Chapter 14 - The Rise of Civilization in the New World

Last class, we examined the rise of civilizations in the Old World. To summarize, all four of the major centers of early civilization arose along major river valleys in arid regions, thus having important irrigation networks. They all relied upon domesticated plants as well as animals, and they had well-developed transportation networks (using water craft and the wheel) and a high-level of technological achievement (using the wheel, plow, bronze, and iron). Thus, varying degrees of urbanization and associated support institutions, such as economic stratification and writing, were advanced. Finally, the Great traditions resulting from these cultures, were widespread, and in the case of China, very long-lived so the it persists even today. However, while there are similarities, there are also many differences that are a function of the individual environmental and cultural settings in which these civilizations developed.

In the New World, it took much longer for civilizations to develop. This is due to several factors: First, remember that humans have only been on this continent for the last 12,000 years of so. Thus, it took awhile longer for the same pressures, such as population, to build up to driving cultural development. Also, New World cultures had to make due with several severe constraints that were unique to the New World: First, there were no draft animals that could be domesticated. Thus, transportation and agricultural intensification were extremely limited. I've mentioned before how the wheel wasn't used for more than children's toys in the New World...What's the point if you have only human transport? Also, the plow was never used, either...very difficult to plow by human-power alone. Thus, the establishment of civilizations was limited only to those few locations that were extremely productive by nature.

Yet, despite the potential for immense differences from their predecessors in the Old World, the civilizations which evolved in the New World were structurally identical! When representatives of the civilizations of the Old World first experienced the civilizations of the New World, they intuitively understood the basic structures of these societies. "It seemed natural that kings and aristocracies should dominate society, compete for power, and be supported by peasants. That politics and religion should go hand-in-hand made perfect sense." In addition, other institutions such as a regulated marketplace, professional military and priesthood, huge cites containing palaces and temples all seemed very familiar...if Cortez hadn't have known better, he could have thought that he was back in Medieval Europe! It was this fundamental understanding of the structure of their society that enabled him to quickly manipulate it against itself. Cortez and his 400 Spaniards didn't conquer the Aztec empire...it was his thousands of allies that he recruited from within the empire, itself, that lead to its collapse.

However, while the Spanish recognized the similarities between their two societies, they were also disconcerted by the differences. Aside from the differences in their Great Traditions, such as the expression of their religious beliefs (which could simply be explained as paganism), it was the fact that the Aztecs were able to achieve such complexity based on a completely different suite of technological innovations that surprised the Spaniards most. Here, in the absence of such Old World mainstays as iron and draft animals, the Aztecs had been able to develop an empire fully the equal of any in the world!

What is most interesting to us as archaeologists is the fact that the foundations of New World civilizations were so similar while their Great Traditions were so different. Because of the stylistic differences in the Great Traditions between the Old World and the New, and the lack of genetic and linguistic evidence, we assume that there was no contact between New and Old World civilizations before AD 1519. This rules out diffusion as an explanation for any similarities in these societies. The most likely remaining conclusion is that there must be some regularity in the general process of social evolution.

Unlike civilizations in the Old World, those in the New didn't evolve along arid rivers.

The earliest complex society in the Mesoamerica, and the whole New World, were the Olmecs who are first identifiable around 1200 B. C. Though they lacked the complex institutions central to the operation of a civilized state, the Olmec are significant because they represent the first appearance of the distinctive Great Tradition that was to characterize all of the civilizations that were to follow.

Over the following centuries, a variety of small city/states rose and fell. Then, around 100 B. C. in the Valley of Mexico, Teotihuacan became the first large-scale civilized state in the New World. However, while Teotihuacan had well developed a distinctive Great Tradition (though it was influenced by the Olmecs), social stratification, economic specialization, centralized political control, and a state-level religion, there is no evidence for any writing even though they had extensive contacts with the literate Maya who were reaching their peak at the same time (AD 600) as the Teotihuacanos were. Despite this limitation, Teotihuacan was one of the handful of prehistoric sites in the New World to achieve full-scale urbanization: "large population (125,000), high density (6 - 7,000 / km2), evidence for stratification, internal diversity, and a multiplicity of functions accompanied by a distinctive great tradition." However, by AD 750, other central Mexican centers were drawing population away the center and the valley, so much so that the city became negligible in importance.

On the Yucatan peninsula, the cultural development of the Maya closely paralleled that of Teotihuacan, though based more on the Great Tradition of the Olmecs. Sedentary farming communities grew throughout the Late-Preclassic Period (450 B. C. - AD 300). By around AD 1, monumental architecture was appearing along with distinctive artwork and fortifications...warfare! "Like the autonomous city states of Sumer, Maya centers never coalesced into confederations of polities. Classic period centers, like Copan, have monumental architecture (temples and palaces) and dispersed settlement around the centers, unlike Teotihuacan. However, like Copan, most construction of Maya civilization ceases around AD 900.

Around this time, development in central Mexico picks up again with the Toltec civilization and lasts until around AD 1200. Finally, in the late AD 1300's, the Aztecs began their rapid rise to fame which Cortez put to an end.

In the New World, native groups had a more environmental and technological constraints than those in the Old World. Yet, despite these limitations and the necessarily slower pace of development caused by the difficulties in communication and transport, societies in the New World were able to develop to such an extent that they rivaled those in the Old.