The Americas: A Hemispheric History by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

Fernandez-Armesto tells the history of the Americas wholistically–including pre-Columbian societies. Below is a summary of his story of some of the pre-Columbian Peoples of the Americas:

Olmec:

Lived in what is now the southern part Mexico. The name Olmec means “rubber people”. The name refers to the rubber ball they used for their ballgames. The ball game is compared to volleyball and racquetball these ballcourts vary considerably in size, but all have long narrow alleys with side-walls against which the balls could bounce.

To many they are known to me the “mother of civilization” however others including Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, doesn’t agree with this claim. He believes that the Olmec people were just 1 of the many civilizations.

They had writing, mathematics, and a calendar system. Their religion was Shamanism – the supposed ability to assume the powers of animals.

In the Olmec era they are known for their huge sculpted heads that were carved from stone and columns of basalt –(which is a type of volcanic rock) these sculptures weighed about 40 tons and normally were either dragged or carried over long distances of up to 100 miles.  The types of sculptures were jaguar like masks or squat heads with almond eyes, parted lips and sneers of cold command. They also had jade face masks. Jade was one of the many stones they used to trade along with greenstone and marine shells.

Although it was is not clear why the Olmec population declined and their eventual extinction it is assumed that since they depend on agriculture to survive some believe that some type of environmental change accord.

Mayans

The Mayan people were the next widely known civilization during this time. They mostly lived in tropical lowlands and dense rainforest. For example in the jungles of Belize and Guatemala you would come across huge Mayan temples. The temples were there to announce their presence and show off their wealth and splendor.

Their society was one that had Hierarchy where the kings had Shamans’ power to commune with gods and ancestors. The elites were people who were able to have skill in war and access to the divine world.

Like the Olmec they had pictures carved into stone and put on display.  Most of the Mayan’s carvings were placed on display in the plaza’s where the people would gather during the times of rituals, which during these rituals the elites would wear their divine disguises and engage in a ritual called blood-letting, which is where they would drain large quantities of blood from a person to induce visions.

The Mayan people were very competitive when it came to war. Wars were fought by who could be more terrifying. For example they would boast about the amount of captives they had that were being sacrificed. In their art work they would have scenes of sacrifices that included torturing to death and dismemberment alive.

The way of life for the Mayan people could be described as urban. They were like a city-state type of communities. Everything important happened in the cities. The countryside was there to support and sustain the cities. How the cities were designed by having these massive buildings that were the homes of the elites, and display rites of divine propitiation. Then surrounding those are the markets and peasants. Then surrounding them were the fields that were used to provide food or used as cash crops.

Cash crops were crops that were highly luxurious and in demand that they would use to sell or trade to get profit then biggest one that was used as a cash crop were the cacao pod. One Mayan community that was considered the biggest and the most powerful city called the Tikal helped their economy by changing into a cacao production city, so much so that their symbol is the cacao pod.

Most of the Mayan history is carved into stone, thus making it able to withstand the harsh conditions and decay. Most of their writings were of one of 2 things: either records of astronomical observations or time keeping. Most of it found on alters or buildings.

Ex: in northern Honduras on one building’s stairway had the records of ruling dynasties, records of the different wars fought and alliances made.

On the alters of the Tikal they have different stories on them.

Their writing system was design to keep secrets because it is so hard to decode it that it is said that it is so mysterious that only the person who wrote it could interpret it to others.

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