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Emerging Civilizations In The New World

New World Civilizations
Historical Backgrounds

All American cultures originated with nomadic migrations from Asia to
Alaska, across the Bering land bridge, which ceased to exist some 10,000 years ago. Scholars have placed the migrations from Asia between 13,000 and 28,000
years earlier. During countless generations, these early peoples moved south
through North America, occupying most habitable areas. They reached Mexico by
20,000 years ago, Peru some 7000 years later, and ultimately the tip of South
America by about 9000 B.C. In this long process, they split into hundreds of
ethnic and linguistic groups and adapted to many different geographical

The most significant modification of Amerindian culture came with
agriculture. By 7000 B.C., some food crops were known in parts of the New
World, but the major agricultural impact came with cultivated maize, shortly
before 5000 B.C., in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico. From this center, maize
culture spread rapidly, particularly between 2000 and 1500 B.C. Within a few
hundred years, village communities began developing as religious centers; by
500 B.C., large temple-communities were emerging; and during the last 500
years before the Spaniards arrived, city-states united to form large empires
in Mexico and Peru.

Cultural levels varied widely at the end of the fifteenth century. Most
of the indigenous tribes, including fur-clad Eskimos, mesolithic nomads of the
North American plains, jungle head-hunters of the Amazon, and naked savages of
Tierra del Fuego, were hunters and gatherers. Advanced peasant cultures,
however, flourished in a number of places. North of the Rio Grande, these
ranged from the Pueblo culture of the southwest to the large confederacies of
the eastern woodlands. In South America, proto-civilizations were emerging
along the north coasts, near the mouth of the Amazon, and on the southeastern
pampas. Finally, mature civilizations had been established among the Mayas of
Central America, the Aztecs of Mexico, and the Incas of Peru.

In comparison with others, these civilizations shared certain general
characteristics. They depended upon maize cultivation, which imposed special
social requirements, and they were severely limited by their lack of iron,
horses, and most common domesticated animals. They also shared unique customs
such as the wearing of ear or lip plugs. On the other hand, they were
remarkably similar to other civilizations in their theocratic organizations,
sun cults, pyramids, and human sacrifices. Like the African cultures, they
were still in transition from matriarchal to patriarchal institutions,
although further advanced in this process. Finally, a common belief in divine
monarchy among Aztecs and Incas was also typical of many other peoples,
including Africans, Hindus, and Cambodians.

Emerging Civilizations In Mesoamerica

The term Mesoamerican identifies related Mexican and Central American
cultures, after about 1200 B.C. They developed in a bewildering diversity of
climates and terrains but were unified by their economic interdependence,
since no one region was self-sufficient. Despite many differences, they shared
a complex calendar, hieroglyphic writing, bark paper and deerskin books, team
games played with solid rubber balls, large markets, chocolate bean money, and
common legends, notably one about a culture hero identified with a feathered
serpent. To facilitate our study of developing Mesoamerican culture, we may
conveniently divide its history into three main periods: formative (to A.D.
150), classical (150-900), and postclassical (900-1492).

The emergence of Mesoamerican civilization began along a lowland strip of
the Mexican Caribbean coast, some 125 miles long and 50 miles wide, near
present-day Vera Cruz. Here, by 1200 B.C., food production became efficient
enough to support an appreciable number of nonagricultural workers. The
resulting Olmec civilization, renowned for its large building projects and
colossal sculptured stone heads, was centered first at San Lorenzo. After
about 900 B.C., when San Lorenzo was destroyed by invaders, the center of the
civilization moved to La Venta in Tabasco, until it collapsed at the end of
the fourth century B.C.

Scattered throughout the Olmec heartland were numerous sparsely populated
religious centers, supported by outlying peasant villages. Labor and stone for
the massive construction projects, jade for carving, luxury goods, raw
materials for the crafts, and food were brought to the centers, often from
distant places. These goods were probably not the spoils of conquest; Olmec
society left little evidences of war or violence, excepting those produced by
foreign invaders. Its priestly ruling class evidently governed by exploiting
fear and respect, even in Olmec colonies as distant as the Pacific coast. This
theocratic orientation is reflected most obviously in the great temple mounds,
in the huge stone conical pyramid at La Venta, rising over ninety feet above
the island, and in the characteristic jaguar motif of the carving and
statuary, which undoubtedly represented a prevailing Olmec cult.

