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©    2001    Donald J. Mabry

The Early Immigrants

    The history of the Western Hemisphere is a history of immigration. Everyone, as far as we can know, came from somewhere else. There are no native Americans except that everyone born in the Western Hemisphere is one. Among the American Indians (Amerinds), different groups went from Asia to the Western Hemisphere at different times, often centuries apart. And they continued to migrate, for few stayed on the eastern end of the Bering Straits. Throughout the centuries, they migrated and then migrated again. We know that because there are variations in physical types. Height, color, hair, among other factors, varied a great deal. Blood type evidence supports the theory that they crossed a Bering Straits land bridge and supports their common origins, but there is also abundant evidence that people were in different places at different times. The Apache eventually invaded the territory occupied by the Zuni, for example. Iroquois-speaking nations were found in present-day New York and Canada but also in North Carolina, many hundreds of miles distant. Amerinds acted much like the Africans, Asians, and Europeans did; they conquered each other.

    Humans appear to be migratory creatures. First appearing in Africa, according to the best scientific evidence, different groups left Africa and settled in Europe and Asia and, eventually, in the New World. Science and some religions tell us that all human beings are cousins, that they all have at least one common grandparent. It is only egotism or ignorance or both that causes humans and their progeny to see themselves as unique or different. But they did and do.

    This belief in separateness, in difference, explains much of human behavior such as Africans enslaving Africans, most wars, Chinese arrogance towards Europeans in the 15th century, nationalism, the European treatment of Amerinds, and so forth.  Amerinds were beastly to each other, contrary to the Rousseau myth of the noble savage. They were people and they acted the way other people did.

    Colonial Latin American history is concerned, however, with a limited group of immigrants, the Amerinds and the Iberian Europeans. That is not to say that the small numbers of others who settled in the geographical region we call Latin America were not important. African Spaniards and African Portuguese played a role albeit small. Other Europeans came to Latin America. It is not possible to discuss them all.

    This article  is devoted to the immigrants we call American Indians or Amerinds. Other articles deal with European immigration.

The Amerinds

    There were many Amerinds in Latin America and they had an effect on the Europeans and Africans who came. The ways in which they lived helped define Latin American culture. How many Amerinds were there? We don't know. Scholars such as Sherburne Cooke and Woodrow Borah estimated that there might have been as many as 30 million in Mexico and Guatemala. Maybe there were 7 million in the Andes.   A few million scattered elsewhere. There were about one million in the present-day United States and Canada.1

     For the higher cultures, there were oligarchic societies and rigidity. Few people possessed much. they believed in complex theologies about which we don't know enough. The higher cultures engaged in warfare, as did some of the other cultures. Human egotism, the fundamental cause of war, existed in all groups. The Aztec and Inca liked to fight.

    They had ability. The ability of the Amerinds played a role in the way the Spanish thought of them. Ability was often what they were allowed to do. The Spanish argued for 300 years about the Amerinds. To us, it is clear that the intellectual life of the higher cultures was complex and sophisticated. Had gone quite a ways in mathematics and astronomy. Astronomical cycles as the basis for ceremonies, etc. in Mexica. they had no writing but they were getting close (especially among the Maya who used ideograms, pictures). We don't why they didn't have writing. Quite a lot of intellectual development. Incas had no writing by used a memory device, the quipu. Nevertheless, there was very little in the higher cultures of the Amerinds that could compete with the Europeans.

    Their technology as not as good as that of the Europeans. Although they constructed rather large edifices, such as pyramids, canals in some places, and terraced lands, they did not have the wheel. The terrain of Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Peru were not favorable to its development. They also did not have draft animals. The llama and its cousins would only carry loads of 100 pounds, not much use for hauling freight. Amerinds built massive structures in some places. There were very energetic, well-organized groups in some areas. Lots of artisanship in the homes. There were specialists in towns. Some worked to sell their products retail; some worked for the state, both the civil and religious authorities.

    One difference was between those who depended upon corn and those who depended upon casava (Brazil). In the Andean highlands, they grew and ate the white potato. Mexicans were corn eaters but they used beans as well. In America, there wasn't the variety of domesticated animals such as the Europeans had.  Mexico did have turkeys and small dogs to eat. Other cultures didn't have dogs to eat. These cultures had food production and preparation well organized and had sufficient nutrients. The Indians had vegetables such as corn, potatoes, chocolate, chilies, beans, and pineapple. In the post-Conquest period, the common people couldn't afford stock so they didn't eat them although the Europeans had brought them into the New World.

