Retired Butte College and Chico State anthropology instructor Mike Findlay has long held a fascination with, and love of, Mesoamerica, "central southern Mexico and the northern portions of Central America, including the Yucatan Peninsula." It's the home of ancient traditions like the Maya, Olmec, Zapotec, Aztecs, and others. Now, in a new book, Findlay brings a scientist's eye to examine the long history of growth and decline of these storied cultures, from ten thousand years ago to Spanish colonization beginning in the fifteenth century.
"Cultural Traditions Of Ancient Mesoamerica" ($89.95 in paperback from Cognella Academic Publishing), by Michael Shaw Findlay, is a textbook; but its clear prose, pictures of artifacts drawn by the author, and an extensive glossary, make the book highly accessible to a general audience. It's a mostly chronological guide to cultures too often shrouded in myth.
By AD 250 in Mesoamerica "the centers of power were controlled by small cadres of elite nobility who managed state affairs and regulated trade to some extent." It was the time of what is called the "Classic period" (which lasted to around 900), and which produced "monumental architecture," writing, dynasties, and "institutionalized warfare."
What were these cultures like? Findlay brings in his own research as well as that of others from a variety of disciplines to provide a nuanced account. Religious life evidenced an interest in "spiritual sojourns": "In central Mexico and the Maya area," Findlay writes, art forms show "fantastic otherworldly scenes possibly aided by the use of psychotropic drugs (such as peyote, hallucinogenic mushrooms....)" and even "intoxicating enemas."
A cultural "collapse" came at the end of the Classic period, and Findlay unpacks the many reasons, including "cultural fatigue," before he charts the coming of the Spanish.
In the sixteenth century Aztec king Moctezuma practiced human sacrifices of those captured in war "to maintain the cycles of the sun." Findlay observes that "If we are going to judge the ancient Aztecs ... for their 'inhumane' behavior, we must be willing to also look closer to home to find analogous practices" in which nation-states demand sacrifices of their own citizens.
Just like the avocado (which originated in Mesoamerica), this is food for thought.