8. The Neolithic Expansion

8.2 America

A research team led by T. Dillehay from the University of Kentucky discovered stone tools and cut wood in Monte Verde (Chile) 4 about 12,500 years before present (BP). Dillehay has clues but no certainty of human presence, at the same site, dating about 33,000 years BP. Based on these clues, it is assumed that the first invasion of the Americas by modern humans may have taken place as early as 50,000 years ago.

8.2.1 Trends to the control of food supplies

The ingenuity of the inhabitants was great and many independent trends toward a Neolithic way of life are discerned in America. Control of food supplies was achieved in the Amazonia, where emphasis was put on roots. The nutritional value and abundance of tubers should not be undervalued: there are 40,000 kilograms of tubers per square kilometer available today in Tanzania’s savanna and cooked tubers are supposed to have helped the hominids of 1.8 million years ago to substantially increase the size of their brains5. Squash was domesticated by the Ecuadorians 10,000 years ago. It was apparently also domesticated at the same time in Mexico while Eastern North America used it only 5,000 years later, together with sunflower.

Independently from the Mexican example, several North American attempts at food control were made, such as the Pueblos in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, as well as Hopewell, which developed 2,500 years ago in the Mississippi valley around Memphis and St. Louis. Until the 1920′ s, the Paiute Indians of eastern California propagated wild hyacinth. Hyacinth thrives in swampy meadows. The Paiute built irrigation ditches up to 6 kilometers long, to the swampy meadows in the Paiute valley, thus creating hectares of new habitat for the crop. They did not plant seeds but artificially expanded the habitat of the desired plant to increase yield and productivity. In Arizona, as late as 1,500 years ago, the agave was artificially transplanted by mulching to hot and dry areas where the plant would normally not grow.

These evolutions occurred in the midst of less civilized cultures in the North and South American plains and forests, although some North American tribes knew how to hammer native copper into tools. These American Hunters were the biggest threat to a Neolithic way of life. Only three American Neolithic fixation points evolved further. The sustaining material on which the Mexican, Mayan and Peruvian civilizations developed was maize.

8.2.2 Middle American civilization Agricultural progresses

The Mexican civilization originated in the Tehuacan valley, south of Puebla, in Mexico, about 8,700 years ago. The people of the valley shifted from trappers and hunters to collectors of plant foods. Squash and avocado were cultivated. The oldest evidence for maize in Mexico is the recovery of 7100 years old pollen on the tropical Gulf Coast, at San Andres, in association with indicators of land clearance resulting from slash and burn cultivation. Cobs of maize dating 1000 years later were found in the Tehuacan and Oaxaca valleys. About 1,000 years later again, the productivity of maize cultivation was increased by the “milpa” pattern of agriculture . Domesticated sunflower, which dates 4700 years ago, was discovered on the San Andres site, which challenges the idea that sunflower was first domesticated in eastern North America. Of course, a separate origin of sunflower in North America is not impossible. Beans and chili pepper were also cultivated. Hybrid corn and pottery appeared 4300 years ago. Again 1,000 years elapsed before the food provided by agriculture rose to 30% of the total food consumed. The population slowly increased in numbers and village life flourished 3500 years BP. Dogs were reared for meat (Fig. 7.19) and cultivated corn was found in Mexico City and North of it. By 2,850 BP, the villagers irrigated fields to grow corn, which permitted a sharp increase in population. By 2,200 BP, the Tehuacan valley had large irrigation projects. Tomatoes, peanuts and guavas were included in the diet so that, by 700 AD, 85% of the food was produced by agriculture.

As in South East Asia, the Neolithic way of life was a slow evolution, with an increase in population numbers delayed until about 500 BC. At that moment, limitations on food had been removed and there was no longer any reason to reduce or hold down the size of the tribe. The rate of human reproduction was a personal choice and a high rate was preferred for military purposes. The Aztecs

Less than 200 years before 1519 AD, the semi-barbaric Aztecs invaded the Mexico valley from the West and occupied two small islands of a lake. There, they perfected the system of land reclamation and agriculture known as the Chinampa system that was less efficiently practiced on the margins of the lake. The Chinampa system consisted in building up land taken from the bottom of the lake and hold it by means of stakes and trees (fig. 8.3).


