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320 pages, Hardcover
First published October 4, 2019
The Aztecs would never recognize themselves in the picture of their world that exists in the books and movies that we have made. They thought of themselves as humble people who had made the best of a bad situation and who had shown bravery and thus reaped its rewards. They believed that the universe had imploded four times previously, and that they were living under the fifth sun, thanks to the extraordinary courage of an ordinary man. Elders told the story to their grandchildren: “When all was in darkness, when the sun had not yet shone and the dawn had not yet broken, the gods gathered and spoke among themselves.” The divinities asked for a volunteer from the few humans and animals creeping about in the darkness. They needed someone to immolate himself and thus bring forth a new dawn.
For generations, those who have wanted to know about the lives of ancient Native Americans have studied the objects uncovered in archeological digs, and they have read the words of Europeans who began to write about Indians almost as soon as they met them. From these sources more than any others, scholars have drawn their conclusions and deemed them justified. But it was a dangerous endeavor that inevitably led to distortions. To make a comparison, it would never have been considered acceptable to claim to understand medieval France with access to only a few dozen archeological digs and a hundred texts in English — with nothing written in French or Latin. Yet different standards have been applied to Indians.
It would become accepted fact that the indigenous people of Mexico believed Hernando Cortés to be a god, arriving in their land in the year 1519 to satisfy an ancient prophecy. It was understood that Moctezuma, at heart a coward, trembled in his sandals and quickly despaired of victory. He immediately asked to turn his kingdom over to the divine newcomers, and naturally, the Spaniards happily acquiesced. Eventually, this story was repeated so many times, in so many reputable sources, that the whole world came to believe it. Moctezuma was not known for his cheerful disposition. Even he, however, had he known what people would one day say, would certainly have laughed, albeit with some bitterness, for the story was, in fact, preposterous.
The Mexica knew that they were losing. They had no way to explain the discrepancy between their power and that of their enemies; they had no way of knowing that the Europeans were heirs to a ten-thousand-year-old tradition of sedentary living, and they themselves the heirs of barely three thousand. Remarkably, through it all, they seem to have maintained a practical sense of the situation: they knew what needed to be explained. They did not assume greater merit or superior intelligence on the part of their enemies. Rather, in the descriptions they left, they focused on two elements: the Spaniards’ use of metal, and their extraordinary communications apparatus. The old men talking about their experiences used the word tepoztli (metal, iron) more than any other in reference to the Spaniards: “Their war gear was all iron. They clothed their bodies in iron. They put iron on their heads, their swords were iron, their bows were iron, and their shields and lances were iron.” They grew ever more specific: “Their iron lances and halberds seemed to sparkle, and their iron swords were curved like a stream of water. Their cuirasses and iron helmets seemed to make a clattering sound.” When the elderly speakers paused to wonder at the events, it was to ask how the word had gone out so efficiently to so many people across the sea about their marvelous kingdom. The warriors had seen the ships — but not the compasses, the navigation equipment, the technical maps, and the printing presses that made the conquest possible. What is striking is how quickly they realized that these issues were at the heart of the matter.
(page 98) ... in the Old World, people had been full time farmers for ten thousand years. Europeans had by no means been the first farmers, but they were nevertheless the cultural heirs of many millennia of sedentary living... In the New World, people had been full-time farmers for perhaps three thousand years. It was almost as if Renaissance Europe had come face to face with the ancient Sumerians."
(page 18) ...the Europeans, later famous for their fighting, were not the ones to create the first explosives; the supposedly peaceful and self-contained Chinese did that. The point is that farming peoples[sic] always developed mightier civilizations in the sense of being able to defeat people who had not developed comparable weapons and goods, and whose populations had not grown equivalently.
The soldiers from all the allied provinces took many captives, both men and women, for they and the Mexica entered the city, burned the temple, sacked and robbed the place. They killed old and young, boys and girls, annihilating without mercy everyone they could, with great cruelty and with the determination to remove all traces of the Huaxtec people from the face of the earth.