Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World

Steve - November 14, 2018

Although most of us are aware of the ancient civilizations of the Americas, due to their distant past and limited survival in both a cultural or archaeological sense our popular understanding of these peoples remains distinctly limited. We know of the defeat of the Aztecs at the hands of Cortes, we know of the American Indian Wars during the 19th century, and we know the story of the first Thanksgiving and of Pocahontas (even if our understanding of the truth behind the latter, in particular, is severely warped by decades of incorrect cinematic portrayals). However, beyond these limited snippets of history, our comprehension of these ancient civilizations is frequently decidedly limited in both breadth and depth.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
The Conquest of the Aztec Empire and the Fall of Tenochtitlán in 1521 (c. 17th century); author unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

Here are 16 incredible lesser known facts you probably didn’t know about the ancient Americas:

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
The New River as viewed from Hawks Nest State Park, West Virginia. Wikimedia Commons.

16. Three of the world’s five oldest rivers flow through the modern-day United States: The New, Susquehanna, and French Broad Rivers

Of the five oldest rivers in the world still in existence, three of said rivers flow through the modern-day United States of America: The New River, The Susquehanna River, and The French Broad River; each of these rivers are believed to have been formed by the Alleghenian orogeny: a geological event occurring approximately 325 million to 260 million years ago, the Alleghenian orogeny was responsible for the creations of the Appalachian Mountains and Allegheny Mountains.

The New River is part of the Ohio River watershed, beginning in the mountains of the U.S. state of North Carolina before subsequently flowing northeastward across the Blue Ridge Mountains into Virginia; finally entering West Virginia, the New combines with the Gauley River to form the Kanawha River before connecting with the Ohio River at Point Pleasant. Measuring approximately 580 kilometers long, it is unknown, considering its immense age, why the river is known as “New”, but it has been speculated that it owes its incongruous name to either a surname of an early settler or its omission from the Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia and was hence named much later.

The Susquehanna River is the longest river on the East Coast of the modern-day United States that drains into the Atlantic Ocean, measuring 747 kilometers in length and is the 16-largest river in the U.S. Consisting of two primary branches – the North and West – the former, and greater, emerges in New York state whilst the latter in western Pennsylvania before connecting near Northumberland in central Pennsylvania. Responsible for draining over 70,000 square kilometers, including almost half the land area of Pennsylvania itself, the river terminates at the Chesapeake Bay to provide nearly half of the region’s freshwater inflow.

The French Broad River is the shortest of these three ancient rivers, measuring a comparatively meager 351 kilometers in length, and flows from the U.S. state of North Carolina into Tennessee, whereupon it merges with the Holston River near Knoxville to form the Tennessee River. Despite this relative shortness, the French Broad River is perhaps the oldest of the ancient trio, with its description as “a meandering river, which typically form in relatively flat landscapes” heavily suggesting that it originated prior to the geological formation of the Appalachian Mountains and was subsequently lifted up by the rising rock edifice.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
An approximation of the theorized Bering land bridge during the Wisconsin Glaciation. Wikimedia Commons.

15. The Americas used to be connected to Asia by an enormous land bridge connecting Alaska to Siberia which comprised a fertile grassland region known as Beringia.

The modern-day regions of Siberia in Russia and Alaska in the United States were once connected by an extensive land bridge, enabling migratory human populations to become the original settlers of the ancient Americas; known as “Beringia”, this lost region comprised the land and sea located to the east of the Lena River, west of the Mackenzie River, south of the Chukchi Sea, and north of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Believed to have formed a massive land bridge between the continents measuring up to 1,000 kilometers wide, Beringia would have historically covered an area larger than modern-day British Columbia and Alberta combined, totaling in excess of 1.6 million square kilometers; the only remnants of this ancient land is a handful of islands scattered across the Bering Strait, notably the Pribilof Islands and the Diomede Islands.

Theorized to have existed around the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, estimated to have occurred between 20,000-22,000 years ago and causing significant portions of the Earth’s water becoming stored as glacial ice, precipitating a noticeable reduction in oceanic water levels, Beringia itself was not a glacial or frigid environment; in fact, geological evidence suggests that in spite of its location the region was actually an extensive grassland steppe offering an encouraging and fertile region upon which early human settlers would undeniably have been attracted towards.

