Warfare in Mesoamerica can be reconstructed only from the cultural remains that have been left behind in the portable art, sculpture, architecture, and documents of the ancient Maya and Aztecs.
Warfare in Mesoamerica can be reconstructed only from the cultural remains that have been left behind in the portable art, sculpture, architecture, and documents of the ancient Maya and Aztecs. Although this incomplete record allows only a partial glimpse of the politics, military achievements, weapons, and strategies of these early people, archaeologists and historians have been able to reconstruct much of their ancient military and warfare history. The cultures and chronologies of the ancient Maya and Aztecs differed greatly, but many parallels can be drawn between their politics and warfare strategies.
The ancient Maya were once thought to have been gentle stargazers; however, discoveries such as that in 1946 of the murals at Bonampak in Chiapas, southern Mexico, depict violent and bloody scenes of warfare and sacrifice. Because the Maya are a much older culture, there is less abundant information about their methods of warfare than those of the Aztecs. The ancient history of the Maya region is typically divided into three periods: the Formative (c. 1500
The Aztecs, wandering barbarians, arrived late in Mesoamerica, settling at the site of
Religious fervor drove the Aztecs into constant war to capture political prisoners for sacrifice to their gods. Gory images of war captives with their hearts gouged out have been inextricably tied to the Aztecs.
The greatest military achievement for the ancient Maya was the successful capture and sacrifice of a king from a neighboring and competing polity. Although this was a relatively rare event, it was depicted with both hieroglyphic text and images on the monuments of the victorious king. This visual and textual propaganda legitimized the power of the ruling king and often had profound effects on the cities of both the victor and loser. For example, in the first millennium
Military achievement for the ancient Aztecs was measured by the expansion of territory through intimidation of enemies in battle or simply the threat of battle. After the Aztecs had successfully moved into a new area, they became reliant on local leaders to successfully maintain their domains. Rather than install their own leaders in newly conquered areas, at the expense of their own human resources, the Aztecs would allow local leaders to remain in their positions under Aztec power. The Aztecs allowed the vanquished to maintain their traditional systems of trade and markets, while at the same time extracting some of the local resources as tribute. This system of loose military alliances allowed the Aztecs to spread their forces across a much broader region. The Spanish noted at the time of contact that the Aztecs were a fierce people, with a skilled military that lacked a fear of battle. Although there are few monuments dedicated to the successful military achievements of individuals, extensive records of tribute were documented, indicating the territory that was maintained and the resources that were extracted. Successful soldiers were highly valued and were rewarded for their valor with the special recognition of promotions and distinctive uniforms.
Due to the fragmentary archaeological record, it is unlikely that a conclusive inventory of the weapons, uniforms, and armor of the ancient Maya and Aztecs will ever be cataloged. However, depictions in art and documents from the pre- and postcontact periods do give insight into the more common and important weapons of warfare employed by these cultures.
An Aztec warrior, carrying a wooden sword with stone blades and a decorated shield and dressed in cotton armor and an animal-head helmet.
The bow and
Weapons used in close combat included the thrusting
Armor was made of a quilted cotton consisting of unspun cotton placed between two layers of cloth and stitched to a leather border. The thickness of the armor protected wearers from darts and arrows and was better suited than metal to the heat and humidity of Mesoamerica. Soldiers wore various styles of jackets and pullovers, which protected their upper bodies and thighs. Lower legs were protected with cotton leggings, although few weapons targeted this area of the body. War suits of feathers and fabric, or feathered tunics, were worn by higher-ranking warriors over their cotton armor. Some helmets were made of wood and bone and decorated with feathers, whereas others were made out of the heads of wild animals, such as wolves, jaguars, and pumas, placed over a wooden frame. The soldier’s face could be seen in the gaping mouth of the animal’s open jaw.
The Maya’s military organization appears to have been much less formalized than that of the Aztecs. However, those involved in conquest appear to have been afforded high status in society. Warriors, with their ability to seize captives, played a critical role in bringing power to a king and his city. Considered members of the elite class, they wore elaborate regalia and participated in rich ceremonies when they brought captives back to their king. Warriors also participated as ballplayers in the ball game that reenacted the ritual capture and eventual sacrifice of important rulers and elites from other sites. Although ballplayers and warriors were frequently depicted on portable art, they are almost never identified as individuals in texts. Kings, however, were recognized and regularly depicted as warriors, and the military prowess of their warriors was broadcast as their own success. Battles were generally short, limited in geographic scope, and usually timed around significant historical events. This system of warfare, unlike that of the Aztecs, afforded the Maya the luxury of not needing to maintain a huge standing army.
