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Monday, October 25, 2010

Mayans, Toltecs & Aztecs

    It's hard to ignore the present-day drug violence in Mexico.  I've been thinking about Mexico itself, and realizing that my present state is "sadly ignorant."  The ignorance starts at the beginning.  For example, I don't really know the difference between Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs.  The truth of Pre-Columbian civilization is that it blended elements of pre-Western middle Eastern civilizations with aspects of solidly "middle ages" civilizations.  These civilizations spanned a thousand years in time, a large diversity of geography, the migration of different peoples, numerous ecological catastrophes and eventually contact with Europe.  Although they are treated as "extinct" the people continue to exist.  In many cases they continue to speak their own language, practice their own syncretic rituals and maintain an ethnic identity that has resisted Western assimilation for half a millennium.

   Pre Contact Central/Southern Mexico was a diverse place culturally speaking. The first generally identifiable group is the Olmecs, documented back to 1100 B.C.   The next significant group are the Mayans, whose civilization, occurring  from about 300 AD to 800 AD, is generally considered the "golden" age of Pre Columbian Mexican civilization.  The Mayans were clustered in Southern Mexico, on the Yucatan peninsula and into Guatemala.   If you consult any edition of the Ethnologue, the entire Yucatan peninsula maintains Mayan speakers.  A hoary entry point into any discussion of the Mayans includes belabored theories about the "mysterious" collapse of the Mayan Golden Age, but if you just look at the environment, hot, humid and jungly, it seems like a precarious place to build an enduring human foot print.   They had a 500 hundred year run, but it's not like they went away, they just weren't quite so awesome.

   After the Mayan's Golden Age collapsed, the center of gravity shifts North to the boundary of the valley of Mexico and the Northern Mexican hinterlands.  Here, there was the familiar interrelationship between settled farming people and barbarous Northern tribes. As you can see by the similarity in names, the Toltecs and the Aztecs both came from the same cultural milleu and occupied the same general area around present day Mexico city.  During this period, there were also separate Zapotec empries in present day Oaxcaca- languages maintained till today.  Also, the Mayans were still around.  But the Toltecs were the geographic predecessors of the Aztecs.  The Toltecs height was about 1000-1250.

   It's only after this point that the Aztecs enter onto the scene.  The idea that the Aztecs were a dominant people is embedded in European "knowledge" about Pre-Columbian Mexico, but they were really just one tribe in a wider cultural area where the people all spoke various dialects of Nahuatl.   You have to consider the Nahuatl languages were spoken in the area of the Toltecs/Aztecs from 700 AD onward, and the Aztecs had only been in control for a century when the Spanish showed up the 15th century.  It's also important to recognize that Nahuatl is just a sub-group of the enormous Uto-Aztecan language group, which extends all the way from the Northern Plains of the United States, to Southern California, down to Central Mexico.

   It's quite breathtaking to consider that the Arizona river indians spoke a language from the same family as the Aztec empire.   There is a continuity there that is generally not appreciated.  The Northern branch of the Uto Aztecan language family include California tribes like the Mono and the Paiute.

   At the time of the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs ruled over the valley of Mexico in a manner somewhat analgous to Mongol rule over China: Their immediate neighbors were more "civilized" but the Aztecs were tougher.  The story of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs is not the last chapter in Spanish/Native relations.  The Spanish still had to subjugate the Maya, the Zapotecs, and relationships with the tribes North of the valley of Mexico were troublesome for centuries.

   And while the natives suffered from the familiar depredations of diseases, the Spanish were slow in sending colonists abroad, so that the native peoples were never really surpassed numerically and they have endured, even as they slowly loose distinct cultural characteristics.

   I think the reality of the War on Drugs in Mexico is that the vast majority of poor people in Mexico simply do not give a shit about the Mexican state, because its institutions are foreign and poorly representative of the needs of their people.  Given it's ethnic/cultural history, Mexico would be better off looking towards India then the United States and Spain.  Spain is in fact, a terrible model for Mexico, as is the United States.  For the vast majority of people in Mexico, the situation today is no better or worse then it always has been, and that is the reality.

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