Arriving at some time during the existence of Beringia, between 20,000-16,500 years ago the American glaciers to the south of the now-submerged region melted to allow southward migration by these earliest of Americans. Disappearing under the rising seas as the absorbent glaciers melted about 11,000 years ago, the population of the region was forced to scatter to either ends of Beringia; the Yupik people stand as testament to the dramatic isolation caused by this event, with ethnic and cultural similarities remaining on either side of the newly-formed Bering Strait to this day.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
Map of the earliest dated sites showing an enormously geographically varied human presence in the Americas. Wikimedia Commons.

14. It is probable that the ancient Americas were settled in two major migratory phases and most likely split between those who arrived by land and those who arrived by sea

Within paleo-archaeology the settlement of the Americas has remained a subject of intense debate and curiosity, with the prevailing opinion determined that the ancient migrants arrived in waves to the unknown continent; as noted, this migration is believed to have begun approximately 20,000-16,000 years ago as a result of decreasing water levels opening up access to the previously isolated landmass. These separate waves of migration resulted in, and are easiest identified, through the cultural distinctions that can be seen across ancient archaeological discoveries in the Americas, most prominently with the Athabaskan shared language; observably employed predominantly in the Alaskan region of the North American continent, a smaller sub-variant of the language interestingly appears in the American Southwest and spoken by the Navajo people, reflecting follow-up migratory patterns among early humans of the continent.

Whilst some scholars have theorized that pre-glacial migration might have occurred as an explanation for far-reaching human settlement, the most likely explanation is that although much of the early population of the Americas did indeed traverse the ancient land bridge and region of Beringia, other groups took advantage of the decreased sea levels to bypass the restrictive ice wall separating the modern-day continental United States from Beringia and journeyed via the oceans. Pacific models of early human migration to the Americas are difficult to verify, with much of the land area that would have become initial settlements since lost in a manner akin to Beringia itself, but the theory remains a compelling argument to explain known migratory patterns; the suggestion that early populations might have used sea travel for the purposes of migration helps to explain the existence of near-simultaneous ancient populations in regions greatly distant to the modern-day Bering Strait, in particular culturally distinct settlements at Monte Verde in southern Chile and Taima-Taima in western Venezuela.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
Andenes or terraces in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Wikimedia Commons.

13. The ancient inhabitants of the Americas were among the first to domesticate a variety of plant and animal life, including maize, potatoes, and turkeys.

As succinctly detailed by Bruce Smith, three independent centers of domestication and agricultural origin have been identified in the Americas: the south-central Andes, Mexico, and eastern North America. Introduced by small groups of hunter-gatherers living in upland environments, who subsequently transitioned towards increasingly sedentary lifestyles, the earliest evidence of domesticates are dated to between 10,000 and 7,000 years ago; this would indicate that the emergence of agriculture in the Americas was roughly contemporaneous with similar transitions in the Near East and China, although more recent evidence has proposed a much more recent time period of between 5,500 to 4,000 years ago.

The indigenous peoples of eastern North America subsisted through the domestication of several known foodstuffs, notably squash, in addition to other crops such as tobacco; in stark contrast, natives of the Pacific Northwest utilized fire-stick farming in a manner similar to that used by the Aboriginals of Australia, wherein low-scale fires were applied to ensure desirable farming grounds were available. Of particular note, a system of companion planting known as the “Three Sisters” method was employed throughout early North American agriculture; this process involved the planting of three complimentary crops – namely winter squash, maize, and climbing beans. The maize served to provide a structure upon which the beans could climb, thus eliminating the need for gardening poles, whilst the beans provided in return nitrogen for other plants and the squash added mulch and eliminated the spread of weeds by blocking ground sunlight.

