History Summarized: The Maya, Aztec, and Inca


All righty! Let’s cover the great civilizations of the New World, from the time before the Old World made the New World New by killing most of the New World and reconstructing it to be way more Old World-y. That’s a mouthful. Anyway, three great civilizations: the Inca, the Aztec, and the Maya. The Maya, the Inca, and the Aztec? Um… Okay! Aztec, Maya, Inca? Hey! Nice! Okay, next problem: what’s the difference between them? Because before I started researching this video, I honestly couldn’t tell you either, because so often their stories are only told in so far as they relate to the Spanish conquest of the Americas. So we hear a lot about human sacrifices and smallpox, but not so much anything else and they all kind of blends together. But these societies were highly complex and had their own histories long before the Conquistadors showed up. And they were also completely unique and distinct from each other. The Maya have been around on the Yucatan Peninsula for basically ever and were subsistence farmers for almost the whole time. But their great cities mostly disappeared before the Spanish ever arrived. The Aztec empire was born from a triple alliance of city-states in Central Mexico. And they built up an amazing capital city in Tenochtitlan. Unlike the Maya, the Aztecs only lasted for about a hundred years before the Spanish wiped them out. And finally, the Inca were from South America, not Mexico. And they lived almost entirely in the western coastal mountains for over a century before the Spanish showed up. So we’re dealing with a decent amount of variety here, and it’s part of what makes it really cool. So before we jump into this, we should also take a look at what sources we’re working with. Archeology in most cases is pretty good, but in this specific instance, we’re also lucky enough to have decent written accounts. The Maya and the Aztecs both had pictographic writing, although it took us a good long while before we could actually translate any of it. First we figured out numbers in the Mayan calendar, and then in the mid and late 1900s we were able to translate more of the Maya script, and discovered that their writing system was syllabic rather than alphabetic. And, lucky for us, it turns out that a lot of the texts contain dynastic records. So the Maya actually recorded their own history! Which is really cool! The reason we still have a lot of Mayan writing is because a lot of it was written on surfaces like: temple walls, ceramics, and the occasional staircase. The Aztec writing system is a trickier topic though, since the Aztecs weren’t quite around for long enough to create a fully fleshed out writing system. From the surviving codices we have, we know that they certainly liked writing. But I say “surviving” because Spanish “Christians” burned almost all of their texts before, incidentally, also murdering almost everybody. Which, by the way, anyone in any situation who decides that burning information is a good idea is just being a dick. There’s no two ways about that. Luckily, we still know a decent amount about the Aztecs on account of Spanish writings about them. Meanwhile, the Inca themselves didn’t actually have a writing system. They instead had this really cool thing called a “khipu”: a collection of knotted cords of different lengths and colors used to record and convey information. Khipus contained all sorts of numerical information, like dates and events and whatnot. But we still mostly can’t decipher them, so it’s a mystery. Our other information on the Inca comes, again, mostly from the Spanish. So are the Spanish accounts of these civilizations biased and/or more likely to portray things in a more negative or exoticized light? Probably in some cases, yeah. But they’re the best we have so they’ll have to do. Now that we’ve got that sorted, let’s go one by one and look at some proper history. The Aztec and the Inca are actually relative latecomers to the party, as they really only came along in the centuries immediately prior to the Spanish arrival. Those two are contemporaneous with the Renaissance! So it is super inaccurate to label those two as way ancient, like we subconsciously tends to do. The Maya, however, are crazy ancient. But not quite as crazy ancient as the Olmec Civilization, the first fancy civilization in all of Mesoamerica, which flourished for two thousand years between 1500 BC and about 400 AD. Now that is old! While we have a fair amount of Olmec art and statuary thanks to our old pal archaeology, they’re still decently mysterious, which makes sense given how old they are. Slightly less old than the Olmecs is the central Mexican city of Teotihuacan, which is similarly shrouded in mystery and uniquely cool for how huge and well designed it was. Its most famous building, the Pyramid of the Sun, was built in the first century AD. But aside from the building remains in the city, we really don’t know a lot about it like, who built it or who lived there. The presence of some shattered statues points to evidence of some variety of popular uprising near the end of the city’s life. But still, not a lot to go on. Also, it might have been a trade empire? Again, we don’t really know. But it’s big, it’s old, it’s cool, and it was probably the inspiration for most of the subsequent Mesoamerican culture as we understand it now. So it’s worth a mention. Anyway, back to the Maya! Agriculture in the Yucatan Peninsula developed in the second millennium BC. And by about 500 BC, they had huge and awesome cities. In the centuries following 250 AD, the Maya were out in full force: building giant monuments covered in writing, connecting cities with trade, and just generally being an awesome civilization. This is impressive because it’s just kind of cool, but also because it was really hard to live in the Yucatan Peninsula It’s an exposed coral reef that’s basically impossible to farm conventionally. So they had to practice slash and burn agriculture where they slash down vegetation and then burn it to infuse the soil with enough nutrients to sustain crops for a few years, before moving on to another plot of land and letting the old forestry grow. Adding to the trickiness, rivers don’t really form in limestone, so the only naturally available sources of water were sinkholes called “cenotes”. So a lot of really intricate hydraulic engineering went into making the Yucatan livable. And if that all sounds labor-intensive, it’s because it is! It’s a minor miracle that the Maya were able to build the kinds of settlements they did with such inhospitable land. So while the Maya spent the centuries between 250 and 900 AD trying not to die of