Olmec influence permeated most of Mesoamerica. A few independent Olmec
centers may have been established in central Mexico, but it was probably more
common for a number of Olmec priests and traders to live among a native
population, conducting religious rituals and arranging for the transport of
goods to the homeland. Such enclaves were typical of regions as distant as the
Pacific coast of Central America. In other places, such as the Oaxaca Valley
to the West or the southwestern Mexican highlands, the Olmec influence was
more indirect, possibly resulting from Olmec intermarriage with local elites
or cultural diffusion through simple trade. By such varied means, Olmec
foundations were laid for the religion, art, and architecture - possibly for
the calendars, mathematics, and writing systems - of later Mesoamerican
civilizations, including the Mayan and Aztec.

The Early Classical Period In Mesoamerica

After the fall of La Venta, Olmec prestige waned, but civilizations
continued to flourish, particularly in the Valley of Mexico, in the Oaxaca
Valley, and in the Yucatan lowlands. By the second century A.D., these
developments had progressed to a point of florescence known as the classical
period, which lasted until the tenth century. This was a golden age, when
literacy, complex time reckoning, a bewildering pantheon of gods,
interregional trade, and a population increase of fortyfold over the Olmec
period affected most of Mesoamerica. Hundreds of communities raised great
buildings, "decorated them with beautiful frescoes, produced pottery and
figurines in unbelieveable quantity, and covered everything with sculptures."

[Footnote 3: Quoted in Michael D. Coe, Mexico, (London: Thames and Hudson,
1984), p. 87.]

Teotihuacan, in the northeastern Valley of Mexico, generated the most
notable early classical culture. It was at its peak about A.D. 500, when it
was the sixth largest city in the world, with a population between 125,000 and
200,000. As a great religious center, it featured the largest man-made
structure in the New World, a great stone pyramid 180 feet high honoring the
god Quetzalcoatl. Along with such imposing temples were wide avenues and
bustling markets, drawing wares from throughout Mesoamerica. The city's
governing elite enjoyed every luxury, while exploiting poor urban craftsmen
and peasants in nearby areas. Over other states, including some among the
lowland Mayas, Teotihuacan exerted a powerful influence, arising mainly from
its cultural reputation, social connections, and commercial advantages.

Another impressive classical center in Mexico was located on the site of
contemporary Monte Alban in the Oaxaca Valley. Between A.D. 300 and 700, this
concentration of temples, pyramids, and shrines was a theocratic state,
dominating adjacent residential hill settlements and a valley population of
over 45,000 people. Although developed on a smaller scale than Teotihuacan,
Monte Alban produced a similar pattern of external trade, class
differentiation, elaborate religious architecture, artistic creativity,
writing, and time reckoning. It derived most of its art styles from
Teotihuacan and some from the Mayas but synthesized both in its own
traditions. Politically, it remained independent through the classical era,
although its elite sought the luxury goods and favor of Teotihuacan.

Classical Mayan Civilization

While Teohihuacan and Monte Alban flourished, Mayan peoples farther south
in Yucatan and Guatemala produced the most splendid cultural achievements of
the classical era and perhaps of native American societies in any time.
Artistic and intellectual activity rose to new heights in numerous Mayan
centers, each boasting its temples, palaces, observatories, and ball courts.
Although it borrowed from Teotihuacan before the latter's fall in the seventh
century A.D., Mayan civilization subsequently cast a brilliant shadow over the
whole of Mesoamerica.

The earliest Mayas are thought to have migrated from the northwest coast
of California to the Guatemalan highlands during the third millennium B.C.
From that homeland, Yucatec and Cholian speakers settled the northern and
central lowlands between 1500 B.C. and A.D. 100, respectively. Mayan villages
developed steadily, many becoming ceremonial centers by the Christian era. In
the highlands, Kaminaljuyu had by then developed architecture and primitive
writing under the influence of Oaxaca and Teotihuacan. In the early classical
period before A.D. 550, Tikal in the central lowlands assumed the Mayan
leadership, as it traded with Teotihuacan and allied with Kaminaljuyu. The
fall of Teotihuacan brought temporary confusion, soon followed by the glorious
renaissance of the late classical era at Tikal, Palenque, Yaxchilan, Uxmal,
and many other Mayan centers.

