The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson (revised edition 2009) (1)

Because it comes with the bright orange and white spine of the new-style Penguin histories, and because it said ‘New Edition’ on the front cover, I hadn’t quite grasped that the main body of this hefty 700-page history of Latin America was completed by 1990. The new edition is ‘new’ because it tacks a 40-page chapter at the end, summarising events in Latin America between 1990 and 2008. Obviously quite a lot of water under the bridge since 2008, so probably need to supplement this with a modern modern history of LA.

The text is divided into three big parts:

  • The Age of Empire, pages 3 to 192 (189 pages)
  • The Challenge of the Modern World, pages 195 to 310 (115 pages)
  • The Twentieth Century, pages 313 to 566 (253 pages)

Note how the section on the 20th century, plus the forty pages of the ‘new’ chapter, is as long as the first two parts put together. Here, as everywhere, the more recent the history, the more of it there is, the more people there have been (the higher the population) and the more records have been kept, until we reach the present age where every phone call, every text and every photograph anyone in the world takes is being recorded and stored. Soon we will drown in data.

The conquest of the Aztecs and Incas

Williamson dives right in with the early, legendary history of the Aztecs, when they were a group of nomads traipsing round central Mexico, before they established the largest empire in pre-Colombian America around 1400. Their only rival was the Inca Empire, down in modern-day Peru.

There is, of course, a lot to say about both, but the thing that struck me was the way both of them were empires carved out by one particular tribe or ethnic group which subjugated all their neighbours, and demanded tribute in food, precious metals and slaves (some devoted to grisly human sacrifices).

Both generated complex religious ideologies accompanied by fascinating and complex theories of time – that it moved in cycles and was marked by moments of great significance – but the bottom line was that both the Aztec ruler and the Inca emperor believed they derived their authority from the gods, and were backed up in this conviction by the class of priests and the warrior castes which surrounded and defended them.

Of course the vast majority of the population was peasants, mostly living in abject serfhood, who slaved away for their entire short, unhealthy lives, producing the surpluses which paid for the elaborate costumes and rituals and treasures passed up to their rulers. And the entire populations of conquered tribes, for both the Aztecs and Incas lived by war, and by conquering, subjugating and exploiting neighbouring peoples.

The other striking thing was their backwardness. Both Aztecs and Incas, and all the hundreds of other tribes scattered across central and south America, were illiterate. The Aztecs and Incas had no written language, just a primitive system of markers, and so the important knowledge about the stars and the gods was handed down by word of mouth, and hence the semi-divine regard for the caste of priests who, alone, knew this vital celestial information.

They didn’t have the wheel, nor beasts of burden – no horses or donkeys or camels or bullocks. Therefore they had to carry everything by hand. It is staggering to realise that the awesome Inca city of Machu Picchu was built by massive stones, carried 2,430 metres above sea level, by human power alone.

All this was doomed to come crashing to an end when the Europeans arrived. Williamson describes in detail the four successive voyages of Christopher Columbus, his first landfall in 1492, the chaotic mismanagement of the first islands he and his men settled – Hispaniola – the slow, establishment of colonies and extension of Spanish rule onto neighbouring island, and then, 27 years later, Cortez’s expedition to the mainland against the Aztecs (1519-21).

The eeriest thing about Cortes’s conquest of the Aztec Empire, and then Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in 1532, is the theory that the rulers of both empires were too puzzled and confused by the invaders to respond adequately. They couldn’t believe these little gangs of a few hundred men were serious about planning to overthrow their empires of tens of thousands of warriors – but they couldn’t figure out what it was they really wanted. Williamson attributes the conquistadors’ success partly to guns and horses but shows that in both cases, the conquerors really had very few – when Pizarro finally met with the Inca emperor Atahualpa, in nothern Peru, he had a force of just 110-foot soldiers, 67 cavalry, three arquebuses and two falconets.

More decisive was the Europeans’ superior grasp of strategy, in particular realising that the empires they were encountering were themselves highly stressed, riven by faction fights or stretched by the continual need to control their subject peoples. The Spanish made alliances with enemies and groups wishing to be liberated. They were good at building coalitions.

He doesn’t say it in so many words, but the idea emerges that the Europeans triumphed because they were just more intelligent about strategy and warcraft.

The role of European diseases

Then there’s our old friend disease. As explained at length in Jared Diamond’s classic 1997 study Guns, Germs and Steel, wherever European explorers went they took with them the infectious diseases which, over thousands of years, we had built up immunity to – but which ravaged native populations which had no immunity to them.