hunger and thirst on a regular basis, they were practicing their religion which is really interesting in how heavily cyclical it is. They believe that the world went through cycles of creation and destruction. And most of their deities have some hand in the cyclicality of the universe. The Maya also thought that no beginning or end was definite, and that when someone died, they went on a journey through the underworld and the heavens before showing back up on earth. Which may serve to explain why they were so chill with sacrifice. The sacrificing was also predominantly a priestly measure to delay the rebirth of the world and the collapse of the world as they knew it. But while their mythology may have thought that nothing has an end, history had other plans for the Maya. A series of droughts contributed to a gradual decline of Maya culture in the southern Yucatan Peninsula. Cities were mostly abandoned due to a likely mix of too many people and too little water. In the centuries after, the Maya gravitated towards the northern Yucatan where water was more consistently available. Cities like Chichen Itza and Mayapan became the dominant urban centers in the later centuries. Even still, those cities also gave way in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries respectively. So by the time the Spanish showed up in the sixteenth century, there wasn’t much left to conquer. So that’s the Maya for you. Real slow burn on that one. The Aztec to the northwest had a much faster history. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a series of independent city-states begin cropping up around the Texcoco Lake Valley in what is today Central Mexico. One such group of people, the Mexica as they called themselves, settled into an island in the middle of the lake and founded of the city of Tenochtitlan in 1325. The city and the culture developed and spread over the next century as trade increased and cultural and religious influence grew. In 1428, the Mexica formed an alliance with two other nearby peoples and the newfangled Aztec Empire began to expand their territory and conquer their neighbors. This wasn’t terribly bothersome for them because their warriors were really skilled. Not only did they conscript all adult males for fighting, but they used warriors from allies and conquered territories too. Plus their elite Jaguar and Eagle warriors were especially fearsome. In the course of conquering a majority of southern Mexico, Tenochtitlan, the capital, became only more and more splendid. Much like Venice the city was an island and it was dotted with canals in addition to its huge temples. It’s been estimated to have been several times as big as contemporary London, approximately the size of late medieval Paris. Yeah, that’s big. And, I mean, look at it! That is one pretty city! The Aztec also played a game that the Maya were known for called Pok-A-Tok. The game apparently involved getting a rubber ball into a high hoop without the use of hands or feet. The game was highly ritualized and meant a lot to the people who watched and played it. The end of the game involved some variety of sacrifice, but we’re not quite sure who it would have been or for what purpose. Unlike the gradual decline of Maya cities, the Aztecs lasted right up until the Spanish arrived. And since the Aztecs, unlike the Maya, were an empire, that meant that the Aztecs ruled over a lot of people who thought that they were massive knobs. So when Spain showed up and decided to take everything the Aztecs owned and also their lives, they stoked rebellions among the Aztecs’ often-annoyed subjects. Uprisings, plus smallpox, plus guns made for a fairly quick imperial turnover. But while blood was flying everywhere in Mexico, there was an interesting debate going on in Spain. See, while genocide definitely happens during the New World’s conquest, some people were debating its merits and whether or not it was justified. A guy named Sepulveda argued that the Aztecs were bad because of how much sacrifice they did and Spain had the moral authority to kill them in retribution. But a guy named de Las Casas argued that the Aztecs were their own people with their own ways and it wasn’t for Spain to step in and decide what was right and wrong. It’s really neat to see what types of arguments each side was providing as it gives us an interesting insight into the Spanish colonial mindset. The Conquistadors are rightly given a lot of flak for all of their Conquist-ing and genocide-ing. But we should recognize that the morality of genocide was at least on their minds. It’s a start, right? With Mexico covered, let’s jump south and talk about the Inca. The Inca Empire began with the one small kingdom of Cusco in the mountains of Peru. And it started expanding in 1438 to ultimately cover much of South America’s west coast. Seriously, this thing was HUGE! It might have even been the world’s biggest empire at the time! Even more impressive, it was multi-ethnic and it incorporated people through diplomacy as well as outright conquest. The Inca government was very specifically formulated and highly efficient. But the Inca, like we said, had no writing. So, well done! If having no writing was tricky, imagine what it was like building huge stone cities on the tops of mountains with no wheels! Yeah, the Inca hauled everything up those mountains with llamas and people! If mountainous cities weren’t crazy enough on their own, the Inca also had a network of hundreds of suspension bridges made only from woven fibers that ran all across the mountains. Their fiber-working was so refined that they could even make seaworthy boats out of it. The Inca infrastructure, which is amazingly well-adapted to the mountain covered coast, is almost entirely a result of their excellent central government. Terrace farming was also a huge factor in the ability of the Inca to live in such mountain-y terrain. Also, in the middle of all this, they figured out how to freeze-dry food and were also performing consistently successful brain surgery. So there’s that. Much like with the Aztecs, the Spanish showed up in the 1500s with intents to wreak shop and colonize everything. And they did. An Incan Civil War and the outbreak of smallpox immediately prior to the Spanish arrival certainly made conquering easier for them. In the centuries after, Spain would import tons upon tons of gold and silver from the New World and absolutely destroy their economy with inflation, sending them on a lovely one-way ride to geopolitical irrelevance within a century. I’m not saying Karma, but it kind of seems like Karma, don’t you think? Anyway, that’s Mesoamerica for you. Maya, Aztec, and Inca. Hey, there we go!

