Posts Tagged: Mesoamerica

Army with no Beasts of Burden

29 August 2017 Comments (0)

It is well known that Tenochtitlan’s influence, not to say outright domination, encompassed Central Mexico and after the time of its eight Tlatoani Ahuitzotl reached almost from coast to coast. However, in order to carve out such an empire one must have substantial warriors’ forces available and ready, easy to gather, to move around and send marching considerable distances, supplied with provisions and other necessities to arrive at their destination coordinated, well fed and ready to fight.

Not an easy feat at the times when no radio communication was available, and no vehicles to supplies food and other war necessities of the marching forces. In fact, even the customary beasts of burden that ancient armies of other continents used to enjoy were not available to the expanding Mesoamericans. And yet, the Mexicas and their allies did not seem to complain or feel disadvantaged. Anything but!

To organize armies of many thousands one needed a meticulous coordination, strict hierarchy of leadership and well maintained line of supplies. Not a challenge when it came to Tenochtitlan armies.

The largest unit in the Mexica and its allies’ forces was called xiquipilli, an eight thousand strong division that could move and operate independently or in coordination with another such unit. Composed from twenty smaller units of four hundred warriors each, it was an impressive force when on the march or in battle.

In Tenochtitlan, each such smaller unit of four hundred was said to be recruited from a different city district – twenty districts, twenty units of four hundred, one xiquipilli of eight thousand. However, Tenochtitlan districts’ ability to yield four hundred readily available warriors upon a request may be questioned. Let alone twice or trice this amount, because in later times, the Mexica armies were reported to move in forces that exceeded twenty thousand warriors. In this case, we may be excused for assuming that other altepetl/city-states, members of The Triple Alliance for one, contributed an additional unit of eight thousand each, with the provinces adding more warriors to the marching out forces.

And yet, even if only one xiquipilli was enlisted for each new campaign out of Tenochtitlan itself, eight thousand warriors was a large amount of people to move out without paralyzing the city’s regular life and activities. To avoid that, each campaign was organized meticulously and ahead of time, gathering, supplying and moving each unit of four hundred out of its original place of recruitment in their own districts at different times and throughout more than one day. This way, no large altepetl’s traffic and regular life got disrupted, no avenues or canals jammed, no regular activities interrupted; not to a damaging degree.

Once outside, those same smaller units could be reassembled back into their original formations. Or, in some cases, they could be ordered to move on separately upon the decision of the higher leaders – tlatoani, the ruler himself or his warlords, tlacochcalcatl and tlacateccatl – depending on different factors, from projected strategy to something as simple as distance toward the site of the prospected battle, or the location of supplies and the towns who were expected to provide those.

In every province, permanent stores for the army on the move were required to be maintained as a part of the tribute system. Which enabled the Triple Alliance’s armies enjoy supplies without dragging hundreds or even thousands porters along. Such lands were called milchimalli or cacalomilli, and they were set aside especially for war related production, usually close to Tenochtitlan but not always.

However, the first most immediate food-kits for the warriors to carry along were prepared in advance by their own neighborhoods-calpulli the moment the official recruitment was heralded from every plaza and square. Maize cakes, maize flour, toasted maize, beans, salt, chilli, pumpkin seeds and pinolli – everything that could be carried easily and eaten with no need to cook was tucked inside warriors’ bags. In Tenochtitlan itself the obligation to supply such parcels fell on the marketplace vendors as a part of their own private tax payment.

From the moment the ruler declared war preparations to be on, repeated by special heralds on every plaza or square of each district, the army was out of the city and ready to march in approximately five days if the prospected campaign was to be conducted relatively nearby; eight days for more distant, less familiar sites. The allies were called to arms or invited to join by special runners carrying appropriate documentation on behalf of Tenochtitlan Tlatoani.

When the ruler left on campaigns – a customary occurrence – his right hand and head adviser cihuacoatl would stay and govern the city in his absence. Out of the highest governmental body consisted of Council of Four – two highest military leaders and two secondary advisers – both warlords, tlacochcalcatl and tlacateccatl would join the ruler on the projected war expedition, taking responsibility or simply assisting with the organization of supplies, picking marching roads, devising battlefield strategy and taking care of other details connected to the initiated attack. Tlatoani was the supreme leader on the battlefield as much as in the city he ruled.

Re-training, preparations of supplies, distribution of arms and relevant items of wear before every campaign was placed on cuauhhuehuetqueh, old veteran leaders. The smallest divisions of twenty warriors, the most basic units reported in the Mexica forces, were incorporated or dispersed among larger units of four hundred once outside the city; however as whole, none of those were divided, keeping their structure and their low-rank leaders in the march as much as upon the battlefield. And so was the case with the reinforcements arriving from other cities and towns. Each marched with its own town’s unit, under its own banner and in the command of their immediate leaders that were accountable to higher leaders of the entire campaign.

In each unit veterans were spread evenly, placed between younger, less experienced warriors – a veteran per about five novices – expected to keep an eye on them and their learning. This way, the casualties expected among ‘green’ recruitments were lessened, to a degree.