Mayan communities were supported by productive economies, based upon
agriculture but heavily involved in handicrafts and long distance trade. In
the rich soil, improved by clearing, irrigating, and terracing, the Mayas
raised squash, chile peppers, and many other crops, including maize, which
supplied 80 percent of their food. Slaves did the hard labor in the fields and
in construction. On the next social rung were common peasants, craftsmen, and
merchants. The governing class of priests and nobles, drawn from elite
lineages, performed overlapping functions because religion and government were
so closely allied. This social structure was rigidly differentiated, with each
class distinct in rights and responsibilities.

Mayan women were respected and sometimes honored, but they exercised
their limited freedoms within the bounds permitted by a culture characterized
by male domination. As keepers of households and experts in handicrafts, they
did all of the weaving and alone produced the highly artistic pre-wheel
pottery, for which the Mayans are famous. In performing such important roles,
Mayan women earned a modicum of respect and status. When a maiden married, her
husband came to live in her family's house until he proved himself. She could
divorce him and marry again, if she waited a year. She was also permitted to
hold property. In many other ways, however, Mayan women were subordinated.
They were prohibited from looking directly at men; they waited on men at
meals, eating later with other women; and they could not hold public office or
enter a temple. Those in elite or royal families were regularly exported for
marriage into foreign families, serving as political trade goods for cementing
alliances or clinching trade agreements.

Each Mayan center was governed by a hereditary priest-king, although some
very few states may have had ruling queens in earlier times, before the sixth
century. The typical ruler in the late classical period was considered to be a
descendant of the sun god. He was assisted by a council of priests and nobles.
His government levied taxes, supervised justice, conducted foreign relations,
and made war - indeed, as time passed in this era, warfare became increasingly
common. Headmen, selected after passing examinations, were appointed to
administer affairs in outlying villages. They commanded local militias,
subject to strict control by the top military officers of the states. Some
centers remained independent, but most were members of loosely organized
leagues, based on common religions, royal marriages, or diplomatic alignments.

Religion permeated all phases of Mayan life. Law and taxation, for
example, were interpreted as religious principles and religious offerings.
Education was conducted mainly as training for priests, who made reading,
writing, and learning caste specialties. They conducted the numerous public
rituals, including some human sacrifice by decapitation. Mayan thought was
more ritualistic than scientific; mathematics and astronomy were considered
necessary to schedule ceremonies honoring the divine heavenly bodies. These
were but some among a vast hierarchy of deities, ruling the universe under a
supreme god and his consort.

The two most enduring achievements of the Mayas were their calendar and
their writing system. Neither of these was original, but both were more
efficient than those of earlier Mesoamerican peoples. The Mayas perfected a
solar calendar with eighteen months of 20 days each and a five-day period for
religious festivals. Using an ingenious cyclical system of notation known as
the "long count," they were able to date events of the distant past for
accurate record-keeping and astronomical observations. Their notational
mathematics, based on 20 rather than 10 in the current decimal system,
employed combinations of dots and bars, in vertical sequences, to indicate
numbers above 20. For nonnumerical records, they combined pictographic and
glyphic symbols, which have only recently been partially deciphered.

Their remarkable accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, and writing
were more than matched by their truly magnificent art and architecture. The
plaza of each Mayan community was marked by at least one pyramid, topped by a
temple. With their terraced sides and horizontal lines, these buildings
demonstrated a prevailing sense of proportion. The highly stylized sculpture
which decorated their terraces is regarded by some authorities as the world's
finest, even though Mayan sculptors accomplished their intricate carving with
only stone tools. The Mayas also developed mural painting to a high art. Even
their lesser arts, such as weaving, ceramics, and jewelry making, reveal
aesthetic sense, sublety of design, and manipulative skills superior to
artistic creations in many other high civilizations.