Figure 8.3. A cross-section diagram of two chinampas shows how fresh mud from the bottom of the canals and weeds from compost beneath the mud are keeping these chinampas fertile. Trees and stakes hold the earth in place.

Every year, more earth is dug out and added to the field. Since the water in the Mexico valley has no outlet, it evaporates and salt slowly concentrates. The system can work only through a constant supply of fresh water. The Aztecs built aqueducts for this purpose. With much work, the system produced many crops a year and remained fertile for centuries, without ever having to lie fallow. It provided the Aztecs with land and surplus food that enabled them to create a standing army. The Mexican civilization, essentially based on stone tools, built cities such as Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), which had between 100,000 and 200,000 inhabitants, and conquered an empire of about 10 million people. The destruction of the Empire by Cortez

About 7,000 years ago, human sacrifices and ritual cannibalism were common practice, be it in China, Mesopotamia or Egypt. In the Old High Cultures, these practices were slowly abandoned and humans were either chosen only among criminals or else replaced by animals. The Romans continued to kill people in circus games and Spaniards, Frenchmen and South Americans still have matadors who kill bulls and sometimes get killed themselves, which is only justice. In medieval Europe and Byzantium, animal sacrifices withered away under the influence of the Church, that choose to consecrate bread and wine as the flesh and blood of Christ. Islam reverted to primitive customs and perseveres in the sacrifice of lambs on a grand scale, for the feast of Aïd el kebir.

The Amerindians of Central America also practiced human sacrifices. Aztecs, Mayas, Zapotecs and others followed immemorial customs that amplified tremendously between 900 AD and 1400 AD. The two foundations of Aztec power were agriculture (the God of the Rain) and war (the God of the Sun). The Aztecs believed that four suns, at the origin of four worlds, had already existed and passed away. It rested on them, the elected Sons of the Sun, to nurture the fifth sun with the noblest of all foods, human blood; each Aztec, down to the infants, was invited to offer his blood, and this gift of blood was followed by the noblest and most sacred sacrifice, the bodies that were cooked and eaten by the noblemen. Most readily sacrificed, but by no means exclusively, were war prisoners.

These sacrifices, initially made to ascertain the legitimacy of the power of the Aztec rulers, turned out in the end to legitimize the power of the Aztec state. As a result, the state expanded into a monstrous empire, gluttonous of the human blood of its enemies. This abhorrent aspect of human behavior was socially accepted in the whole of Central America, where everybody envisaged the possibility that he might, at one time, be an elected victim of the gods.

In 1519 AD, Hernan Cortez burned his vessels near Vera Cruz and began, with an expeditionary force of less than 500 men, the conquest of the Aztec empire. Ten, perhaps twenty million people bowed to the 16 horses, guns, steel blades and military expertise of a handful of adventurers. The profoundly religious Spaniards, who faced the reality of the Aztec religious deviant practices, knew what their fate would be if ever they were taken prisoners. For religious, moral as well as psychological reasons, Cortez could not but completely destroy a state that was, on many accounts, repulsive. One may, in retrospect, deplore it, regret it, label it a monstrous crime against intelligence and an abominable act of barbarity, but we expose the deed as perpetrated in the context of the epoch, not as scholars secure in their comfortable offices, who today evaluate the loss. The Terror of the French revolution occurred 250 years later, was just as murderous, destructive and evil, but rarely are these losses pointed out.


Figure 8.4. Map of Tenochtitlan (Mexico), drawn by Cortez in 1524. The city fell the 13th of August 1522. Poxvirus and Spaniards united forces to destroy the city of 100,000 souls.

