Fun Facts: Pre-Columbian America
"To us the Aztec universe may appear irrational, terrifying, murderous in its brutality; and yet it is a mirror held up to our humanity which we ignore at our cost. For in the name of other ideals and
other gods Western culture has been no less addicted to killing, even in our own century."
In the Pampa Colorada (Red Plain) in the Peruvian Desert,
there are large line-drawings
of geometric shapes, animals and plants on the desert soil.
These drawings are known as the Nazca lines. These were likely
drawn by the Nazca Indians approximately 2,000 years ago.
These figures are only fully comprehensible from the air. In fact, in
1937, before flight was commonplace, a highway was constructed through
the Nazca lines, as no-one was yet aware of the lines' significance.
It is unknown how the drawers achieved such geometrical precision
in their art, or why they would draw figures that they could not view.
The Nazca lines in Peru are not the only pre-Columbian drawings only visible
from the sky to be found in North America. In the southeastern California
desert near Blythe is a 167-foot-long figure of a man. Other figures were
visible before World War II, until Blythe was used as a military training area
and tanks and other vehicles obliterated many of them. Dating methods have
dated the figures to around the year 900, give or take 100 years. Interestingly
enough, one of the remaining figures appears to look like a horse, but the
horse was not present in North America around that time.
The name Inca originally did not refer to a race or a nation.
When Francisco Pizarro came to South America in 1532,
Inca meant "king" or "ruler".
In terms of volume, the largest pyramid in the world is in Mexico, not Egypt.
Called the Cholula Pyramid (sometimes referred to as Quetzalcoatl), it was
built around the year 100 at what is now Cholula de Rivadahia (near Puebla) from sun-dried brick and earth. Although only
177 feet high,
less than 40% of the height of Egypt's Great Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu) at Giza, it
covers an area of 39.5 acres. In contrast, the Great Pyramid is
480 feet high but covers an area of only 13 acres.
It has been estimated that the Mexican
pyramid has a volume of 4,300,000 cubic yards as compared with the Great
Pyramid's 3,360,000 cubic yards.
According to some interpretations of the Mayan "long count" linear calendar, the end of the world was to have happened in 2012.
The number 10 is used as a convenient base to count with, but the
Gauls of ancient France, the Mayas of Central America, and other
peoples used a base of 20. The Sumerians, the Babylonians, and
others after them used a base of 60—convenient because 60 can be
evenly divided by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30. The use
of base 60 survives in the division of hours into minutes and minutes into
seconds, and the division of the circle into 360 (60 × 6) degrees.
The Toltecs, a 7th century people who lived in what is
now Mexico, used wooden swords when going to war so as not to harm
Having lasted for six centuries, the civilisation known as Classic Mayan
culture collapsed abruptly in the ninth century, for reasons still not yet
understood. Several theories have been proposed, such as an epidemic,
natural disaster, civil war, invasion, poor farming methods leading to
exhaustion of the land, or climate change resulting from clear-cutting.
The collapse occurred quite quickly. Within about a century, inscriptions
ceased to be carved at every Mayan city, and the Mayan population decreased
by about 2/3 over the span of a century.
The ancient Mayan calendar was more accurate than the
modern Gregorian calendar. While the Gregorian calendar gains
three days in 10,000 years, the Mayan calendar loses only two days
every 10,000 years.
Some Mayan medical knowledge may be superior to that of
conventional western medicine.
For example, the Mayan herb used to treat athlete's foot
can kill the bacteria completely, while the modern medicine
reduces the discomfort and reduces the bacteria count.
In Mesoamerica, where there were no draught animals, slaves were often used as porters.
The sole surviving written record of Mayan history is three codices
written in hieroglyphs on bark paper. All three are now
held in European cities.
In 1541, in the city of Mani on the
Yucatan Peninsula, the Franciscan monk Diego de Landa burned
the books of the Maya, and so permanently destroyed the priceless record
of a great civilisation. De Landa seems to have later realised his crime
and spent the rest of his life collecting accounts of the
Mayan civilisation from survivors. However, it was not
for another four centuries that Mayan hieroglyphs were deciphered,
based on de Landa's work but with the insight that each character
represents a syllable, not a letter.
The Vikings established a colony on the southwestern coast of
Greenland that lasted around four centuries, from 982 to nearly 1400.