The Postclassical Era In Mesoamerica

Widespread disturbances brought a collapse of classical Mesoamerican
civilization during the ninth century A.D. The causes are not yet fully
understood but are presumed to have been a combination of overpopulation,
resulting internal upheavals, and invading waves of fierce Chichimec
barbarians from the far north. When civilized life revived on a more primitive
level, it was in a new mode, which emphasized war, domination of society by
military classes, human sacrifice, and gods thirsting for human blood. These
characteristics had not been completely absent in the past, but they were much
more typical of the postclassical era after 900.

Following the time of troubles that ended the classical period, a
semicivilized group of Chichimeca known as Toltecs, created a new power in the
Valley of Mexico. One of their legendary kings, Topiltzin, established his
capital at Tula, which became a great urban center of 120,000 people, a hub of
trade, and the center of an evolving Toltec confederacy, which assumed the
leading role formerly played by Teotihuacan. In adopting the Teotihuacan god
Quetzalcoatl, who opposed human sacrifice, Topiltzin alienated followers of
the traditional Toltec war god, Tezcatlipoca. In the struggle for power which
ensued, the war cult prevailed. Topiltzin was ultimately exiled, and the
Toltecs expanded their empire by conquest and trade to include everything
between the Gulf and the Pacific, including some Mayan cities to the south.

The tumultuous political conditions of the early postclassical period
soon brought disaster to the Toltecs. Failing crops and internal dissension
caused great outward migrations from Tula and abandonment of the capital at
the end of twelfth century. Shortly after, the city was destroyed by the
Chichimeca. For the next two centuries, Mesoamerica was a land of warring
states, constantly forming and dissolving federations. Some cultural
continuity, however, was maintained by peoples in the Oaxaca Valley, notably
the Zapotecs, whose culture was as old as the Olmec. Although struggling
constantly for supremacy over neighboring peoples, the Zapotec towns, temples,
ball courts, and art helped preserve Mesoamerican traditions for later times.

As Toltec barbarism spread from central to southern Mexico, it left the
less developed Mayan highlands relatively undisturbed but brought definite
decline and reorientation to the old lowland centers. At Chichen Itza, in the
tenth century, a Toltec elite established tributary hegemony over northern
Yucatan and maintained a trading network, by land and sea, within the whole
southern region. From the early thirteenth into the fifteenth century, Mayapan
became a fortified center, defended by Mexican mercenaries and maintaining
leverage over subkingdoms by keeping hostages from dependent royal families.
Trade and population continued to grow among the postclassical Mayas, but art
and cultural pursuits - including architecture - deteriorated. The Spaniards
later described a Mayan people who were fiercely independent, blood-thirsty,
and, like the Aztecs, inclined to sacrifice the hearts of war prisoners on the
gods' altars.

The Aztecs

The Spaniards who later arrived with Hernando Cortes were completely
dazzled by the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan. They did not realize that Aztec
culture, despite its material prosperity, was a relatively recent and somewhat
crude version of ancient civilizations. The Aztecs, like the Toltecs earlier,
retained much of their old barbarism and depended largely upon culture
borrowed from those who went before. There was, however, one very significant
Aztec innovation. Their hydraulic agriculture increased population in the
environs of Tenochtitlan to more than 400,000. In 1500, the Valley of Mexico
supported over a million people and some fifty city-states.

Before the opening of the fourteenth century, the Aztecs' history is
obscure. They evidently migrated from the north into central Mexico some time
before A.D. 1200. For a while they were dominated by other peoples, including
the Toltecs. In time, they won their independence and about 1325 founded their
capital, Tenochtitlan, on the present site of Mexico City. Constructed
entirely on an island and connected to the mainland by causeways, Tenochtitlan
was an architectural wonder. The Aztecs built a dam to control the lake level,
provided a fresh water supply for the city, and created artificial islands,
where irrigated fields supplied food for the capital. Within the city,
beautiful avenues, temples, and religious monuments symbolized the Aztec
power, which remained supreme in Mexico until Cortes destroyed Tenochtitlan in

The Aztec empire began assuming a recognizable form during the reign of
Montezuma I (1440-1468). This strong-willed conqueror and governor, dubbed
"the angry one" by his contemporaries, waged relentless war for more than
twenty years, extending Aztec rule beyond the Valley of Mexico and acquiring
the rich maize-producing areas on the Gulf coast. He suffered with his people
through the great famine between 1450 and 1454 but lived to see them proud and
prosperous, supported from tribute collected as far south as Guatemala.