8.2.3 The Mayas

The Mayas occupied the isthmus of Yucatan. The earliest Mayan pottery, discovered in Belize, is some 4,500 years old. Pottery of about the same age is also known in Panama. In South America, pottery has been unearthed that is at least 6,000 years old. Well before the Mayas began to make pottery, this art was practiced in South America all the way from the gulf of Guayaquil to the Gulf of Venezuela. It may very well be that the Mayas learned the art from an exotic source.

The Mayas were initially hunters (wild deer, agouti, snails). They consumed maize, sweet potatoes and manioc. About a thousand years later, i.e. by 3,500 BP, they began to drain the swamps and, without practicing the “milpa” system, initiated the “chinampa” system. The fields were formed in riverside swamps, by digging drainage canals and using the spoils from the canals to construct platforms that stood above the water level. This construction and maintenance must have required some degree of communal cooperation consistent with a structured society and an elite class. Towns were built near the canals, in the swamps. The Mayas may have then begun to grow a “barter” crop such as cacao to exchange for jade, since jade has been found in Belize, dating from that time, although the closest source of jade known lies 350 kilometers away, in Guatemala. An extensive exchange network in Meso-America may have existed more than 3,500 years ago, which may have later benefited the Aztecs.

The time, location and developers of Mesoamerican writing are widely debated. Scarce finds from pre-Maya times have left archaeologists arguing whether key features of Mayan civilization stemmed from the Olmecs, or whether several early cultures contributed. By AD 200, three related hieroglyphic scripts were in use: the Mayan script in the Yucatan peninsula, the Isthmian script in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the Oaxacan script used by the Zapotecs. These three scripts have close similarities, indicating that they probably developed from a common ancestral script. It now seems very probable 6 that the Olmecs, living on the Gulf Coast of Mexico near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec were the originators of the script, calendrical system, monumental sculpture and architecture that benefited the Aztecs and the Mayas. The Mayas relied on a hieroglyphic script comprising more than 800 signs. They also knew about zero and mastered arithmetic, whereby they devised sophisticated calendars. In one of their calendars, the Haab, the first day of each month was numbered zero7. Despite this cultural superiority over the two other American civilizations, the Mayan civilization, based on stone tools and maize, drenched in the blood of human sacrifices, died out at the end of the 15th century. The region suffered from periodic draughts, about every 208 years: a dry period extended from 475 to 250 BC, a second draught occurred between 125 and 210 AD. and the worst draught in 7000 years occurred between 750 and 1025 AD. This last draught period was such a severe challenge that it was insurmountable by the Mayans. Forced to plough lateritic soils with a return too small to feed the population, their civilization collapsed.

8.2.4 The Andean Civilization

The most intriguing problem of Peruvian archeology is the apparent absence of antecedents for earlier civilizations. At first glance, Peru is an unlikely spot for a pristine civilization. Acre for acre, it has one of the lowest supporting capacities found in the Western Hemisphere. The mystery is now being unraveled. During late Pleistocene times, the cold ocean current known as “el Nino” was not there and an extensive belt of forests covered the western slopes of the Andes, complete with parrots, deer, black bears, boa constrictors and coca bushes. It has long been assumed that the occupation of the Andes and the Pacific coast proceeded from the Amazonian forest. Ten thousand years BC, the life-style of the population was similar to that of the other populations on the American continent. Small unifamilial bands constantly on the move gathered and hunted. There is now evidence 8 that seasoned navigators went down the pacific coast of the Americas, all the way from the Bering straits to Patagonia, and reached the Peruvian coast about 10,000 years ago, where they prospered between 6000 and 4000 years ago, feeding essentially on fish.

