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The Aztec City in the Lake by JWM and Austin

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
— Kipling

JWM says in Strange Daze: Saturday Review: Noting the picture of the Aztec sacrifice- A thing that occurs to me is what the Spaniards did not find in the new world: technology. They came upon Indian civilizations living in these amazing megalithic structures, people who reportedly had sophisticated mathematics, and astronomy, but practiced one of the most barbaric religions the planet has ever seen. Yet, as far as I know, the Conquistadors never saw anything in the process of being built. If the Spanish had seen machines capable of doing that work they’d have written about it. They’d have brought that technology to the old world. Think of what Europe could have done if the Europeans had the machines to shape, and move materials on the scale of Chichinitza or Machu Pichu. My guess is the Indians who lived in the jungles of Mexico, and Central/ South America were not the ones who built. But that raises the question: Who was it, then?

Mike Austin replies:
I spent 40 years of my life researching, among many other things, the Indigenous civilizations of Latin America. For 14 years of those 40 I lived, worked, and traveled in Latin America, visiting every nation but Surinam and French Guiana. I backpacked alone to many of the Mayan, Incan, and Chachapoyan ruins that proliferate the lands below the Rio Grande. I have more than likely explored more of these ruins than any man alive. So…

The technology possessed by the Aztec was sufficient to build their capital of Tenochtitlan. This city was one of the largest on earth at the time (1519) and was one of the marvels of the world. The civil engineering talents of the Aztec enabled them to construct the city in the middle of Lake Texcoco—it seemed to be literally floating on water—and be connected to land by a system of causeways. Those conquistadors with Cortez were stupefied at what the Indians had done, thinking they were seeing a fantasy right out of their dream tales of “Amadis of Gaul”. Those who later wrote accounts of the conquest, such as conquistador Bernal Diaz who was with Cortez, said Tenochtitlan was the most astounding city they had ever seen.

“When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments…on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream?… I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.”


This was no “megalithic structure”.

It was well-known at the time by those Indians living around the lake how Tenochtitlan was built. After all, these people had helped in its construction. They themselves were no second-raters. In fact, the largest pyramid on earth was built 63 miles from Tenochtitlan by the people of Cholula, a people contemporary to the Aztec. The total volume of that pyramid holds twice the volume of the Pyramid of Khufu. Like that pyramid, the Cholula pyramid was built by human labor, as was every single structure built in pre-Colombian America.

You wrote that the Spanish never saw machines used in building any Indian structure. But the Conquistadors did not venture to the New World to write books on civil engineering; they were there to conquer the New World. Once that was done the Spanish built their own cities in the same way the Aztec did theirs—with human labor.

You wrote that the Indians “reportedly had sophisticated mathematics and astronomy…” Reportedly? The Mayan calendar is more accurate than our own, and these people came up with the mathematical concept of zero hundreds of years before Europeans did. Their cities were built with astronomical and mathematical precision. Their ruins in Mexico and in the jungles of Guatemala and Honduras have survived more or less intact for 1000 years. How long would Paris survive if left untouched for a millennium?

The Inca are the only people in History to construct a civilization across almost every known
geographical environment. Their roads are still in use today, 500 years after their construction. I know. I have walked alone upon them with pack and tent for weeks. When Pizarro conquered Cuzco (1533), he built a Spanish city on top of the Inca city. After each earthquake, the Spanish city would be destroyed yet the Inca structures remained unfazed.

It is a common conceit of we Moderns to hold the ancients—especially the New World Indigenous—in disdain. But with all of our wiz-bang technology could we build anything like a Tenochtitlan? Or a Teotihuacan (500 AD)?

Compare that with Nineveh in Mesopotamia (612 BC):

As a reminder the Assyrians who built Nineveh and once controlled half of the known world were some of the most violent people in History. Extreme violence and magnificent works of engineering to do necessarily cancel each other out. Witness the Italian Renaissance.

Tenochtitlan, Teotihuacan and Nineveh were built with human labor, as was the Great Pyramid at Giza, and in the same way. Recall that we could not figure out how that Egyptian structure was built until relatively recently. There is no need at all to wonder how and by whom the Indigenous civilizations were built. The people themselves did so. These vanished peoples were neither stupid nor lazy.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ghostsniper April 26, 2022, 10:59 AM

    “But with all of our wiz-bang technology could we build anything like a Tenochtitlan?”
    Yes, of course.
    Will we? No.