    Amerinds had some illnesses but none of the common European ones such as typhus and smallpox or the African ones such as mumps. There was lots of discrimination as well as lots of miscegenation before the Europeans came; there was lots afterwards..

   Spanish sought sedentary Indians accustomed to working under direction.    There were many more people living in Latin America than in what became the US. The sheer number of people in some places was consequential.  High culture areas occupied only one half of the land the Spanish and Portuguese conquered. Most places one might go, one wouldn't encounter Indians, especially settled Indians.   It is obvious that the Maya, Aztec, and Inca had lived in a settled area for quite  a long time.

    There were hundreds and hundreds of different Amerind groups. One only has to glance at the Handbook of North American Indians and the  Handbook of South American Indians to understand how many and how different they are and were. In the Conquest period, some were like the Arawaks, a peaceful people in the Caribbean region who lived a simple, pleasurable life or like the Caribs who were very warlike and cannibalistic. They were immigrating into the Caribbean and were already in Puerto Rico by 1492. Highly complex, sedentary societies, like the Maya, Toltec, Aztec, and Inca warrant a detailed examination.


    The Maya didn't call themselves Maya. We don't know what they called themselves. Their civilization has been the subject of intense study; considerable progress has been made in the last twenty years because scholars, using high-speed computers, have been deciphering Maya pictographs. Still, much of what we know of them is through inference.  Principal source of late Maya history is Father Diego de Landa, Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, written before 1556. He was a Maya-speaking Franciscan.

    Maya civilization begins about 2000 BC,  a hypothetical date. During the long formative period, 1000-3000 BC, the  population centers were small, compact and self-contained. They were springing up all ever the area of Yucatán. There was a common trade, common language and similar cultural traits, i.e. a cultural union but not a political one. The cities that they built endured between 50OBC and 1000 AD.

    The  Maya were a feudal theocracy. Maya society was a society where priests ruled the roost. The priestly class was at the apex of a pyramid with commoners at the base. The common man was a maize farmer. Like all men of the Americas, he was bound to the soil. Each member of society was part of a clan. Everything for the common man came from soil; he fed himself and his family as well as the bureaucracy. They had a soil and climate the gave them maize in such awesome quantities that it allowed them leisure. They ate better than did the classical Greeks. He paid taxes.  Water was the one element the Maya couldn't command. There were no rivers on Yucatán peninsula. The Maya constructed reservoirs and cisterns and used the sink holes, cenotes, that naturally occurred on the limestone shelf of the Yucatán. They also were seafarers, setting out in large canoes that held as many as forty people. They cruised for thousands of miles along the Gulf Coast around the Caribbean, one of the most dangerous of seas. They regularly used the sea for maritime traffic. In fact, Columbus met a Maya canoe off coast of Honduras in 1502.

    Around AD 800,  there were about 3 million people in the Maya area living in city-states with elaborate public buildings. These city-states, like Greece, had wars, roads, and the other accoutrements of civilization. Their pyramids strove for height and the roofs of temples on them were combs whereas their artistic style involved elaborate, even flamboyant, carvings and paintings. They had numerous religious sites, such as Tikal and Chichen Itzá, and scientific centers such as Copán. Religion and science were intermingled. By the end of the 7th century, astronomers had worked out a calendar and eclipse tables, crucial to their religious practices. They also had the concept of zero, which Europeans didn't have.

    Militarists entered the Maya area between 750-900 AD. The period following the theocratic period was the militaristic. We don't know why but, after about 1000 AD, the bulk of population was concentrated in Guatemala and northeastern Yucatán. After 900 AD, the Maya in northern Yucatán brought into contact with the Toltecs.  There is evidence that Quetzalcoatl was there, that the Toltecs were influencing the development of Maya culture. By the time the Spanish arrived, Maya civilization had collapsed.  

The  Militarist or Soldier Period

    In central Mexico, there were very many Indian cultures which existed at a high level not just Mexica. Many spoke Nahuatl but there were others. 

