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Thursday, November 27, 2014

2000 B.C.- 1538 A.D.: Civilization arrives in Mesoamerica

Figure 1 -- This is a map of Mesoamerica with some modern and some ancient
names.  The first American civilizations originated in this region.
So what would it be like if you had breathing trouble and lived among the ancient cultures of North and South America.  To answer this question, it's best to understand the people who lived there.

The experts estimate that people migrated across the Bering Land Bridge, Beringia, probably sometime between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago, and probably continued to find ways to communicate even after that.  After arriving in Alaska from Siberia, some people continued to migrate south, some ending up in Mexico, Belize, northern Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatamala, and El Salvador.

Historians refer to the stretch of land from central Mexico to Honduras as Mesoamerica, and it was here, perhaps in the tropical forests around Peru, where the first American lands were cultivated.  This would have been done for food, but also for fiber, raw material for baskets, mats, houses, boats, and fuel, said William Brandon in his 2003 book "The rise and fall of North American Indians." (8, page 22, 23)

Around 5,000 B.C. this knowledge spread around the Americas, creating an American Agricultural Revolution.  It was also around Peru where the first civilizations in the Americas arose.  Here is a brief chronology of Mesoamerican civilizations, and a brief discussion of what it would be like to live among them. (some dates are estimations):

Migration to America
Bering Land Bridge:  30,0000-10,000 B.C.
A land bridge across the Bering Straight, and connecting Asia with North America, allowed humans, animals and plants to migrate between the two continents. Some crossed on foot, and others crossed on boats in shallow water along coastal lines.  Once the glaciers melted, the waters were cold and treacherous, and crossing them would have been difficult.  Over time, the poeple of the Americas were isolated from the rest of the world.  
Agricultural Revolution in Mesoamerica
The beginning of agriculture: Around 5000 B.C.
Cities based on farming spread: 2000-250 B.C. 
People living in Mesoamerica would have been able to fish, and hunt monkeys, jaguars, iguanas, deer, turkey, wild boar, and birds. There was also an ample supply of maize, squash, potatoes, beans, chili peppers, tomatoes, and tobacco. They also made chocolate from the cocoa plant. By around 5,000 B.C. people around Peru, perhaps in the tropica forests, learned how to cultivate and harvest these crops, and this knowledge spread. The people made tools and other materials of wood, stone, and obsidian (hardened lava). 
The Olmec 
Ceremonial centers in Peru: 2000 B.C.
Olmec civilization flourished: 1500 B.C.-200 B.C.
Chavin Civilization formed:  900 B.C.
Olmec Collossal Heads made: 900 B.C.
Olmec Civilization formed:  800 B.C.
Olmec civilization begins decline: 100 A.D.  
They Lived on the eastern Gulf Coast of Mexico.
Similar to how the Sumerians influenced later Mesopotamian societies, the Olmecs influenced the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas in math, architecture, astronomy, and religion.  They are most famous for large colossal heads they carved out of basalt boulders (see figure 2)
Zapotec civilization:  600-800 A.D.
They Lived in southern states of Mexico.  The Mixtecs had a system of writing where they drew pictograms on deer skins.  
Mixtec civilization:  800-1500 A.D.
Lived in southern states of Mexico.  Zapotecs invented a system of writing called hieroglyphs, and wrote on stone tablets (did they learn this from a Mesopotamian trader?).
First Mayan Settlements:  2600 B.C.
Maya Civilization flourished:  200 B.C.-900 A.D.
Written language invented (hieroglyphics): 700 B.C
Solar calendar carved in stone: 400 B.C.
Maya "Golden Age:" 250-900 A.D
Mayans flee southern city-states: 900-1600 A.D.  
90% of population dead: 950 A.D. 
Mayans flee northern city-states: 1200 A.D.
Spanish Arrive: 16th Century

