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Civilization in Mesoamerica and Andean Regions

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In the years of the first millennium, many advanced civilizations developed in Mesoamerica. In addition to the Maya and the Olmecs, many other distinct societies emerged after 800 C.E., and many of these societies shared similar characteristics. Centuries later, two main empires emerged in Mesoamerica: the Aztecs and the Incas. While the Aztec society prospered to the north in Mesoamerica, the Inca developed to the south, in the Andes Mountains. These two societies shared many characteristics, but also differed, in terms of their religious, cultural, and political traditions.

While both Incan and Aztec religions were polytheistic and had many rituals performed by priests, they differed in numerous ways. The Aztec beliefs had many similarities to other religions practiced in Mesoamerica, including those of Mesopotamia. The Aztec polytheistic faith included over 128 deities, with gods resembling men, women, animals, and directions. In order to worship their gods, the Aztecs met in houses of worship shaped like pyramids. Furthermore, the Aztecs heavily believed in human sacrifice, as did many other Mesoamericans, and saw it as one of the most powerful ways of pacifying their gods. The Aztecs also practiced many other types of ritual sacrifices. The Aztec sometimes honored their gods by giving up their blood in smaller amounts; worshipers would give themselves small cuts as part of religious ceremonies. Moreover, Aztecs viewed men’s deaths in battle or women’s deaths while giving birth as tremendous and worthy sacrifices. On other occasions, religious worshipers would consume the bodies of the sacrificed. All these types of sacrifices ultimately show that the Aztecs went to great lengths to appease their gods. Unlike the Aztecs, the Incan civilization combined social class and religious importance; the monarch had both political and spiritual authority. This tradition of investing spiritual authority in the monarch began with Pachacuti and extended to his descendants. Over time, the Inca came to believe that their monarch had a divine heritage and that monarchs held their divine power even after they departed life. To honor the rulers’ divine power, the Incans mummified the dead monarchs and incorporated their remains into important ceremonies. While they believed in several gods, Incans believed their monarch had a relationship to their most important deity, the sun god, known as Inti. Later, the Incans came to believe that the sun god was the monarch’s father. Correspondingly, the monarch’s spouse had connections to the goddess of the moon. Since the monarch had both governmental and spiritual responsibility in the Incan Empire, Cuzco also became the place where Incans enacted their important religious occurrences. Outside of Cuzco, people worshiped at another temple in the city of Machu Picchu. At these temples, people received direction or divulged their sins to religious leaders who had committed to vows of chastity and humility. The Inca permitted worship in other ways, too; citizens could worship their gods at places called “huacas” and did not have to go to temples. In everyday life, the Inca honored their gods by behaving virtuously, adhering to their class standing, and hoping to achieve blessings in the afterlife. Lastly, while most people in Incan society were expected to follow Incan religious practices, other religions were also permitted. Overall, the Aztecs and the Incans had unique religious practices and traditions that ultimately shaped their societies.

The Aztec and Inca Empires shared many similarities in their social divisions, but differed greatly in terms of their culture. Aztec society organized people in groups called altepetls. The people in the altepetl lived and thought as a general group, and they practiced the same religious faith. Moreover, the altepetls also included an important segment of the population known as the calpolli; the people of the calpolli acted like bureaucrats or administrators and were set up in familial units. The people of the calpolli created a new kind of farming plan called chinampa. The Aztecs grew skilled at developing food upon the chinampas and enjoyed plentiful harvests, which allowed their society to flourish. In later years, the calpollis separated into more marked class distinctions. In every class level, men held superior positions to women because the Aztec valued strength and prowess in battle, and women did not participate in Aztec warfare. Men who held high positions in the Aztec armed forces rose to the top of Aztec society along with their families; doing well in the army gave men the only opportunity for social mobility within Aztec society. Along with the wealthiest families, the highest-class level of Aztec society expanded to include religious leaders, who came to wield enormous power and influence. Soon, the class divisions in Aztec society became quite extreme. The wealthy at the top had much better living situations and much healthier food to eat than the poor at the bottom; the wealthy also had the most influence in both government and society. Overall, through their development of the chinampa farming methods and their class divisions, the Aztecs proved to be successful in their society. Like the Aztecs, the Incans were also very successful in terms of their culture. Like the Romans, the Incans developed transportation systems and taxation regulations. At many points, different roads came together to intersect, which made traveling greater lengths across the Incan Empire even easier. The Incans also constructed many stops, known as tambos, for the travelers walking along the roads. As the people moved along the roads, they were able to share both goods and ideas. Many of these roads led to the Incans’ great city, Cuzco. The first Incan monarch, Pachacuti, had founded Cuzco, where the most important governmental occurrences were held. The city became an exquisite destination; it had grand buildings decorated in gold and was surrounded by imported sand. For the most part, the majority of the population in the city consisted of the higher classes, and people of the lower classes had to live outside the city. Furthermore, Incan society revolved around the armed forces, who, along with the government, had the most power and prestige of any citizens. Throughout the empire, men received privileges over women. Women remained confined to domestic spaces, like Aztec women, although they could also serve as religious devotees. Other higher-class individuals included the nobility, religious leaders, and some members of the government. However, despite the disparity in Incan society, the government did take some measures to provide for the poor and elderly. Moreover, like the Aztecs, clothing also helped to create a class barrier, since the higher classes wore special clothing that distinguished them immediately from the lower classes. Overall, the Aztecs and Incans had similar social divisions, but differed greatly in their culture.

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