    One of the great ceremonial cities was Teotihuacán some 35 miles northeast of Mexico City. Teotihuacán predates the Nahuatl speakers like the Aztec. The site contains the impressive Pyramid of the Sun  and the Pyramid of the Moon  as well as numerous other buildings. It was clearly an important religious city but it was burned and its political structure destroyed about 890 AD. Between 75O-900 AD, the old world order (in central Mexico)  was shaken to its foundations but we don't know why. Eric Wolfe in Sons of the Shaking Earth advances the following possibilities:

  1. ecological reasons;
  2. exhaustion of theological power;
  3. revolt of the repressed;
  4. old gods couldn't stop revolt; and
  5. the hinterlands revolted against the wealth and power of the center.

    Warfare began on the frontier as groups of fierce people migrated from the north, taking what they could. The settled peoples withdrew into fortified regions. New military states developed along old trade routes. Fortified sites were built along the periphery. One can see this changes in decorative art, for the soldier replaces the priest.

Religious art
    Pyramid of the Sun
luna.gif (9764 bytes)Pyramid of the Moon


    The largest militarist site was Tula in the present state of Hidalgo. It is just one example. There were others. In 1168 AD, its location was significant on the periphery of the Valley of Mexico, on the outskirts of Teotihuacán. North of Tula was the Gran Chichimeca (the home of nomadic tribes, often fierce and from whence came the Aztecs/Mexica). In their role as soldiers, they dominated the area. The Aztec/Mexica worked under the Tula state and learned to be mercenaries and to cultivate crops. They took over the Tula site when the Tula state collapsed and then moved south.

    The new militarists moving into the central highlands were called Toltecs, chichimeca, and Tolteca-chichimeca. In a sense, Toltec meant civilized and Chichimec meant uncivilized. Tula state. Sacred and secular ruler, each with two assistants. Sacred ruler could not pass his office to members of his own family. A sacred ruler tried to impose his son, Quetzalcoatl Opposition drove Quetzalcoatl into exile, splitting loyalties of the state. What this legend probably means is that the militarists overthrew the priests. That's the view of Eric Wolfe, Sons of the Shaking Earth. Wholesale human sacrifice introduced.


    In discussing the Toltecs, it is important to realize that myth is a great as the actual history. Peoples, like the Aztecs,  who came later, liked to claim that they descended from the Toltecs. In addition, there has been a tendency for others to refer to many early civilizations as Toltec.

    The Toltec state included much of central Mexico and adjacent areas to the north. The state expanded to get tribute. Tula was the regional capital of many small villages with rapid growth throughout period from 750-950.   Droughts and fighting between the various groups resulted in the destruction of Tula ca. 1150. Some had left before that date.  Quetzalcoatl or Kukulcán in Maya, reportedly arrived in Maya area in 986-987 AD as a Mexican conqueror. He was said to have ruled Chichen Itzá until his death

    The destruction of Toltec political system was followed by political fragmentation and chaos. Soldiers bands moved out to grab what they could of the empire. They all claimed to be Toltecs.  The Tlaxcala and the Tarascan were two important chichimeca nations which entered central Mexico and claimed the Toltec mantle. Five Toltec groups rose in the Valley of Mexico: Azcapotzalco (Tepanec), Xaltocan, Acolhua, Colhuacan, who had a real claim to Toltec name as descendants. It is to them that the Mexica went to ask for a legitimate "Toltec" ruler, and Xicco-Toltec.


    One group of chichimecas who brought militarism to its fruition were the Aztecs who entered the Valley of Mexico at the end of the 13th century with the collapse of Tula. They had begun wandering in the 12th century and finally settled  in central Mexico in the 13th century. In their legends, they came from a place called Aztlán, somewhere in north or northwest Mexico or even the southwestern United States. They found refuge on a muddy promontory in Lake Texcoco. Their legend said that Hummingbird-on-the Left told them to seek an eagle with a snake in its mouth sitting on a rock by a cactus and settle there.

    They founded the town of Tenochtitlán (ca. 1344-1345), building it in the shadow of the city of Tlatelolco. The two cities were uneasy allies with Tlatelolco using the Aztecs as mercenary soldiers .   For many years, they survived by hiring themselves out to the city-states in the valley as mercenaries. They emerged as a major power in the Anáhuac valley with the defeat of Azcapotzalco, the major power in the valley. Joining with Texcoco and Tlacopan, they led this triple alliance on a path of conquest which led them to the Gulf of Mexico and as far south as Guatemala.

