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

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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