North American Historical Patterns Before 1519

This is my first paper for my history seminar "Native Americans Making North America." The course doesn't really deal with North America as a whole, but rather centers on Mexico and the areas that are now "borderlands" between the U.S. and Mexico. This paper deals with several topics before the arrival of the Spanish in Mesoamerica in 1519 - but you can find that out in the introduction. As always, if you stumble upon this and want to use the information here, feel free, but just give me proper credit. If you want the specifics of my sources and footnotes, leave a comment and I will provide them. 

Movement, Diffusion, Diversity and Stateness
North American Historical Patterns Before 1519

In 21st century North America, much of indigenous history remains a mystery, lost through the passage of time as well as the massive impacts of European invasion. Modern archaeology, however, provides tools for the discovery of many aspects of this past, even at its earliest human beginnings. Some pre-contact indigenous records also exist, in addition to early writings from Europeans, or Natives under their tutelage. Ultimately, however, scholars will likely never reach a complete understanding of societies, developments, and events in the early history of the Americas. Nevertheless, ample research may be utilized today to construct a picture of certain historical patterns, especially in Mesoamerica and the areas that it influenced. This essay will seek to do just that, mustering and interpreting evidence in order to address several crucial questions, all of them related to movements, diffusion, diversity and stateness, brought to, spread from, and experienced within Mesoamerica before the arrival of Europeans.

This paper is comprised of three distinct sections: The first section examines patterns of migration, settlement and state-creation, as well as interaction between Mesoamerican societies and regions to the north. The second explores Mesoamerica’s diversity and the functioning of its states, posing the question of whether state structures in Mesoamerica constituted an overall positive or negative force in people’s lives. Lastly, the third section briefly addresses southward migrations into Mesoamerica, followed by an analysis of the history of the Aztec Empire, assessing its continuities and changes relative to previous archetypes. Analysis of these three topics may not achieve a holistic or detailed picture of pre-contact realities. Nonetheless, this essay presents an intriguing opportunity to explore and assess the organic appearance of state structures, how this “stateness” diffused, evolved, and differed among societies, and finally how it ruled the lives and cultures of millions of Mesoamericans.

I. State Creation and American Civilization

Evidence points to many waves and bands of humans arriving in the Americas by way of a northern route, crossing the land-bridge subcontinent of Beringia by foot or tracing its coast by boat. In either case, they had travelled from Siberia to Alaska, and in time spread southward from there. One cannot easily pinpoint specific causes of the migrations, but as with other movements of early humanity, groups likely roamed and relocated regularly in the pursuit of greater space and food sources. A precise chronology for the crossings cannot be determined either, but it is known that by 12,000 years ago, Beringia was under water. In terms of stateness in the Americas, the Beringia crossing and subsequent movements imply that it was an organic development, not an import from another landmass. The question then becomes why, instead of elsewhere in North America, it was Mesoamerica that hosted the formation of state structures.

In his book The Founders of America, Francis Jennings states that around 9000 years ago, people in south-central Mexico began planting the crop that would become maize, and others in northeastern Mesoamerica began cultivating pumpkins and gourds. It would be misleading, however, to consider these as two singularly innovative events: many of the peoples characterized as hunter-gatherers had much closer and more innovative interactions with plants in their gathering than one would often assume. The Natives of California, for example, processed acorns in complex ways in order to make flour. In addition, the processes of transition to agricultural production and development of state-based societies must not be immediately associated. In their book Mexico’s Indigenous Past, Alfredo López Austin and Leonardo López Luján outline a period known as the Protoneolithic – a “long transition” of approximately 2500 years, involving changes in societies’ subsistence and organization and ultimately leading to “the birth of Mesoamerica” around 2500 BCE. Afterward, the period labeled the Preclassic saw what they describe as “a long journey from egalitarian to hierarchical societies.” Thus critically, neither sedentariness nor cultivation directly bring about agriculture, nor does agriculture necessarily or immediately bring about stateness.