    In 1473, the Mexica took Tlatelolco by force and replaced the king with their own. The three stages of the Mexica/Azteca rise to power were:    

  1. fought under the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco. 
  2. In 1427, the Aztecs allied with the Acolhua of Texcoco against the Tepanecs. In 1430, led the Triple Alliance of Tlacopan (Tacuba), Mexica and Acolhua against Texcoco. By 1468, the Aztecs had a total of 489 cities paying tribute, but its military conquests were not completed when Cortez and his band of soldiers arrived.
  3. Beginning in 1500, the third stage, the Aztecs reduced Tlacopan to a satellite state and, in 1515, put their puppet on the throne of Texcoco. They were still in the process of consolidating their power when the Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1519.

        The king of Texcoco was Netzahualcoyotl (Hungry Coyote). He was responsible for the construction of the great system of dams and canals against the lagoon of Texcoco. Gave both the nobles and the commoners equal representation on the governing council. Merchants has a say in the economic administration of the state. He favored professional bureaucrats over soldiers from the nobility. At the time, Texcoco conquered most of the eastern part of the central highlands. His reign was saw the development of a legal code, the growth of monotheism, and the disavowal of human sacrifice. Texcoco Nahuatl became classic Nahuatl. A poem by Hungry Coyote illustrates the high culture of Texcoco:

All the earth is a grave and nothing escapes it, nothing is so perfect> that it does not descend to its tomb. Rivers, rivulets, fountains and waters flow, but never return to their joyful beginnings; anxiously they hasten on the vast realms of the rain god. As they widen their banks, they also fashion the sad urn of their burial.

Filled are the bowels of the earth with pestilential dust once flesh and bone,
once animate bodies of man who sat upon thrones, decided cases, presided in
council, commanded armies, conquered provinces, possessed treasure, destroyed
temples, exulted in their pride, majesty, fortune, praise and power. Vanished
are these glories, just as the fearful smoke vanishes that belches forth from
the infernal fires of Popocatepetl. Nothing recalls them but the written page.

The Aztecs never allowed these tendencies to reach full development.

    As the Aztecs became an independent power, their social organization changed from a simple military band to a complex, hierarchical conquest state. We don't know very much about their history because King Obsidian Snake (1428-40) destroyed the records and had their history rewritten. We do know something of their structure when the Spanish arrived.

    The Aztec state was divided into calpulli (big houses). Before 1472, the nobility were probably the heads of the calpulli but after that date there was the development of a hereditary nobility which claimed Toltec descent. This gave them social advantages but they didn't have economic power which would make them independent of the calpulli. The calpulli owned the land. This changed with the defeat of Tepanec, for the nobility took their land and the ;peasants who worked the land. Now, they had advantages over the commoners. Much like their European counterparts, the nobles created economic bonds over the people who came to them for work. Other ways to become a knight besides soldiering, was through trade, for the Aztecs expanded trade. Through Tlatelolco, they had trading specialists (pochtecas) who engaged in local and long distance trade. The pochtecas were semi-autonomous and protected by Aztec armies.

    Of course the nobility had special privileges such as the exclusive right to wear certain clothing and insignia. They had their own courts. Only they could practice polygamy. Their children could go to special schools to learn to be bureaucrats.

    The commoners had a life centered around the calpulli. Land was held in common and individuals applied for the right it work it. The calpulli paid tribute and supplied males for the armies. Males trained for war in a bachelor house. The calpulli had an armory and served as a unit in battle. Each calpulli had its own god, temples, and ceremonies in addition to the gods of the larger society.

    In Aztec society, there also were slaves, was captives (including women and children), and workers who were in temporary bondage because they were criminals or had fallen on hard times.

    Religion was very important to the Aztecs for they believed that they had to fight the forces of evil (Satan in Christian parlance ) and insure that the sun, bravery, sobriety, sexual control, truth, beauty, and decency would continue. They believed that each world was created and then consumed in recurrent cataclysms and that each world was governed by its own sun. They saw themselves as obligated to defend the fifth sun, the sun to end in earthquakes. It was only through continuous human sacrifice (the highest possible sacrifice, especially the heart) and, therefore, constant warfare to capture sufficient victims that they could keep the sun in heaven and the world from ending. They were trying to postpone the end. They had to kill thousands of people as they fought holy wars for the sun. They were polytheistic. They worshiped a variety of gods including earth mother goddesses. Their practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism horrified the Spanish who believed they had to stop it.

