me, I shall not attempt to enumerate them. Every kind of merchandise is sold in a particular street or quarter assigned to it exclusively, and thus the best order is preserved.
Studies of the plans of the central Aztec capital and temple complexes show that in around 1500 there was a comparable use of temple, market and urban spaces that one also found at the imperial Forbidden City in Beijing in China at around the same time.
|Tenochtitlna model and painted reconstruction|
Spanish and European conquistadors, missionaries and visitors to the New World were quick to write of their exploits of conquest and to debate the justification of mass genocide, destruction and reconstruction brought by the conquista. The conqueror Hernán Cortés wrote letters detailing his exploits in Mexico. Another contemporary conquistador, Bernardo del Castillo chronicled his exploits in lower Mexico and Central America and Cuba to reveal the strategy and objective of pure plunder and exploitation. A few concerned missionaries raised the alarm at the scale of crimes and genocide wrought against the killing and enslavement of the native populations and had to return to Spain to face a public debate over this policy.
Four hundred years after the Conquista, the revolutionary Mexican muralist Diego Rivera analyzed this conflicted history in his panoramic mural of national history in the Palacio Nacional de Mexico. The context of Mexican scholarship into its archaeological history has been admirably studied in new anthologies.
Coatlichue (pronounced "koh-at-lee-kway") is a colossal statue from the Aztec period that was unearthed in 1790, then quickly reburied and kept from public view until the mid-19th century when it was put on public view. It is one of the most iconic and signature pieces in Mexican art and one of the centerpieces of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Meixco. City. The Coatlicue colossal statue held great mystery for a number of scholars from the end of the 18th century and well into the 20th century. The Mexican art historian Justino Fernandez wrote his doctoral thesis on the sculpture and it is only with the decoding of the Florentine Codex, a major project that was published from the 1950s into the 1980s that the fuller meaning and understanding of the iconography and meaning of the sculpture was better understood. For many years the consensus was that the statue showed a beheaded maternal figure Coatilicue who may have been attacked or sacrificed at the moment of giving birth to the Aztec god the god Huitzilopochtli. This myth survived from Aztec lore and myths that were recorded in the compilations of the Florence Codex, an illustrated manuscript of Aztec beliefs and mythologies that had been compiled by Spanish and indigenous writers and illustrators.
In this century a number of interesting studies have come forth by Cecelia Klein and others that have made use of new archaeology and revelations of similar sculptures that provide a comparison to the Coatlicue statue. Among these new sculptures we find other “sister” figures, including one with her head intact but showing a full “snake skirt” wrapped around her waist. The suggestion is now that these pre-Columbian sculptures refer to earlier Aztec or Mayan myths about the existence of four earlier suns or solar beings that preceded the age of the current sun. It is thought that perhaps these female deities are found in clusters or groups and refer to the cycle or place of the earlier suns or that they also refer to the fertility of land and the role of women deities.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline on Mexican arts is here
An interactive index of Mexico’s archeological sites is found her in Spanish
Anderson, C. E. D. A. J. (1950-82). Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press.
Cortés, H. (1907). Cortés's Account of the City of Mexico, From his Second Letter to the Emperor, Charles V. The Library of Original Sources. O. J. Thatcher. Milwaukee, Wisconson University Extension Co.: 318-327.
De León, A. (2010). "Coatlicue or how to write the dismembered body." MLN 125(2): 259-286.
Fernández, J., and Constantino Reyes-Valerio (1968). Mexican Art. London, Hamlyn.
Fernández, M. (2014). Cosmopolitanism in Mexican Visual Culture. Austin, University of Texas Press.
Franco, J. (2004). "The return of Coatlicue: Mexican nationalism and the Aztec past." Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 13(2): 205-219.
Hugh Honour, J. F. (2009). A World History of Art. London, Laurence King Publishing Ltd. .
Klein, C. F. (2008). "Klein, Cecelia F. 2008. "A New Interpretation of the Aztec Statue Called Coatlicue, "Snakes-Her-Skirt." Ethnohistory 55, no. 2: 229-250. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 7, 2017)." Ethnohistory 55(2): 229-250.
Panofsky, E. (1955). The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
 Hugh Honour, J. F. (2009). A World History of Art. London, Laurence King Publishing Ltd. . As quoted as quoted in Panofsky, E. (1955). The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer. Princeton, Princeton University Press..
 Fernández, J., and Constantino Reyes-Valerio (1968). Mexican Art. London, Hamlyn.
 Hugh Honour, J. F. (2009). A World History of Art. London, Laurence King Publishing Ltd. .
 Cortés, H. (1907). Cortés's Account of the City of Mexico, From his Second Letter to the Emperor, Charles V. The Library of Original Sources. O. J. Thatcher. Milwaukee, Wisconson University Extension Co.: 318-327.
 Fernández, M. (2014). Cosmopolitanism in Mexican Visual Culture. Austin, University of Texas Press.