About 6000 years BC, the Nanchoc settlement consisted of huts scattered on elevated ground next to terraced soils along the river. The household autonomy was characterized by the production of stone tools and gardens. The people of Nanchoc were predominantly gatherers, not hunters, and occasionally horticulturists for magic purposes. The leaf of the coca bush, chewed with a pinch of lime, releases cocaine. It has been central to religious rituals and the daily life of Peruvians for centuries. At Nanchoc, located up the mountain slopes on the sea coast north of Lima, lime was prepared as it is today by the Aymara of Bolivia and the Quechua of Peru. Calcium-bearing rocks are burned and the residue ground. The powder is mixed with water and salt, condensed into small cakes and chewed together with the coca leaves. The extraction of lime-bearing rocks was then only in its initial stage. Household economy declined as the communal activity at the lime-processing site increased in importance. Communal support for lime processing involved social regulation by means of public ceremonies. The pooling of resources and the organization of labor probably attracted people from distant settlements. The transition included a passage from a nomadic to a sedentary life-style, identification with a group larger than the family, the capacity to develop resources rather than simply gather them, and the establishment of ceremonial places. A scaling up occurred between 5000 and 4000 BP with an explosion of pyramid building on the coasts of Peru, associated with sedentarism, pastoralism and large villages9.

During this time, the Pacific coast of Peru slowly desertified, mountains became arid except valleys high in the mountains that maintained a minimum of humidity, and the populations congregated along the rivers that rush down from the Altiplano. The development of agriculture and the forced assembly of people along rivers were at the origin of the notion of property of the soil at the level of the human group, now composed of multifamilial unities, and rivalry for the possession of the best land. Control over water was non-existent at that period. Maize, imported from Meso-America, began to be grown. Manioc and arachide were imported from the Amazon basin.

The Chavin civilization developed from 1300 BC on. Agriculture and stock raising of lama became principal activities. Irrigation increased in importance and allowed the feeding of a population that became interested in handycraft. A priestly class developed that organized the irrigation works, the market of the surplus food and the artistic development of the civilization. The priests had no coercive powers and strengthened their control over the population by emphasizing the existence of fearful divinities, which must be appeased by offerings made to the priests.

There is evidence of a desagregation of the religious unity between 300 BC to 300 AD. Culture diversified from one valley to the other, with the advanced Nazca and Mochica cultural groups on the meridional and northern coast of Peru, respectively. The Tiawanaku cultural complex developed on the southern shores of the lake Titicaca, with the culture of the potato and the raising of lama, alpaga, vicuña and guinea pig. In the central sierra of Peru, the Huarpa civilization was in close contact with Nazca and Tiawanaku. Artisan techniques and agricultural techniques, standardized and stultified by the priestly class, began to show signs of progress. Most importantly, the works on irrigation were backed by the construction of terraces, which considerably increased the productivity.

From 300 AD to 800 AD, the various valleys enjoyed a considerable increase in population numbers and an autonomous development due to surplus production linked to empirical technical progresses, surplus that they could keep locally for their own use. Different kingdoms formed, control over irrigation waters degenerated in warlike enterprises and ephemeral political confederations.

Huari, the capital city of the Huarpa culture, created the first empire between 800 AD and 1000 AD. The rapid administrative and military expansion of Huari was not backed by an adequate supply in food, which resulted in civilian and military chaos and the resurgence of regional confederations. From 1000 to 1434 AD arose the Chimu Empire located on the Northern coast of Peru. Its substratum was the Mochica culture. The Inca kingdom, centered on Cuzco, countered its expansion. This Inca kingdom, known as the Tawantinsuyu Empire after the annexation of the neighbor Chanca confederation in 1434 AD, had enlarged the basis of its sustenance by the cultivation of the potato, sweet potato and pineapple. It had tamed the llama and the guinea pig. Metallurgy was well practiced; copper and bronze, learned from the conquered Aymaras living in the Altiplano, were used for weapons, agricultural instruments and jewels. The Incas could count for administrative purposes, could not write, ignored iron and, more important still, saltpeter that serves in gunpowder. These defaults, joined to a political weakness similar to the one that precipitated the Aztec downfall, proved fatal when Pizarro captured the Inca in 1532 AD. The development at an imperial scale of a society that was ignorant of the wheel, of a script, of money and of iron tools 10 is interesting. Its callous and yet politically sophisticated exploitation of the population was recorded by the Spanish conquerors. The Inca Empire was 3000 km long and about 500 kilometers large. Three important ethnic groups were subjugated: the Aymara language of Bolivia (the Huarco-Chinca civilization), the kechwa language (the Incas and the inhabitants of the central Coast of Peru) and the now obsolete muchik language used in the Chimu empire. The Inca expansion was not due to superior armament and techniques. On the contrary, the level of cultural development stagnated and even regressed under their rule. The main preoccupation of the Incas seems to have been sex (fig. 8.5), if one is to believe the innumerous objects depicting obscene postures and activities, which are visible in the ethnographic museum of Lima.