    That is the world of yesterday.
    The world of today is different, with different needs.
    Is the world of today better? Yes, in many ways.
    It is worse also, in many ways.
    Follow the rules of Vitruvius if you want to build sustainability and permanence.
    That takes time, and as is easily observable time is the one thing none of us have more of and most of us waste foolishly.

    • Mike Austin April 26, 2022, 12:02 PM

      We cannot even muster the intelligence, engineering skills and resources to build a pedestrian overpass.


      A Tenochtitlan is simply beyond our capacity. Rome after her Fall (476 AD) had the same problem. Soon there was no one around who knew how to repair the aqueducts, to say nothing about building new ones.

      • ghostsniper April 26, 2022, 12:28 PM

        This past Jan it has been 50 years since I started designing buildings for consideration. Many projects. Of them, less than 20% were built to my own personal standards and of that 20% probably none will be standing 100 years after I am gone, without heavy restoration.

        You cite that bridge, and yes I agree with you on that example, because the project manager was a product of the times – a diversity hire, and the company of record was stupid. There are many thousands of examples of architecture and engineering created over the past 100 years that far overshadow that simple little over-roadway foot bridge. I hold the Empire State Building as a supreme example of 20th century architecture and engineering.

        How many people of today would be willing to live as the ancient aztecs did in order to say they lived in a building that lasted a thousand years? Probably none.

        • Mike Austin April 26, 2022, 12:46 PM

          The issue is not your expertise, which no one doubts. The issue is not the reasons why that overpass collapsed, reasons which by the way now infect every level of American engineering. The issue is our national ability to make:

          1. What we once made
          2. What others have made

          We built the Empire State Building in 15 months during the Great Depression. We also built Hoover Dam in 5 years during the same time. Do you really think we could do the same today? I know the answer. You know the answer. We all know the answer. We live on the faded glory of our own past.

          Our specialties today are building homeless encampments, constructing fences around our national capital and expending men and treasure on fruitless wars against peoples we never met and cannot understand.

          • ghostsniper April 26, 2022, 1:38 PM

            OK, we seem to be arguing over the idea of “could” and “can”. Or “can’t”.
            If that’s the case, then I agree with you.

            The building I am sitting in right now was designed, received the building permit, built, and then the certificate of occupancy in less than 2 months. If I was to build this exact same building in the place I used to live in Florida it would take at least 8 months just to receive the building permit. Further, this building would cost about 80% MORE than it did 16 years ago when I built it.

            It’s estimated that the “benefit” of gov’t is reflected into a 10%-20% cost increase of any building constructed now. For a $100k house (if such a thing exists) that means the house costs $10k to $20k MORE because of the existence of gov’t. For every $1000.00 increase in a new homes cost, 1000 people can no longer qualify for the loan.

            One more thing, one that really irks me. Is when people that shouldn’t be running their jibber talk about how much better the ancients built stuff over today. Novices explaining to other novices something neither one knows anything about. It’s a bullshit circle. Once, I saw a TV show about some ancient buildings built of stone and the narrator said the stones were cut and laid with such precision that a playing card could not be placed between them. A playing card? WTF??? Imagine me and you walking into a home I designed and I brag, “Take a look at how precise those studs are nailed to the bottom plates, you can’t even get a playing card between them!” To people like me, that does have some knowledge on the subject, those are cringeable moments. When the WTC buildings dropped the cringeability in the air was suffocating. Suddenly everyone was an expert. People like me knew they were experts at shitting bulls.

            • Mike Austin April 26, 2022, 3:35 PM

              In my less than sober moments I imagine myself with the legions of Republican Rome between 280 and 146 BC. But otherwise there is no way in Hell that I would want want to live in some past civilization.

              As well, those “environmentalists” who rant about the “disappearing rain forest” know Jack and Shit about the real “rain forest”—what normal people call “the jungle”. They would never choose to live among the natives who actually live there. Same with those “Native American activists” who jump up and down about the Cherokee this and the Seminole that. They don’t hunt buffalo or live in teepees or speak some incomprehensible native tongue.

              No native civilization—not the Aztec or Maya or Inca or Seminole or Cherokee—cared a white about the common people. There was no liberty for anyone save for a tiny ruling elite.

            • Pebo April 28, 2022, 12:13 PM

              I am a semi-retired owner-partner in a 40-year-old HVAC business on the west coast of Fl. Some years ago when the new building codes came out I was talking to a PE Mechanical guy who stated flat out that “This shit has to stop.” That sentiment was also stated by a local mechanical field inspector. It has been my belief for many years that we have a guy in Tallahassee overseeing code adaption who has a Ph.D. in Bathroom Fart Fans.