    They controlled through war, terror, and tribute. Didn't control everyone in their area. The Tlaxcalan and Tarascan nations were not controlled by the Aztec nation, for example. The Aztec never penetrated Yucatán. They were not an empire like the Inca or the Roman empires.


    In the Andes, there were many other groups besides the Inca. In Colombia, for example, there were the Chibcha. Their achievements were less than the Maya, Aztec, and Inca but greater than a lot of others. In Bolivia, there were the Aymara. The Inca, however, were the power of the Andes.

    The Inca Empire was the result of well-planned conquest. They had begun migrating from Cuzco in the 14th century. They incorporated new areas into the empire very carefully, more so than the Romans. They removed populations and leaders. Their military system was keyed to the problems of the various areas. Their roads and bridges they built were designed so they could send an army into any part of the Empire when necessary. Their system of internal control and discipline was very well thought out. They were better organized than any other group in the hemisphere. It was only under the leadership of Pachacuti (1438-71) that they much territory, perhaps two-thirds of what they controlled when the Spanish arrived. It was the arriving of Francisco Pizarro and his soldiers amidst a civil war in 1532 that halted their expansion. At the time, they controlled some 12 million people.

    Although Quechua was the official language (Inca properly should only refer to the ruler), many other languages were spoken.  The Inca were not the first civilization. Many preceded them and they adopted ideas and artifacts they liked. Imperial policy was to rewrite history to make people believe that the had always been powerful and were destined to be obeyed.

    Andean civilizations had become quite sophisticated in many ways. The road system was very extensive. Trained runners, stationed every few miles, could relay messages rapidly from one end of the empire to the other. Important people could traverse these same roads and stay at the "motels" that were maintained. The Incas terraced the land to increase farming acreage. They practiced brain surgery, doing trepanning to relieve pressure. In dentistry, the made crowns for teeth. Although they had no writing, they did have the quipu, a knotted cord used as a memory device.

    The death of Huayna Capac (1493-1527) in Quito marked the beginning of a very serious civil war between the brothers Huascar and Atahualpa. In part, the war was the northern part of the empire (Quito) against the southern part, Cuzco. The empire was not prepared for a constitutional crisis. the system had worked in the past because there was one ruler who was considered a god. The fraternal dispute, however, raised questions about the system and allowed all kinds of rebellion to occur. Atahualpa, who had won the five-year war, faced the necessity of reincorporating the defeated into the fold and rebuilding physically what had been destroyed. No doubt he assumed he was up to the task. Then Pizarro entered the picture.


        For 30,000 years people had been coming to the Western Hemisphere, taking what they wanted and having it taken from them in return. They negotiated to get what they wanted and fought for it or both. They were kind and cruel to each other. Some of them raped and pillaged and murdered. They moved around spreading from the eastern shores of the Bering Straits southwards to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. They bore children and their children bore children who bore children. Eventually some of these children left the ancestral area and became "different people," forgetting or not knowing that they were cousins to their rivals. For unknown reasons, some remained migratory, some farmed to supplement the food supply, and some built significant civilizations which had large buildings, complex social systems, and the pattern of imposing their will on their neighbors. In short, they were people acting as people act.

    A new wave of migrants, Europeans, started coming in the late 15th century; in many ways, this migration was part and partial of Western Hemisphere history. They did what the earlier immigrants, their distant cousins,  had done. They took things, fought, fornicated, and settled. They imposed their food, ideas, clothing, political practices, and such on others. That's what the Toltec and the Aztec and Inca civilizations had done.

    The Europeans did have the advantage of having millions of allies to help them in their conquest. People tend to ignore these allies, microbes, even though they were the major force in the conquest. Disease is not heroic. 

    The European conquest, however, changed the world. New ideas and new things came about. Wealth was transported from colonial Latin America to finance all kinds of things. Europe entered into a commercial revolution and, eventually, into an industrial revolution. In the Western Hemisphere, almost all the people were brought under control of central authorities. The process went quickly in some areas and slowly in others but it occurred. European (or Western) ways prevailed.

1.    Cook, Sherburne and Woodrow Borah. Essays in Population History. 3 vols. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1971-1979.

2. Also called the Tenocha and Colhua Mexica. I use the term Aztec because the name is so well known.