At its peak, over 13 million people lived under Mayan rule. The ancient Maya lived in Mesoamerica for over 3,000 years, until their last city fell to Spanish invaders in 1697 A.D.  
They lived in rain forests of Central America in what are now Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. They studied the stars and planets without the aid of a telescope.  They developed exemplary skills in mathematics, astronomy and astrology. They created a system of writing, a calendar, and a religion based on legends.  Cities banned together to form city-states, each with its own king.  The king was well respected, and could communicate with the gods.  Wars were only fought to obtain slaves, and some of which were sacrificed so life could continue.  No life was taken, whether animal or human, except out of need.  Spanish Conquistadors invaded, robbed, and destroyed their cities in the 16th century. 
Mornarchy began  667 A.D.
Toltec Civiliation: 800-1200 A.D.
Empire ended:  1052 A.D.
They were banished from their home country in the year 1 of their calendar (596 A.D.)  They were the cultural predecessors  of the Aztecs.  They settled in the basin of Mexico (what Aztec referred to as the Anahuac), and their capital was Tula. According to Aztec legend, their monarchy lasted 384 years, and there were only 7 kings, each ruling for 52 years.  Many stories were told of them by the Aztec, although it's difficult to determine how accurate these stories (and dates) were.  They were known more for their art than as warriors. Drought caused famine, and monarchy ended with death of last emperor in 1052 A.D.. (4, page 86-7)
Aztecs settle in Mexico:  1200 A.D.
Aztec civilization flourished:  1325-1500 A.D.
Tenochtitlan built on island: 1325 A.D.
Aztec Empire:  1400-1519
20,000 sacrificed at religious ceremony: 1460
Attempt to conquer Mixtecs fails: 1470
Attempt to conquer Zapotecs fails: 1470
Great temple built in Tenochtitlan: 1481-1486
Spanish arrive and destroy empire: 1521

At the peak, there were over 15 million people living under Aztec rule.  The largest city was Tenochtitlan, which had over 50,000 residents. 
Ruled much of southern and central Mexico.
Unlike the Mayans, they had one king who ruled over all society, and he lived in the great city of Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City). Around 1400 they started attacking neighboring tribes for food, land, and human captives to sacrifice to the gods. Like the Mayans, they performed human sacrifices to make sure life would continue.  They were fierce warriors, and many simply fled rather than face them.  They were also skilled in wwriting, building, arts and crafts.  Spanish Conquistadors invaded, robbed, and destroyed their cities in 1521.
First ceremonial centers built in Peru: 700 B.C.
First civilizations arose:  1200? A.D.
Inca Empire: 1438-1538
The Inca owned the largest empire in pre-Columbian America.  The capital was Cusci (modern day Peru). They also settled the Andean Mountain ranges, Peru, and parts of Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, and Columbia. They referred to themselves as Tawantinsuyu, which means 4 parts.  The land was divided into 4 parts to make it easier to rule.  It was a centralized government, where everyone was housed and there was no crime due to harsh laws.

Figure 2 -- Large Obsidian heads carved out of basalt
 boulders by the Olmecs around 900 B.C. Some are
estimated to weigh about 50 tons, and some were even
transported up to six miles "through the surrounding
mangrove swamps. (8, page 26)(9)
Most of the people that settled in Mesoamerica started out as nomads, roaming the land from place to place, eventually settling in one area.  They built houses made from mud-brick thatched straw and reeds.

Homes had very little furniture if any, and the people usually slept on mats that were spread on the floor. Legends (some from the Old World perhaps) were shared by word of mouth until a written language was learned, and they were recorded. These legends formed the basis of society and life among the various tribes and civilizations of the area.