Jennings briefly constructs a narrative of state-creation in Mesoamerica by postulating that it was decreasing abundance of land and resources that led gradually to full adoption of settled agriculture. Following this, the adoption of trade by the Olmecs brought them unprecedented wealth and development. The impressive Olmec remains found today demonstrate that a strict hierarchy and state political order must have existed to coerce laborers into transporting stones and constructing such wonders. López and López investigate the processes much more carefully: Just as archaeological evidence cannot explain what caused the Protoneolithic transition to agriculture, neither can it point to a particular theory of the rise of social stratification. Compared to the rest of North America, however, Mesoamerica seems to differentiate itself through the close proximity of varying environments conducive to differentiated groups and varying types of cultivation, but also to regular contact and technological diffusion. Whether one theorizes that it was through control of resource access or manipulation of technical knowledge, stratification and the creation of the state surely came about through means where dynamics of exchange were essential.

For analysis in pre-modern history, an exclusive definition of a state misleads; often, societies become labeled according to an either-or philosophy – as statist or stateless. The concept of stateness as used in this paper opens up a continuum of certain traits for use in evaluation, among them division of labor, hierarchy, and centralized political organization, but also something more. Peoples along the northwest coast of North America, for example, followed largely sedentary lifestyles, sustaining hierarchical traditions and highly developed arts and crafts through trade, warfare, and above all the bountiful surpluses provided by nature. Concurrently, one must qualify this degree of stateness as less than that of contemporary Mesoamericans, as the Pacific Northwest’s relative isolation and sparseness of peopling preempted urbanization and the development of tight linkages between groups. Maize, beans and other crops would eventually spread over much of North America, and Europeans coming to what are now the eastern regions of the United States and Canada certainly found societies with relatively high levels of stateness – though they never described them in such terms. Mesoamerica, however, experienced far earlier the effects of this agriculture, and possessed an ideal environment of diverse, dense, and growing populations. This brought about its unparalleled and intense concentration of commercial exchange, technological diffusion, and many examples of state creation.

In assessing continental patterns, one should now inquire as to how Mesoamerican states influenced other regions and societies. Though the evidence he proffers appears limited at times, Jennings makes a convincing case that Mesoamerican influence reached into the present U.S. Southwest to the north and west, and far up the Mississippi River to the north and east, diffusing trade and culture into diverse areas of the continent. Concerning the area around the Southwest, a group of societies termed Oasisamerica by López and López appeared after crops and technology diffused along the Western Sierra Madre from Mesoamerica: Experts agree that most of the agricultural expertise must have been imported. Indeed, one can imagine swaths of land through the continent as huge zones of exchange, commerce, and interaction taking place along the mountains in cities such as Chaco Canyon, and elsewhere in more improvised locations, as peoples of varying levels of sedentariness met and developed relations. Though Mesoamericans themselves did not settle in Oasisamerica, their technology, goods, and commercial culture helped to create and sustain many centuries of “autonomous and vigorous” life.

Inquiry into the history of the Mississipians summons some very different ideas. López and López state simply that the Huastecs of the northern Mesoamerican Gulf coast “had contacts” with the Mississippi basin, evidenced by similarities in the artistry of their luxury goods. Jennings theorizes much more incautiously, stating that the truncated pyramid mounds at sites such as Cahokia strongly imply Mesoamerican presence on the Mississippi. Goods that presumably originated in Mesoamerica were traded in what is now the eastern U.S. long before the proposed migration; Jennings acknowledges as much, though he states it occurred in “attenuated wisps.” In the ninth or tenth centuries CE, Jennings believes a group of Mesoamericans travelled up the Mississippi and became the elites of a Mississipian mixed culture and commercial empire. That vast networks of trade existed appears doubtless from the archaeological record, and it even seems probable that, given the especially high level of Mesoamerican influence evident, there were travelers involved who disseminated culture directly. However, much more research would be necessary to substantiate Jennings’ characterization of the Mississipians as a sort of colonized society. The Mississippi case was likely more similar to that of Oasisamerica: While societies may have adopted many aspects of Mesoamerican practice and culture, they probably did so through their own agency, rather than because of a coercive foreign class.