On average, marching warriors were expected to move ten to twenty miles a day. Allied troops might be conducted separately toward the same destination. The assumption was that each unit of four hundred, let alone xiquipilli of eight thousand, was strong and organized enough to defend itself if surprised until other units could be alerted by professional runner-messengers.

Each xiquipilli has a standard – cuachpantli – to carry on the road and into the battle. Codex Mendoza lists four types of standards, even though there were probably additional banners for lesser divisions that were worn by the leaders of those smaller units. Such leaders were called yaotequihuaque, and they wore extra layer of colorful insignia over the customary cotton shirt armor in addition to ornaments constructed from bark paper, feathers and cloths attached to their backs by leather straps in the manner that would not interfere with their ability to war and maneuver. Those cuachpantli banners or standards served to indicate the position of each unit while helping coordinate its movements on the battlefield.

Like in any organized army, the hierarchy was the one to dictate each warrior’s clothing and decorations, or rather his right to wear such. The most basic cotton armor was called ichcahuipilli. Made of unspun cotton soaked in salt water and sewed between two layers of cloth or stitched to a leather border, it created material thick enough no prevent most arrows or darts from penetrating through such quilted barrier. The armor was sleeveless and either tied in the back or the front, or worn in a sort of a pullover that hugged the body and covered it all the way to the thigh.

Almost every warrior could afford such basic means of protection, some of which might have been supplied by their local caplullis together with customary weaponry of a simpler sort. A club or a simple spear completed by undecorated wooden shield seemed to be the most affordable weaponry among regular warriors. Those were stored in special armories – tlacochcalco – that were spread throughout the city. According to the account of one of the conquistadors (Andres de Tapia) each armory held up to 500 cartloads of weaponry each.

Two armories in the royal precinct located in the palace itself hosted permanent workshops of most skillful craftsmen, producing intricate new weaponry in considerable amounts. Those catered to the elite military orders such as Jaguar and Eagle Warriors. The various districts’ armories supplied the rest, often filled from the tribute payments brought from various provinces (according to Codex Mendoza).

Elite warriors, in addition to the basic protection the sleeveless ichcahuipilli provided, wore tlahuiztli, a war costume consisted of long sleeves and leggings to be worn over the cotton shirt armor. It was closed in the back and often decorated with animal skins and feathers sewn to the material. Besides decorative purposes, cloth with feathers was reported to provide additional means of protection.

Another decorated tunic called ehuatl was used by the warriors of the highest leading rank. Made of cloth with feathers set in rows that resembled a skirt, it also assisted in deflecting lances, arrows and even swords. It has no sleeves and no leggings, and therefore seemed to be slightly inferior to tlahuiztli.

To earn the right of wearing necklace-cozcapetlatl, armbands matemecatl and calf-bands cotzehuatl made from very thin gold, copper or bark, both covered with leather and feathers, and wristlets called matzopetztli one has to capture several enemies and distinguish himself in plenty of battles.

Helmets were also worn by elite warriors and leaders alone. Made of wood and bone and decorated with feathers, those served a purpose of additional protection as much as means to proclaim one’s rank. Some were made in a shape of a wild animal’s head – jaguar, wolf or puma – stretched over a frame of wood or quilted cotton. Its owner would gaze out from the animal’s open jaw.

Never being a symbolic figure but a true leading warrior and usually in the thickest of it, tlatoani wore customary ichcahuipilli with decorated ehuatl thrown over it, his loincloth adorned with quetzal feathers in a sort of a skirt – an additional protection in deflecting certain blows – with bracelets and anklets made of gold and a spectacular headdress called copilli encrusted with turquoise.

Tlacateccatl, his chief warlord and second-in-command, typically wore a banner – the insignia of the highest war leader – on his back, with his face and shield painted in pronounced deadly patterns. A long-sleeved ehuatl would usually complete the picture, decorated with a painted leather skirt and quetzalteopamitl made of gold and quetzal feathers, a national Mexica standard.

Elite units and warriors were easy to recognize by their special attire and insignia. Ocelopilli or Jaguar Warriors, who must have captured at least four warriors, wore tlahuiztli over ichcahuipilli with the knot of the loincloth-maxtlatl coming in a certain way out of the front opening. Helmets with jaguar markings, obsidian swords-maquahuitl and shields-yaochimalli decorated with feathers and gold completed their outfit. In similar fashion, Eagle Warriors wore a helmet made of bark and inlaid with feathers.

In addition to these two, another elite combat unit called cuauhchicque was used in order to provoke attacks, complete difficult missions and provide strategic assistance during battles. There was no hierarchy in such unit as its members were honored as front-line combatants each and every one of them. Their heads were typically shaved aside from the crest down the middle and two side tufts. They wore glaringly yellow tlahuiztli and a paper emblem attached to their backs, carrying special shields and of course, customary obsidian swords.