Most people lived off crops of maize, beans, chili peppers, squash, tomatoes, and tobacco.   Volcanic soil, lakes and underground streams made this land good for growing such crops.  During times when crops did not grow, there were plenty of animals in the area to hunt, such as monkeys, jaguars, iguanas, deer, turkey, wild boar, and birds.  (2, page 6-7, 10)

It is still debated what tribes formed the first civilization in Mesoamerica, although many believe it was the Olmecs, as noted in the chart above.  However, Brandon notes that there is evidence of "undoubted Maya communities as early as, or maybe earlier than, the Olmec centers.  (7, page 27)

Another debate that rages is who created the first calandar.  Many historians believe it was the Mayans, although some speculate it was the Olmec.  However, Brandon explains the calandar was more commonly used by the Maya, particularly during their classic age.  He describes the calandar this way:
The Maya calandar was in its totality a family of related calandars locked together in a gearbox of considerable complexity.  The simplest was the tzolkin, or book of the days, a ceremonial round of 260 days, eventually in use all over ancient Mesoamerica; it may have originated in the annual coming and going of Venus, or it may have been founded originally on the period from autumn through spring, since the other 105 days of the year were devoted to the planting and growing season... The 260 days of the tzolkin involved a series of twenty different day names revolving through an endlessly repeated number series of one to thirteen.  This series meshed with the haab, a solar calendar using nineteen named months (eighteen of twenty days each and one of five days); the two calendars repeated their original conjunction after revolving through 18,980 days, or fifty-two years... the calandar swallowed itself, like the two headed serpent, every 260 days and every fifty-two years, spinning out the revelation that everything comes to an end and yet is reborn, everything changes and yet remains the same, only the circle, revolving forever, remains unchanged... The sacrifice of flowers, birds, dogs, human beings -- the sacrifice, in short, of life -- was an act meant to recognize and sustain this process of the gods." (8, page 27. 48)
All of these societies believed in a vast number of gods, and they believed these gods must be kept happy in order for life to continue. They also believed that the gods must be kept happy for good health, healing, and for victory in war.  For this reason, they made human sacrifices to make sure that life continued, and to make sure of victory in war.  The Aztecs were known to make mass human sacrifices prior to wars, and they would perform them on top of the great temples, and hold the still beating hearts up high so the gods would be sure to see. Other cultures sacrificed humans as well, although various animals, insects, and even plants were also sacrificed.

Figure 3 -- North Acropolis, Tikal, Guatemala. Photo from Wikepedia.  The Maya were
among the many civilizations of Mesoamerica to "build pyramids and surround them
with courts and avenues and buildings dedicated to religion," explained William
Brandon. (8, page 44)
When these peoples went to war, they usually did so in order to obtain slaves to perform labor, and to be used for sacrifices. They usually did not go to war to obtain material possessions or to obtain land.  They went to war, and killed, out of need, not out of greed.  Although, there were occasional wars between Mayan cities, and the victors combined the various captured cities under one government, ruled by one king.  These groups of cities were called city-states (similar to ancient Mesopotamia and Greece).

Sometime around 300 B.C. the Mayans adapted a hierarchical society, whereby their was an upper class that consisted of the king and nobles (about 10% of the people), and a lower class that was ruled by the king and his nobles (about 90% of the people).  The lower class consisted of serfs and slaves who worked the land owned by the wealthy nobles.  (2)

Although, it is believed by some experts, that farming "occupied only 105 days of the year," explains William Brandon.  "The possibility must therefore be considered that some farmers may have been also practicing artists, masons, and so on, and some artists may have been farmers.  That farmers, in their off time were used only for properly low-class manual labor (dragging heavy stone about, for example, under the whips of overseers) can scarcely be made to fit the population proportions." (8, page 34)

During Mayan civilization, each city-state had its own gods and king.  The king was the mediator between the gods and the people, and so he was usually loved and adored and well respected by the people.  The Aztecs were ruled under one king, and they too loved, adored, and respected their king.  Their king was called emperor, and he was treated as a god.  Only the nobles were allowed to have contact with him, and as he traveled the land, perhaps carried by his slaves, the serfs were required by law to look at the ground, and, therefore, not to look at him.