 Anderson, C. E. D. A. J. (1950-82). Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press. See also, De León, A. (2010). "Coatlicue or how to write the dismembered body." MLN 125(2): 259-286. Franco, J. (2004). "The return of Coatlicue: Mexican nationalism and the Aztec past." Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 13(2): 205-219. Klein, C. F. (2008). "Klein, Cecelia F. 2008. "A New Interpretation of the Aztec Statue Called Coatlicue, "Snakes-Her-Skirt." Ethnohistory 55, no. 2: 229-250. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 7, 2017)." Ethnohistory 55(2): 229-250.
 Klein, C. F. (2008). "Klein, Cecelia F. 2008. "A New Interpretation of the Aztec Statue Called Coatlicue, "Snakes-Her-Skirt." Ethnohistory 55, no. 2: 229-250. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 7, 2017)." Ethnohistory 55(2): 229-250.
Sources: The Americas
Chavin Society and Temple Structures in the Andes: 900-200 BCE
Source of Image: hhttp://www.latinamericanstudies.org/chavin.htm
Olmec Society 1200 BCE to 900 BCE: This monumentally impressive Olmec but ideologically charged statuary at the site of San Lorenzo in the Yucatan region of Mexico dating from around 1200 BCE to 900 BCE.
|Olmec Collossal Statue (2.85 meters high) at San Lorenzo|
Source of Image: http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/
There is scholarship suggesting that the Olmec system was oppressive and highly burdensome on the local population as its military aristocracy likely forced a system of tribute and conscripted labor to build its symbolic monuments. Suggestions for this come from evidence that the large sculptural figures were deliberately buried, perhaps as a way of eradicating the ideology of the Olmec. There is also evidence that the Olmec monuments contained a writing system, one of the earliest found in the Americas.
The Americas up to 1500 CE
- Incan and Aztec http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/modsbook08.asp
- Popol Vuh (Precolumbian mythological creation text) http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/pvuheng.htm
- Mayan writing system and literature http://www.ancientscripts.com/maya.html
- Metropolitan Museum of Art reference page on Mesoamerica and Central America 2000-1000
First Peoples of the Americas in Modern HistoryCivilizations in the Americas prospered and developed in manners reflecting their material conditions. By the end of the 15th century, two major empires had flourishing and extensive territorial reach and power. These were the Mexica or Aztecs in Mexico and Central America, and the Inca in the Andean region of modern Peru and Bolivia. The decoding of carved transcriptions of Nahuatl and other writings of the Maya and Aztec provide insight into the development of literature, mythologies and belief systems. Both the Aztec and Inca empires were aggressive warring states that had recently expanded in the century before the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century. The Aztec or Mexica Empire though did not dominate all of Mesoamerica. However, the Tarasques in Western Mexico, and some other regions, remained autonomous and resisted Aztec power. This led to conditions of warfare and resistance when the Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortes arrived in 1519 at Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire.
There is also evidence of prior civilizations that preceded these large empires, including the Olmec and Maya in Central America, and the Chauvin in the Andes.In North America the Mississippian civilization developed a network of trading villages and agrarian based towns known as the Mound Culture, of which some survived intact until the 16th century when the Spanish arrived. The most spectacular of these cites was the urban complex of Cahokia, East St. Louis, Missouri (see the UNESCO World Heritage site).
Fig. 2 Monk's Mound, Cahokia, Illinois
circa 800-1400 CE
New Evidence of Extensive Amazonian Civilizations
In the Brazilian Amazon and coastal regions, recent archaeology has uncovered extensive road, earthworks and reservoir of pre-Columbian civilizations that were intact well into the 1500s. These extensive complexes suggest that scholars must revise upwards the actual population of pre-Columbian indigenous societies.
On the Tupis, coastal Indians of Brazil, see John F. Richards, The Undending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World. (University of California Press, 2006), Ch. 11, "Sugar and Cattle in Portuguese Brazil."
Parssinen, Martti, Densise Schaan and Alceu Ranzi, “Pre-Columbian geometric earthworks in the upper Purus: a complex society in western Amazonia,” Antiquity, (2009) Volume: 83 Number: 322 Page: 1084–1095.
1. 'Astonishing' ancient Amazon civilization discovery detailed,' Rossella Lorenzi, Jan 15, 2010,
2. Pre-Columbian geometric earthworks in the upper Purús: a complex society in western
Amazonia, M. Pärssinen, D. Schaan and A. Ranzi, Antiquity, Vol.83(322), 1084–1095, 2009
3. Registry of geoglyphs of the Amazon region, Brazil (in Portuguese), A. Ranzi and R. Aguiar,
Munda, 42, 87–90, 2001
4. Geoglyphs of Amazonia—Aerial Perspective, A. Ranzi, and R. Aguiar, 56 pp., Faculdades
Energia, Florianópolis, Brazil, 2004
|Fig. 3 Earthworks in the Brazilian Amazonian basin, Purús region.|
Source: Discovery News
Map of the Aztec empire circa 1519, at the arrival of Hernando Cortes, with a closeup box of the capital urban complex of Tenochtitlan.
|Fig. 1B Extent of Aztec Empire and alliances until 1519 CE|
Source: Wikipedia commons licensing
|Tenochtitlan: advanced systems coordinating hydrology and planting beds.|
|Fig. 1 Teotihuacan capital complex of the Aztec Empire until 1519 CE|
Photo Source: Wikipedia commons licensing permission