Not to leave warriors and leaders without moral or rather spiritual support, tlamacaztequihua or warrior-priests were present on every battlefield or campaign. Their duties varied between conduct of proper ceremonies prior to each battle and after it ended, responsibility of seeing fallen warriors into their new beginnings and attendance to other spiritual matters. Such servants of gods wore tlahuiztli colored in black and white in imitation of the night sky with stars, and conical hat of design that may appear somewhat foreign to the region of Central Mexico. Often they fought alongside other leaders as full-pledged warriors, sometimes capturing an occasional enemy.

The bulk of the army, of course, was comprised of simple warriors, novices and veterans who didn’t distinguished themselves into special promotions. Urban commoners and farmers from the countryside, those warriors wore ichcahuipilli and maxtlatl and were reportedly permitted to carry obsidian swords if they could afford such expense. Typically they used clubs and other sorts of simpler offensive weaponry, besides shooting devices such as atlatls and slings.

The next article on the subject of organized warfare, will address customs and rules concerning military career and promotions.

An excerpt from “Morning Star”, The Aztec Chronicles, book #5.

The imperial voice rolled pleasantly, making Elotl wish to hear more. Not enough to tempt him into slowing his step of course once they were in the relative safety of the outside. It was his companion who did this, clearly wishing to listen, undeterred by their dubious right to be here at all.

“He is going to tell them to start the recruiting, I’m telling you. You just wait and see.”

Elotl rolled his eyes, trying to lead them down the stairs as directed. Or better yet, somewhere out and away from here. “What does that mean? Weren’t you all preparing for war anyway?”

“Yes, we were.” The youth waved his hand impatiently, leaning toward the carved opening they had just managed to leave as though intending to try and sneak back in against every logic or reason. “We were preparing for war, yes. Making arrangements. You don’t go to war just like that, do you?” His words poured out absently, in a quiet flow, his attention clearly still on the happenings inside the luxurious hall. “But when the Emperor declares an actual recruitment, then it’s official and in less than five dawns we are all out and on our way. Eight dawns, if it’s a far away campaign,” he added as though after a thought. “But no more than that, never more than that.”

Who cares? wondered Elotl, but was wiser than to say it aloud this time, wishing to hear their emperor as well. Eight dawns to organize all those hundreds upon hundreds of warriors, then move them out, all the way to the south? No, the west. Tollocan and that other enemy altepetl of the valley spread to the west of the mighty island-capital, weren’t they? Eight dawns to do the impossible, but these islanders were not to be measured by regular standards, that much he had learn with certainty so far.

“How many warriors will they lead out?” he asked, unable to hear the orating ruler properly, bored and afraid that his companion will try to mount the stairs once again. He certainly looked this way.

“At least two xiquipilli,” was the off-handed answer. “Three or more, if Texcoco and Tlacopan are interested to participate for real.” A shrug. “Texcoco certainly is.”

“What’s xiquipilli?”

This time the youth’s gaze deigned to leave the desired doorway. “You don’t know that?” The widening eyes made Elotl’s embarrassment soar.

“Why should I know that?”

“If you want to be a warrior like your brother…” The twist of his companion’s lips held unmistakable contempt now.

“My brother is not a warrior. He is spying for your emperor. It’s a different thing.”

“He will be warring for our Emperor sooner than you think.” This time the eyes flashed in familiar fashion. “While you will be carrying food provisions in the best of cases, unless you learn like he does and not just go around talking stupid and picking fights.”

Elotl clenched his fists and said nothing, the effort of controlling his anger making his hands tremble like back in the walled gardens. What an arrogant filthy piece of rotten meat this Miztli’s friend was!

Metallurgy in pre-columbian Central Mexico

28 October 2016 Comments (3)

If dazzling jewelry was your weakness, then you might have found it hard to pass through a marketplace or workshop areas of Tenochtitlan or any other major Mesoamerican altepetl/city-state without spending much of your hard earned goods or local currency – cocoa beans and cotton cloths – on too many beautiful trinkets. Glittering bracelets, earring and anklets of copper and gold or brilliantly polished precious stones were always in high demand, and the canny Mesoamerican traders knew how to tempt a customer with most charming, intricate, lavish designs, causing jewelers and other artisans work long and hard to supply the demand.

Pre-Columbian metalworkers toiled in their workshops, located usually in the less prestigious parts of the city, along with other craftsmen and their shops – feather-makers, stone-workers, weapon-makers and such, organized into guilds, represented well in their districts, taxed but respected, the heart of the middle class and the spine of it. Unlike their fellow other craftsmen and artisans, the metal-smiths’ working areas required special facilities – powerful braziers, specialized tools, considerable supply of fuel. Braziers were typically made out of stone, with special openings for pipes crowned with clay tips to be inserted into the raging fire in order to make it rage fiercer, reach desirable temperatures by blowing into it constantly.

Copper, for one, needed to be heated to over six hundred degrees (Celsius) in order to separate it from the most obvious excess of other minerals it was extracted with from the earth, then reach 1250C in order to make it into a workable material for smelting. Blowing reed pipes with clay tips achieved that, but to maintain such long standing fires plenty of firewood was required. A problem for the big cities where most of the metal smiths’ workshop were located; less so for the miners out there in the country, those who didn’t produce the finished products but still needed to do the first round of heating in order to separate copper and silver from other minerals those raw materials were mixed with.