II. Life Under the Mesoamerican State

The extensive scholarship and archaeological research that has focused on Mesoamerica reveals numerous and diverse regional cultures exhibiting unique practices, crafts, and artifacts. Though, differences surely existed even before the rise of agriculture and cities, due to widely varying subsistence environments, one can only speculate as to the general degrees of convergence or divergence that followed. In the Yucatan Peninsula and what are now the northern nations of Central America, Mayan civilization followed a distinct course, though it saw its share of outside influences. The cultures of Oaxaca, Central Mexico, and the Gulf Coast also possessed their own distinct regional characteristics, each area seeing major urban centers rise and fall. Western Mesoamoerica, by contrast, never truly formed as a cultural unit, its societies remaining divergent: López and López even imply that the Shaft Tomb Tradition people had contacts with South America, and that the later Tarascans received their metallurgy from there. Common to all, however, were ethnic and cultural groupings, as well as centers and peripheries existing at local, regional, and supraregional levels. Population growth led to urbanization, trade rose with specialization, and cities’ growth and contacts led to competition, warfare, and even domination. But these generalities aside, the question becomes under what conditions people lived, and how the state influenced and directed their lives.

Just as transformations in subsistence and in social structure occurred gradually, transpiring over the course of centuries, so too must the lives of early Mesoamericans have changed at a relatively slow pace. As it does around the world, tradition assuredly formed the bedrock for societies’ ways of life. Thus, contrary to the impression that scholarship gives, the most perceptible changes would not have been such pivotal yet long-term developments as those in agriculture, government, religion, or the rise and fall of political powers, but rather events about which we can discover much less, such as deleterious attacks, the undertakings of particular leaders, or even exceptional harvests. Without a doubt, it is extremely difficult to gain a detailed sense of individuals’ lives in Mesoamerica before European contact, as scholars must rely on material remains. Nevertheless, certain patterns and details present compelling impressions. So long as one understands the regions’ cultural diversity and bears in mind that most developments occurred over centuries, analysis of Mesoamericans’ lives becomes an exercise requiring a balance of information and imagination.

Urbanity was highly prevalent in Mesoamerica, especially at certain times in certain regions, such as in the Basin of Mexico some time after 150 CE, when 75% of the population moved to the valley of Teotihuacan, whose great city attained 125,000 inhabitants or perhaps even 200,000. Though scholars remain uncertain of the specific methods used to provide food for these masses, many people likely produced food in or near the city, supplementing the supplies imported from elsewhere. Necessarily, this sort of system could only exist through high levels of stateness and management, which profoundly shaped social structure. Identity would be based in great part on groups such as neighborhood, profession, or ethnicity, as can be seen from the organization of barrios in the cities of Oaxaca or in Teotihuacan. Through these groupings, the elites of the city or some distant more dominant power would indirectly assert their authority, requiring tribute of different types and participation in various norms of interaction and deference. The dominant patterns of life would have been threefold: communal life, in tight familial enclosures or high-occupancy apartments; productive activity, in highly varied crafts or social roles, coupled with communal or agricultural labor; and lastly cultural life, including regular traditions and religious activity.

Despite the central focus on cities in Mesoamerican studies – stemming from the abundance of archaeological material provided by these sites – one must take special care to emphasize the continuance of rural life. Even the highly citified Valley of Mexico possessed numerous villages and hamlets, and elsewhere in Mesoamerica urbanization rates and population density remained much lower. Striking about the small communities of Mesoamerica was that the majority likely fell into a clear stratification, hamlets linked to larger centers often linked to even greater cities. This was in a sense very much a requirement for the dynamics of the age: Cities producing so much grandeur must have efficiently siphoned surpluses from agricultural communities in order to support themselves. One could characterize it as a sort of macro-stateness, a widespread geographical hierarchy. At the same time, however, technical terminology should not disguise the similarities between this and other civilizations, where tributes from periphery to center were very much the same.

To judge the effects of the Mesoamerican state on individuals’ welfare, one must engage in some hypothetical thinking. An array of more egalitarian, low-stateness, gathering-cultivating societies could potentially have continued to produce and spread advancing tools and technologies as time went on, improving their lifestyles through small-scale diffusion and trade. Contrariwise, the urban wonders, engineering feats, extensive commercial networks, crafted tools, and high pottery and art of Mesoamerica’s so-called “Classic Period” beg to demonstrate that such achievements would only have been possible through more complex organization. Certain key questions present themselves, such as whom exactly the high levels of commerce benefitted, and to what extent certain tools and technologies proliferated in order to improve the basics of daily life. Full responses to these questions appear elusive, but certainly the bulk of prestige goods and surpluses were destined for elites. In addition, the socioeconomic structure of Mesoamerican cities indubitably neglected certain individuals, generating poverty and marginalization, such as those forced by hunger to beg on edges of feasts or to desperate depend on days when they wealthy may have distributed food. Given Mesoamerican cities’ apparent stability, however – save for a few theorized revolts, based on the archaeological record – it seems the majority of urbanites would have been well supplied and settled in their social roles.