              • Mike Austin April 28, 2022, 1:34 PM

                Damn. What will the country do without men like you and Ghost and all like you? We are losing our once heralded ability to do any damn thing we wanted. Now we cannot even repair what we once built.

  • KCK April 26, 2022, 11:22 AM

    What I’m going to say in no way negates the amazing level of Aztec/Incan civilization as you three have detailed. I recall how Victor Davis Hanson wrote in The Father of Us All, that the Spaniards went there and had large horses, and, in order to replenish their armaments and ammunition, built smelters and metalworks that used the native minerals they found in the Americas. They were like gods to the Indians. So successful was Western man – European Man – that his basis in reason and democracy (and religion) allowed him to go on expedition, build weaponry, and defeat the ancients in the Americas. BTW, this is the state of 2nd GEN Warfare, when you camp out and abide in a foreign territory through many seasons in order to campaign against a foe.
    Kipling never fails, BTW.

    • Vanderleun April 26, 2022, 11:26 AM

      As Clarke has noted: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    • Mike Austin April 26, 2022, 12:23 PM

      Only the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II thought the Spaniards were gods, and that only lasted until he met them in person. No Aztec feared the Spanish or their horses or their weaponry once they became familiar with them during the time the Spaniards remained in Tenochtitlan over the months after arriving (1519). During the “Noche Triste” the Aztecs killed 600 Spaniards, and whatever mystique the Spanish had once possessed disappeared.

      There were many times the Aztecs could have wiped out the Spaniards after Cortez landed in Mexico. The reason why they did not lies in the mentality of Moctezuma II. Fearful, superstitious and in awe (at first) he simply could not stir himself to act in his best interests. Then again, in Cortez he was up against one of the greatest captains in History.

      After the “Noche Trist” Cortez returned to the Aztec capital with 1000 more conquistadors and perhaps 100,000 native allies—though the best ally of the Spaniards was smallpox.

  • Jack April 26, 2022, 11:44 AM

    Now, in respect for ‘dem uddins’s’ and the governments’ mandated rules of inclusion and appropriate levels of ass-kissing, please turn your thoughts to the enormous accomplishments of the black sub-Saharan tribes.

    • Mike Austin April 26, 2022, 11:52 AM

      Ok then.

      1. Slavery
      2. Infibulation
      3. Beriberi
      4. Ilhan Omar

      • Jack April 26, 2022, 12:55 PM

        Yep, and that’s just the good stuff. Wait until China engineers itself into dominance over Africa and then we, at least those of us who are still living, should see some real doozies emerge from the place.

        • Mike Austin April 26, 2022, 1:13 PM

          Once I heard a decade ago that the Chinese were going to expand into Africa, I could not help but laugh. It was then I understood that the Chinamen were smoking their own stash. Nothing good can possibly emerge from that forlorn continent, no matter how much money and chopsticks one invests there. And even out of Africa, the Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative” is collapsing. So much for the Chinese “supermen”. Paper tigers all.

          And I’m supposed to fear these people?

          • ghostsniper April 26, 2022, 1:45 PM

            Well, it’s been rumored the inhabitants of the dark continent make workable slaves, so there’s that. Maybe with reduced labor costs the slants can build buildings that don’t fall down, and people actually want to occupy?

            • james wilson April 26, 2022, 2:26 PM

              The Chinese prefer to bring in their own people whenever possible to man large projects involving factories and natural resourses. And they do.
              The Chinese have not a single illusion about Africans. Chesterton wrote of the Chinese that they were unique in the absence of two things that make life bearable, a sense of humor and a sense of pity. That is what works for them in Africa.

              • Mike Austin April 26, 2022, 3:13 PM

                The Chinese are not in Africa so they can work; they are in Africa to make the negroes work—for them. That would be like raising Lazarus. They are like the Conquistadors of old, who did not come to the New World “to scratch the land like a peasant.” How do you think that will work out? Already the Africans hate the guts of the Chinese. Africa will be for the Chinese what it was for the Europeans: a tremendous and costly sink hole, a waste of men, of treasure, of time, of energy.

                No European—neither the French nor the English nor the Portuguese nor the Belgians—earned a nickel from their African “investments”. And neither will the Chinese.

                The only people to make a buck off Africa were the Muslims, who dragged the Africans off to slavery in foreign lands.

                Africa will win. Africa always wins.