In Nahuatl, the lingua franca of Central Mexico, the term for mining was ‘in tepetl auh in ozototl’ which means ‘the mountain and the cave’, indicating typical location of precious stones and minerals. The term for digging up a mine was ‘tlallan oztotataca’‘to dig caves in the earth’. The word for copper was ‘tepoztli’ and ‘tepoztli iohui’ meant the ‘copper vein’. In Western Mexico, where metallurgy was even more wide-spread the dominant Pu’repecha language is full of appropriate terms.

The easiest and most wide-spread technique of mining was surface collection, where the ore was simply available on the surface, either in streambeds or on the ground. The erosive power of streams would break the ore and the heavier metals would settle on the bottom in areas of slower flow. Those were also the easiest to recognize because the deposits of cooper that are naturally dull gray in coloring, when exposed to the weather conditions of the surface brighten into vivid green or blue. A wonderful lead for the miners to follow, to collect what’s on the surface and dig short tunnels in order to reach the hidden treasures in the correct places. This technique is called ‘open-pit mining’.

The Underground Mining was also used when the deposit occurred deep below the surface in the form of a vein in a hard rock – the term tepoztli iohui means copper vein. In this case, tunnels were excavated in the rock to remove the ore, narrow vertical shafts driven through the rock, widening out to horizontal galleries where the ore was found. Pre-Columbian miners preferred to drive adits – nearly horizontal entrances to a mine – or tunnels into rocky slopes over digging shafts, which made drainage and haulage much easier.

In Mesoamerica, evidence of underground mining, including sizeable adits, shafts and galleries dug with hafted hammer-stones dates back to the beginning of AD, not only in order to extract metals but of course in order to haul out precious stones as well – cinnabar, turquoise and obsidian mines, even though the obsidian mines did not required digging adits.

Evidence indicates that the tools used to excavate mines and extract the ores were varying, consisted of stone hammers, large stone mortars, either portable or fixed on the walls of the mine, pestles upon which minerals were probably ground, bone scrapers, and digging sticks, ceramic ladles, obsidian blades, and wooden wedges. Remains of ocote-torches, and vegetal fibers impregnated with resin, baskets, ropes and ceramic pots, have also been recorded often.

As mentioned before, to separate metals was crucial, so the miners would work the found treasures on the spot, using what we call today pyrometallurgy when the ore was ground, mixed with charcoal and heated in a crucible or brazier. At the right temperature, up to 1300C, copper would separate from other components and merge into droplets. Adding ash or sand helped to melt the slag, so the copper would sink while the rest of the liquid would float, ready to be picked off while still hot, or broken off while cooled.

However to created refined, beautiful or useful items, the purified metal would have to be sent to the cities and into the hands of the urban craftsmen, the metal-workers. Styles of fashioning final products were many and diverse: hard-hammering or cold-hammering (working the metal when its cold), annealing (heating the metal after cold-work reduced its plasticity), casting (shaping metal when in its liquid state). Decorating techniques included gilding, embossing, soldering;lost-wax casting, gilding, low-relief decorations (created by hammering from the reverse side of the object), sheathing and so on.

Cold-working involved changing the form of a metal object by bending, shaping, rolling and hammering. As the metal being shaped internal stress serves to harden the part. Heat also serves to harden the material. Bells, needles, tweezers, rings, awls, axes, ornaments were usually made by cold-working from an ingot cast with occasional round of annealing. However if concentration of tin or arsenic was high enough to cause brittleness, hot working or forging was employed.

Small open rings for earrings or hair ornaments were very popular. Cold-hammered, then annealed through several sequences, those would fetch good prices on the marketplaces of big cities. After 1200 AD such rings were forged in high-tin bronze. Silvery rings were made by silver-copper alloy.

Tweezers were as popular, made by two symmetrical blades joined by hinge that was fashioned from a continued piece of metal. In earlier times they were hammered out from a solid piece, then bent over a wood piece or other solid material in a shape of a hinge, then cold-worked into a final shape and the excess metal cut. Later tweezers were made out of alloys and have been of a high quality, hot-worked into shape. Tweezers made of gold were saved for leaders and foreign offerings alone.

Sheet-metal ornaments were made of extremely thin cold-worked sheet of copper-silver, copper-gold, copper-silver-gold or silver-gold mixes. Those were used to ornate breastplates, shields, headbands, pendants, earrings, disks and bracelets. Copper-silver alloy was the most popular for such ornamenting purposes.

Axes were made from copper or bronze, mostly for symbolic use as it seems. Those were cold-worked, annealed, then cold-worked again. Copper (like silver and gold) is not an optional metal for cutting wood, but naturally occurring copper, due to its metallic impurity, can be relatively hard, useful for splitting wood. However, even such axes lost their edge quickly and needed to be reshaped. Bronze alloy axes became wide spread in Post Classic period (after 1200 AD). Tin-bronze, copper-arsenic and copper-arsenic-tin were added to enhance the tool. Those were three times thinner at the edge and harder, made by pouring molten alloy and into the mold (Florentine Codex), then shaped by hammering and annealed and cold-worked again to harden them.