Comparatively, Incan agriculture comprised several alternative methods of early farming in the Americas and is characterized by a wide variety in produce; a “pristine” civilization – that is to say one that was not derivative of other civilizations – many of the crops grown by the Inca were similarly unique to the indigenous people. Farming in the adverse Andean terrain and climate, the Inca adapted to their surroundings through the innovative use of terrace farms or “Andenes”: built to maximize efficiency, these slopped steps allowed crops to be irrigated in hostile reaches by allowing natural runoffs of water. Among the products of the predominantly agricultural Inca civilization via such methods were potatoes and quinoa, estimated to have been farmed for almost 10,000 years in the region, as well as the domestication and farming of llamas, alpacas, and guinea pigs approximately 5,500 years ago.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
A representation of an Inuit village, from Charles Francis Hall’s “Arctic Researches and Life Among the Esquimaux” (1865). Wikimedia Commons.

12. The earliest inhabitants of the Americas resided in an extensive variety of housing styles, each dependent upon the requirements and culture of the indigenous nation

Understandably, the early inhabitants of the Americas required residences in which to live and their respective houses greatly reflected both their distinct cultures and the requirements or possibilities of their environments. Utilizing available resources to create unique housing structures, these homes ranged from the portable to permanent and primitive to technologically impressive; spanning wigwams, longhouses, tepees, grass houses, wattle and daub, chickees, adobe or pueblo, earthen, plank, igloo, and brush, it is important to recognize the immense cultural distinctions in early American habitation existence.

Several North American styles of housing shared similar themes, revolving around the wigwam (“house” in the Abenaki tribal language): a style of housing employed by the Algonquian indigenous people of the northeastern and central regions of North America, who exploited the ready availability of wood in these areas to establish settled seasonal villages; typically 8-10 feet tall, wigwams were covered in woven sheets of bark and constructed in a dome-like shape. Longhouses were extremely similar to the wigwam, perhaps unsurprisingly given their common usage by the neighboring Iroquois who resided in a comparable environment; the primary difference between a longhouse and a wigwam was size, with a longhouse measuring up to 200 feet in length, 20 feet in width, and 20 feet in height, and capable of habitation by an entire clan of 60 persons within longstanding, if not permanent settlements. Equally, the tepees and grass houses inhabited by the indigenous people of the Plains regions of North America greatly resembled this structural archetype, differing in the application of materials due to regional variations through the use of buffalo hide and long prairie grass respectively.

However, these were by no means the only style employed, with the adobe houses (also known as “pueblos”) a unique addition to North American culture. Created by the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, these homes were multi-story houses made of baked clay and constructed in a modular fashion akin to a modern apartment; these apartment blocks, comprised of potentially dozens of separate accommodations, often served as communal homes for entire extended families. Likewise, perhaps the most famous of all indigenous American residences, the “Igloo” were snow houses built by the Inuit people (or Eskimos) of northern Canada; dome-shaped and built from large blocks of ice, these homes acted as vital survival tools through the natural insulation provided by the snow and protection by the ice from otherwise lethal polar winds.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
An early depiction of a marriage between a colonial and a native in North America; date and author unknown.

11. Although the specifics of marriage customs varied, the indigenous peoples of the Americas were defined by a rigid community of interdependence within family units

Whilst there is no singular understanding of marriage within indigenous American society, with hundreds of distinct cultures existing across the two continents, there are several key themes which unify the divergent populations; among the most prominent and consistent feature is the important of family, specifically the extended rather than merely nuclear family within wider demographic groups and the role of said family unit in organizing and structuring everyday life.

In opposition to the historic cultural consensus of Christian Europeans, who were appalled at the alleged barbarism of the indigenous American people, sex and marriage were not inseparable; instead, sex routinely occurred outside of any formal or established relationship and there does not appear to have been any entrenched concept of sexuality in a manner akin to that of the Hellenistic civilizations. Equally in contrast, as native cultures were typically characterized by egalitarianism – that is to say the equality of people regardless of their gender – relationships and marriages among indigenous peoples were less subservient than their European counterparts; women were not property, as in Christian European marriages, nor were children the property of their parents but instead endowed with equivalent rights and obligations.