Aztec society was highly stratified, and military ranking was intimately tied to this overall social organization. The ruling nobles were placed in positions of higher rank, based on their birthright and social status, whereas the commoners often earned their military status through their skills in warfare. Most commoners paid their dues to society through the production of goods for tribute and labor, and many of them served in the Aztec military. All those who assisted the military were given extensive training in the use of weapons and the taking of captives, although those of higher status were provided with more thorough instruction. Soldiers who successfully took multiple captives were rewarded with promotions and uniforms signifying their accomplishments. Appropriate jewelry, hairstyles, body paint, and other insignia were also indicative of a soldier’s status, and higher-ranking individuals were given privileges such as the rights to consume human flesh in public, to have mistresses, and to feast in the royal palaces.
All Mesoamerican cultures were limited by the lack of efficient transportation beyond human foot traffic. Although Mesoamerican cultures did have knowledge of the
The most effective method through which the Maya gained control over a competing city was either that of a royal marriage or that of a conquest, which was often the preferred choice. Ancient monuments at several Mayan cities depict both such events. Many sites, including the major city of
The Aztecs instituted a system in which local rulers of conquered areas were allowed to remain as heads of these areas, which were then required to produce and transport goods as a form of tribute to their conquerors. The Aztecs decided that, rather than leave behind their own garrisons to maintain controlled areas and extract large amounts of resources, they would instead lower the costs of administration and leave the control of conquered areas in the hands of local officials. Although this policy meant that Aztecs could not extract the maximum amount of goods from these conquered areas, it freed up soldiers and officials to continue their expansion into more distant areas. Campaigns were often scheduled around practical factors, including agricultural and seasonal cycles, such as the rainy season. This schedule often limited the ability of the Aztecs to run year-round crusades, and they had to depend on the local politicians to maintain their power.
Hernán Cortés and his troops ended an indigenous rebellion in Cholula just prior to the Spaniards’ sacking of Tenochtitlán and the fall of the Aztec Empire.
The rulers of the Aztec Empire kept the local rulers of their loose alliance in line by continually intimidating them and engaging in warfare. Those who did not comply were harshly punished, and members of neighboring cities were often used to aid in these raids. Aztecs often pitted traditional adversaries against one another, and the threat of impending attack often allowed them to coerce loyalties without ever having to do battle. The Aztecs often used spies to gain military intelligence. Individuals were sent into rivals’ territories dressed in their clothing and speaking their language.
cations and preparations but were often caught or turned against their own. Although the overall military strategy of the Aztecs was fraught with problems, their system allowed them to maintain the largest political domain in all of Mesoamerica.
Although the Maya codices do not deal with the topic of Mayan warfare and the contact-period documents deal with a culture in severe decline, some recent volumes have begun using the Maya’s own texts and documents to look at aspects of elite society, including war and conquest. In Linda Schele and Peter Mathews’s The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs (1998), the authors decipher the ancient hieroglyphs on the monuments and buildings of seven Classic-period sites to reveal what the ancient Maya had to say about themselves. In it, there are numerous discussions of warfare between major cities, including war tactics, sacrifice, the ballgame, and war imagery. Matthew Restall’s Maya Conquistador (1998) retells the Spanish encounter with the Maya from the Maya point of view. Using documents written by the Maya at the contact period, Restall allows the Maya to retell what the conquest was like. This book allows the reader to see that these brutal interactions with the Spanish fit into the Maya’s cyclical worldview, and that they continued to deal with outsiders the way they had for hundreds of years. Both of the volumes offer an innovative and inside view of the native perspective of warfare and conquest. For a more traditional look at the contact period, a classic document is the 1941 translation by Alfred M. Tozzer of the original Relación de las cosas de Yucatán (1566; English translation, 1941); also known as Yucatan Before and After the Conquest (1937) by Bishop Diego de Landa, available in the papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. This significant document provides great insight into the contact period from the perspective of a Spanish bishop attempting to save the souls of the Mayan natives. In it, he describes the expeditions of the conquistadores in Yucatán, as well as Mayan culture and warfare, with information obtained from native informants and his own observations.
When the Spanish encountered the Aztecs in 1519, they discovered an empire that covered much of Mexico. Numerous contact-period documents describe the process of the Spanish
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