Needles and awls, hoes, fishhooks, digging stick-points, thin leaf-like objects were made out of arsenical copper, usually cold-worked and annealed, sometimes used as tribute payment. Copper bells and later on bronze bells were created for decorative purposes, their shapes vary from round, to oval, to cylindrical, with suspended ring at the top and a narrow slit opening at the base, with loose clapper made of metal, ceramic or pebble. Such bells sported beautiful, elaborated designs. Some were made from coiled threads of wire, forming complex vertical and horizontal patterns. The original models for these belts were made entirely out of wax, winding piece of wax thread around a clay core.

Mesoamerican smiths experimented lavishly, producing alloys of copper-silver, copper-gold, copper-arsenic, copper-tin, as well as more complicated mixes of copper-silver-gold, copper-silver-arsenic, copper-arsenic-antimony, copper-arsenic-tin. Copper-silver alloys were reached by smelting copper and silver ores separately, then melting the two together (as there are no ores to contain both metals in satisfactory amounts together, such alloys could be nothing but intentional product). Copper-arsenic alloys could be achieved from the same ore and the same smelting (in West Mexico it was probably achieved by smelting chalcopyrite and arsenopyrite together). Copper-tin alloys were produced either by cassiterite in order to win metallic tin then adding tin to the molten copper, or by smelting cassiterate together with copper ore minerals. Such bronze was manufactured only in two areas in Americas – Andean highlands and West Mexico. In West Mexico it dates back to 1200 AD. Copper-gold alloys usually contained plenty of copper and much less gold, mainly to give the product a shiny appearance.

So while strolling around the better parts of Tenochtitlan or other important city-states of the 14th-15th century Central Mexico, one was likely to have one’s vision assaulted by fierce glint of the noble people’s jewelry or the glittering of the ornamented walls and temples. Then it would be a high time to visit the most sought out jeweler oneself, or to look for his mat on the marketplace.

An excerpt from the upcoming novel “Obsidian Puma”

There was no room for mistakes in this trade, his benefactor would repeat over and over. With the sort of the fire they maintained and the sort of the metallic liquid they dealt with, one single mistake could cost a person his life or, at least, his ability to live properly. Still, there were times when he didn’t care one way or another, not heedful of the warning of his employer, or rather a slaver. There was a limit to a person’s ability to crouch next to the blazing braziers, blowing to make them rage fiercer. One couldn’t do it all day long for many days in a row.

The other workers, both sons of the owner and one disinterested nephew named Patli, did other things, hammered and scraped to refine the half ready products, worked with blades and ceramic ladles on the less delicate ornaments, rushed around with bee-wax and pottery. Learned the trade! While all he, Miztli, did was to slave in the melting room, tending the fire and not letting it go down the insanely high heat, allowed to pour melted goods into various clay and stone utensils sometimes, starting his day earlier than anyone and finishing way after the others were well away at the main house or wherever, loitering and having a good time.

He wasn’t a son or a nephew, or any other sort of a family member, but his father wanted him to learn how to work the precious metals and not only how to extract those from the earth, and so here he was, living in misery for more than three moons, blowing into the fire to make it rage fiercer. Some learning!

Grimly, he blinked the sweat away from his eyelids, watching the greenish powder that he was made to scrape from a solid piece of copper earlier in the day, in the blissful coolness of the outer room. There was another pile of powdered stone poured to mix in the pot this time, not gold but a duller looking mineral. It created better results, a stronger metal that was easier to work with, sturdier but more flexible at the same time. Magic. It was a beautiful sight, those simmering liquids of various colors, a pretty show to watch. In the beginning, it thrilled him to no end, the ability to turn something solid into a workable flow to be shaped to one’s desire, any form, any size, a jewel or a brick, or just an impossibly thin sheet of metallic wonder to create detailed reliefs for noble establishments upon their request.

These days, it bored him to death.

The outer screen screeched, announcing newcomers, quite a few of them, judging by the voices and the draft that managed to sneak in through the cracks in the wooden screen. Miztli ground his teeth and let his fingers crush the straw he worked with. To throw the remnants of his tool into the raging fire made him feel better. In less than a heartbeat, it was consumed, ceasing to exist – one moment there, the other gone.

Twisting his lips contemptuously, he reached for another pipe, a whole pile of those, reed straws being as plentiful as the mud upon the shores of the Great Lake, but old Tlaquitoc would grimace all the same, scolding his apprentice for carelessness and lack of concentration. If only there was a way to feed this entire establishment to the fire.

The draft made his work momentarily easier, igniting the flames in both braziers, as the screen shielding the entrance to his backroom moved, letting a thin surge of the fresher air in.

“Niltze!” Instead of the squat, wide-shouldered figure of his stocky employer, the lithe form of Chantli slipped in, thousand-folds more welcome. “Still working on that copper from the morning pile?”