100 thoughts on “History Summarized: The Maya, Aztec, and Inca”

  1. Let's cut to the chase – Spaniards conquered the oceans first, and therefore brought with them their communicable diseases which killed over 90% of the population. To demonize one culture over another just because civilization A had better tech than civilization B is a naive move to say the least, not to mention incredibly annoying and shortsighted. All people are equal, but all civilizations and cultures were definitely not.

  2. Have you ever considered covering some of the Pre-Colombian Civilizations of North America? Like the Mound Builders or the Mississippian Civilization?

  3. If you don't mention widespread human sacrifice and the fact that 95 or more% were dead from disease accidentally brought by Europe, you are getting a thumbs down.

  4. can white people please stop with the straight lies the colonizers wrote about the native americans??? if you want to know about their culture don't settle for their misinformation

  5. this is a very ameri-centric and kind of WASP centric channel i feel.
    The fact that you talk down on hispanic history so much is worrying.

  6. this is a very ameri-centric and kind of WASP centric channel i feel.
    The fact that you talk down on hispanic history so much is worrying.

  7. Guys, guys this video it's probably really only 694 views… Nothing like the real thing facing you. Go travel and visit the ruins… still you will smell the Evaporating Blood in the air from past genocides and War battles.

  8. The Mayan had no calendar they didn't live long enough to map out the cosmos,it was the black olmec calendar that the Mayan empire had do your research n the olmec created the Mayan empire do your research white lies doesn't want to show how great the blacks were and the 100s of millions of black people were in America 100s of thousands of years before Columbus so discover America fyi

  9. 2:56 actually there were many native and mestizo chroniclers that documented many of the beliefs, traditions and way of life of their people, at least in the case of the incas. The only problem is that most of these chronics were not translated to other languages, being many of them just available in spanish or quechua.

  10. Call it .cultural bias if you want, but if your culture is engaged in human sacrifice, cannibalism, sodomy and slavery, I'm 100% in favor of wiping it off the face of the earth.