                • Joe Krill April 26, 2022, 8:30 PM

                  I have a difficult time understanding all the accolades given to China. The one thing they are great at is stealing American technology. Between them and the Israelis it’s a wonder that we have any technology left that can be used for anything productive.

                • Mike Austin April 27, 2022, 6:35 AM

                  Yep. One mention of China has all the usual suspects caterwauling like schoolgirls. Our government and media kowtow to China whenever they get a chance.

                  As for Israel, American politicos demonstrate their worthiness by sending billions of dollars and arms to the Jewish state. They support Israel far more than they support their own people.

                • james wilson April 27, 2022, 2:46 PM

                  As I said, the Chinese have zero illusions about Africans. They build huge living complexes for workers they are bringing from China. Africans are afterthoughts. I never said the Chinese would tranform Africa or Africans. They would not start an ambitious project without first buying the pertinent polititions. If the Chinese overextend themselves, well and good. But you can’t be too cynical about Africa and the Chinese are the only ones having that working for them.

                • Mike Austin April 27, 2022, 4:08 PM

                  The Chinese might have no illusions about Africans, but they have plenty of illusions about themselves. I have no illusions about either.

  • John A. Fleming April 26, 2022, 12:13 PM

    And yet, the Teotihuacan and Maya civilizations fell into ruin all on their own, as do all. The Mesoamericans had civilizations, they just couldn’t keep them (the Oaxacans excepted). The Teotihuacanos burned their city to the ground and left. Many migrated to Maya and contributed to its growth. But by 900AD, the Maya cities stopped working, fell into perdition and warfare, and were abandoned to the jungle. The people never left, they lost their desire for large cities.
    Astronomy and megalithics are not special, the inhabitants of Britain had those 3 millennia prior, as did Sumer and Egypt. What is astonishing about the Mesoamericans is how quickly they were conquered by the Spaniards.
    The Aztecs fell to a small collection of Spaniards because of culture and technology. Guns and steel and seafaring for technology. Boldness and ability to ally themselves with the Aztec’s vassals sick of Tenochtitlan rule. Forged from the millenia-long Reconquista. European and especially Iberian culture and technology was just superior to the Mesomericans. The Mexica’s splendor was also their fatal weakness. Even the bloodthirsty pantheon of Mesoamerican gods were no match for Christianity.
    The Mesos had no use for writing other than to extol their king’s conquests. They were unable to accumulate their knowledge. Another fatal flaw.
    What the Aztecs and Incas should be known for is being history’s greatest losers, falling from their heights to being utterly conquered and forever in the shortest amount of time.
    Perhaps if the first Americans coming over from Asia had learned to ride horses instead of eating them, the entire recorded history of the world would be different.

    • james wilson April 26, 2022, 2:45 PM

      Some civilizations rise and fall. Some rise and fall and rise again and fall again and so on (China). Rome too could not surpass itself even as it lasted longer than others.

      The only civilization to rise and then rise again above the previous set resevoir (Rome) was Europe beginning with the Renaissance in Italy. Even is we see it collapsing upon itself now, no era saw so much advance over itself for so long. We might at least have the curiosity to ask why Europe was so unique.

  • Nancy Reyes April 26, 2022, 12:24 PM

    The first Emperor of China built the Great Wall by forcing peasants to do the work, and tens of thousands of people died. A generation later a peasant uprising overthrew that dynasty.
    The Spanish conquered the Aztecs with the help of local tribes who had been terrorized by the Aztec rulers.
    The Incas had only recently taken over from a previous tribe and had forced resettlement of locals to keep them from uniting and rebelling.
    You see magnificent buildings, but I see the tears of the conquered.

    • james wilson April 26, 2022, 2:29 PM

      Yes, building of that type glorifies rulers, it does not advance peasants.

      • ThisIsNotNutella April 26, 2022, 3:38 PM

        Whilst I would not wish to be born a peasant, there is no greater (*) cause of destructive misery and social chaos than the ‘advancement’ of peasants. A peasant is meant to be a peasant. Translating him (or far worse, her) into an urban environment and then to work in a factory or an office is asking for trouble on the apocalyptic scale when taken in the mass.

        Of course a small degree of social mobility is to be desired. Victorian England too much. Hindu Jatis too little. Edo Tokyo about just right.

        * Except for the migration of Peoples. These need to nuked from orbit.

        Probably should not elect me Dog Catcher.

        • james wilson April 27, 2022, 2:57 PM

          A peasant may be said to have advanced when his family is not hungry and that misfortune would not be caused by his rulers. I was not promoting him to Human Resourses.