It was the kings job to keep the gods happy, often by making human sacrifices, in order for life to continue.  Each individual could also worship the gods, although this was the main job of the king.  So, it was in this primitive and perhaps grotesque and freakish fashion that health and healing was performed by ancient societies in America.

The Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations were the first to have a system of writing in America, although the Mayans were the only civilization to have a "developed" system of writing. They used hieroglyphs (pictures representing ideas) that modern linguists continue to struggle with deciphering.  They wrote books called codices, although most that survive were written in post-Columbian times, with material dating back to 300 A.D. (3, page 140-541, 546)

Figure 3
Mayan Hieroglyphs are also found on pottery and structures, and considering most  of the codices were probably burned by the Spaniards because they contained religious content, this is probably where most of our knowledge of the Mayan culture comes from. It is from these writings historians can get a good idea of their legends, myths, religious practices, laws, and medicine.  (3, page 140-541, 546)

Like the Mayans, the Aztecs had a calendar that they wrote on using ideograms (symbols representing ideas, see figure 3), although they never developed a formal system of writing.  (3, page 547)

Their official language was called quechua, although the people spoke a variety of other languages.

The Inca built great structures to view the stars and moon, and they had a calendar, and to write on it they "did not evolve a writing system (not even pictographic representation like the Aztec) and, for recording events, they used a device, called quipa, to aid the memory of functionaries whose job was to remember the past.  (3, page 545)

The quipa, or knot record, consisted of a complicated system of tying knots in strings to produce a mnemonic record... The quipa was used primarily for recording numbers and was used to remember historical events, lists of rulers, and probably even poems and stories."  (3, page 545)

The Inca had perhaps one of the best road systems in all the ancient world, and these roads were paved and even consisted of a series of bridges over gorges in the mountains.  There were guards at various stages of the roads, and there were also boarding houses so government officials could rest for the night and eat.  They were mainly used to transfer food to the citizens, and during times of natural disasters, food, blankets and other items needed to survive.  

If local tribes tried to invade or attack the empire, the Inca simply burned the bridges and there was no way for them to get in.  The Inca were surrounded by natural barriers: The Andes Mountains, the coastal dessert, and the Amazon Jungle in the east.  They did not expand their empire into the jungle, and instead expanded it north and south.  However, they did find various fruits in the jungle, and they also found many plants and herbs to be used as natural remedies for healing (I will get to these natural remedies in a future post).  

One other thing that is interesting about them is they had a very strong central government.  According to one legend the Inca were created by the sun god Inta, and so they referred to their ruler, the emperor, as the "Sapa Inca," or the "child of the sun."  Because he was the "child of the sun" he had a close relationship with the gods, and therefore, while each person could worship the gods, the Sapa Inca had special power.  It was by his doing that the gods were kept happy, and it was mainly this belief that made him loved and respected by his people. So the people willingly worked hard for the Sapa Inca, and they even paid a tax each year to support the central government.  Since there was no money, they paid by donating hours each year to work on the roads, and build palaces for the rulers, aqueducts to control flow of water to homes, etc. (5)

Another really good incentive for the Inca populace to be respectful citizens was a harsh series of laws.  If you were caught insulting the gods, or if you committed murder, you were tossed off a cliff.  If you were caught stealing, you had your hands or feet cut off.  If you were caught stealing a second time, you were killed. If you committed a lesser crime, you were stoned.  If you survived, your new job was to sit by begging bowls which were situated by the gates to the city, and you had to tell of your crimes to anyone passing by.  If your stories were interesting they tossed food or trinkets into your bowl, and this was how you proved you did your work.  This was a major deterrent for those passing by to respect Inca laws.  (5)

These criminals did not try to escape because only government officials were allowed on the roads, and the gates of the city were heavily guarded.  If a criminal was caught escaping, he lost his life.  So in this way, even the criminals had an incentive to perform their jobs willingly.  (5)
Map of Inca lands from Wikepedia. Notice
that their territories spread north and south,
as opposed to east.  They had no interest in
living in the tropical forrests

The Inca believed health and disease were caused by the gods, and they also believed they were responsible for life continuing. They therefore celebrated one of their gods each month with music, dances, stories and sacrifices. Most sacrifices were animals, although for special events they did sacrifice humans. The Inca believed health and illness were caused by the gods, and they believed that the only way to be reborn into the next world was to die in battle, or to be sacrificed.

