City Minutes: Indigenous America

The history of Teotihuacan is an elegant showcase
in the strategic benefit of burying your neighbors under a volcano. Let me explain: a couple centuries before
the BC-AD switcheroo, ancient Mesoamericans in the Valley of Mexico were building themselves
a city. We’re not exactly sure who, as the city
received waves of migrating people, particularly after the nearby metropolis of Cuicuilco got
utterly slathered in lava, and thus a hefty handful of folks hopped over to the ever-growing
city of Teotihuacan. Following centuries saw their influence expand
across Mesoamerica and even engage with the classical Maya. And that imperial feat was matched by the
splendor of the city. Teotihuacan was meticulously gridded, with
even the river reshaped to fit. The central avenue was lined with the Pyramid
of the Moon, and later the Pyramids of the Feathered Serpent and of the Sun. These colossal monuments were originally painted
maroon, but now they compensate by giving a sunburn to tourists who climb it, just ask
Red. The sculpturework on the temples is absolutely
exquisite, and Teotihuacan became a center of culture in addition to a political and
mercantile capital. In an impressive boast, the city had no fortifications,
and it’s good they saved on stonework, because their collapse in the mid-millennium was caused
by internal upheaval. Bit of bad luck, but otherwise a pretty great
run. Meanwhile, the influence of Teotihuacan might
be best observed somewhere entirely different: several hundred miles to the east, in the
Maya heartland of the Yucatan Peninsula. For the Maya, city-building was as competitive
a sport as their iconic ballgame. While they had been in the urbanization business
since the 6 or 700s BC, the Maya hit their stride after the second century AD, with the
growth of cities like Tikal. Despite centuries of constant contest with
their neighbors in Calakmul, Tikal’s biggest geopolitical swerve came from far-off Teotihuacan,
who deposed the Maya rulers in 378 and installed their own. While this had every reason to go quite badly,
Tikal gained immensely from their new ties to Mesoamerica’s grandest city, with new
art and architecture styles imported from the west. Tikal’s own dominions also expanded, but
it meant even fiercer and more constant conflict with Calakmul. They took turns trashing each other in battle,
while, in the middle of all that, Tikal propped up some gorgeous temples. The stepped pyramid is just such a look. Unfortunately for Tikal, droughts, crop failure,
and overpopulation forced the Maya to head north for the coast and abandon their inland
cities, leaving the jungle as Tikal’s only company. A few centuries later, back in the Valley
of Mexico, a local lake is about to become a very big deal. Legend has it that in 1325, the wandering
Mexica people saw a divine omen commanding them to build their new city right in the
middle of Lake Texcoco. So with no time to lose they got to making
islands to live on and wrestling the swampland into a tidy canal-system to water the city’s
gardens. In the following decades, the Mexica created
the Aztec empire and expanded across Mesoamerica from their sparkling capital of Tenochtitlan. The only way to build a city in a lake is
carefully, so the Aztec metropolis grew in stages (usually in response to flooding) over
the 13 and 1400s, and in 1473 they absorbed the neighboring merchant city of Tlatelolco. So by the end of their second century, they
had mondo pyramids and palaces plus sprawling building complexes housing all manner of tradesmen
and local artisans. The city was so magnificent that the Spanish
Conquistadors almost felt bad about destroying it. Yet, in 1520 they overstayed their warm welcome
from the Aztec King Motecuzoma by killing him, burning his city, and overthrowing his
empire. Stay classy, Cortes. Unfortunately, this was a trend, as Señor
Pizarro had a similar experience in conquering the Inca. But first let’s rewind: 2 miles high in
the mountains of south America around the twelfth century, the Inca people founded the
city of Cusco. Originally a quiet city state in the middle
of the Andes, the Inca grew into a vast and extremely mountainous empire during the 1400s,
with Cusco fixed in the center of not just the Inca, but of the entire universe, and
they brought the math to back it up. The city was symbolically built in the shape
of a sacred puma, at the heart of which lay the central temple complex that divided the
empire into its four quadrants. From that central temple, 42 ritual pathways
fanned out and passed through over 300 natural shrines in the surrounding mountains. Sacred springs, caves, and rocks all aligned
with the center of Cusco, and might’ve served as an astronomical clock superimposed into
the landscape itself. The buildings were no slouch either, as Inca
architects cut their stones geometrically to fit together without mortar, often inventing
some pretty bonkers polygons to make it happen. Although the empire was toppled and the city
got sacked by Spaniards in 1535, some Inca stonework mercifully remains as the foundations
of colonial buildings and the city’s Spanish Cathedral. Geometricians WISH they have what Cusco had. Though indigenous American cultures are tragically
underrepresented in World History thanks in part to some liberal interpretations of what
materials are best to kindle a fire — Hint: it was not the royal library of Tenochtitlan
— their cities tell an extraordinary story all by themselves. The temples and palaces and surprising number
of grid plans are already masterful feats of engineering, but what I find most dazzling
about them is the almost deliberately-baffling choices of landscaping. Teotihuacan in a valley ringed by volcanos,
Tikal is on an exposed limestone peninsula in the jungle, Tenochtitlan was built in the
middle of a lake for funsies, and Cusco is up in the mountains with an astronomical front-row
seat to all of space. Each of these places pushes the boundaries
for where cities can thrive, what they can become, and, in the case of the last two,
how tragically they can be cut short. God those Conquistadors, just “gold gold
gold”, no taste in urban design. Thank you so much for watching. For all my incredibly well-documented love
of the cities of the Eastern Hemisphere, it’s borderline criminal to overlook the absolute
A-Game happening in Native American cities, so I hope this video showed you something
you might not have expected. This video was made in celebration of Indigenous
People’s Day, and if you would like to learn more about pre-Columbian myths and history,
we’ve got links to our other videos in the description below.
Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEjt_0B0jn0

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