The Mayas And The Nahuas
A Double Movement.—Having subdued the islands and run the eastern coastline, the Spaniards proceeded to take possession of the mainland. To the southward they were attracted by trade, rumors of gold, and the hope of finding a strait leading to the East. To the westward they were drawn by the semi-civilized Nahuas and Mayas, who lived in substantial towns, possessed accumulated wealth, had a stable population used to hard labor, and were worth exploiting. The advance into the interior was a double movement, one proceeding north from a base on the Isthmus of Panamá, the other radiating in all directions from the Valley of Mexico.
Two Civilizations.—The Nahuas occupied Mexico south of a line drawn roughly from Tampico through Guadalajara to the Pacific Ocean. The Mayas lived principally in Yucatán and Guatemala. The Nahuas had acquired much of their culture from the Mayas, and the cultural areas overlapped. These peoples had several features in common. They lived in substantial pueblos, or towns, and practiced agriculture by means of irrigation, raising extensively maize, beans, potatoes, and tobacco. Maguey was a staple crop in the Valley of Mexico and henequén in Yucatán. Mayas and Nahuas both lacked important domestic animals. They were dominated by a powerful priesthood and practiced slavery and human sacrifice.
Maya Characteristics.—Certain features distinguished the two civilizations. The Mayas had imposing architectural structures devoted to religion, notably at Palenque, Uxmal, and Chichén Itza. They had made considerable advance toward written records in the form of ideograms. More than 1500 Maya manuscripts, written on henequén, have been preserved but are as yet in the main undeciphered.
The Nahuas.—The Nahuas had made remarkable progress in astronomical calculations, and their worship was closely connected with the planetary system. The most notable religious monuments were the pyramids which are widely scattered over the country. Some of these, it is believed, are of Maya origin. Calendars of great perfection had been devised, the famous Calendar Stone now preserved in the National Museum at Mexico being one of the rare treasures of archæology. The Nahuas had achieved a more highly developed agriculture than the Mayas, had a stronger military and political organization, and larger and better constructed towns. Of these the most notable was Mexico (Tenochtitlán). It was built in a lake in the center of the great valley of Anáhuac, and had a population of perhaps 60,000 when the Spaniards came.
Nahua History.—The Nahuas had come from the north about the time when the Germanic tribes were overrunning southern Europe. According to their own traditions the first Nahua tribe, the Toltecs, entered the Valley of Mexico in 596 A.D., and were overpowered by the barbarians whom they found there, but civilized them. In succeeding centuries they were followed by other Nahua tribes, whose names are now borne by numerous cities in the Valley of Mexico. Among the late comers were the Aztecs, who, according to tradition, founded their lake-city in 1325 A.D. Their military stronghold was the crag of Chapultepec, where the presidential mansion of Mexico now stands.
The Triple Alliance.—Among the numerous cities or pueblos built by these struggling tribes four emerged into prominence. First Atzcapotzalco, then Tezcuco, then Mexico acquired supremacy. Placing itself at the head of a triple alliance (Mexico, Tezcuco, and Tacuba), Mexico in the fifteenth century engaged in a series of conquests which carried the Aztec power to the Gulf of Mexico, to the Pacific Ocean, and well into the Maya regions of Central America. War became a national impulse, closely identified with the religion of which human sacrifice was a central feature. The "empire" was but a military overlordship, however, and had for its chief objects tribute and human beings for sacrifice.
The hegemony was not secure, nor did it embrace all of the semi-civilized peoples. The Tarascans and other tribes to the west had resisted its power, and shortly before the advent of the Spaniards the Tlascalans to the east had defeated the Aztecs in battle. At the coming of the Europeans the "empire" was losing its hold. The subject peoples were becoming more restless under the burden of tribute; and the ruler, Montezuma II, was a superstitious fatalist. The Spanish conquerors arrived at the opportune moment for success.
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