According to López and López, relations between peoples during the age of Teotihuacan were primarily of a commercial and not military nature. Nevertheless, they do affirm that neither the inhabitants of Teotihuacan nor the Mayas were “peaceful people.” Warfare undeniably scarred the landscape of Mesoamerica all through its centuries of advanced stateness, as political entities competed, expanded their influence, or protected their interests. States created much of what people today recognize as the legacy of Mesoamerica; as concentrations of power they used coercion and cooperation to bring about much that would have been otherwise impossible, including massive yet stable urban structures – both physical and abstract in nature. At the same time, they funneled wealth and goods to the elites and away from the producers, creating major inequalities along lines of geography and class. It is along these lines that further questions must be posed.

III. The Aztec Experience

Before 1519 CE, the largest example of outside influence on the states of Mesoamerica most certainly lies in the great migrations theorized to have occurred at times during the 11th through 14th centuries, including the arrival of the Mexica people, also known as Aztecs. Jennings addresses the source of this continent-wide phenomenon by discounting out of hand the possibility of environmental causes, citing indigenous narratives of widespread warfare. However, environmental factors constitute an extremely important impetus for movement, particularly for societies whose subsistence depended on climate-sensitive plants and animals. It seems most probable that, as López and López indicate, climate change did indeed drive nomads and farmers alike southward, and it was these pressures and movements that generated the conflicts and violence of which Jennings is enamored. More interestingly, however, López and López blithely declare that the migrants brought to Mesoamerica “a new militaristic vigor.” Examining whether this statement and previously described patterns hold true in the history of the Aztec Empire will be the object of this paper’s final section.

A central problem for historians of pre-contact Mesoamerica remains the historiography surrounding the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan and their purported Aztec Empire. Assessment of the so-called “Postclassic Period” has often emphasized divergence from previous norms and proliferation of unprecedented militarism. While López and López acknowledge that such divisions in the scholarly literature have now become murkier, the problem remains as to how to evaluate the rise of the Mexica and the prevailing realities of their time. Spanish, Nahuatl, and Latin written sources, created after European arrival, aid but also complicate the task of understanding societies at the time. Whereas little is known of the people of Teotihuacan and the events in their city a millennium before Spanish contact, Tenochtitlan and its history are described in many accounts, though biases abound. Indeed, this paper and modern historiography may also betray a bias in emphasis by centering so clearly on the Mexica during this time. However, considering the weaker proportion of sources available for contemporary societies, such as the Tarascan state, it would take a courageous revisionist to change the status quo.

The actions of the expansionist Mexica state arguably aligned with previous patterns in at least a few ways: Firstly, the Excan Tlatoloyan – or Triple Alliance, which the Mexica came to lead – built an empire out of mixed relationships, some of direct domination, others tributary, others primarily commercial. Inasmuch as scholars can speculate, Teotihuacan likely had a similarly mixed portfolio of relationships stretching across Mesoamerica. The Mexica even had other desired objectives besides simply resources or trade: In some cases, scholars believe they lowered their demanded tribute in return for recognition as legitimate successors to the famed Toltecs. Secondly, the Mexica state dealt with a great deal of diversity – among its many contacts to be sure, but also within the confines of Tenochtitlan, as did the multiethnic Teotihuacan. In his relatively brief account of the Aztec Empire, Jennings points out that the city must have received many new arrivals and become much more heterogeneous after the Mexica’s first major victory. Unfortunately, Inga Clendinnen’s otherwise detailed work Aztecs does not give a compelling account of how Tenochtitlan must have handled its ethnic diversity, only suggesting that the city-dwellers united through projecting otherness onto foreign “barbarians” in their ceremonies.