Pleased to notice her moving into the corner of his eye, Miztli smiled with the free side of his mouth, nodding ever so slightly. When busy with such fiercely raging flames, one could take his attention off of it up to a very small limit.

Real smart folks, but no wheel?

31 August 2014 Comments (2)

I’m honored to present a guest post from , Bilingual Interpreter at American Translators Association, an expert on Mesoamerica and its various indigenous nations and cultures.

Why didn’t the peoples of ancient Mesoamerica have wheeled transport? They had a vibrant commercial economy, with lots of long-distance trade, periodic marketplaces, and professional merchants. They had two types of money. But they didn’t use wheeled carts.

The surprising thing is that the Mesoamericans DID invent the wheel. They made wheeled toys – mostly small clay animals with holes in the legs for an axle and wheels. These were most abundant in sites of the Toltec period (AD 900-1100), including Tula in central Mexico.

When the Spanish arrived from Europe in the sixteenth century they were astounded at the remarkable skills exhibited by the architects, builders and craftsmen of the ‘New World’. The calendar developed by the ancient Maya was more accurate than the calendar in use throughout Europe and the medical system in place among the residents of Mesoamerica was superior to that of the Spanish.

Yet, for all the advanced thinking, there was no utilitarian wheel; no carts, no wagons, no potter’s wheel. Still the concept of the wheel was known throughout Mesoamerica.

Archeologists have recovered numerous wheeled toys, very much like those still made today for children. These toys were what we would call “pull toys” and they were generally made of fired clay in the form of an animal (real or imagined) standing on a platform supported by four ceramic wheels. A loop for the pull string was usually made around the neck or head of the creature.

And yet, while the idea of the wheel was in place there were no wheeled vehicles.

Oddly enough, the Maya built roads, or more correctly, causeways. These roads, called sacbeob meaning white roads were constructed of limestone and paved with natural lime cement called sascab. Often as wide as ten to twelve feet and raised between a foot or so to as much as seven or eight feet above the ground, the sacbeob connected various areas of settlement. The sacbeob at one Maya site (Coba) in the Yucatan of Mexico connects several major architectural groups, the longest running in an almost perfect straight line for over sixty miles! Archaeologists have found what may have been stone rollers used to compact the road bed during construction.

But no wheels.

While it is certainly true that the Maya did not possess the potter’s wheel, they did make use of a device called the k’abal. This was a wooden disk that rested on a smooth board between the potter’s feet. Spun by feet, the k’abal was not unlike the potter’s wheel that had been in use in the Old World for over five thousand years.

Still, there was no conventional wheel.

Perhaps the closest the Maya came to a utilitarian wheel was the spindle whorl.

In ancient times the Maya wove cotton garments in much the same way as they do today. Cotton was spun into thread, using as a spindle a narrow pointed stick about a foot long, weighted near the lower end with a ceramic disk called a spindle whorl. Acting as a fly-wheel, it gave balance to the stick which was twirled with one hand while the cotton was fed by the other to the top of the stick. The twisting motion produced the thread which was then sent to the loon for weaving. Cotton material is still being produced in this way by Maya groups in several parts of today Mexico and Guatemala. Some scholars believe the first wheeled toys were made with spindle whorls and spindle sticks as wheels and axles.

Why, then, were the Maya and other native populations without carts or wagons? Certainly they had the concept, so why did they transported everything on someone’s back?

The answer probably lies in the fact that there were no animals around suitable to pull a wagon or cart, no beast of burden. Horses and burros were unknown in Mesoamerica. Without draft animals a cart is not particularly useful. Then too. the area in which the Maya lived, for example, did not lend itself to road construction and that fact lives on until this very day. Rural areas are more easily accessed by foot or along narrow trails than by car or truck. Streams and rivers were the highways of the Maya, with extensive trade and commerce carried out by fleets of canoes.

Hope this partially answers the mystery of no wheel.

Sources: Diehl, Richard A. and Margaret Mandeville 1987 Tula and Wheeled Animal Effigies in Mesoamerica. Antiquity 61: 239-246. Linn?, Sigvald 1951 A Wheeled Toy from Guerrero, Mexico. Ethnos 16. Stocker, Terry, Barbara Jackson, and Harold Riffell 1986 Wheeled Figurines from Tula, Hidalgo, Mexico. Mexicon 8 (4): 69-72.

For the original post and more information, you are invited to visit Andres Michel Amezcua’s Facebook page

The Aztecs and the Atlatl

5 April 2014 Comments (1)

I’m honored to present a guest post from , Spanish Bilingual Interpreter at American Translators Association, an expert on Mesoamerica and its various pre-contact nations and cultures.

The Aztecs and the Atlatl

As they fought their way across Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, Cortez and his Spaniards were harassed by showers of arrows and light spears. So heavy was the hail of weapons that one of the chronicles says “…the Mexicas furiously hurled their javelins. It was as if a layer of yellow cane was spread over the Spaniards…”

What the chronicle described as “javelins” were actually light spears thrown with a weapon new to the Europeans. A stick the length of a man’s arm, with a grip at one end and a hook to engage the spear at the other, these spear throwers were called atlatl in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and their neighbors.