Government-regulated horticulture was basic to the Aztec economy and
social structure, but craftsmanship and trade also flourished, the latter
furthered through military conquest. Class lines became more distinct as
wealth increased during the fifteenth century. Slaves were numerous and
generally well treated, apart from their use as ceremonial sacrifice victims.
Peasants worked assigned plots of land, elected their own petty officials, and
served the the army, where they rose according to their abilities. Craftsmen
and merchants, organized in powerful guilds, paid taxes but were exempt from
labor or military service; some merchants served the government as diplomats
or spies in foreign states. At the top of the social structure were the
privileged nobles and priests, who acquired great wealth and were exempt from
taxes and labor services. The Aztec social order, like the Roman, was highly
disciplined yet permitted individual advancement.

War and conquest not only shaped the emerging Aztec class structure but
also the still surviving kinship system. The ancient clans (calpulli) were
also territorial units, which held communal lands and governed the daily lives
of all Aztecs. The calpulli were gradually changing from matrilineal to
patrilineal after the fourteenth century, as males acquired more status and
political power. When the Spaniards arrived, men were recognized heads of
families, even those tracing descent through the female line. Women retained
some rights. They could own and inherit personal property, go to court, enter
business contracts, and divorce their husbands. When widowed, they could marry
again, but only within the former husband's clan. They served as merchants,
healers, or midwives, and even priestesses in some temples. Like the Mayan
women, they were master weavers. But their most important social role was the
care of their homes and children, for which they were trained from childhood,
at home and in school; indeed pregnancy earned an Aztec woman her greatest
respect. Some women also became prostitutes, public or private. Those who
volunteered to service young warriors were honored; those who worked the
streets were scorned; those captured in conquered territories were assigned to
the barracks of Aztec soldiers.

The Aztec polity was a complex of provinces, independent states, and
tribes, some governed directly and some as tributaries. The emperor was a
hereditary despot, regarded as an incarnation of the sun god. His court was
more lavish than many in Europe; his household swarmed with servants; and his
secluded harem of concubines was managed by a head wife, who scheduled their
assignments. Assisting the emperor were ministers of war, justice, treasury,
storehouses, personnel, and religion. His capital and 38 provinces were
administered directly by governors, most of whom were descended from former
kings. They collected taxes, held court, arranged religious ceremonies,
regulated economic affairs, and directed police activities. In addition, urban
guilds, villages, and tribes had their own local officials. Beyond the
villages were vassal states, governed under their own laws but paying homage
and tribute to the emperor. This whole system, which maintained some control
over three million people, was protected by a large military organization,
comprising allied forces, local militias, and an imperial guard of elite

Aztec religion developed from the worship of animistic spirits
symbolizing natural forces in constant conflict while seeking balance. The
cycle of life and death encouraged acceptance of the Toltec belief that the
gods required human sacrifice to sustain nature and continuing life. The
Aztecs conceptualized their sun deity Uitzilopochtli as a blood-thirsty war
god with an appetite for brave warriors captured in battle. In every Aztec
city, they built pyramids, topped with temples to the sun. Here they honored
Uitzilopochtli in great public ceremonies, when priests at the high altars
tore out the living hearts of victims and held up the quivering organs to the
sun. Ultimately the need for sacrificial victims became an obsession which
justified continuing conquests.

While such theoretical exercises should not be taken too literally, a
fair analogy may be drawn in comparing the Mayas and the Aztecs with the
ancient Greeks and Romans. Generally speaking, the Mayas were more artistic
and intellectual than the Aztecs and in these respects remind us somewhat of
the Greeks. The Aztec calendar, mathematics, writing, art, and architecture
were derived largely from Mayan-Toltec sources, just as Roman culture was
taken largely from Greek models. Similarly, both Roman and Aztec cultures were
characterized by respect for discipline, practicality, directness, and force.
Aztec art, for example, was more suggestive of austerity, strength, violence,
and brutality than was the Mayan.