  • Uno Noone April 26, 2022, 12:24 PM

    Recommend Michael D. O’Brian’s novel “Voyage to Alpha Centauri.” Yes it is very relevant indeed.

  • Dirk April 26, 2022, 1:23 PM

    Admire your commitment, Have two old old friends who spent their working world in South America. Both were salesman. Yea right. Both were spooks, after all how many pencil and widget salesman were needed in SA.

    We have friends in Argentina, who raise grapes, huge grape production. What I learned is that all organized grape growers MUST sell their grapes to the govt.

    They’ve started almonds and another kind of nut, orchards down there. Production maybe this season, certainly next. They also are bee keepers down their. Not sure how many hives.

    They farm here in the summer, and winter down their. Great folks.

  • jwm April 26, 2022, 1:25 PM

    Mike Austin:
    I had hoped you’d respond to my musings on the other post, and I was certainly not disappointed. That all of this wonderful stuff was built is beyond question. It’s the “how” that doesn’t add up.
    Here’s the part where I balk at the human labor answer. I just got done watching a video on the stone walls at Mach Picchu. The narrator was a stone mason. He pointed out block after block of perfectly carved granite. The only thing that will cut granite is something harder than granite. Carbide. Diamond saws. Serious power tools. Think about squaring a four foot by three foot by five foot cube of granite, and doing it with hand tools. Even allowing that they had the tools, and ability to cut, how many man-hours would it take to shape a single block, much less hundreds of thousands? It would take generations. Where were the draft animals? And a labor force big enough to do that kind of work isn’t going to take summer off to tend the crops. How does one feed such a workforce?
    The more I think on it, the more improbable it seems. But who doesn’t love a mystery?


    • ghostsniper April 26, 2022, 1:48 PM

      Then I scroll down and see this:
      “He pointed out block after block of perfectly carved granite.”
      Just guessing but, I believe granite rubbed against granite will work. But yeah, the man hours (which is a 20th century term).

    • Mike Austin April 26, 2022, 3:50 PM

      I have been to Cuzco innumerable times. Inca stone masonry was incomparable—and all done with stone age tools. But then, no Indian civilization left the stone age—that is, all used stone tools. Neither did they have large draft animals, the arch or the wheel. In this they were behind the Sumerians of 6000 years ago.

      The method the Inca used to form their stone slabs is well known, though useless knowledge to any people with iron. The Inca relied on a huge labor force for military and agricultural and civil engineering purposes. This was the “Mit’a”—what we would call a draft—and is still in use today in Peru in Quechua communities. The Spanish adopted it whole as their encomienda system. All Inca and all conquered peoples were required to perform the Mit’a—about 5 months a year all told.

      I knew you were baiting me, but I could not resist.

    • James ONeil April 26, 2022, 9:14 PM

      As Ghost notes, doesn’t have to be harder than granite, if it’s a hard as granite it cuts it, something such as granite will do the job. Also doesn’t have to be as hard, water cuts granite else we wouldn’t have sand.

      Your stone mason, jwm, sounds like he has a minimal, millennial’s, education, most granite was cut, squared, stacked long before diamond saws, carbide and power tools.

  • John A. Fleming April 26, 2022, 2:12 PM

    They used hard hammer stones and pounded the seams into shape. just takes drudge labor. Crystalline rocks may be hard, but you shape them by crushing one crystal at a time. I’m sure they used inletting techniques: put something in the seam that marks when crushed, say grass or leaves, pry apart the seam and hammer the green spots, repeat until it’s solid green everywhere.

    It’s as the article that came out last week said. The killer app that allowed city-states was grain farming that could be stored from one season to the next. The next thing you know there are priest kings and their armies taking all the grain to the capital city along with all your extra sons, who are fed gruel and get to hammer stones in the sun.

    • jwm April 26, 2022, 2:26 PM

      I recently saw a video wherein they were exploring the basalt hammer theory. I believe it was from Luxor in Egypt. They actually had a huge granite boulder there, and a selection of basalt hammer stones so visitors to the site could take a crack at it. People were whaling on that boulder, and barely raising dust. Again, not *impossible* but highly unlikely it could be done with that sort of precision.


  • Donald Sensing April 26, 2022, 3:03 PM

    According to anthropologist Marvin Harris in his book Cannibals and Kings, the Aztec sacrifices were not really religious sacrifices, but simple butchery. The killed were eaten by the priests and the upper classes. (There were no cattle or game animals to be had.) Those killed were criminals and non-Aztec prisoners, many of whom were made prisoner, of course, just to be eaten.