This view is reinforced by the revisionist history of America told by Alan Taylor in American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001). In this Taylor explains how the entire native civilisation of the Mississippi valley was wiped out by diseases, most probably smallpox, brought by a few shipwrecked Spanish sailors to the mouth of the Mississippi delta but which then spread catastrophically so that when, a century later, the first Anglo-Saxon explorers entered the region, they discovered entire cities with complex layouts, large palaces and temples and canals… all abandoned and overgrown by forest.

Indeed, Pizzaro’s job of conquering the Incas was made easier because the Incas were themselves in the middle of a bloody civil war, which was complicated by the fact that not one but two rival claimants to the throne had died from smallpox. Over the decades after the Spanish arrived, there was a catastrophic collapse in native populations caused by the invaders’ diseases. Some experts estimate as much as 90% of the native population of Mexico was killed by European disease within fifty years.

Still, Williamson is always at hand to say that in this, as in everything else, the reality on the ground, and across such vast areas as all of Mexico, Central America and Peru, were far more complex and uneven that contemporaries and many historians realise. Many many other areas of the continent remained relatively untouched and life went on in the same old way, only now you had to pay a tribute of your produce to a new boss, who wore armour and rode a horse.

The geographic limits of Spanish settlement

The book is packed with thought-provoking ideas and insights. I was fascinated to understand more about the geographic limits to the spread of Spanish rule.

When the Anglo settlers arrived in North America in the 1600s they found it relatively easy to spread out into New England and all along the Atlantic coast. But the Spanish, having established their key centres of administration in Mexico City and Lima a century earlier, with waystations and ports in the Caribbean, found it difficult to expand beyond them. Why?

North of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital which the invaders had renamed Mexico City, lies a vast area of arid desert – the territory which centuries later would become Arizona and New Mexico – where the Spanish explorers discovered nothing but impoverished villages of Indians surviving on subsistence agriculture.

Over to the east there were repeated attempts to explore the peninsula they named ‘Florida’, but the Spanish found it consisted of endless everglades with few settlements and nothing to plunder.

Heading south, the Spanish took over the coastal strip west of the Andes, conquering the Inca empire, but found the Andes mountains themselves too high to settle. Only a handful of expeditions went over the Andes to explore east. Williamson describes these expeditions, which got lost in the vast Amazon rainforests, and encountered only the most primitive tribespeople, if, indeed, they lived to tell the tale.

So, in a nutshell, central and south America were more difficult for the Spanish to settle than North America would turn out to be for the Anglos. And this explains the quite startling fact that some parts of South America – Williamson singles much of the interior of what is now called Argentina – weren’t really settled at all until the 20th century.

The other factor which limited the area of settlement was the Spaniards’ motivation. The conquistadors were adventurers, often from the very lowest parts of society. No nobles or aristocrats ventured their lives in the New World. Poor youngest sons of noble families led gangs of criminals and proles. None of them were the type of people who wanted to stake a claim and build a farmhouse and work the land – as the Anglo settlers were to do up north a hundred years later.

Instead, the Spanish wanted to exploit and loot as much wealth as they could from the New World before returning home and buying land, a house and a title. They came to loot. And here’s the important thing – you can only loot people who are already rich. The Spanish took over the two big empires, the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru, because an infrastructure was already in place whereby the native emperors and the upper class exploited large numbers of peasants in a well-organised system. The Spaniards simply took over the system, co-opting the best of the agricultural produce and all the treasure and artefacts for themselves.

It is this factor – the Spanish approach to colonisation – which explains the limited and very patchy nature of Spanish settlement. In the deserts of north Mexico, and in the south of the area they named California, were only desert dwellers, scraping a subsistence living from the soil by dint of elaborate water works. Nothing to steal. In Florida, endless swamps inhabited by scattered villagers. Nothing to steal, and no ‘society’ worth taking over. Ditto the Amazon rainforests. Nothing like an organised society whose power structures and tributes they could simply appropriate.

The Spanish only settled where there were established and relatively advanced societies which they could parasite onto.

How Spain applied the Reconquista to the New World

Williamson lays out with beautiful logic and clarity just how that imperialist approach to colonisation had arisen in Spain.

