Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Americas: The old New World

Original civilisations developed in just a select handful of places across the globe. Two of these – the Andes and Mesoamerica – are found in the last continental landmass to be colonised by humanity. From the frozen reaches of Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, across the high grassland plains of North America, through the equatorial tropics and down the spine of the Andes to Patagonia at the uttermost end of the earth, the Americas boast an extraordinary range of landscapes and climates. These presented great challenges to human adaptive capacities and produced some remarkable and ingenious responses. In 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his party first beheld the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan as if floating on the shimmering waters of Lake Texcoco, in the Basin of Mexico. His incredulous companion Bernal Diaz extolled the vision of this great island metropolis, with its temples, plazas, ordered streets, gardens and causeways, as "surpassing anything to be seen in all of Europe".

Yet successive visitors have been as likely to dismiss America's native population as they have been to praise it. Writing some 300 years after Cortés, Charles Darwin described the Yahgan canoe Indians of Tierra del Fuego as "the most miserable wretches on the face of the earth", living on the very lowest rung of human existence. He would not have been aware that for decades, passing whalers and seal hunters had decimated the colonies of marine mammals upon which the Yahgan depended, introducing contagious disease and alcohol along the way, with devastating consequences.

These wildly divergent accounts have coloured the European imagination to such an extent that pre-Columbian peoples and cultures are still prone to be tagged as primitive and mysterious. Prior to modern archaeological research, the ancient history of the Americas was framed within a greatly foreshortened and unrealistic timescale; only recently have we learned to appreciate that the rise of civilisation on this side of the globe broadly parallels advances elsewhere in the world, albeit with its own distinctive character.

Rise of Civilisation

Most researchers agree that it took as many as 50,000 years for the North and South American continents to be populated; we certainly know that the earliest human colonists arrived in Patagonia around 10,000 years or so ago. With global warming following the end of the last ice age, favoured environments fostered the steady growth of settled communities and the gradual transition from hunting and foraging to farming. Just as was the case in the "Old World", some wild plants became highly productive staple crops – the outcome of thousands of years of human selection and breeding. In the South American lowlands these include cassava (which required a sophisticated processing technology) and other tubers, peppers, peanuts, tobacco and cotton. In the South American highlands, domesticated llamas and alpacas supplied vital meat and wool as well as serving as pack animals well adapted to the vertiginous terrain. The native American horse had long been extinct and the horse that we are familiar with from Westerns was only reintroduced in the 16th century by the Spanish. Guinea pigs were another vital source of food – complemented by potatoes, beans and quinoa. In Mesoamerica, maize (teosinte, literally "food of the gods") was all-important, and once separated from its wild progenitor (thus avoiding cross-breeding) it was widely adopted in both Meso and South America, fuelling demographic growth and increasing social complexity. The Maya revered maize and even modelled busts of their young maize god with flowing hair to resemble the silk tassel on an ear of corn.

As in other parts of the globe, competition for the best farmable land and precious water led to the rise of ruling elites who presided over agriculture and craft production. This, in turn, led to the growth of religion and the creation of artworks that reflected both spiritual and political concerns. Thus on Mexico's Gulf Coast from 1200BC onwards, the precocious Olmec culture nurtured the first great art style in Mesoamerica, with monumental sculpted heads of rulers weighing many tonnes. They were followed by the rise of the Maya city-states further south, whose stone reliefs mark key events in the lives of their kings and queens. In highland Mexico, farmers, craftsmen and traders supported the city of Teotihuacan, which housed as many as 200,000 inhabitants by AD600, making it one of the six largest urban centres of its time in the world. Teotihuacan still serves as an example of a model metropolis: a multi-ethnic urban centre fuelled by far-reaching trade networks.

In the Oaxaca Valley, the Mixtec and Zapotec progressively enlarged the site of Monte Alban, with its spectacular temples, tombs and ball courts. Meanwhile, further south, Peru's Pacific north coast spawned an early tradition of great U-shaped ceremonial settlements with monumental architecture and sunken plazas that preceded the introduction of pottery. One of those centres, Caral, has been claimed to be the first urban complex in the Americas.

Ritual and ceremony also left their mark at Chavín de Huántar on the eastern flank of the Andes, in the form of densely intertwined images of animals and birds, reminiscent of Celtic art. Chavín art exerted a seminal influence on Andean culture, and the coastal states of Moche (later Chimu) and Nasca developed innovative but strikingly different art styles. Painted fine-line Moche vessels can be compared with scenes painted on Greek Attic vases, while the bold polychrome aesthetics of Nazca pottery seem to look forward to Picasso's stylised abstraction. The contemporary Wari and Tiwanaku empires of the highlands created more geometric styles rendered on textiles, clay and stone.

Read more on the website.

McEwan, Colin. 2010. "The Americas: The old New World". Guardian Series: Guides to the ancient world. Posted: November 9, 2010. Available online:

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