Although there was often no official ceremony associated with an indigenous marriage, instead merely a private or family acknowledgment of the coupling, this should not be interpreted as reducing the importance attached to the union; likewise the common practice of polygyny – the taking by a man of multiple wives – and polyandry – the marrying of a woman to multiple men concurrently – should not be seen as diminishing this importance either. Instead, this cultural occurrence should, in fact, be seen as highlighting the immense importance placed on family, with the entire North American economic system dependent on familial connections to properly function; accordingly, should a husband die his wife would be expected to find a new husband, often from within her deceased’s immediate family, to maintain that communal connection and forestall economic decline. An example of this economic interdependence through marriage can be seen in the tribes of the Great Plains: a successful male hunter would collect many hides, and thus, in turn, require multiple wives to process the hides for sale, and so he would likely take his wife’s sister as an additional wife to aid with this commercial enterprise; likewise, a wife was often married to the brothers of her husband to solidify this economic entrenchment through multiple avenues of connective bond.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
Olmec Head No. 3 from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan 1200-900 BCE. Wikimedia Commons.

10. The Olmec were one of the six “pristine” civilizations, believed to be responsible for much of the technological foundations enjoyed by their Mesoamerican successors, but much of their culture has been lost to the mists of time after their sudden and unexplained disappearance in the 4th century BCE

The Olmec were the earliest major civilization known to have inhabited the Americas, dating from approximately 1500 BCE to 400 BCE and resided in the Mexico coastal regions near modern-day Veracruz. Living in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, as a “pristine” civilization the Olmec are believed to have been the progenitors of countless cultural and technological features observed in successor American societies, in particular the Maya; emerging as a distinct culture between 1400-1200 BCE, the founding of the Olmec city of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, not to be confused with the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, during this time is often considered the formal beginning of the fledgling civilization. Aided by rich soil and the transportation opportunities afforded by the Coatzacoalcos River Basin, the Olmecs flourished in a manner comparable to other ancient civilizations residing on the banks of the Nile or Indus.

Atypically for an ancient civilization, this agricultural productivity enabled densely concentrated populations in large cities, with Tenochtitlán believed to have housed a population in excess of 10,000; this, in turn, created sufficient demand for artistic culture, resulting in the creation of the luxury objects which define the Olmec civilization today. Notable among these cultural artifacts, the Olmecs fashioned masks of jade, believed to have been used as symbols of status by the ruling classes, and carved colossal heads from single blocks of volcanic basalt; in total 17 such heads have been discovered, with the largest 11 feet in height and weighing 55 tons. The purposes of these heads, the characteristic image of the Olmec civilization, remains unclear, with the accepted theory that they represent great rulers and perhaps even were believed to capture the souls or emotions of these acclaimed individuals.

Like the Maya after them, it is unknown why the Olmec civilization suddenly entered into a period of rapid decline; this decline occurred in two stages. Beginning in around 950-900 BCE, the great city of Tenochtitlán was abandoned by the Olmec and much of its culture lost; it is believed internal conflict or changing environmental conditions might have contributed to the abandonment of the greatest city in the region. The remaining Olmec population relocated to La Venta, home to the largest Mesoamerican structure of its time – “The Great Pyramid” – until when between 400 and 350 BC the population of the eastern half of Olmec territory dramatically depopulated. Archeologists have speculated this depopulation was the product of “very serious environmental changes that rendered the region unsuited for large groups of farmers”; among the possible variables capable of creating such a seismic shift in environment, it has been suggested tectonic activity, the silting up of rivers, or volcanic eruptions.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
Ballgame court at Monte Albán. Wikimedia Commons.

9. The Maya, among other Mesoamerican cultures and believed to have adopted the practice from their Olmec forerunners, competed in a ritualistic ballgame still played today by their descendants

Whilst one often considers prehistoric civilizations as a constant struggle for survival, akin to a state of permanent conflict, one should not overlook the existence of a rich array of cultural activities within these ancient civilizations; among these past times the pre-Columbian peoples of Mesoamerica participated in sport, competing in a ritualistic ballgame since at least 1400 BCE.

Believed to have been created by the Olmec civilization, and subsequently adopted by their successor nations, the ballgame, known as “ōllamaliztli” and continued today in some variant as “ulama”, possesses similarities to the modern sport of racquetball; although the precise rules of ōllamaliztli are unknown, it is believed that the objective was to put a ball made from solid rubber and weighing up to 4 kilograms through an elevated target goal. Played by all members of society for the purposes of recreational competition, in later periods formal stone ball-courts were constructed in major cities; varying significantly in size and scope, with some possessing extensive raised seating for spectators, these arenas were typically long narrow areas with slanted walls allowing for the ball to bounce off of and possessed elevated stone hoops through which the ball was to be passed.