    • Mike Austin April 26, 2022, 3:58 PM

      All true. But it was even more grotesque. Those sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli were flayed, and the skins were worn by the priests until the flesh rotted. The hair of the priests remained uncut and was clotted with blood. When the Conquistadors were in Tenochtitlan they saw markets where human flesh was sold. The Aztec emperor Ahuitzotl (reigned 1486 – 1592) once presided over a ceremony where 20,000 prisoners were sacrificed in 2 weeks, a rate of killing that rivals Auschwitz.


      Cortez did the world a great service by eliminating these beasts.

  • ThisIsNotNutella April 26, 2022, 3:58 PM

    Excellent Mike Austin Comment.

    There’s something about the development of agriculture and complex irrigation systems which pretty much seems to trigger the genes for monumental building of pyramids, temples, and the investiture of cosmic powers in God Kings… or Interlocutor Kings who communed with the Gods on a regular basis. Julian Jaynes, anyone?

    The Central and South American natives no different except seem to have been more ritually violent than most. Perhaps an adaptation to relieve population pressures driven by a simple almost cannot fail no-brainer source of carbohydrates? The gentle, graceful Javanese and Balinese could and still can erupt into insane levels of communal bloodshed so far above baseline that it’s mind-boggling when societal pressures build too much. The Aztecs seem to have kept the bloodletting at a constant ritualized regularized low boil. Who’s to say which of these is better or worse than the other… or vaporizing Afghan weddings from half a world away…

    Adaptations shmadaptations… What remains true is that mass movements of peoples out of one evolutionary niche into another people’s evolutionary niche are Bad. Anyone promoting doing this with us Whitey on the receiving end deserves a painful death.

    • Mike Austin April 27, 2022, 12:31 AM

      I read Jaynes in college some 45 years ago. Could not quite get my head around his “breakdown of the bicameral mind”. After I returned to the One True Faith I saw Jayne’s ideas as madness.

      The North and South American indigenous were unusually slaughterous, the Comanche and Aztec being at the top of that game. One can argue at length about how such a genocidal nature evolved, and whether the Caucasians were better at it. What is indisputably true is that Native society could not exist side by side with white society. Neither the Indigenous or the Caucasians would permit such a thing. The native peoples had to go. The American Protestants killed most of the natives, leaving a small remainder to be finished off by whiskey, disease and the Reservation System. The Portuguese and Spanish Catholics were not genocidal, and the Mayan, Aztec and Inca people are still around today.

  • ThisIsNotNutella April 26, 2022, 4:13 PM

    Forgeddaboud Wheels.

    To what degree did Aztecs develop philosophy and metaphysics? Was their religion entirely propitiary/expatiory or did it have speculative elements more advanced than astrology?

    When we look at the really hard-to-kill, just can’t keep ’em down forever, ‘Lindy’, world civilizations (Chinese, Indian, Mediterranean Rim = finally, us) they all flashed into self-consciousness, self-referentialness, recursiveness, Turtles-all-the-way-downedness at roughly the same time — giving Jaynes his Really Big Idea. Everyone else seems to have gotten it by osmosis (or worse) from the Big Three.

    • John A. Fleming April 27, 2022, 12:36 AM

      It’s hard to know. The Spaniards burned all the pre-Columbian books. There’s an account out there somewhere, I’m pretty sure I read it when I was touring all the museums, of early in the conquest a Spanish priest burning all the books or codexes or parchment rolls in a great pyre, while the locals wailed in misery. Nevertheless, I don’t think they had anything like the Greek or Han philosophers, the Islamic and Christian commentators, the Renaissance authors. Crossing the Bering Strait was a great filter, the northeast Asian nomads brought no civilizational knowledge and agricultural crops from the Old World, and for reasons many and obscure were unable to develop their own organic technological civilizations in time to match the conquistadors. It wasn’t food limitations: corn, beans, turkeys, potatoes were good enough, but not quite as good as swine, beeves and sheep. Horses was a great loss.

      Let that be an eternal lesson. Do not be the discovered, and do not extinct the species that you share the world with.

