Latin American Civilization: History and Society, 1492 to the Present

By Benjamin Keen | Go to book overview

1
ANCIENT AMERICA

LATIN AMERICAN colonial society, and Spanish American colonial society in particular, was shaped largely by the interaction of Hispanic (Spanish and Portuguese) invaders with the Indian peoples who had inhabited the American continents for many thousands of years. The Indians usually responded to the arrival of European invaders with armed resistance. After the European conquest, the Indians continued to resist with a variety of strategies: revolts, flight, riots, sabotage, and sometimes even the use of their masters' legal codes for purposes of defense and offense. Thanks to this unyielding spirit, and despite immense loss of life and inestimable suffering, the Indian communities in key areas of Latin America survived the storm of conquest and colonial oppression with their cultural identity largely intact. However, the Hispanic-Indian interaction did lead to some acculturation on the part of the Indians. This took the form of a more or less nominal acceptance of Christianity and a more willing acceptance of European tools, work animals, crafts, foods, and other material elements. Resistance to Hispanic rule, however, characterized Indian-Hispanic relations in general and was a major source of tension in colonial life.

Indian culture and the ways in which the Indians responded to the Hispanic invaders were shaped by their own long history on these continents. The Indians arrived from Asia by way of the Bering Strait no less than forty thousand years ago and in the course of time spread over both the American continents and eventually developed a wide range of cultural types, ranging from nomadic groups of hunters and food gatherers to the elaborate empires of the Aztecs and the Inca and the culturally advanced Mayan states. These three civilizations had certain features in common. All three were based on intensive farming that made possible the development of a large sedentary population and considerable division of labor. These civilizations, however, also evolved along distinctive lines. Mayan culture was distinguished by impressive achievements in writing, calendrical science, mathematics, and architecture. The Aztecs were mighty warriors, and a distinctive feature of

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