However, ritualistic aspects to the game have also been historically determined, with ōllamaliztli appearing to have served an important formal function within Mesoamerican society as a form of dispute resolution; Fray Juan de Torquemada, a 16th century Spanish missionary, records an incident in which the Aztec emperor Axayacatl played against Xihuitlemoc, leader of the Xochimilco, whilst another contemporaneous account details Topiltzin, King of the Toltec, besting three of his rivals and in so doing winning their territories. The use of ōllamaliztli in this fashion remains a matter of historical debate but it would explain the uneven distribution of ball-courts throughout Mesoamerica, appearing more often in regions with greater internal and external conflict than safer regions with more recreational and leisure time.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
A warrior of the Blackfoot tribe, by Karl Bodmer (c. 1840-1843). Wikimedia Commons.

8. The Plains Indians were not always nomadic horsemen, with their characteristic mounts only introduced to the region in the 16th century and widespread adoption not occurring until the 18th

Plains Indians, also known as the Indigenous People of the Great Plains, are the Native American tribes who traditionally resided on the Interior Plains of North America; encompassing many of the most famous native peoples, including the Comanche, Crow, and Lakota, among many others, the Plains Indians have come to represent the stereotypical image of North American indigenous people, especially as a leading part of the Old West genre narrative.

Despite the inseparability of the Plains Indian from the horse in popular imagination, reinforced through decades of media representations in this fashion, it is important to recognize that for the vast majority of their histories these indigenous people did not even have access to horses. Living a nomadic existence, the Plains tribes traditionally survived through hunter-gatherer techniques; heavily reliant upon the American Bison (commonly referred to incorrectly as buffalo) for subsistence, these tribes followed the seasonal migrations of these animals and utilized their remaining parts for tools, tepee skins, and clothing. These practices continued through the earliest encounters of Europeans with Plains Indians, with the first recorded meeting occurring in 1541 in which Francisco Vásquez de Coronado detailed extensively the lifestyle of the Apache people; depicting the tribespeople as carrying a gut of blood around their necks to drink, eating jerky as a staple food, and living in portable skin tepees, it is reasonable to assume, given corroborating archaeological evidence, that this manner of survival was replicated across the preceding millennia.

Although horses did indeed historically exist on the North American continent, it is believed that at some point between 8,000-12,000 years ago, for reasons unknown, they became extinct; as such, it was not until the reintroduction of horses by Europeans that the Plains Indians were able to adopt their iconic steeds. Originally acquired from Spanish colonists in New Mexico during the 16th century, either through trade or in some cases theft due to a Spanish prohibition on providing horses to the natives, by the 1730s the Comanche had collected sufficient quantities to transition their people in their entirety onto horseback; this momentous change enabled the Plains Indians to hunt and subsist over much larger areas of land, inevitably inviting conflict between previously distant tribes and beginning a new age in the histories of the indigenous peoples of North America.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
A Maya using a prototype enema as part of medicinal treatment; date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

7. The Maya practiced an extensive variety of medical treatments, some pseudoscientific and others, particularly dentistry, impressively advanced

When one typically imagines ancient cultures, advanced medicine is not one of the stereotypical traits that commonly comes to mind. From the ancient practice of trepanning – the drilling of a hole into a head, often with the purpose of releasing evil spirits – to the use of leeches in European medieval medicine, past civilizations frequently employed unscientific and dangerous methods to treat patients.

The Maya were no exception to this recurrent feature, it should be noted, with the fundamental principles to their approach to medicine underpinned by a fervent belief in the spiritual and the effect of the supernatural upon the earthly state of affairs. Due to the belief that sickness was a punishment by metaphysical forces ritualistic treatments were abundant within Maya society, performed by their medicine men (“Ah-men”); such treatments ranged from shamanistic efforts to commune with spirits, sacrificial offerings, blood-letting, and the consumption of hallucinogenic subsistence, most notably peyote, to enter an altered state. Herbal remedies were commonplace within ancient Maya society, with the study of these religiously significant plants limited to the priesthood, and applied in a manner of superstitious means; for example, red plants were commonly used in relation to problems involving blood whilst yellow plants were often used to combat diseases.

