Government and Politics

Aztec Empire

How did the Aztec and Inca Empires compare with the Mayan?

While all were advanced civilizations that were eventually conquered by Spaniards, the Inca and Aztec cultures reached their peaks in the fifteenth century—just before the arrival of the Europeans in the New World. The Mayan civilization reached its zenith about 500 years earlier and was already in decline by the time of European incursion. Each group also occupied a different region of the Americas, where each carved out its own stronghold and flourished: The Aztecs settled in central Mexico, the Incas in western South America (primarily Peru), and the Mayas in the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America. There is evidence that they traded with each other as well as with American Indians to the north.

The Aztecs founded their central city of Tenochtitlán (the site of Mexico City) about 1325. A poor nomadic people before their arrival in Mexico’s central region, the Aztecs believed the Lake Texcoco marsh was a prophetic place to settle. Before they built it into a great city, they first had to fill in the swampy area, which they did by creating artificial islands. In the 1500s, when the Spanish first saw the remarkable city—with its system of causeways, canals, bridges, and aqueducts—they called it the Venice of the New World. In addition to constructing the impressive trade and cultural center of Tenochtitán, the Aztecs were farmers, astronomers, mathematicians, and historians who recorded the events of their civilization. Their religion was pantheistic, meaning they worshiped many gods. Given that, it’s not surprising that when the Spanish conquistadors arrived, at first the Maya believed they were gods (or at least, the heavenly hosts of their long-awaited god Quetzalcoatl), and even welcomed them with gifts. Later, the Aztec rose up against the Europeans, but under the leadership of Hernán Cortés (1485–1547), the Spaniards conquered the group, claiming Mexico in August 1521.

The Incas developed one of the most extensive empires in all the Americas. During the hundred years before the arrival of the Europeans, the Incas expanded their territory along the western coast of South America to include parts of present-day Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Though it was a vast region, it was nevertheless a closely knit state ruled by a powerful emperor. The government was subdivided down to the local level, but because the emperor required total obedience from his subjects, local rulers were kept in check.

Like the Aztecs in Mexico, the Inca developed an infrastructure that included a network of roads, bridges, and ferries as well as irrigation systems. They, too, built impressive edifices, demonstrating their abilities as engineers. The magnificent city of Machu Picchu was modeled in clay before construction began. The Inca were also skilled craftspeople, working with gold, silver, and textiles. Like the Aztecs, the Incas worshiped many gods. And when the Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro (c. 1475–1541) arrived in the region in 1532, he was welcomed as a god at first. However, by 1537 the Inca were brought under Spanish control.


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