      • Mike Austin April 27, 2022, 2:04 AM

        Dear John A. Fleming:

        1. “The Spaniards burned all the pre-Columbian books.” This gross exaggeration is part of the “Leyenda Negra”, an entire series of Protestant hoaxes conjured up after the so-called “Reformation” to defame Spain, her empire and her faith. In fact it was official Spanish policy to collect every aspect of Indigenous culture—especially the writing—so as to better understand the people to be governed. It was Spanish Catholics who collected hundreds of Aztec codices both pre- and post-Conquest. The Catholics did for the Aztecs what they did for Europe after the Fall of the Western Empire (476).

        The survival of Mayan writing is a different issue because the Maya had vanished as a civilization 600 years before the arrival of the Spanish. We still have 4 codices and a number of Mayan texts on religion and cosmology, the “Popol Vuh” being just one example. Most of Mayan writing was on stone stelae and so survived.


        Bishop Landa did indeed burn Mayan artifacts though this was neither government nor religious policy. He did to Mayan codices what the Muslims did to the Library of Alexandria.

        The Inca wrote—if that is the proper idea—using colored strings and knots called “quipu”.


        Again, it was the Spanish who collected and saved quipu:

        “While certainly some quipu were identified as idolatrous and destroyed, the Spaniards actually promoted the adaptation of the quipu recording system to the needs of the colonial administration; and priests advocated the use of quipus for ecclesiastical purposes. In several modern villages, quipus have continued to be important items for the local community, albeit for ritual rather than practical use. It is unclear as to where and how many intact quipus still exist, as many have been stored away in mausoleums.”

        The surviving quipu cannot be truly read today. Truth be told we have no idea what they say.

        2. “Crossing the Bering Strait was a great filter, the northeast Asian nomads brought no civilizational knowledge and agricultural crops from the Old World…” This is only one of the theories concerning the formation of Indigenous civilizations in the Western Hemisphere. And it is the most fantastic and illogical of them all. More than likely the Western Hemisphere was populated form either Asia or Europe. We simply do not know.

        3. The only Indian societies that are now extinct became that way because of the genocidal policies of the Indians themselves, Western diseases and official Protestant policies of extermination—“The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” The Aztec, Mayan and Incan peoples are still around today in Mexico, Guatemala and Peru. Like their writing and their cultural artifacts, they were saved by the Catholic Church and by the Spanish government.

    • Mike Austin April 27, 2022, 12:54 AM

      As far as we know the Aztec ideas of philosophy, metaphysics and cosmology were as well developed as those of any urban civilization. Tenochtitlan could boast of several libraries. The problem is that most of their writings were destroyed. This happened in 3 stages:

      1. The Aztecs themselves when they became an imperial people burned much of the extant writing and rewrote their history so that they could portray themselves as always destined to be the natural rulers over all of Mesoamerica. Orwellian to be sure.

      2. During the siege of Tenochtitlan the Aztec libraries were burned to the round.

      3. The native allies of Cortez went around locating and destroying any surviving Aztec manuscripts they could find.

      That being said, much of Aztec writing survives in the form of codices written either before or after the Conquest. The Florentine Codex is one example. As well the Spanish Dominicans learned to speak and write Nahuatl in order to record every aspect of Aztec life, culture, religion and history that they could.

      Aztec religion was fiendishly complex and based around human sacrifice, a practice which by 1450 became genocidal in concept. They believed that human blood was the food of the gods, and that the Aztec would disappear if the gods were not fed.

  • James ONeil April 26, 2022, 8:48 PM

    Mike Austin? Wears pointy boots and drinks peach vodka, just ’cause he walked a few miles in the neighborhood, knows a smidgen of history, you’ll accept that a bunch of no account Indians built that thar ‘stead of aliens?

    Next you’ll be telling me that one love sick guy, Edward Leedskalnin, built Coral Castle all by himself down in Florida.

    OK, been there, met Ed, and the Coral Castle stories are already getting as strange as the S. American Indian structure ones. Gotta allow, maybe Mike knows a thing or, even, a two.

  • Mike Austin April 27, 2022, 2:28 AM

    Alas, the pointy boots went to the trash. My feet could no longer tolerate them. Now I must survive wearing an old pair of Justins.

    Got rid of my affinity for peach vodka. It made me dance on lampstands and howl at the moon. My neighbors complained, the bastards.

    I go from thinking of the Red Man as “being of no account” to thinking of him as sorely pressed upon by white folks. It does not help that I am half Chihuahua Indian—that is, Mexican—myself. The Chihuahua are the “poor red trash” of Indian communities. The Spanish never bothered to conquer us, and every other tribe slapped us around. Pancho Villa might have been part Chihuahua Indian. I hope so as we don’t really have anyone else.