However, in contrast to these pseudoscientific, even harmful, medical practices, the Maya equally applied considerably advanced and effective modes of treatment. In addition to their religious activities, archaeological evidence demonstrates that the Maya medicine men were proficient at suturing wounds with human hair, setting bones, and, independent of the ancient Egyptian and Greek adoption of the item, the Maya utilized enemas as a purification tool to clean out bodily corruption. Most notably, the Maya possessed advanced dental knowledge and techniques, capable of safely pulling teeth, applying fillings made from iron pyrite, and even inserting prosthetic replacements made from jade.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
An Aztec woman generates foam by pouring chocolate from one vessel to another (1533). Wikimedia Commons.

6. The Americas are responsible for the production of chocolate, which held a position of importance within these ancient civilizations

Chocolate is one of the most enduring popular features of modern Western culture, being considered “essential” rations for American soldiers during the Second World War and $22.4bn worth of sales occurred in the United States alone in 2017; cultivated for human consumption as early as the 2nd millennium BCE, we owe the delicious treat to the ancient Americas.

The earliest known domestication of the cacao plant, from which pods containing the cacao bean are harvested, stems from the ancient Olmec civilization, with the earliest archaeological evidence dated to approximately 1500 BCE; discovered via ancient pots with traces of theobromine, a stimulant found in chocolate, this finding strongly supports suggestions that the Olmec used chocolate as part of a ceremonial drink for the purpose of ritualistic or medicinal practices.

As with much of Olmec culture, the Maya subsequently adopted the consumption of chocolate; in fact, the Maya elevated the food to a status of particular symbolic significance. Used in official ceremonies, religious rituals, and at funerals and celebrations, surviving Maya writings detail the importance of the cacao bean to the ancient civilization, believed to have been the food of the rain deity “Kon”. Consumed as part of finalizing formal arrangements, notably economic transactions and marriages, the cacao bean also served a form of currency for the Maya; according to European explorers, a rabbit was valued at ten cacao beans, a slave one hundred, and the services of a prostitute roughly ten. It is important to note that, as a result of its intimate involvement in Maya life, chocolate was readily available and not restricted by social class, with the food believed to have been frequently consumed, combined with chili or honey, within typical households as part of a regular meal.

With the emergence of the dominant Aztec Empire by the 15th century, this practice was continued albeit in a somewhat altered fashion. Unable to grow cacao, the Aztecs demanded the valued bean as part of tribute from conquered regions and as such whilst retaining a high status, widely considered to be more valuable than gold, chocolate became a more exclusive food. Associated with the God Quetzalcoatl, the Aztecs consumed chocolate as an aphrodisiac and on special occasions; of particular note, the Aztec Emperor Montezuma II allegedly drank gallons of chocolate per day in the belief it provided him with godly energy and sexual potency.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
Classic Period Maya glyphs, in Palenque, Mexico. Wikimedia Commons.

5. Several ancient American civilizations, including the Maya and Zapotec, used an immensely complicated and intricate writing system based on the ordering of glyphs to create word-sounds, with multiple ways to spell the same word

Originating as an early proto-language, commonly designated “Proto-Mayan”, in the Chiapas-Guatemalan highlands, this language is believed to have begun dividing and evolving around 2200 BCE to create multiple regional dialects each adopting their own local variations; eventually culminating in the “Classic Maya Language” around the 3rd century CE and used until the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, the written form would survive as the predominant pre-Columbian record of the ancient civilization.

Conventionally written by members of the priesthood, the Maya script was an intricate combination of logographic and syllabic signs depicted in a glyphic fashion to create words; a similar style can be seen in the languages of the modern world, mot notably as part of the Japanese writing system. Comprising an elaborate array of glyphs, painted onto ceramics and molded into walls, these phonetic symbols spelled out the sounds of words and thus gave meaning to otherwise disconnected syllables; these inscriptions were read left to right and top to bottom. As a result of this writing style, arranged in columns and blocks, with more than 800 glyphs known to have existed, the same word could be depicted in wildly different fashions making translations and understanding immensely complex.

