General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 21 Sep 2020/1 Monkey
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Artist’s impression of Tenochtitlan city centre

A celebration of Mesoamerican achievements and advances

Perhaps we don’t spend enough time reflecting on just how impressive the achievements of Mesoamerican (and South American) peoples prior to the Spanish invasion were. Here’s a nice summary for you! It comes from the book Trans-Pacific Echoes & Resonances; Listening Once Again by Joseph Needham and Lu Gwei-Djen (1985), in their day both eminent scholars at Cambridge University.

Artist’s impression of Aztec dam construction
Artist’s impression of Aztec dam construction (Click on image to enlarge)

‘We would want to be among the first to recognise the great artistic and liturgical [relating to public worship] sensibility of the Meso-american peoples. We salute their great achievements in architecture, especially the planning of ceremonial centres, and to a lesser extent in hydraulic engineering. They were the first masters of platinum metallurgy; and their potters invented many strange and subtle forms such as the stirrup-pots, the whistling jugs and the bifold and trifold double vessels. The hammock was their invention too.

Detail of a mural of Maya life, focusing on the gift of food, by Rina Lazo at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Detail of a mural of Maya life, focusing on the gift of food, by Rina Lazo at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

‘We recognise that the whole world is indebted to them for a plethora of botanical discoveries - rubber, cocoa and chocolate, plant-drugs such as quinine and cocaine, tobacco, and food-plants such as maize and the potato. To put it in a nutshell, the Central and South American high cultures of antiquity were entirely worthy of comparison with what the Old World had achieved by the time of the Han, the Gupta, and the Hellenistic age. The fact is that the Amerindian high cultures were a human modality of their own, and those Spaniards who came among them first would have had the sensation, if they had ever heard of such literature, of treading in a world of imaginative science fiction. But it was real, and the Amerindian achievements deserve all our sympathy and praise.’

Fine detail of the serpent’s ‘eyebrow’, part of the Mexica turquoise mosaic double-headed serpent, British Museum
Fine detail of the serpent’s ‘eyebrow’, part of the Mexica turquoise mosaic double-headed serpent, British Museum

Of course this is just a sampler: we COULD add -
terraced farming
corbelled arches
featherworking
jade work
mosaics
astronomy
calendars
canoes
dentistry
water conservation
writing systems
base 20 mathematical system
zero
medical knowledge and techniques
steam rooms
pharmacology (medication with drugs)
compulsory education
vulcanization and rubber balls
And many more besides...!

Picture sources:-
• Main: from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/tenochtitlan.htm
• Dam construction: illustration by Alberto Beltrán
• Maya mural: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Turquoise mosaic: photo courtesy of and copyright The Trustees of The British Museum.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 03rd 2020

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