Perhaps part of the answer relates to how the Mexica deviated from previous cultures. Most prominently, evidence of human sacrifice and high valuation of warfare appears at an unprecedented level among the Mexica, and in a sense, this departure may represent a culmination in the usage of Mesoamerican state power. López and López develop the idea of the Zuyuan system, an ideology of myth-based political hegemony representing a new conception of power that many societies adopted from the 10th century onward, allowing them to claim dominance over varying ethnic groups as never before. The Mexica clung to Zuyuan norms as well, claiming legitimacy from the legends of Tula or the Toltecs. However, López and López argue that Tenochtitlan went even further than the Zuyuan regimes, the Mexica claiming that their god Huitzilopochtli would “adopt” other peoples and control the whole world by conquest, and that the duty fell to them to feed the sun with more blood from human sacrifice. The story of Itzcoatl, who ruled Tenochtitlan when the city began its upward trajectory of power, might play a key role the story. Jennings tells that around the year 1430, Itzcoatl ordered the burning of all the ancient books, and that one reason for doing so was to justify the takeover and changes imposed by his newly ascendant faction of militants. The regime that followed included among its practices massive acts of human sacrifice, perhaps 20,000 lives ended for a single important ceremony. Getting beyond the “sense of incredulity” that these images inspire today lies at the crux of Clendinnen’s project, as it also threatens a sense of common humanity with the Mexica.

Clendinnen’s work on the religious and cultural foundations of Mexica life sheds light on the importance of politico-religious ideology. She defines the many public ceremonies she details as the “material reflex” of a “conscious and recent human construct” – the Aztec state. Thus, generational dynamics constitute a highly important factor in understanding Mexica history, especially in how rapidly such a construct could be solidified in popular beliefs, so much so that Mexica mothers gave up children born on a certain daysign in order to be sacrificed to Tlaloc. Perhaps the United States’ century-long, four or five-generation shift from 1912 isolation to 2012 global presence might provide an out-of-context parallel. In similar generational increments, the Mexica shifted from dependent fledgling settlers to domineering distributors of conquest and sacrifice. In all likelihood, the Mexica’s beliefs, culture, and political interests evolved in tandem, influencing each other all the while and eventually coming to support – partly organically and partly by the intent of elites – a highly powerful and influential society.

The socio-economic bases of Mesoamerican society may have remained relatively consistent between the ages of Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan, with this paper’s analysis of the state’s general impact on peoples’ lives staying much the same: continued subjugation to the influences, demands and limits of commerce, tribute, elite privilege and war. Contrariwise, the age of Tenochtitlan – with the Tarascans and others considered along with the Mexica – may have seen some of the most incredible and extreme applications of state violence that Mesoamerica had ever experienced. The essential problem for scholars remains one of insufficient and terribly unequal evidence. Without the same sources and without a balanced perspective, what seems exceptional in the last centuries of Mesoamerica’s pre-contact history may well have had precedents that are either undiscovered or lost to posterity. Much could have been learned from the history destroyed by Itzcoatl, but such a hypothetical statement falls in with similar questions of what the Spanish arrival destroyed, or indeed what its chroniclers could have told more of. As it is, Mexica society and their Aztec Empire must be understood not only according to what is known, but also according to what is not.


The several millennia of North American history before 1519 appear as the processes of a closed system, endowed with many diverse peoples and environments, stretching from the western coasts of Alaska to the jungles of southeast Mesoamerica. Peoples moved great distances and interacted with one another, warring, trading goods, and diffusing culture. Environments shifted over time and shaped the lives of people, particularly in terms of their subsistence and surplus. While stateness manifested itself in other areas, Mesoamerica gave birth to uniquely powerful state structures, in addition to influences such as maize cultivation, unprecedented urbanization, and high-volume sustained trading networks. Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan were the seats of unprecedented splendor and authority, founded on political ideologies and socio-economic exploitation, as well as imperceptibly nuanced supraregional relationships. These and other states transformed life and transformed Mesoamerica in ways that scholars will never fully comprehend. Over time, more and more evidence may come to light to aid in interpreting these diverse and compelling facets of indigenous history, but many mysteries will doubtlessly remain.