Predating that of the ancient Maya, the Zapotec languages, also using a logosyllabic system of writing, is thought to have been the earliest predecessor of all successor glyph-based languages in Mesoamerica, dating to approximately 500 BCE; there is continued debate whether the written Zapotec language is the oldest in ancient Mesoamerica, with discovered Olmec figures possibly dating to roughly 600 BCE. Interestingly, Zapotec is a tone language – a language in which the meaning of the spoken word is dependent on the pitch of the voice – and features 4 distinct tonemes: high, low, rising, and falling; this language feature is more commonly observable in Asiatic languages, specifically in South Asia, strongly suggesting the aforementioned cultural links between the regions in early migration to the Americas.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
A turquoise mosaic mask (c. 1400-1521 CE). British Museum/Wikimedia Commons.

4. The Mixtec were considered the masters of goldsmithing in ancient Mesoamerica, with their products prized even by the Aztec Emperors

The Mixtec were an indigenous and disunited people located in the modern-day Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla. Traditionally a divided people, separated between three key city-state regions – Tilantongo in the Mixteca Alta area, Teozacualco of the Mixteca Baja area, and Tututepec of the coastal Mixteca area – the Mixtec were briefly united into a single polity during the 11th century CE under Eight Deer Jaguar Claw.

Believed to have lived between 1063 and 1115 CE, Eight Deer is best known for his successful military campaigns, with surviving historical records detailing a total of 94 cities conquered during his reign, and for sporting his iconic jaguar helmet; eventually, after massacring much of his extended family, in 1115 his youngest brother-in-law, Four Wind, led an alliance against him, capturing and sacrificing Eight Deer to the Mesoamerican deities. Subsequently devolving into a state of internal factional conflict, the Mixtec were easily subjugated by the rising Aztec Empire, becoming tributary vassals, before suffering conquest and cultural annihilation by the Spanish in the 16th century.

One of the smaller major civilizations of Mesoamerica, the Mixtec were historically renowned throughout the region for their artisan capabilities, described by historians as being regarded as “the foremost goldsmiths of Mesoamerica”. These valuable items were immensely prized, typically fashioned from gold and turquoise, with the goldsmiths of Mixtec prominent figures even as their independent status waned; the produce of said goldsmiths, frequently using the “lost-wax casting” method, was so highly regarded that it formed a core component of the tribute paid by the Mixtec to the Aztecs.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
North-west view of El Castillo, in Chichén Itzá, Mexico. Wikimedia Commons.

3. The Temple of Kukulcan in the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá reflects sunlight during the equinoxes to create the illusion of a feathered serpent wriggling its way to the ground

Chichén Itzá was a pre-Columbian Maya city, located in the modern-day Yucatán state of Mexico and constructed in its present form between 750-90 CE; serving as one of the largest Maya cities throughout the Late Classic, Terminal Classic, and early Post-classic periods of the civilization’s history, at the heart of the ancient settlement is the iconic Temple of Kukulcan (also known as El Castillo).

Built between the 8th and 12th centuries, with the foundational structure estimated to date from 600-800 CE and the final contributions added around 900-1000CE, the Temple of Kukulcan acted as a religious center for the worship of the Maya god Kukulkan: the Feathered Serpent and a close relation to the prominent Aztec god of Quetzalcoatl. Designed in the traditional style of a step-pyramid, consisting of a series of square terraces situated along four equal sloped triangular sides, the Temple of Kukulcan measures 79 feet in height, with an additional 20 feet for the temple situated atop, and 181 feet in width; each side, itself decorated in sculptures of the deified plumed serpent, possesses 91 steps, which when including the final step adorning the edifice’s summit amounts to 365, symbolically reflecting the number of days in a year according to the Maya calendar.

Ingeniously incorporating the Mayas advanced astronomical knowledge and interest, the Temple of Kukulcan was designed in such a manner that in the days surrounding the spring and fall equinoxes the setting sun casts a very particular shadow around the complex: the illusion of a feathered serpent crawling down the pyramid and slithering to the ground; given the nature of the temple complex, and the known role of Kukulcan in the Maya religious tradition, this purposeful design was likely incorporated into religious ceremonies at Chichén Itzá during this solar events.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
A solid rubber ball used (or similar to those used) in Mesoamerican ballgames (c. 300 BCE-250 CE). Wikimedia Commons.

