Teotihuacán, the city of the gods, was the first great civilisation in Central Mexico; it appeared in the first century BC. Their rulers annexed the land around the city through war and religion forcing thousand of inhabitants of the small villages around to move to the city which had been planned on a large scale. At the beginning of the first century AD, the city of Teotihuacán rose to prominence and by the end of the first century AD 50,000 people were living there, the number reaching 125,000 by 600 AD. The people were living in one-story stone and adobe apartments built by the state.
The rulers realised that they had to decentralise the city and they allowed many farmers to go back to the villages. Religion was the essence of their way of life and it is believed that it was based on sacred geography. Teotihuacán was believed to be the centre of the universe, a supreme sacred site and the place where the Gods emerged from the underworld, the Sipapu. The city was a theocracy and they performed human sacrifices, removing the hearts of living victims with knifes made of obsidan, a hard volcanic glass. Although Teotihuacán’s territory was rather small (about 25,000 square kilometres, the size of Sicily), its economic, religious and cultural influence based on trade was very important. Teotihuacán lasted about 700 years and was invaded and destroyed in 750 AD probably by the Chichimecs, invaders from the north who burned all the palaces and all the temples. The civilisation disappeared forever but the ruling elite fled north to Tula where they recreated the wonders of Teotihuacán. Tula was known as the capital of the Toltecs and flourished between 900 and 1,100 AD. The site of Teotihuacán was occupied again by the Aztec one century later; they had great respect for the earlier civilisation.
Meanwhile the classic Maya civilisation emerged in the Yucatán lowlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala in 292 AD.
Quetzalcoatl, the god (represented as a plumed serpent) of the Toltecs, and later the Aztecs, was banished from Tula in 987. At that time many Toltecs arrived at several sites in the US and at Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán where worship of the plumed serpent continued.
Raiders from the north, probably again the Chichimecs, invaded Tula and destroyed their palaces and temples. The Toltec tradition mentions the existence of a group of travellers known as the Toltecas who were experts in architecture, irrigation and agriculture. During their travel they divulged their knowledge as well as the religion of the Toltecs. It is also believed that some Toltecas went as far south as the Yucatán where they influenced the Maya culture and transformed Uxmal and Chichén Itzá into cities similar to Tula. Other went north to what is now Texas, Louisiana and along the Mississippi River. Some others went to the American Southwest were they also spread their knowledge. They are thought to have influenced the Hohokam societies in the Gila and Salt River drainage (Arizona); the Anasazi of the San Juan, Little Colorado, Chaco River and Rio Grande drainage (New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona); and the Mogollon of New Mexico.
The city of Texcoco was founded in 1132 in the Mexico Valley. Traces of about 500 settlements –big and small- have been found in this valley.
The traditional date generally accepted for the foundation of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán in the valley of Mexico at the “place of the cactus in the rock”, is 1325. The Aztec were originally a “rude and landless” tribe which came from the north into the Mexico Basin. They sold themselves as mercenaries to the city-states around Lake Texcoco. They called themselves Aztec for Aztlan, their legendary homeland in the north. Their god of war, Huitzilopochtli, said that when they would see an eagle standing on a cactus growing out of a rock they would have found the place to settle, to build their city that they should call Tenochtitlán. Their traditions say that their ancestors wandered in the desert without seeing such a sign until 1325. At that time they saw it in the swamps and marshy islands of Lake Texcoco and they started to build their city after filling the swamps. They dug irrigation canals and constructed an aqueduct four miles long to bring fresh water from an inland spring to their fields and for their people. The city grew very fast and started to trade in competition with the neighbouring city-states. By 1400 Tenochtitlán became the pre-eminent city in the central Mexico basin dominating all the other cities of the region.