The Inca Empire

Both the Mayan and Aztec political systems were surpassed in complexity
by the great Inca empire which arose in the Andean highlands of western South
America. At its height when the Spaniards arrived in the early 1500s, it
extended some 2700 miles from what is now Ecuador to contemporary Chile. In
area, this state was six times the size of France; yet it was governed in a
more centralized system than any in Europe of its time. The Incas produced
fine art and architecture, but their major achievement was imperial
organization. In this respect, they compared favorably with the Romans or

Although it rose very rapidly, immediately before the Spanish conquest,
Inca civilization developed from very old cultural foundations. Ceremonial and
commercial centers existed on the Peruvian coastal plain well before the
Christian era. About A.D. 600, cities began rising in the highlands of the
interior. During the next two centuries, tributary kingdoms drew together
formerly isolated ceremonial centers of the Peruvian highlands. Some of the
resulting states exercised control over the plain, along with territories in
modern Bolivia and Chile. Two kingdoms had capitals at Huari and Tiahuanaco,
in south-central Peru. When these states collapsed in the ninth century, they
were succeeded by independent agrarian towns, organized along tribal lines and
nearly consumed by continuous warfare.

Amid this ruthless struggle for survival, the Incas created their state.
According to their own legends, these "children of the sun" settled the Valley
of Cuzco, in the heartland of the Andes, about the eleventh century, having
migrated from the south, possibly from the region of Tiahuanaco. During the
1100s, they extended their domain over the mountain tribes. Having conquered
Tiahuanaco by 1250, they used it as a base for their steady conquest of the
coastal cities and federations.

Their most rapid advances came during the reign of Pachacutic
(1438-1471), a brilliant field commander but also a planner, organizer,
builder and religious leader, who has been called "the greatest man ever
produced by the American race." ^4 Pachacutic completely pacified the Cuzco
area, and with his successor, Topa Yupanqui, extended Inca rule from the
Amazon forest to the coast and from Ecuador to Chile. Although he could be
ruthless, as evidenced by his massacres of rebels, Pachacutic avoided violence
whenever diplomacy could accomplish results. His reign produced a universal
empire which emphasized mutual cooperation among its three million subjects.
He also added worship of a supreme creator to the prevailing sun cult.

[Footnote 4: Quoted from Clements Markham in Edward Hyams and George Ordish,
The Last of the Incas (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963), p. 99.]

Exploiting their reputation as a chosen people and the unity derived from
a common official language, the Incas developed a culture marked by
integration. Every part of the pattern - economy, social structure,
government, religion, and art - fitted together in a highly disciplined whole.
Such internal cohesion had been common in smaller, simpler kinship societies.
Before the Incas, however, few other territorial states had succeeded so
quickly and so effectively in regimenting millions of people over such great
distances. The accomplishment appears even more remarkable in view of the
environmental difficulties, which hampered rather than encouraged unity.
Throughout their history, the Incas struggled against the steep slopes and
cruel weather of the towering Andes in achieving their organizational

Like all civilized peoples, the Incas faced the problem of population
expansion against a limited food supply. They solved the problem well enough
to support large military, bureaucratic, and priestly establishments by
developing what economists call a "command economy." They used no money, no
credit, and very little trade beyond the barter conducted locally by
government agents. The state planned all economic operations and kept all
accounts, assigning the land to be worked, supervising the worker who produced
the crops, and collecting the harvests in warehouses. A similar approach was
used in manufacturing. From its storehouses, the government distributed goods
to individuals, to the military, and to government projects. In the process,
it built roads, operated hospitals, and maintained schools. Private property
was limited to the simplest personal possessions, including the luxuries of
the privileged classes.

This economy functioned through four levels of precisely defined social
gradations. At the top were the Incas, all related directly or indirectly to
the reigning emperor. They held the highest positions in government, the army,
and the priesthood. A notch lower were lesser aristocrats and nobles among
conquered peoples, who held local offices, up to subgovernors in the
provinces. The two upper classes made up a privileged elite. Trained in
special schools, their members were identified by luxuries in food, dress, and
housing. They were also exempted from taxes and cruel punishments. At the
third level were common workers. They were generally confined to their
villages, their work was prescribed, their dress and food were restricted, and
the government even checked the cleanliness of their houses. Commoners were
thus little better off than the lowest class of slaves, who were taken as war
captives and assigned as servants to the upper classes.