2. The ancient Maya are believed to have been the first discoverers of vulcanization, doing so thousands of years prior to the alleged “discovery” and commercialization of the process by Charles Goodyear

Vulcanization – the chemical process by which rubber is combined with other materials in order to convert it into a more durable material – is an important aspect of the modern commercial production of rubber in everyday products. Traditionally credited to legendary American engineer Charles Goodyear, who received his patent in 1843 for the chemical process behind the manufacture of pliable rubber – in which latex from the Brazilian rubber tree is heated with sulfur to increase elasticity and durability – modern historical discoveries have uncovered that the ancient Maya actually beat Goodyear to this practice by over 3,000 years.

Acquiring rubber from the sap of trees native to Maya-populated regions, it is believed that the discovery originated, as with many early inventions, by mistake, most likely first noticed during a religious ritual combining aspects of the rubber tree and morning-glory plants. By varying the number of additional materials added to raw tree rubber, these earliest of chemical engineers were able to create a vast range of rubber-based durable products including water-resistant cloth, glue, and rubber balls used in the aforementioned competitive sport; by mixing equal amounts of latex and morning-glory juice rubber balls could be produced with bouncy qualities, whilst a 3:1 ratio produced a durable material suitable for footwear.

Whilst ultimately uncertain in scope, there is a “a compelling case that ancient Mesoamerican peoples were the first polymer scientists, exerting substantial control over the mechanical properties of rubber for various applications”; it should be noted that whilst no ancient rubber footwear has been unearthed at Mesoamerican archaeological sites to date, accounts of Spanish conquistadors undeniably, and previously inexplicably, detail their existence among indigenous people. Furthermore, an array of complimentary rubber artifacts have been recovered from archaeological sites across former Maya territory, including bands, statues, and adhesives, in addition to rubber balls dating from as far back at 1600 BCE; it has been estimated that “a large rubber industry in the region” existed prior to Spanish arrival in the Americas, with as many as 16,000 rubber balls produced per year and transported to the Maya capital of Tikal as part of tributary payments.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
Mayan Zodiac Circle. Wikimedia Commons.

1. The ancient Maya were intensely aware of the cosmic rotation of the celestial bodies, accordingly creating two separate calendar systems: the Calendar Round and Long Count

An industrious and scientifically curious people, the ancient Maya also were intensely spiritual; with the focus of this religiosity frequently directed towards the celestial heavens, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Maya people developed an early understanding of the cosmos. Capable of predicting solar eclipses, with such events believed to symbolize great religious significance, the Maya concurrently used astrological cycles to determine suitable harvesting patterns and, perhaps most famously if not properly understood, enshrined their knowledge of these celestial transitions into two calendar systems: the Calendar Round and the Long Count.

The Calendar Round was comprised of two overlapping annual cycles: a 260-day “sacred year” and a 365-day “secular year”. An immensely cumbersome method, even for a prototype, under the Calendar Round each day was ascribed four separate labels: a day number and day name in the sacred calendar, and a day number and month name in the secular calendar. Every 18,980 days – the first common mathematical integer of 260 and 365 – or 52 solar years, counted as a single Calendar Round, after which the dates would reset back to the beginning for another lap.

Due to the inefficiency of the Calendar Round, measuring time in an infinite loop resetting every 52 solar years rather than as part of a definitive linear chronology, the identification of specific timelines and events was extremely complicated, if not impossible across a prolonged period of time; consequently, the Long Count was devised in approximately 236 BCE as an improved alternative system. Under the Long Count each day was identified by counting forward from a predetermined base date, identified by modern historians as either August 11 or August 13, 3114 BCE; as a method of shorthand calculation, days were grouped into carefully delineated sets: a baktun was 144,000 days, a k’atun was 7,200 days, a tun was 360 days, a winal was 20 days, and a kin was 1 day. Although retaining the same fundamental flaw as the Calendar Round, having an ultimate final date within the system, under the Long Count, as the name would suggest, each “Grand Cycle” was far larger, equal to 13 baktuns or 5,139 solar years; consequently, as of time of writing we are just under 7 years from the terminus of the first Grand Cycle of the Maya Calendar.


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