Tlatelolco, a city near Tenochtitlán, was founded in 1347 on Lake Texcoco soon became the site of the Aztec most famous trading market. Itzcoatl became the ruler of the Aztec in 1428 and increased the wealth and the military power of the city-state of Tenochtitlán. With his counsellor Tlacaelel, who was also his nephew, he built up the Island City as well as Tlateloloc, a town near-by. He built temples, roads and big public squares as well as stone causeways in all four directions across Lake Texcoco connecting the city-state with the mainland and other islands. He had 100,000 soldiers and he conquisted tribes as far south as Guatemala. Itzcoatl decided in 1438 that his people deserved a new and better version of their history. He ordered all previous history books destroyed and had new ones written that claimed that the Aztec were descendants of the Toltec of Tula. They also integrated one of the Toltec’s’ god, Quetzalcoatl, in their religion but, at the same time, they put their Aztec god, Huitzilopochtli, at the same level as the Toltec god. Before Tula was abandoned, Quetzalcoatl escaped eastward, promising that he would come back in the future. To keep their new god alive, the Aztec had to feed him precious food and human blood. As a result the Aztec warriors, “the people of the sun” had to take live captives to sacrifice to him. The great wealth of Tenochtitlán was mainly due to Itzcoatl’s conquests and his alliance with two other city-states of the Mexico Valley, Texcoco and Tlacopán. The population of the city was at least 250,000 with many more people living in other settlements. The city-state had beautiful gardens, great palaces, and a high level social, religious, economic and political structure. Tlacaelel is believed to have reformed the judicial structure and the laws governing the trading class, pochtecas or travelling merchants. Itzcoatl died in 1440 and Tlacaelel remained a royal advisor to the new Aztec King Axayacatl. The city continued to grow and Tlacaelel reorganised the army and the protocol of the royal court. A large botanical garden, comprising 25 pyramids and many temples, was built in the centre of the city. Arsenals for military need, monasteries, workshops for goldsmiths and feather workers and schools for the various professions were also erected.
King Axayacatl died in 1458 and was followed by Moctezuma I who died in 1469. Tlacaelel was advisor to all the Aztec kings since 1438 and he died in 1481. He was a brilliant politician and many people wonder what would have happened if he had been king when the Spanish under Cortès arrived in Mexico. The later Aztec kings went on fighting with the other city-states after Tlacaelel’s death but without his ability of building strategical alliances. The army had over 100,000 men, and the generals did not think that they needed to find allies. Other city-states such as Tlexcala were always at war with Tenochtitlán, as they needed prisoners to use in human sacrifices.
In 1492 the Arawaks, under their leader Guacanagari, rescued the crew and cargo of the Santa Maria after it went aground on the north coast of a Caribbean island that they called Hispaniola, now known as the Dominican Republic and Haiti. This island had a population of at least three million Arawaks (also called Tainos). The Arawaks were skilled boat builders and navigators and they traded with most Caribbean Islands who were populated by migrants from South America, possibly also from Mesoamerica. They spoke a variety of Arawak and Carib dialects. The Arawaks grew a large variety of foods, managing to grow three crops a year of manioc, maize, beans and squash. They had ball courts on which they play a game similar to what is played in Mesoamerica.
Columbus believing that he was in India called the Arawaks Los Indios, or Indians. Guacanagari gave gifts to Columbus such as a mask, plates, a bell and objects in gold. In return Columbus gave the chief a red cape. He believed that the Indians gave him presents as a sign of submission but in fact it was part of their habits when meeting foreigners. The Spaniards were cruel with the Arawaks. They killed all who remained on the island and destroyed their fort, La Navidad in 1493. When Columbus came back he had many Indians killed or sent to Spain as slaves. Those who resisted had their ears or noses cut off or they were burned alive or hanged. In addition every Arawaks had to pay the Spanish a tribute of gold every three months. Wherever the Spanish landed many Indians died also of strange diseases believed to be smallpox, measles, scarlet fever and others for which the natives had no immunities. As the population decreased the cruelty of the Spaniards increased. They used the Indians as slave labour in agriculture and many killed themselves rather that to submit to the Spanish. They also fought them for twenty years in the mountains. Fifty years after the arrival of the Spanish the Arawak population was extinct and black slaves brought from Africa replaced them.