    The Spaniards left VERY different descriptions of the Peublo tribes: "They were governed by elders rather than emperor kings. They did NOT engage in sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery or sodomy. We could not tell by looking at their houses who was the most important. They're women were the best and most modestly dressed of any we had encountered."

    But… if you're really into civilizations that specialize in rape, robbery, and murder, then you'll probably love authoritarian empires.

    Were the Spanish lying about the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas to justify there actions? Or does the art left by these civilizations an acurate depiction?

  11. This may sound a bit apathetic towards the destruction of these great peoples, but I really want a sci-fi story with structures and techniques like what the Incans had. It works out too because you could do all this, then drop a bomb on people's minds in interviews with how all the "original ideas" were just based off of these guys.

  12. Would've liked a little more on the Aztec origin, the migration of the Chichimeca (who founded Tenochtitlan became the Aztecs) and where they originally came from.

  13. Lol, is it any wonder the Latin Americans took to football (soccer) so easily and why they're a. so good at it and b. so fanatical.

  14. Yeah I feel what you're saying the Christian history is filled with all sorts of evil and nasty things being done to people because they wouldn't worship their God the Spanish Inquisition for example was just wrong that is why I am not a Christian and never will be

  15. The next Christian Jehovah's Witnesses Mormon Catholic the tells me I m going to hell because I am a pagan I'm going to slap them and then give them a really good history lesson on what their religion is about

  16. Do a vid about the fall of Tenochtitlan. Hernan Cortez, the commander of the spanish forces, was actually pretty chill with the Aztecs, and the Aztec emperor at the time of the conquest, Moctezuma II, showered him with luxuries like feathers and fine clothing because he was convinced Hernan Cortez was an avatar of Quetzalcoatl, the main deity of Aztecs. Aztecs didn't really value gold that much so Hernan and his men got all the gold they wanted. People started getting a bit annoyed with the special preference the spaniards were getting from their emperor, so things got a bit antsy, culminating with them throwing rocks at Moctezuma II, who died shortly after. Legend tells that Hernan had to go to the coast of Veracruz for some reason, and his second-in-command had a panic attack after witnessing an Aztec festivity that, of course, involved a ton of human sacrifice, and straight up declared war on the Aztecs. There were a couple of fights during the siege, but, at the end, what truly destroyed the Aztec empire was disease and pollution. One could say Aztec military was way more skilled than Spanish military, but the overwhelming advantage of firearms, shock factor from horse riders (which Aztecs thought were some form of centaur being) and disease made it so that history turned out the way it did. It's a pretty interesting topic, in my opinion.

  17. The Inca fiber weaving was soo elaborate that they also had protective wearing that protected from arrows as well…pretty cool!!

  18. This video is good, but there’s tons of information that’s really important and it’s missing, such as the real length of the Aztec empire and btw it didn’t lasted 100 years it lasted for almost 370 years, also to say that the Aztec dominated the Mayan so , u can have an idea of how ginormous was its empire, there’s even Info that states that the Aztecs married some Incas and incorporated a big part of the Incan territory to their own, I’m telling u this because I’m Mexican and I study history of geopolitics

  19. From my understanding, a cool thing about the sink holes: they are all connected together as one large system, and is formed in the shape of the edge of the meteor crater that formed the Gulf of Mexico.

  20. Moral of the story: Fuck Spain, they ruined everything (not really Maya, but still)

    Also: I request that "Anyone in any situation who decides that burning information is a good idea is just being a dick" is on a shirt

  21. The Aztecs and the Mayans being the ones most people know about really sucks, because the Inca were by far the coolest. They even did sacrifice way less than the other two

  22. This sorta thing makes me wonder if we'd be technologically more advanced if we'd eased up on the whole conquering and burning thing

  23. A fun fact-we know how to read classical maya. Archaic maya is still very much a case of stumbling in the dark with a handful symbols deciphered.

  24. This video talks about Incas empire. But before Incas there were more ancients civilization in Perū. Caral- Supe is the oldest civilization of America, Scientists still working on it…. And now is open to visit.