Most of our understanding of Aztec warfare comes from the chronicles of the Spanish and the documents written by the Aztec and their neighbors after they had been conquered. Like any other expanding power, the Aztec Empire engaged in wars of conquest, supported an elite class of noble warriors, and sent expeditions against neighboring states.

War was aimed at expansion, but at the same time it was also full of high drama and religious ritual. Elite warriors gained glory by capturing opponents for sacrifice, so hand weapons and close combat were emphasized.

The atlatl was an ancient and important weapon in the Americas when the Spanish arrived. Although different forms of atlatl were invented sometime in the Upper Paleolithic Ice Ages in both the Old and New Worlds, they had been replaced by bows and arrows in most places.

In modern times atlatl survived in a few places such as Australia, where the bow never arrived, and alongside the bow and arrow in the Arctic and parts of Latin America. In Europe and much of North America we know them only through archaeological finds.

The leverage of the long atlatl allowed a thrower to fling a light spear much farther and faster than by hand alone. Tipped with a sharp point of obsidian, bone, or hardened wood, these spears (usually called darts by atlatlists today) were dangerous weapons. It is frequently claimed that they would have penetrated metal armor.

This is not true, but most of the Spaniards would have worn lighter chain mail or leather and padded cotton armor similar to that of the Aztecs, and Garcilaso de la Vega, a veteran of Indian fights in Peru and Florida, complained that atlatl darts would pass clear through a man.

Nevertheless, we know a lot about atlatl, or spear throwers as they are also called. In a few recent societies, atlatl remained in use long enough to be observed by modern anthropologists.

The best known examples are some of the Inuit (Eskimo) groups in the Arctic, and the native peoples of Australia. Since modern guns have become available everywhere, there are now very few people who continue to use atlatls for hunting or because they wish to hold onto traditional ways.

The deity entwined with a snake on the British Museum atlatl could be Huitzilopochtli, a warrior deity, or Mixcoatl, a hunter god from the north, or one of several other gods in the complicated Aztec religion.

Although the Spanish explorers who met Aztecs and others using atlatls mentioned the weapons in their chronicles, their accounts of these unfamiliar weapons are brief and often unclear.

The atlatl itself was also an important symbol of warfare and magical power. Most of the important Aztec gods were sometimes shown holding atlatls or darts. Zelia Nuttall, who wrote the first important study of Mesoamerican atlatls, noted that atlatls are often shown with snake designs or associated with serpents.

Atlatls were also elaborately decorated with feathers, and associated with birds of prey, not too surprising for a weapon that threw a deadly feathered dart.

In any case, the few atlatls that survive from the Aztec and their neighbors are highly decorated.

The British Museum specimen is probably one of the gifts sent back to the king of Spain by Cortez, which then were passed around the royal houses of Europe. It is elaborately carved, and gorgeously gilded, a work of art fit for tribute to a king, or the weapon of a noble warrior. It is, however, perfectly usable, and we should not be surprised that fine weapons, symbols of power and religious war, were richly decorated. It seems likely that simpler models were used by most warriors, but we don’t know.

Major battles had apparently begun with a barrage of arrows and atlatl darts, before the warriors closed with macuahuitls – wooden swords edged with razor-sharp obsidian. It is quite likely that Aztec warfare was rather similar to the medieval warfare of contemporary Europe where noble knights fought hand to hand with swords and won glory and ransom, but peasant archers with bows and cross bows did most of the damage and actually decided the outcome of battles.

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Historical fiction and the true rise of Tenochtitlan

4 March 2014 Comments (0)

I am happy to announce the release of another new book

Below the Highlands

The remnants of the 13 years of his reign, Itzcoatl, the fourth Mexica-Aztec emperor, spent on the attempts to inherit as many of the former Tepanec provinces as he could, making it clear to every neighboring town or city-state who the next rising power of the region would be.

The Acolhua were busy reestablishing their old territories and influences, but the Mexica-Aztecs had no such claims of the past. Only the bright future to look up to. They were the rising power, and they made sure everyone understood that.

With the troubles on the immediate borders settled, the allies turned their eye to the greater distances. The fertile lands of Cuauhnahuac and its surroundings in the south were reported to be a mutual enterprise, with the Mexica and the Acolhua, and their junior Tepanec partners of Tlacopan, acting in tandem, conquering side by side, sharing the spoils and the tribute, leaving a little to their junior partners of Tlacopan to pick.

“I speak for myself and for myself alone,” she said, her gaze wary but firm, not wavering, not dropping. “I do have eyes and ears and a mind to think, and what I see is a blatant inequality.”

Nervously, she licked her lips, but went on, her words coming in a rush.

“They fought alongside the Mexica warriors in Cuauhnahuac. They sent the required amount of forces, and they did everything you and your warriors did. Yet, they now receive only one fifth of the tribute coming from these lands. Why? Have our warriors not fought as bravely as yours? Are our efforts not as valuable as those of the Mexica or the Acolhua people?”