Figure 8.5. Gold figurine in the Quimbaya style of Columbia. The figure is hollow, with an opening on top of the head. It served as a container for lime powder which was taken while chewing coca leaves. The female external sexual organ is not hidden. Concern with explicit sex was general in primitive civilizations, from India to Greece and Rome. I will come back to this in chapter 15.

The Inca extended his domain mainly by diplomatic efforts and used military power only in last resort. His greatest skill was diplomacy, which resulted in unequal alliances obtained by the manipulation of social links, institutions and values that were used to develop a consensus to meet external aggressions, giving to the subjugated populations the illusion of a confederate Empire. At the time of the conquest, the Inca ruled over an estimated 12 million people. The Incas were master in the planification and management of the abundant human material at their disposition, allowing them to direct and execute huge architectural works, construction of fortresses, hydraulic art, highways, mining, all accomplished to their exclusive profit.

The administration of the Empire was essentially a family affair. The Principal Inca (the Sapa Inca) had his sisters as spouses, as well as other legitimate wives and concubines, which provided for a large family, not exempt from cabals and intrigues for access to power and fights for the succession. The Inca himself, seating in Cuzco 11, was shielded from contact with his subjects by the screen of the upper aristocracy, composed of his numerous brothers and uncles. Their main occupation was to filter the informations deemed important to the Inca to administer his domain. Cousins formed a second aristocratic class of administrators. These civil servants were not professionals and fulfilled any role, from governors of provinces to policemen, civil engineers and judges. The imperial clergy forms a second social class, which was, as much as the nobility, enjoying privileges that segregated it from the mass of the citizens. They were all exempt of taxes and duties.

The Inca possessed an army but also the water, the land, the mines and other natural resources of the Empire, which he redistributed to the nobility, the clergy and the local communities he had conquered. His rule was indirect: the chiefs of various kingdoms had retained their local power and governed in the name of the Inca. Their loyalty was secured by gifts (expensive clothes, land, attractive female virgins, jewelry) and the keeping of their sons as hostages in Cuzco. The sons were destined to take eventually the place of their fathers. The Inca expected from the local chiefs the supply of troops in case of war or civil war, and requested manpower for punctual works as highway building, work in the mines and on the land of the Inca, construction of fortresses. Imperial civil servants who distributed the gifts to the chieftains in the name of the Inca controlled the local chiefs. The chieftains redistributed some of these gifts to the local population for their participation to local collective work and personal services. In addition, the chiefs allocated on a temporary basis land to the families, commensurate to their needs for subsistence, and also took care of the people in difficulty. Social security was not a direct concern of the Empire.

In the absence of money and of a script, the efficacious collection of taxes was impossible. Without record keeping and without a market, the rulers could not set up, as in contemporary France and other developed countries, privileged companies anonymously belonging to them, that would be freed of competition by political maneuvers and provide them with the means necessary for the maintenance of their standard of living. The state itself set up institutions and companies that cared directly for the imperial administration and the imperial clergy. Permanent slaves, including the Virgins of the Sun, and punctually used forced labor provided by the local chieftains, plowed the land and extracted the gold, silver, copper, nickel and salt of the mines, produced the goods (jewelry, ceramic, meat, maize, clothing, furniture, domestic service etc.), constructed the palaces and fortresses, built the highways and hotels whose use was reserved to the central state, and maintained the irrigation system.

