For some reason I have always been fascinated with the ancient civilizations of Mexico, South and Central America, without being sure what the difference was between the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas, and the lesser-known groups like the Olmecs and Toltecs. I find the Mexican pyramids to be just as graceful as their older Egyptian cousins, but more mysterious and, considering the violent rites the Aztecs were known for, much more ominous. For those who are traveling to South America, Central America, or Mexico and desire to know about the ancient people who once inhabited these places, this is a quick guide to pre-Columbian times.
The Aztecs. My personal favorite group to study, the Aztecs were a stunningly high-tech civilization in which bright colors were rampant and there was a stern sense of obedience to the gods of their culture. Unfortunately, according to their mythology, they took obedience to mean offering sacrifices to appease their forboding deities. The same people who mercilessly killed thousands to keep the favor of the gods were also competitive, perfecting games and outdoor activities similar to some of the games played today. They did not call themselves Aztecs; one of their names for themselves was “Mexica,” leaving little doubt as to the origin of the country now known as Mexico. One of their cities was at Tenochtitlan which is currently Mexico City. Visitors who travel to this huge place and do a little exploring can see fascinating ruins.
The Incas. Another interesting ethnic group, the Incas, lived in a large area spreading over many countries in South America. One of the countries they are most associated with seems to be Peru. When studying ancient cultures it is always intriguing to find links between places that would seem to have had no connection at all. The Inca people believed in the supreme authority and holiness of their leader, whom they considered to have a bloodline from a deity. In Ancient Egypt, pharaohs were earthbound mediators with heavenly connections, and in Rome, emperors were sometimes deified after death. The Incas were skillful farmers able to turn barren land into a grower’s paradise. If you travel to the famous ruins of Machu Piccu, you can see what is believed to be a famous Incan city.
The Toltecs. Considered to be the predecessors of the mighty Aztecs, the Toltecs were an older civilization and venerated by their descendants. One of their cities, Tula, is a mere shell of its former self but can be explored by those who love ruins of antiquity. You will find it is not very far from Mexico City. At Tula you can see an area where games were once played, religious sites, and ominous statuary. Sadly, there are few things remaining of this once-important Toltec empire. The Toltecs were on equal footing with farming and fighting, able to do both in a precise manner. Strangely enough, the Aztecs, who were so enamored of Toltec culture, dismantled important architecture for the gain of their own city.
The Maya. There is something mysterious about this culture; famous yet not completely understood, it is fascinating to the history and travel buff. If you are planning to visit Guatemala in Central America or our Southern neighbor of Mexico, you might be able to discover some Mayan ruins for yourself. So who were the Maya, exactly? If you study Mayan art and architecture, you may notice a cat-like animal appearing very frequently. This is the jaguar and was a sacred animal image to this particular culture. If you’re stopping in Guatemala ask for directions to the ruins believed to be Tikal, a famous Mayan city. You will find a pyramid and other clues that help piece together Mayan history. The most fascinating Mayan ruin you can possibly visit is at Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan; you will find a huge, beautiful pyramid soaring over the remnants of the court. In Spanish it is known as El Castillo, but another name for it is Kukulcan.
The Olmecs. Considered to be one of the oldest Mexican cultures, some of the Olmecs’ greatest contributations were in statuary and art. Little is known about these people except that they were probably the oldest group in the country. Their religion has been lost, as well as most evidence of the empire, but enough is known to ensure their age and importance. Like the Aztecs, it is thought that some form of sacrifice may have been part of their worship. In Mexico at a place known as La Venta, some sparse ruins can be found; they are not big or grand like those of other cultures found nearby, but serve to show us a glimpse of the past.
By Lacie R. Schaeffer