The colonists routinely sailed to North America to get wood, as there
were no trees on Greenland, long before Columbus "discovered"
America. In the late 1300s, the Black Death ravaged the colony,
Eskimos attacked, and the climate grew colder, and the colonists
finally either died out or left.
Viking graves have turned up artifacts from as far away as North America
and India, demonstrating the extent of their trading networks.
When Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) was invaded
by Cortez in 1519, it was a flower-covered, whitewashed city five
times as large as London was at the time.
The Incas, experts at organisation and engineering, did not have
wheels, arches, or writing. At the height of their power, before
the Spanish conquest in 1532, the Incas ruled the entire area in South
America from Quito, Ecuador, to the Rio Maule, Chile. Their empire
was centred at Cuzco, Peru.
The Inca had no iron prior to the Spanish conquests in South America.
However, they had a relatively large quantity of gold, so they used it
not just for decoration but also for everyday objects like nails, combs,
eating utensils, and eyebrow tweezers.
The Vikings founded a settlement in North America almost 500 years
before Columbus "discovered" the New World. In the year 1000, Leif
son of Eric the Red, sailed from Greenland on an epic
westward voyage that took him past "Helluland" (likely Baffin
Island) and "Markland" (likely Labrador) to a land called "Vinland"
(modern-day Newfoundland). The Vikings later founded a
colony on Vinland, near what is now the fishing village of
L'anse-aux-Meadows. However, the Vikings soon discovered that the
lands were already inhabited by "Skraelings" (likely Inuit), who
were often hostile. After a few years, the first European colony
in the New World was abandoned and the colonists sailed home.
On November 8, 1898, Olof Ohmann found a slab of rock weighing 202 pounds
entwined in the roots of a 40-year-old poplar while clearing a field in
Kensington, Minnesota. While controversy exists about the authenticity of
the stone, it appears to contain a runic text, written in authentic 14th-century
Swedish, describing an expedition of Gotlanders and Norseman to this part of
Much has been said about the value of Incan gold, but one of the
great legacies of the Incas was food plants. The potato, the pumpkin,
and the pineapple came from South America and spread through the
world. Coca, the source of cocaine, and cinchona, the source of
quinine, are also gifts of Peruvian civilisation to mankind.
Americans who chew gum are partly responsible for the development
of Mayan studies. Workers entering the jungle to collect chickle,
the sap of the sapodilla tree from which chewing gum is made, have
stumbled on numerous vegetation-covered ruins and returned to alert
The Spanish inquisitor Torquemada once wrote that, during Montezuma's reign
over the Aztecs, Alonzo de Ojeda was intrigued by a pile of bulging sacks in
an inconspicuous corner of the palace. Thinking that it might contain gold
dust, he opened it, only to find that it contained lice instead. When the boy
questioned the royal advisers, he was told that the poorest Aztec peasants had
no gold to offer the king, and so collected the lice they removed from their
bodies and set them aside. Once they had enough for a respectable offering,
they filled a bag with them and offered it to their emperor.
Inca stonework is characterized by the use of very large stones, some larger
than 100 tons, that are fitted together without mortar so precisely that a knife
blade cannot be inserted between the joints. It is still not know for certain
how the Incas transported the large stones used in some of their stonework.
The Incas built a stone wall over 150 miles long in modern-day Bolivia.
Called the Great Wall
of the Incas, this wall was built at altitudes of 8,000 to 12,000 feet in
very rugged terrain.
The Royal Road of the Incas, built in the 15th century, is
the oldest road in the Americas still in use. It is around 3,600 kilometres
long, running from Quito, Ecuador to Cuzco, Peru. There are two different
routes: One mountainous and one coastal.
When the Spanish conquistadors first reached Peru, centre of the Inca
empire, the Peruvian Indians felt the Spanish horses to be ferocious and deadly
monsters, there being no horses native to the Americas. Through an
interpreter, they asked the Spanish cavalrymen what these animals ate.
In response, the Spaniards, pointing to the gold jewellery and ornaments
of the Peruvians, said, "They eat those things of yellow metal. They are
hungry now but do not wish to be seen eating. Leave the food in front of
them and go away." The Indians gathered some gold objects for the horses.
After they had left, the Spanish pocketed the gold, and then, calling back
the Indians, told them that the horses were still hungry and needed more food.