It is an enormous historical coincidence that the year that Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas, 1492, just happened to be the very same year that – after nearly 800 years of war and crusade – the Spanish finally kicked the very last Muslim Moorish presence out of the south of Spain. (Muslim forces had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to seize Spanish territory way back in 711 – the fightback is traditionally dated to their first defeat by Christian forces, in 718 – and it took nearly another 800 years, of slow painstaking battles and piecemeal conquest, for native Christians, sometimes fighting alongside Christian warriors from the rest of Europe attracted by the periodic ‘crusades’ against the Muslim –  to finally expel all the Muslim chiefs, emirs and so on from the final southern enclaves.

The point of this historical background is that expelling the Muslims from Spain wasn’t achieved by a modern-style mass army, and in a few years of continuous campaigning – but by ad hoc campaigns led by local Spanish warriors and adventuring knights, which liberated bits and pieces of territory, over a very long period of time.

As and when they seized territory from the Muslims, they applied to the king to rule it. (Spain itself was a very fractured entity, with a number of different kingdoms. It was only as the Reconquista reached its conclusion that the marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragon with Queen Isabella of Castile united most of Spain’s territory to form the basis of one unified Spanish monarchy.)

Sometimes large areas of land would be conquered and the new lords were granted what were known as latifundia, originally a Roman word describing a vast agricultural estate. The new owners co-opted the existing inhabitants as serfs to work the land, but often much of the original or Muslim population had fled and so the lords had difficulty filling them with workers and had to advertise for new workers to come in.

The point is that the Reconquista established a model for settling new lands, freshly conquered from the infidel, which was then applied wholesale to the new territory discovered by Columbus and his Viceroys across the ocean, and by the conquistadors and adventurers who followed them.

The Reconquista established the pattern of the monarch granting complete control over large swathes of territory, and all the people on it to, the conqueror or adelantado who had seized it. This resulted in a handful of rich swaggering lords riding among the large population of impoverished peasants working vast areas of land. In the New World it became known as the encomienda system and the grant holders encomenderos.

In fact it was a bit more complicated than that: the native Indians remained, nominally, free subjects of the Crown, which awarded encomenderos the right to enforce labour from the natives, but not complete power of life and death over them. That was the theory, anyway.

Williamson – once he has reported the main military and political events of the conquest – moves briskly on to discuss in considerable detail, this and all the other legal and administrative measures which the Spanish implemented in their new lands.

In fact, the ‘excitement’ of the narrative of Columbus’s voyages and the initial conquests of the Aztecs and the Incas which open the text, might give the reader quite a misleading impression of the book. Williamson is much more a historian of constitutional and administrative systems than he is a chronicler of exciting battles and against-the-odds expeditions. A lot of this book is quite dry. But he develops the constitutional and legal aspects of the conquest in such detail that, to my surprise, the conflicts between the settlers, and in particular between the Viceroys appointed to govern the new provinces and the monarchy back in Spain – and between both of them and Catholic church – at moments become quite gripping.

The Crown protects the Indians 

One counter-intuitive learning is that the Spanish crown, right from the start, was concerned about protecting the rights of the native Indians, indeed became their chief protector.

As Spanish adventurers opened up new territory and conquered more and more native peoples, the monarchs became concerned to make sure they were not simply enslaved. Queen Isabella personally forbade the enslavement of the natives, and a series of ‘Laws of the Indies’ tried to stem abuses wherever they were found. Encomenderos may have enjoyed almost complete power over the populations of their vast estates, but Spanish laws commanded them to also set up schools and hospitals, to educate the Indians, protect them from wars and raids, and to enact justice. This effort continued for the rest of the 16th century, for example with the ‘New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians’ of 1547, which explicitly forbade all forms of enslaving the native population. The New Laws prompted violent opposition among the oligarchies of Spanish settlers.

The Church takes the Indians’ side

It’s also surprising to read about the broadly sympathetic line taken by the Catholic Church. The Pope and the Catholic organisations which sent cohorts of missionaries out to the New World took the line that these were people made in God’s image, like us, with souls that needed saving. Certainly, some of the first cohort of priests accompanying the conquistadors helped in the wholesale destruction of priceless documents and artefacts which they considered pagan and devilish. But within a generation, a new wave of clerics began for all kinds of reasons to take the native Indians’ side, deploring their brutal exploitation by amoral Spanish lords.