  25. Nice video! These three civilizations are the most well known (and for good reason!) but it’s important to know that the history of the Americas had 1000s of years of history. Instead of 3 splotches on a map, the whole Americas should be colored in with the Wari, Nazca, Chavin, Tiwanaku, Amazonia, Mixtec, Zapotec, Toltec, Mississippian, etc etc

  26. the Aztec empire was basically the America before America, they had drafts, taxes, legally required education, they even had unpaid interns

  27. You going to rely on a group of people who wiped out another people and destroyed all their wisdom, to tell you what those people were like?. Hahahaha hahahaha hahahahaa hahahahaha hahahahahahhaahaha. See this is the problem with history. Its all bull shit because the enemy of the loser gets to write the losers history.. Ummm they were savages that practiced human sacrifice and killed babies….mhm, yeah right.

  28. 2:34 – welcome to the Roman Catholic way of dealing with each and everything that doesn't fit onto their orthodox ignorant narrow-mindedness, not to speak or things that are not even remotely related to christianity whatsoever. Not to speak to the violent allergy to knowledge, literacy and education in general. Just burn, burn, BUUUURN anything and everything that might give people different or better (or should I say, MOSTLY better) ideas for how to live one's lives , threatens the integrity of their primitive, excessively self-contradictory and just plain nonsensical system of beliefs. Which would be technically all, even the most basic common sense or even a hint of exotic philosophy and folklore. Translating to: forcibly baptizing, brainwashing and dressing natives up as (catholic) western Europeans and butchering any that merely just win in an unorthodox kind of way.

  29. 6:07 – oh yes, they were very chill with the sacrifice of people kidnapped during raids on neighbouring tribes, not their own. Because they believed that Sun would stop shining if it wasn't fed human blood every day. But it wasn't fussy as where the human sacrifices came from. So why bleed out own population when they could just get their victims from elsewhere. And so they did. That, and the slave labour they built their lovely, shiny, magnificent cities with, that was the motivation for their constant wars with each other. Not justifying what the Spanish etc. did to them, as M.G's "Apocalypto's" finale suggests (Mel is full of shit and he's a dumb pre-Second Vatican Council primitive, anti-semite and a cryptonazi), because what they did to them was just as bad or even worse, but those guys over there were really a bunch of dicks towards each other too.

  30. The inca are not late comers actually there people where around for a very long time they were called Pre incas there even older then the Egyptians

  31. they were not, were not Christian. Anybody can claim the title Christian, doesn't mean that they are…..regardless how much they believe it.

  32. To be fair though the Aztecs sacrificed hundreds of their strongest and best warriors thinking their god would give them victory over the Spanish if they did. Needless to say that turned out badly and basically had the total opposite effect, all but guaranteeing the Spanish would win.

  33. Sorry but I'm not sure spain won 1 battle against the "Aztec" or Mexica they were welcomed into the city kidnapped the king and got driven out but got the Aztec sick with disease and sabotaging the aquaducts on the way out… By the time the Spanish returned they were practically wiped out already

  34. Yah I'm from peru, Spanish were looking for gold to take it back to spain, that was the main reason, they want to conquer the new world !

  35. 9:00 de las Casas never argued that "it wasn't for Spain to… decide what's right or wrong", he wasn't some kind of moral relativist. He just argued that it was the spaniard's christian duty to convert them, instead of killing or enslaving them.

  36. Whooooo so much bias in this. 
    One example: He talks about the "Aztec's often-annoyed subjects". 
    Annoyed? Really?  
    Maybe it had something to do with the constant warfare they waged in order to get victims for extensive torture and then live sacrifice to appease their snake gods. One monument boasts of sacrificing 40,000 people in 4 days.

  37. A Khipu is a better way to store information, It is not only inclusive since blind people can read, cause most of the people who read the khipus were old and "wise" it is also encrypted for your ayllu or family.

  38. The Christian Spanish NEVER boiled anyone alive for not being Christian… ever!  That's a lie.   Nor did the Christian Spanish or Portuguese make the New World new by ''killing most of the new world''.  UNINTENTIONAL influx of European diseases did that.   So F. O.!

  39. What was going on with the rest of central and South America? Can anyone point me to the right direction as to what I should research next? It seems like a lot of land isn’t even covered.

  40. Maya, Aztec, Inca… all the same people! We never went anywhere. You just don't know where to look. Maya, Aztec, and Inca never called ourselves Maya, Aztec or Inca… White Spanish called us that…. Guess what they call us now??

  41. Dude plz stop using age of empires music. It litterly makes me think of the game and not hear a damn word u say. Ps i love that u do use it too haha

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