After the fall of the Toltec Empire the "anahuac remained desert, almost depopulated, for the space of a century until the arrival of the Chechemecas."  Like the Toltecs they were nomads until they settled in the anahuac, thus creating a civilization there, of which many kings ruled for many years. They were hunters who lived off game and fruit of land, although they were not barbarous.  They worshiped the sun, and provided sacrifices of flowers (as opposed to animals or humans) to satiate or propitiate the gods. (4, page 90)

I would love to go on and on writing about life in ancient Mesoamerica, because it is quite fascinating. However, for the sake of our asthma and respiratory therapy history,  this is the basic information we need. Also keep in mind there were various tribes who lived under the rule of the above civilizations, or as barbarians in the surrounding lands. So while this history describes some of the more prominent cultures, there were many, perhaps hundreds, more.  Some of these tribes may have had access to medicine that might benefit the asthmatic, although are probably lost to time and history.

Overall, change was slow to occur in the New World prior to the Spanish Invasion. The only change that did occur may have been self imposing, perhaps due to religious belief that some things are "supposed" to end.  The Mayan Classic Era ended without any signs of war, famine, or disease.  Many wonder why it ended, even to this day.  Brandon explains one possible theory:
Death, renewal, divination, being key factors in Maya religion, may also have been factors in the ending of the Maya Classic age.  A story was told centuries later of Maya resistance to Spanish invasion in a particular region, that the resistance ended because calendric divination said that at this point it would.  Could one factor in the departure of the Classic Maya from their shining cities have been that divination told them to go?
This is the way it was in the ancient Mesoamerican world.  Life was based on cycles, and for the cycle to continue the people must obey the will of the gods, and keep them happy.  The best way to keep them happy was by feeding them, and among the best foods was provided through sacrifice: of humans, animals, insects, birds, and even, perhaps, the entire Mayan civilization.

If you lived with asthma during this era, pretty much you were at the whims of nature and the gods. Although, as you will see in this post, there were actual healers, and there was medicine available.

References: (All these references were used in creating the chart above)
  1. Bell-Rehwoldt, Sheri, "Amazing Maya Inventions," 2006, Chicago, Nomad Press
  2. Maxwell, Harold, Sydney Selwyn, "A history of medicine," 2nd edition, 1947, U.S., Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 
  3. Prioreschi, Plinia, "A History of Medicine: Primitive and Ancient Medicine," volume I, 1991, New York, The Edwin Mellon Press
  4. Gordon, Thomas Frances, "The History of ancient Mexico, from the foundation to its destruction by the Spaniards," volume I, from the "Cabinet of American History: Mexico," volume IV,  1832, Philadelphia, printed and published by the author, 
  5. "Aztec Empire for Kids: The Awesome Aztec,", accessed 5/14/13
  6. Wilder, Alexander, "History of Mediicne: A brief outline of medical history and sects of physicians, from the earliest historic period; with an extended account of the new schools of the healing art in the nineteenth century, and especially a history of the American Eclectic practice of medicine, never before published," 1901, Maine, New England Eclectic Publishing Co.
  7. "Bering Land Bridge National Preserve,",, accessed 5/20/14
  8. Brandon, William, The rise and fall of North American Indians from prehistoric through Geronimo," 2003, Lanham, New YHork, Toronto, Oxford, Taylor Trade Publishing
  9. "Olmec Colossal Heads,",, accessed 5/23/2013. The picture is also from Wikepedia.
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