On a pragmatic note, they also realised they couldn’t convert the natives by preaching at them in Latin or Spanish, and undertaking ‘mass baptisms’ where the Indians didn’t have a clue what was going on. So a whole project was undertaken to learn more about the natives’ languages, which quickly extended into documenting their histories and beliefs. Most of what we know about native Indian religion and history derives from these records taken down by Christian missionaries.

The classic figure of this type was Bartolomé de las Casas, initially a coloniser himself, who became a Dominican friar and spent the last 50 years of his life fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples. He was appointed by the Spanish crown the first ‘Protector of the Indians’, an administrative office responsible for attending to the wellbeing of the native populations, a function he enthusiastically carried out and which included speaking on their behalf in law courts and even reporting back to the King of Spain in person.

In 1550, Bartolomé participated in the Valladolid debate, in which Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (the noted Spanish Renaissance “humanist”, philosopher, theologian, and… er… proponent of colonial slavery) argued that the Indians were less than human and required Spanish masters in order to become civilized. Las Casas maintained that the Indians were fully human and that forcefully subjugating them was morally, legally, and theologically, unjustifiable. Las Casas is a hero (not a perfect hero, but by the standards of his own time a d brave and determined protector of the people.)

Williamson gives a long and detailed account of the numerous legal initiatives launched by the Crown to try and protect the Indians from exploitation, but in the end they all failed. No amount of legal or theological argumentation could avoid the fact that the Spanish remained the ruling caste with one law for them, while the Indians remained a separate caste, subject to completely different laws. Williamson calls them the Republic of the Spaniards and the Republic of the Indians.

And nothing could alter the simple fact that, on the ground, most of the laws designed to protect the Indians were ignored by the settlers, who looked after each other’s interests.

Theories of conquest and bureaucratic structures

I could have done with more about where the silver was discovered in the New World, and the technology of how it is mined and purified. We are told that mercury was vital to the purification process, but not really how or why. I had to google it to find out. He does eventually have three pages on the silver mines (two on gold-mining), but in general Williamson is light on that kind of thing, on technology, and on the diverse resources of the region.

Instead, as the book settles into its stride, you realise that Williamson is going to devote most of his energy to the legal and theological justifications of Spanish rule along with detailed descriptions of the bureaucratic structures the Spanish set up.

Thus there is a long passage explaining how the theory of monarchy evolved in Spain from its late-medieval form to the theory which underpinned the role of Philip II as head of an empire which stretched from California to Sicily. He explains the role of the Catholic Church as a vital prop to royal authority, and gives long explanations of the laws and the administrative structures set up to run the colonies.

He explains the main theories by which the Spanish justified their conquests, both to themselves and to the rest of the world (especially to their critical opponents in the Protestant world). There were two main ones:

  1. The well-established Law of Conquest, by which one ruler conquers another and is allowed to seize his land and titles, which had been worked out over long centuries of theological and legal debate during the Middle Ages.
  2. The more modern notion that the Crown of Spain had a ‘right’ to rule the Indians because the Europeans would convert the natives to Christianity and so save their souls. This was accompanied by a kind of sub-argument, which many missionaries put forward: that the New World represented an opportunity for Christianity – which had, by the early 1500s become widely associated with corruption and worldly ambition – to start again. Here, in the Garden of Eden, were a new kind of Adam and Eve, a First People uncorrupted by the Old World, and one thread of early colonisation is the devout wishes of the early missionaries to create a Christian Paradise on earth. Of course it was not to turn out that way; the secular settlers – and the terrible European diseases – made sure of that.

How the silver was squandered

Williamson does, however, clarify something which has always puzzled me, which is – if the Spanish monarchy began receiving ever-increasing amounts of silver from the New World (as the result of great silver strikes in North Mexico and Peru in the 1540s), how come Spain steadily declined in power and influence in the century and a half after the conquest?

Indeed, Williamson points out that by the death of Philip II in 1598, Spain was technically bankrupt and had experienced state bankruptcies (i.e been unable to repay its debts) in 1557, 1560, 1569, 1575, and 1596!

Where did the Spanish silver go? The answer turns out to be simple: Paying for Spain’s wars.