Indeed, the Triple Alliance shared its spoils in not an entirely equal way.

Two fifths of the collected tribute went to Tenochtitlan, located most conveniently between its two allies, in a position to hold the balance of power carefully and wisely, and in the way that put Tenochtitlan in a leading place.

Two fifths went to Texcoco, the aristocratic Acolhua capital, back in power but as always in a refined, reserved manner.

The last fifth went to Tlacopan, an equal partner of the Triple Alliance but only in name. The Tepanecs were defeated, and even though Tlacopan made a wise choice by joining the winning side in time, they were not in a position to demand full equality.

Tlacaelel’s hand came up, stopping the words of protest that were forming upon the girl’s stubbornly pressed lips.

“Tlacopan could not be the equal companion in the Mexica and Acolhua partnership. It will never be a full-time partner in our Triple Alliance. The Tepanecs have lost, young princess. Your husband’s father made the best out of the situation, but in the new world, the Mexica are the leaders, the rulers, the dominant power. The Mexica and the Acolhua,” he added, not sounding convincing for some reason.

Itzcoatl died at 1440, a relatively old man. His mark on Tenochtitlan, and the entire Mexican Valley’s history, was significant, impossible to underplay. Thirteen years that shone on his rule brought the Mexica island-city from an insignificant status of a small vassal city of the Tepanec Empire to a prominent place of a great altepetl, an owner of vast provinces and influence, growing richer and more powerful with each passing moon, feared and respected by every local power, even the distant lands over the Eastern Highlands.

Tenochtitlan mourned the passing of its liberator from the Tepanec yoke, but afraid they were not. Tlacaelel, cihuacoatl, the Head Adviser, the man who had actually conquered Azcapotzalco and other Tepanec city states, the man who had architected these critical changes, was still alive, relatively young and full of power.

True to his word, he declined the offer to became the next emperor, casting his considerable influence behind a candidate of his choosing, his half-brother, Moctezuma Ilhuicamina.

In the Aztec Capital, Tlacaelel, the Head Adviser, is busy reshaping the island-city to fit its rapidly changing status from a regular city-state to a true capital, an owner of provinces and tributaries. The old system is not working anymore, but Tlacaelel’s radical reforms and changes anger influential people, from priests to elders of districts, those whose power is dwindling due to his reforms.

During a ballgame being held between Texcoco and Mexica teams to celebrate the upcoming winter festival—a fierce competition that will add much honor to the winning city-state—one of the players, Coatl, a promising warrior, the Texcoco Warlord’s son, is prepared to do anything in order to win. What he was not prepared for was becoming entangled in a political intrigue that starts while he is busy chasing a pretty girl, with the unexpected arrival of his twin brother complicating matters even further.

An excerpt from “The Triple Alliance (Below the Highlands)

“Good answer.”

The Adviser grinned, then picked up a piece of tortilla soaked in the meat juices. “Our people will not war with each other as long as great leaders like Nezahualcoyotl and your Father are leading Texcoco.”

“And as long as Tenochtitlan is led by great people like you and your emperor,” said Coatl politely, believing in his words.

“Yes, that too.” The man nodded affably. “I hope your emperor decides to join the war against Chalco altepetl. You will enjoy this campaign. It would be the first great-scale war for you, wouldn’t it?”

“Well, yes.” Eager to attack his plate, he forced his thoughts off the tantalizing aroma. “Father wants to join this war. He was advocating our full-time involvement. I hope the emperor listens.”

“Why wouldn’t he?”

He concentrated under the penetrating gaze, not sure how much of what he knew he could relate here, in the Mexica Palace.

“Our emperor does want to fight along with his allies, but he wishes to know more detail before he commits his warriors and their leaders.”

“Well, he would not be required to join us with his eyes blindfolded.” Tlacaelel shrugged, reaching for an exquisite goblet full of clear water. “We would never expect our most esteemed allies to follow us like a subjected nation would.”

“But you would require that from the other less highly esteemed ally of yours.” Citlalli’s voice rang loudly, startling them all. She had been so quiet in her corner, they had forgotten her existence.

The Adviser pressed his lips, while the mistress of these rooms frowned in distress.

“All our allies are highly esteemed and respected, young lady.” Tlacaelel toyed with his cup, his face losing much of its previous mirth. “I don’t think Tlacopan has anything to complain about. It has been treated with an utmost fairness, all things considered.”

“What is there to consider?” Not taken aback by the barely concealed reprimand, Citlalli straightened her shoulders, her yellow eyes sparkling, bringing back the girl Coatl grew up with. It didn’t suit her to be all ladylike, he thought, unsettled by her outburst, but amused at the same time. The Head Adviser would be better off to not engage in this particular battle. “Tlacopan is supposed to be a full-time partner in the Triple Alliance, but it’s treated in exactly the opposite way. It is anything but an equal ally, never consulted or apprised of the plans the way the Acolhua Capital is.”

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