The Legacy of the Great Civilizations
By 1521, the mighty Aztec empire had fallen to the Spanish conqueror, or conquistador, Hernando Cortés. The destruction of the great Inca empire in Peru, twelve years after the similar fate of the Aztecs, brought to an effective end nearly 3,000 years of indigenous civilization in America. Although the Maya were able to preserve their own ways for a while because they were not unified in one state and were hard to suppress in the Yucatán jungle, by 1550 they were subdued and placed under the control of the Spanish king.
Unfortunately, the Spanish, in their hunger for gold and silver, destroyed these cultures with an unprecedented thoroughness. The result is that there is relatively little to show now for these rich cultures and their highly skilled crafts.
The Aztecs of central Mexico developed a writing and counting system based on pictographs in which each picture represented an object or the sound of a syllable. The Aztecs wrote using symbols. Thus the idea of death would be represented by a corpse wrapped for burial, night by a black sky and a closed eye, war by a shield and a club, or speech by a little scroll issuing from the mouth of the person who is talking. The Aztecs system of counting was based upon increments of twenties, as opposed to the modern system of counting by tens. Their counting system was based on the number twenty, in which one picture represented twenty items, another 20 × 20 (= 400) items, and so on. Archaeologists have learned to decode some of their writings, which describe historical events.
Another contribution the Aztecs made to the world was their role in helping to introduce the use and cultivation of the cacao bean, which comes from an evergreen tropical tree. The seed of the cacao tree is used in making chocolate, cocoa, and cocoa butter. In addition, cacao beans were commonly used as currency in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. In some areas, such as Yucatán, they were still used in place of small coins as late as the 1840s. Cacao appears to have originated in the Amazon basin about 4,000 years ago.
Mayan settlement was extensive in the Yucatán Peninsula and stretched southward into Central America. The Maya were highly skilled mathematicians, astronomers, artists, and architects. They developed a calendar system based on 365 days using the observations of Earth's relationship to the sun. They kept track of the solar and lunar years and the cycles of the visible planets. They determined the spring planting and fall harvest time from their observations of Earth's rotation around the sun.
The Mayan symbol is the earliest known use of a zero placeholder. It is the Mayan equivalent of the Arabic zero (0), and it allowed the Maya the ability to distinguish between numbers like 23 and 203.
Incan contributions to future societies incorporated the technology necessary to build thousands of miles of roads throughout the South American rain forests. Agricultural contributions such as the use of terrace farming are still used today in mountainous areas. Terrace farming creates flat strips in the sides of hilly terrain and tiers the strips with rock walls. Medical advances of the Incan society included the performance of surgery and the use of herbal remedies to treat different illnesses.