Even though it never accounted for more than 20 per cent of imperial revenues, silver was the fuel that drove the Spanish war machine. (p.106)

Philip II’s father had been Holy Roman Emperor and when Philip came to the throne in 1556, he inherited responsibility for territory in every continent known to Europeans – from the extensive empire in Central and South America to the newly conquered territory of the Phillippines, from the kingdom of Naples and Sicily in Italy, to the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands which began a protracted war of independence against Spanish rule in 1568. Not only this, but Philip saw himself as the defender of all Christendom in its wars against the Ottoman Turks in the East. He it was who organised ‘the Holy League’, bringing together ships from Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Papal States, the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights of Malta, to inflict a decisive defeat on the Ottomans at the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1567.

Philip also saw himself as the defender of Catholic orthodoxy against the shocking new Protestant heresy. Thus Philip gave large financial support to the Catholic League fighting the Protestants in France, and then went directly to war with the French King Henry IV, an intervention which secured the future of France as a Catholic country.

Last but not least, as we Brits know, Philip II built, armed, provisioned and manned an enormous armada which was designed, with the blessing of the pope, to conquer England, overthrow the Tudor dynasty and the Church of England, and impose Philip as the Catholic ruler of a Catholic Britain.

So that’s where the silver, hacked out of dangerous and unhealthy mines in the New World by Indian slaves and serfs, ended up being spent. Funding the impossible ambitions of the over-extended Spanish monarchy.

Spain went into decline because of proliferating military commitments for which it could not pay. (p.116)

Related Latin American reviews (mainly about Mexico)

The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec by Mary Ellen Miller (1996)

Two things about this book:

  1. It is very academic and scholarly. I imagine its main audience is university students. It spends more time explaining the academic debates surrounding dates and discoveries and conflicting interpretations of the archaeological evidence than in presenting a clear narrative.
  2. Which makes you realise that this is a fast-moving field, with new discoveries being made all the time, and that these discoveries sometimes significantly alter our understanding of timeframes and influences. I picked up the second (1996) edition in a charity shop, but realise now I should have bought the fifth edition, from 2012, because knowledge about the subject is changing all the time.


The book opens with a daunting chronological table which has six columns, one each for Central Mexico, Oaxaca, Gulf Coast, Maya Highlands, and Lowland Maya – and 10 rows indicating time periods from 1,500 BC onwards.

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Apparently, early archaeologists named artefacts from around 600 AD ‘classic’ and the name, or periodisation, stuck, despite not really fitting with later discoveries, so that successive archaeologists and historians have had to elaborate the schema, to create periods named ‘Proto Classic’, and then, going back before that, ‘Formative’ – which itself then turned out to need to be broken down into Early, Middle and Late Formative. At the other end of the scale they suggested a ‘Post-classic phase’, but over time this also had to be fine-tuned to include Early Postclassic and Late Postclassic.

I found it a big challenge to remember all the dates. Roughly speaking 600 AD seems to be the height of Classic and the period 300-900 includes Early, Mid and Late Classic.


When you look at a map of all the Americas, Central America quite obviously links the United States and South America. But it’s not quite the simple north-south corridor you casually think of. When you really come to consider the area in detail you realise it is more of a horseshoe shape, with the Yucatan peninsula forming the second upturn of the shoe. So the spread of influences, architecture, language and other artefacts wasn’t north to south but more along a west-east axis.

Map of Mesoamerica

Map of Mesoamerica

The book takes you slowly and carefully through the art and archaeology of Mesoamerica in nine chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Olmecs
  3. The Late Formative
  4. Teotihuacan
  5. Classic Monte Alban, Veracruz and Cotzumalhuapa
  6. The Early Classic Maya
  7. The Late Classic Maya
  8. Mesoamerica after the fall of the Classic cities
  9. The Aztecs

On the face of it the book is a history of the peoples and cultures which inhabited the region of central Mexico stretching across to the Yucatan Peninsula and down into modern-day Guatemala and Belize, with most of the focus on the architecture, sculpture, friezes, pottery and (rare) painting which they produced…

But in fact, alongside what you could call the main historical narrative, runs the story of the discoveries  upon which all our knowledge is based, a sequence of archaeological finds and decodings of lost languages which have a disconcerting tendency to overthrow and revolutionise previous thinking on lots of key areas.

The Olmec people carved massive stone heads

The Olmec people, the first really definable culture in Mesoamerica, carved massive stone heads

What I learned

There’s no point trying to recap the massive amount of information in the book. The key points I learned are:

Mesoamerica refers to the diverse civilizations that shared similar cultural characteristics in the region comprising the modern-day countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The area was in continual occupation from 1500 BC to 1519 AD when the conquistadors arrived, but with a continual flux of peoples, tribes or nations in each region, marked by the rise and fall of cities and entire cultures.