Women occupied an inferior position in Inca society. Indeed, a
fifteenth-century royal decree prohibited them from testifying in court,
because they were by nature "deceitful, mendacious, and faint-hearted." ^5
They were respected and honored, however, in pursuits considered appropriate.
Those of the upper classes ate at banquets with their husbands, supervised
household affairs, and cared for their children. Legal wives ruled over
concubines, the number of which varied according to the husband's status and
special permission from the emperor, who was permitted an unlimited number.
Women of all classes could inherit personal property from a dead husband. As
widows they were supported by the state, but a widow could not remarry, except
to her former husband's brother. Concubines, with no legal status at all, were
subject to banishment by their masters at any time. Women of the commoner
class, which supplied most concubines, generally lived miserable lives, amid
dirt, disease, and hard work. Those who were especially beautiful or highly
intelligent might be drafted as young girls and specially trained. Some of
these "chosen women," would become "virgins of the sun," serving as nuns and
perhaps weaving cloth for the emperor in the temple workshops. Others would
become concubines of nobles or the emperor. A few would be sacrificed. All of
these were considered to be honored servants of the state.

[Footnote 5: Ibid., p. 88.]

All authority in this state originated with the hereditary divine
emperor, who exercised the power of life and death over three million people.
He was usually aloof and withdrawn, even among members of his own household,
although he might, if he chose, delegate authority to the queen or take advice
from his mother. With thousands of servants and concubines, his court was a
magnificent display of wealth and power. It was also the locus of a central
government which included ministries of rituals (religion), war, treasury,
accounts, and public works. The chief ministers were advisors to the Imperial
Council, consisting of the emperor and four viceroys, who governed the four
provinces. Each province, about the size of New York state, was divided into
approximately 40 districts, under subgovernors and their helpers. Authority in
the districts was further subdivided, ultimately into units of ten families.
Officials at each level reported regularly to superiors and were subject to
frequent inspections. This system regulated every aspect of life, including
labor, justice, marriage, and even morals.

The power of the ruler depended largely on an excellent military system,
which featured compulsory service. Instructors in the villages trained peasant
boys for the army; the most promising were marked for advancement when they
were called to active duty in their twenties. They served for two years before
retiring to the labor reserve and militia. The army was organized in units of
10, 50, 100, 1000 and 10,000, under officers who held complete authority over
subordinates. A combat force of 200,000 with support units, was always under
arms. It was supplied from military storehouses throughout the country and
garrisoned in mighty stone fortresses, each with independent water sources.
Troops from these centers ruthlessly suppressed any resistance to the regime.

A second base for Inca authority was religion. As the empire grew, its
priests appropriated the local and ancestral gods of conquered peoples. For
example, the "virgins of the sun," their ceremonies, and their temples were
copied from the earlier worship of a moon goddess among matrilineal societies.
Thus the former local deities were formed into a vast pantheon, under the Inca
sun god. Unfortunately, Pachacutic's nascent monotheism and humanitarianism
did not prevail; his son and later emperors occasionally sacrificed war
victims to the sun. As with the Aztecs, each conquest was rationalized as the
god's will. The continuity of the state was considered proof of divine
approval, and the emperor was regarded as the god's living embodiment. In
emphasizing this rationale, dead emperors were mummified and seated on thrones
in their sacred palaces, to be attended by servants, wives, and priests. On
public occasions, these grotesque figures were paraded before the people, who
bowed before them in reverence. Such ceremonies were conducted by a clerical
establishment of 4000 in the capital and hundreds of thousands more throughout
the country.

The characteristic values of order and security were reflected in Inca
cultural expression, which gave little place to aesthetic concerns or
philosophic speculation. Even religious theory was conditioned by practical
necessities and the morality of power. Treason and cowardice were considered
the worst offenses. The Incas had no common written literature and no complex
writing system. They used a system of knotted cords to communicate
quantitative information. Similarly, the Inca lunar calendar was inaccurate
and had no starting point for historical identification of events. Although
efficient craftsmen and producers of fine pottery and metal work in copper and
gold, the Incas' main cultural accomplishments were in engineering and massive
architecture. Without using mortar, they fitted immense slabs of stone into
temple and fortress walls. This efficiency is still evident in existing road,
bridges, terraced fields, and stone fortresses.