Five hundred years ago Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain to the New World. The European explorers, conquerors, and priests that followed encountered a wide variety of native cultures, ranging from small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers to large complex civilizations. This course covers three of the best-known New World civilizations from the time before the Europeans: the Aztecs of central Mexico, the Mayas of southern Mesoamerica, and the Incas of the Andean region of South America.
These ancient civilizations are known to us today primarily through the fieldwork of archaeologists and the research of ethnohistorians or art historians who study the art and writing of paper (codex) books authored by indigenous scribes, native oral histories later recorded in writing, and eyewitness accounts of Spanish soldiers or priests during the first decades of Euro-Indigenous contact. Indigenous peoples of the Americas experienced severe population loss from European diseases and warfare, and the cultures and lifestyles of the surviving peoples were irrevocably changed by European contact. However, many traditions and beliefs with ancient roots are still important to conservative rural indigenous towns today.
The course examines the political, religious, social, and economic organization of the Aztecs, the Mayas, and the Incas from a comparative anthropological approach. Specifically, we will compare the religions, modes of governance, economies, and the organization of daily social life for each society.