The geography of Mesoamerica is surprisingly diverse, encompassing humid tropical areas, dry deserts, high mountainous terrain and low coastal plains.

Many cultural traits were present in the earliest, archaic peoples, then continued right through all successive cultures, including:

  • a bewildering pantheon of deities, often with multiple identities – two which appear in almost every culture are the storm/rain god and a feathered serpent deity; the Mexica called the rain god Tlaloc, and the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl
  • similar architectural features, especially the importance of stepped pyramids, often with nine levels
  • a ballgame which had special ‘courts’ built for it in all the major cities of all the different cultures
  • a 260-day calendar
  • clothes which were elaborate and featured huge head-dresses often of feathers, alongside body painting

The key peoples or cultures are the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Toltec, Mixtec, and Mexica (or Aztec).

But there is still a lot which is unknown. For example, Miler devotes a chapter to the spectacular remains at the city of Teotihuacan (see below) but explains that we don’t know, to this day, the name of the people who built it!



The Aztecs didn’t call themselves Aztecs, they called themselves Mexica. They spoke a language called Nahuatl, which is still spoken to this day by some Indian groups. There were as many as 125 languages spoken in this region over this period. Some cultures developed rebus writing, i.e. writing which used images of the thing described rather than collections of letters. These images went on to have multiple meanings, and are also called pictographic, ideographic, or picture writing.

The ballgame

Peoples across Mesoamerica, beginning with the Olmecs, played a ritual sport known as the ballgame. Ballcourts were often located in a city’s sacred precinct, emphasizing the importance of the game. Solid rubber balls were passed between players with the goal of hitting them through markers.

But it wasn’t what we think of as a sport. The game had multiple meanings, including powerful religious and cult purposes. It appears, from a number of carved stone reliefs, that war captives were somehow made to play the game before being ritually beheaded or tortured.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors while a third man looks on. A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors (at bottom right) while a third man looks on (far right). A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Two calendars

The calendar and numbering systems were complex and elaborate, although based around astronomical events and periods. There’s much evidence that key buildings, including many pyramids, were built in line with astronomical events such as equinoxes. They developed two parallel calendars: a 260-day one and a 365-day one. The 260-day calendar was a ritual calendar, with 20 months of 13 days. It is first recorded in the sixth century BC, and is still used in some parts of Guatemala today for ritual divining.

Based on the sun, the 365-day calendar had 18 months of 20 days, with five nameless days at the end. It was the count of time used for agriculture. Every 52 years the two calendars completed a full cycle, and during this time special rituals commemorated the cycle.

Blood sacrifice

Blood seems to have played a central role in numerous cultures and cities. We know that the Aztecs prized prisoners taken during battle because they could tear out their beating hearts from their bodies to sacrifice to the gods. But there are also plentiful wall art, carvings and frescos showing people who aren’t captives drawing their own blood using a panoply of utensils: sometimes, apparently, in order to have religious visions.

Another theme is piercing the tongue, or even penis, with a needle, thread or rope, apparently for cult or religious reasons.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K'ab'al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth. (British Museum)

Visual complexity

But the single biggest thing I took from the book is the extraordinary visual complexity of many of the images from these varied cultures.

The big stone Olmec heads, and many examples of pottery, are simple and easy enough to grasp visually. But there are also thousands of frieze carvings, free-standing stelae, even a few painted frescos have survived, and just a handful of manuscripts written in pictogram style – and almost all of these display a bewildering visual complexity. Clutter. Their images are immensely busy.

This is a drawing of the carved decoration found on a stela (i.e. an upright freestanding carved stone) at the city of Seibal.

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Most of the friezes and stela and many of the manuscripts show a similar concern to cover every inch of the space with very characteristic style that’s hard to put into words, apart from clutter. The figures are so highly embellished and the space so packed with ornate curvilinear decorations (as well as rows of rectangular glyphs, a form of pictogram) that I had to read Miller’s descriptions of what was going on quite a few times and work really hard to decipher the imagery.

In this and scores of other examples, it takes quite a bit of referring back and forth between text and illustration to decipher what Miller is describing. For example I would only know that a death god is descending in the Ball park frieze [above] because Miller tells me so.

In many of these Mesoamerican carvings, it is impossible to distinguish human figures from the jungles of intertwining decoration which obscure them. 

