Let me explain. Before I visit a new place, I try to learn as much as I can about its history. Call me a geek, but it makes the whole experience burst with life. Recently, as I have answered questions from friends, family and even strangers about my upcoming trip to Peru, I noticed what seems like a pervasive disconnect between the notion that it’s a super-cool, exotic vacation (which it is!), and an appreciation for the rich history of a civilization that lived, worked and died there. I am referring to the Incas, of course, but I knew there was a problem when more than one person told me they’re jealous because they’ve always wanted to see the Mayan ruins. I tell them they are in luck because their flight will be much shorter than mine.
Turns out, the Incas and the Mayans aren’t the same. In fact, they didn’t even hang out. Time and distance kind of got in the way.
Now, I’m no history snob. A fledgling history buff, at best. So trust me, I had to lean on Google and a small pile of library books to refresh my own understanding of Incan history. But I figured I wasn’t the only one with, shall we say, memory lapses. At times like this, I find starting with the basics prudent.
Feeling a little smarter after my quality time on various history sites, I tried a little experiment. It involved me cornering people and saying, “Quick! What’s the difference between Incas, Aztecs and Mayans?” Moving past the incredulous looks, which I get frequently, the most coherent answer I got was, “Um, well, they worshipped the sun and mysteriously disappeared from Mexico, right?” (For the record, the least coherent answer involved UFOs. Okay, so maybe I need new friends.)
The 411, should you ever find yourself on Jeopardy, is that the Mayans didn’t stop with sun worship. They also bowed to the moon gods, as well as to those of rain and corn. While they certainly inhabited parts of Mexico, their ‘hood also included parts of modern-day Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Go ahead, look it up on a map. I’ll wait.
Now, of the three civilizations mentioned, the Mayans lasted the longest (came onto the scene around 1800 B.C.), but they disappeared rather abruptly around 900 A.D. The big mystery is why. There are many plausible theories, everything from overpopulation to endemic warfare to the exhaustion of their natural resources. I’m pretty sure none of the theories involve UFOs. Just a hunch.
The Aztecs also lived in what is mostly modern-day Mexico about 400 years after the Mayans disappeared. They, too, worshipped the sun…along with hundreds of other gods and goddesses. Must have made for some great stand-up comedy: “So CentzonTotochtin, the god of intoxication, and Tlazolteotl, the goddess of filth, guilt and cleansing walk into a bar…” You get the idea.
On a less humorous note, there is no mystery surrounding the fall of the Aztecs. After much I-Can’t-Make-This-Stuff-Up kind of drama, Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés overthrew the Aztecs by force in 1521, razing their capital and building Mexico City on its ruins. Around 240,000 people died in that conquest.
A few years later, the Incas, way down in the area of modern-day Peru, had their own issues with a Spanish Conquistador by the name of Francisco Pizarro. Ironically, Pizarro was inspired by Hernán Cortés and his defeat of the Aztecs in Mexico. In 1533 he too met with a stunning victory for the Spanish flag with the fall of the Incan empire. Without any assistance from UFOs, I should add.
And so I give my friend credit for the “worshipped the sun” part of his answer. It’s true. All three civilizations did it. They also engaged in ritualistic human sacrifice. Hey, don’t judge…if you think our contemporary civilizations don’t do equally heinous things to each other, you might want to put down the sports page every now and then.
Speaking of heinous, stay tuned for my next post about Francisco Pizarro and how he overthrew the Incan empire with just 180 men at his side. The dude makes Voldemort seem like a pussycat…