November 30, 2002

Good riddance to the Aztecs

THE BLOG NAME CHANGE (from AnthroPundit) is meant to avoid confusion between what I am up to here and Adam Reed's AnthroBlog. The Ghost of a Flea refers to my favourite painting by William Blake, himself an untapped source of ethnographic wisdom.

GOOD RIDDANCE TO THE AZTECS, says Samizdata. The Royal Academy of Arts and the Mexican embassy to the United Kingdom are presenting the largest collection of Aztec artifacts ever to be displayed outside Mexico. Many of the themes to be found in both Aztec art and culture are unsettling to say the least. Is the world better off without Aztec culture?

The Aztecs, or more properly the Mexica, built a land empire through trade and conquest which dominated highland Mesoamerica prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors off the Yucatan coast in 1517 and subsequent conquest from 1519-1521. Ritual human sacrifice regularly numbering in the thousands and the practice of "flower wars" whose primary purpose was to capture people for sacrifice are the most obvious point of difference between contemporary Western values and the Aztecs. The ceremonial use of human skins as ritual garments and cannibalization of vanquished soldiers - and all those human sacrifices - only compound the difference.

Contemporary thinking about the discovery, exploration and conquest of the Americas by European kingdoms tends to emphasize the imperial and colonial legacies of war and disease to which First Nations people were subjected. This story stands in stark contrast to the heroic narratives which long served to underpin the national myths of modern states from Canada to Argentina. Re-telling the history of the last five hundred years has the advantage of emphasizing current social and political inequalities and placing in context current legal battles for control of land, resources and political freedoms. The figures of Columbus, Cortes or Champlain have become as tragic and villainous and they have been heroic. Yet this new post-colonial story-telling often suffers from the same metanarrative of the "noble savage" which underpinned colonial histories.

Romantic understandings of pre-contact First Nations imagine people living in egalitarian communities in harmony with the natural environment. This scenario may have applied to specific contexts in the Americas and today forms an ideological basis of contemporary First Nation's politics. Pre-Columbian cultures, however, were diverse and made up of populations numbering in the tens of millions. The Edenic fantasy of communitarian and ecological bliss may not be entirely a wishful projection but it falls far short of reality. That reality could be grim. It is hard to imagine industrial scale cannibalism accompanying ritual slaughter. Equally, to paint a picture of the Aztecs as nature-people submitting to the tyranny of the kingdom of Spain is to dehumanize both parties. Neither side espoused values comprehensible to the 21st century and both engaged in brutality which stands out even in contrast with our own recent history of mechanized murder. Aztec history celebrated violence and glory. Their efforts to subjugate vanquished peoples included the burning of books and exacting of tribute. The Spaniards - and more importantly smallpox - would ultimately present an insurmountable problem technologically and militarily but the act of conquest itself made perfect sense to the Aztec mentality. They were simply on the losing side.

Aztec culture lives on in the form of Mexican nationalism and mythologies which have been attached to the Mexican state. That said, I find it hard to conceive of a cultural relativism which could grieve the passing of mass human sacrifice and mass cannibalism. Good riddance.

Posted by the Flea at 05:47 PM