So I was struck that, for most of the peoples of the region, their public art was so complex and difficult to read.

By contrast, pottery by its nature generally has to be simpler, and I found myself very drawn to the monumental quality of early Olmec pottery.

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BCE)

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BC)

Many fully carved sculptures from later eras manage to combine the decorative complexity of the friezes with a stunningly powerful, monumental presence.

There is a class of objects known as hachas, named after the Spanish term for ‘axe’. Hachas are representations of gear worn in the ballgame and are a distinctive form associated with art from the Classic Veracruz culture, which flourished along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico between 300 and 900 AD.

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

In three-dimensional sculpture the addiction of interlocking curlicues works, but in almost flat carvings or reliefs it can be impenetrable.

Can you make out a human figure in the complex concatenation of interlocking shapes on this stela? (Clue: His right hand is gripping a circle about two-thirds up on the far left of the stone. Even with clues, it’s not easy, is it?)

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445


  • Bonampak – Late Classic period (AD 580 to 800) Maya archaeological site with Mayan murals
  • Cacaxtla – small city of the Olmeca-Xicalanca people 650-900 AD, colourful murals
  • Cerros – small Eastern Lowland Maya archaeological site in northern Belize, Late Preclassic to Postclassic period
  • Cópan – capital city of a major Classic period Mayan kingdom from 5th to 9th centuries AD
  • Chichen Itzá – city of the Toltecs tenth century, site of the biggest ball park in Mesoamerica
  • Cotzumalhuapa – Late Classic major city that extended more than 10 square kilometres which produced hundreds of sculptures in a notably realistic style
  • *El Tajín – one of the largest and most important cities of the Classic era of Mesoamerica, part of the Classic Veracruz culture, flourished 600 to 1200 CE. World Heritage site.
  • Iximché – capital of the Late Postclassic Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 until its abandonment in 1524, located in present-day Guatemala
  • Izapa – large archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas, occupied from 1500 BCE to 1200 AD
  • Kaminaljuyú – big Mayan site now mostly buried under modern Guatemala City
  • Mitla – the most important site of the Zapotec culture, reaching apex 750-1500 AD
  • *Monte Alban – one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica, the pre-eminent Zapotec socio-political and economic centre for a thousand years, 250 BC – . Founded toward the end of the Middle Formative period at around 500 BC to Late Classic (ca. AD 500-750)
  • Oxtotitlan – a rock shelter housing rock paintings, the ‘earliest sophisticated painted art known in Mesoamerica’
  • *Palenque – Maya city state in southern Mexico, date from c. 226 BC to c. AD 799, contains some of the finest Mayan architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings
  • Piedras Negras – largest of the Usumacinta ancient Maya urban centres, known for its large sculptural output
  • Seibal – Classic Period archaeological site in Guatemala, fl., 400 BC – 200 AD
  • Tenochtitlan – capital city of the Aztecs, founded 1325, destroyed by the conquistadors 1520, now buried beneath Mexico City
  • *Teotihuacan – vast city site in the Valley of Mexico 25 miles north-east of Mexico City, at its height 0-500 AD, the largest city in Mesoamerica population 125,000. A World Heritage Site, and the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.
  • Tikal – one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centres of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, located in northern Guatemala. World Heritage Site.
  • Tlatilco – one of the first chiefdom centres to arise in the Valley of Mexico during the Middle Pre-Classic period, 1200 BCE and 200 BCE, gives its name to distinctive ‘Tlatilco culture’.
  • Tula – capital of the Toltec Empire between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of Tenochtitlan. Though conquered in 1150, Tula had significant influence on the Aztec Empire. Associated with the cult of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl.
  • Tulum – Mayan walled city built on tall cliffs along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya, at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries.
  • Uaxactún – an ancient sacred place of the Maya civilization, flourished up till its sack in 378 AD
  • *Uxmal – ne of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, founded 500 AD, capital of a Late Classic Maya state around 850-925, taken over by Toltecs around 1000 AD. World Heritage Site.
  • Yaxchilán – Mayan city, important throughout the Classic era, known for its well-preserved sculptured stone lintels and stelae bearing hieroglyphic texts describing the dynastic history of the city.

Another map, with pictures

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows the area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

PBS Documentary

The sense of a double narrative – the way we not only learn the history of the Mesoamericans, but also the history of how we found out about the Mesoamericans – is well captured in this American documentary.

Related links

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