  • ThisIsNotNutella April 27, 2022, 2:41 AM

    That’s a pretty good Civilizational Heuristic: Do Not Be Discovered.

    Had a bit of an ongoing discussion about Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem Sci-Fi Novels and his Dark Forest Hypothesis re Fermi’s Great Filter going at the NewRussophobe before I got the boot for being Insufficiently Uxorious (sic — poetic license) toward the Usurious. The whole premise reminds me of a scene in De Niro’s Casino where the Feds are rolling up a syndicate and the bosses are meeting to decide which potential witnesses to rub out… There’s a debate about one guy and the big boss eventually just shrugs and says ‘Why take a chance?’… Cut to the guy being whacked.

  • Rob Muir April 27, 2022, 3:51 AM

    Wow, what a great article and lots of enriching comments.

    On the subject of the concept or zero, however, it’s gotten easy to say that the Mayans discovered (or invented) the concept of zero before the Europeans, and that is sort of accurate. The concept of zero has a very rich history with many civilizations having a part in its development. Just reading the Wikipedia article (it seems mostly trustworthy) shows how in the Old World, the history of the zero goes back to the Babylonians. In the New World, the Mayans may have actually gotten the zero from the Olmec.

    In modern mathematics, there are quite a few different kinds or meanings to the concept of zero, including indeterminate forms. In reading this article:
    we see that Europeans sometimes didn’t “trust” the zero for a few reasons that seem very silly now.

    My favorite quote about zero is something that I remember from an educational film I saw in Junior High school:
    Mathematician 1: Eureka, I’ve discovered the zero.
    Mathematician 2: What’s that?
    Mathematician 1: Oh, nothing.

    • Mike Austin April 27, 2022, 6:02 AM

      It seems the issue is more complex than I had thought. The earliest idea of zero at 1770 BC in Mesopotamia would put the Babylonians as the first. But their idea of zero was really only a placeholder rather than the true number.

      I had no idea that the Maya (300 BC – 900 AD) and Olmec (1500 – 400 BC) had much contact, the Maya being in Southern Mexico and Northern Guatemala and the Olmec centered around what is now the Mexican state of Veracruz. Apparently the debate centers on the first use of zero in the Maya long-count calendar. There are few things I have found more complicated and befuddling than studying the Mayan Long-Count Calendar system. I would rather study Kikuyu.

      As the debate stands it seems that the Maya have the best of the argument, at around 2000 years ago.

      While following up on your comment I discovered that there is no one-volume history of Mesoamerica, starting with the Olmec and ending at Tenochtitlan. Of course all the cool guys would need to be included: Zapotec, Maya, Toltec, Teotihuacan and their like.

      • Rob Muir April 27, 2022, 7:44 PM

        Mike, I had a semester of survey-level archeology to fulfill an undergrad requirement. I recognize some of those names, but for me, the interest is only on the math side. Keep on doing your thing, man, you obviously excel at that.

        It’s certainly true that the Babylonians use zero as mathematical representation in the numerical system. In the Mayan approach, zero is closer to a reference on the number line, which is the starting point for how we use it in algebra. As math has evolved in the past 200-300 years, so has the utility of zero in that math structure. That richness and subtlety is what draws me to math and math applications.

        • Mike Austin April 27, 2022, 9:43 PM

          Math is the only discipline whose required tools are only pencil and paper. Or stick and sand, if you are playing at being Euclid or Archimedes. I took Math in college all the way to Calculus, even though I was a History major. I loved the pure logic of the thing. It also exercises the mind, as does Music, Theology and Philosophy. History does no such thing, but allows its followers to stack up an astounding amount of trivia in their grey matter.

  • Clinton April 27, 2022, 10:31 PM

    Gerard, my vote is to leave the assholes in the comments section, which I generally avoid, rather than the front page. I love your site but am so, so weary of Internet loudmouths.

    • Vanderleun April 28, 2022, 7:16 AM

      I trash the spats when I see them, but they all know I have to sleep sometime. That’s why I sleep with a machete and a blunderbus.

      • Mike Austin April 28, 2022, 1:46 PM

        One foot from my bed is a Ruger with a spare mag. A closet is mere feet away, and serves as my “safe room”. It contains an AK with lots of mags. I ain’t going out without a disagreement or two.

        One month ago past midnight there was gunfire outside my apartment. Legions of cops appeared eventually. It seems a “person of color” had some issue with another “person of color”. I remained in my castle and “awaited developments”.

        The only safe space is in the grave.