In 1532, the 57-year-old Pizarro, his two brothers and 180 Spanish scoundrels eager to make fortune disembarked at Tumbes, on the Northern coast of Peru. Two sons of the recently defunct Inca Huayna Capac, Atahualpa and Huascar, quarreled at that moment for the succession. The Spaniards first allied with Atahualpa to defeat Huascar. Thereafter, on 16 November, they besieged the fortress of Cajamarca where Atahualpa and 30,000 Inca warriors had taken refuge, killed (butchered) 7000 of these warriors and kept Atahualpa as hostage, to collect gold, which indeed poured in in huge quantities. The mandate received by Pizarro from the Emperor Charles V was to collect as much gold as possible that was imperatively needed to fight Francis Ist of France and his allies, the Ottomans. However, Charles was appalled to learn in what gruesome ways this gold was collected, ordered an investigation and forbade further exactions, in vain. Pizarro took the sister-spouse of Atahualpa as concubine, from whom he got a daughter, had Atahualpa garroted after having him baptized (fig. 8.6), and placed Manco, a third son of the Inca, on the throne.


Figure 8.6. H. Andrae and E.de Cerquieira. MCMLXVI. Americae praeterita eventa. They report: ”Atahualpa had captured and jailed his brother Huascar, in a bloody civilian war, just before the Spaniards’ arrival; and fearing a plot between his prisoner and the invaders, directed his brother to be killed. Pizarro took advantage of this fact to submit the Sun’s Son to a trial aiming at his being condemned to be burned. This he did in spite of previously having agreed to leave him free in exchange of a fabulous amount that, as a matter of fact, had been already nearly all been paid for. On the verge of being burned, Atahualpa accepted the baptism, whereby this penalty was commuted for his death through garroting (first plan). Negro slaves are his executioners (29th August 1533)”.

The new Inca revolted and conducted a guerilla against the Spaniards, who assassinated the Inca and Pizarro. Twelve assassins were needed to finish him off at age 64. The sons of the Inca continued the resistance during 40 years, until Tapac Amaru, captured in 1572, was beheaded and the Inca Empire replaced by the Vice-Royalty of Peru. During these forty years of war, the Spaniards were helped by the local populations who saw them as providential allies against the exactions of the Inca, by the local chieftains whose privileges were maintained and secured by the Spaniards who needed them to exploit the land, and by the nobility of Cuzco, that rapidly assimilated and mingled with the Spaniards. During these forty years, two-thirds of the Indian population perished due to infectious diseases brought by the Spaniards, to forced labor in the mines and in the fields, to hunger because the irrigation system and the terraces were left to decay.

The three American Higher civilizations showed a fundamental lack in technological knowledge, such as the wheel, the plough, money, and, in the case of the Incas, a script, although that of the Aztecs was not much elaborated. These Empires, based on slavery, reveling in cruelty, brutality and avidity, reached a political level comparable to that attained by the Assyrians and Egyptians. There is no reason to believe that Aztecs and Incas were bound to naturally disappear like the Mayas.


4. Monte Verde, by T. Dilllehay of the University of Kentucky, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC, 1997

5. E. Pennisi: Did cooked tubers spur the evolution of big brains? Science 283, 1999, 2004-2005

6. M. Pohl et al. Olmec origins of Mesoamerican writing. Science, 2002, 298: 1984-1987

7. There is no year zero between 1BC and 1AD, hence a difficulty for the Western civilization in defining the beginning of decades, centuries and millenniums.

8. Lavallée D and Julien M.: Les pêcheurs préhistoriques du Pérou. Pour la Science 2001, 289: 68-75

9. Dillehay et al. The Nanchoc Tradition: The beginnings of Andean civilization. American Scientist, 1997; 85

10. J. Malengreau: Sociétés des Andes. Karthala, Eds. 22-24 boulevard Arago, 75013 Paris, 1995

11. Cuzco means navel in keshwa.

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