Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Native American inventions and discoveries

There are lots of outstanding discoveries that are attributed to the Aztecs, Mayas, Incas, and Olmecs.

  • Abacus: The Aztec invented an abacus, called a nepohualtzizin, that used dry corn kernels as counters to calculate transactions in the marketplace. The Inca calculated using a counting board with compartments.

  • Camouflage: When Indian hunters throughout the Americas stalked game, they often wore hides of the animals they sought. Frequently they painted their faces. Hunters of California and the Great Basin built blinds in which they could hide when they hunted birds. Using camouflage during hunting and warfare was a practice in North America, Mesoamerica, and South America.

  • Astronomical Observatories: Indians of South America and Mesoamerica built structures from which to observe astronomical-events. Archaeologists found that the windows of these buildings were aligned precisely to the rising and setting of the sun and Venus during certain times of the year.

  • Chewing Gum: The Aztec chewed chicle, the latex from the sapodilla tree. North American Indians chewed sweet gum and licorice root. They taught New England colonists to chew spruce sap, which became the first commercially sold chewing gum in the United States. Chicle was used as a base for modern chewing gum.

  • Books: The Toltec, the first people of the Americas to write books, did so in about A.D. 660. Later, the Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya also created books. Some Mesoamerican books contained histories, genealogies, and financial accounts. Others focused on astronomy and religion.

  • Geometry: South American people used their working knowledge of plane and solid geometry to build pyramids in about 3000 B.C., well before the Egyptians built their pyramids. Many North American tribes used geometry to plan buildings and create art.

  • Compulsory Education: Young people in the Aztec Empire were required to attend schools, starting when they were ten. Children who were not part of the ruling class learned music and etiquette. Children of nobility also learned how to be leaders.

  • Trephination (Brain Surgery): As did ancient healers in other parts of the world, some groups of Indians practiced trephination, drilling holes into patients' skulls to relieve pressure on the brain. Indians were more successful at it than their European counterparts. More than half of their patients survived, according to archaeologists. European trepanners had only a 10 percent success rate.

  • Prescriptions: Over the centuries, groups of Indians throughout the Americas developed standard treatments for illnesses. The Anishinabe used pictograms to write prescriptions on strips of bark. Anesthetics: Starting in about 1000 B.C., Native healers used anesthetics from medicinal plants, including coca, peyote, and datura to ease aches and pains. They also used anesthetics to cause patients to lose consciousness during surgery.

  • Syringes: Some pre-contact North American Indian healers administered medicine beneath the skin with hypodermic syringes that they made from hollow bird bones and small animal bladders. European physicians did not use hypodermic syringes until 1853.

  • Asepsis: Indians cleaned wounds and incisions with water that they had sterilized by boiling it. Operating under sterile conditions and keeping wounds clean and bacteria-free did not become part of Western medicine until the early 1900s.

  • Public Health: the Aztec believed that community cleanliness affected health and had street cleaners regularly sweep the streets. The Aztec Empire also established public hospitals, staffed with doctors, nurses, and pharmacists, in their large cities. Quarantine and Isolation: Indians of the Americas often isolated people who were ill with contagious illnesses in a separate dwelling where they would not come in contact with other tribal members. Isolation to prevent the spread of the disease did not become a routine practice in Western hospitals until the 1900s.

  • Holistic Medicine: Native healers addressed the psychological and spiritual needs of their patients along with the physical needs. The Iroquois are known for their sophisticated understanding of how the mind can affect the body and cause illness.

  • Dental Inlays (tooth fillings): The Maya drilled teeth and filled them with inlays of jade and turquoise as well as gold. Although most inlays were done as a fashion statement, Maya dentists occasionally drilled and filled cavities caused by decay.

  • Toothbrushing: To prevent tooth decay, Indians of North Amrica cleaned their teeth with the frayed end of a stick. The Aztec polished their teeth with salt and charcoal.

  • Anatomical Knowledge: Aztec physicians understood the structure and functions of the human body, including the circulatory system, long before European doctors possessed this knowledge. Antibiotics: Pre-contact indigenous peoples used plants containing bacteria-killing substances to prevent infections. Makah of the Northwest yused yarrow and tribes of the Northeast used cranberries. The Aztec used sap from the maguey plant and salt.

  • Cataract Removal: Aztec surgeons were skilled at removing cataracts from patients' eyes. They used scalpels made from obsidian for surgery because they were sharper than metal knives (a process that is being re-adopted in hospitals today).

  • Surgery: Indians of the Americas performed complex surgeries. For example, Mesquaki healers drained fluid from between the lungs and the chest by carefully puncturing the chest. To close incisions, many Indian healers used human hair as a suture.

  • Hemostats: Indigenous healers throughout the Americas used plant medications, called hemostats, to slow or stop the flow of blood from wounds and incisions. The Chicasaw used alum, which works by constricting blood vessels.

  • Beans: Indians of the Valley of Mexico domesticated beans between 5200 and 3400 B.C. South American Indians also domesticated beans. The only beans that American Indian farmers weren't the first to grow are garbanzo adzuki,and mung beans.

  • Popcorn: by saving seeds from parent plants with desired characteristics and planting them, Indians developed many varieties of corn, including one that popped when it was heated. One way Indians popped corn was by pushing a stick through a cob of dried corn and holding it in a fire. The Moche of South America invented pottery popcorn poppers.

  • Herb Gardens: In addition to planting fields with food crops, Indians planted gardens filled with medicinal plants. By domesticating these herbs, they made certain that these important sources of medicine would be available when they were needed.

  • Peppers: Sweet (bell) peppers and chili peppers were some of the first crops Indian farmers in the Valley of Mexico domesticated. These first farmers bred dozens of types of chilies, ranging from mild to fiery hot.

  • Corn Syrup: Indians of Mesoamerica and the Northeast sweetened their food with corn syrup that they made from corn stalks. Today corn syrup is made from corn kernels and is an ingredient in many prepared foods. Potato Chips: George Crum, a Mohawk cook at a Saratoga Springs, N.Y. resort, is credited with inventing the potato chip. After railroad mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt sent his fried potatoes back to the kitchen, complaining that they were too thick, Crum retaliated with paper-thin slices.

  • Freeze-Drying: The Inca invented freeze-drying. They froze potatoes at high altitudes so that the moisture they contained would vaporize. The freeze-dried potatoes remained edible for several years. Spaniards provisioned their ships with freeze-dried potatoes, and Spanish speculators made fortunes on this commodity.

  • Instant Foods: Maya cooks ground parched beans into a powder that they reconstituted with water to make refried beans. The Inca added water to freeze-dried potato flour to make the world's first instant mashed potatoes.

  • Peanuts: native to the Caribbean, peanuts were domesticated by the Arawak people sometime before 3000 B.C. Indians living on the northeast coast of South America and the southeastern part of North America also raised peanuts. Spanish explorers refused to eat the nuts because they did not like the way they tasted, but iomported them to West Africa, where they became a dietary staple.

  • Maple Syrup: The Anishinabe and other tribes of the Northeast collected sap from sugar maple trees and made it into syrup by dropping red-hot rocks into bark containers filled with sap. They also made maple sugar. Pumpkins: Indigenous peoples started domesticating this variety of squash about 10,000 years ago. english colonists quickly came to appreciate pumpkins and used them to make pumpkin pudding, which eventually became pumpkin pie.

  • Tomatoes: Indians in what are now Mexico and Peru first domesticated tomatoes as early as A.D. 700. Later, the Aztec combined them with chilies to make what the Spanish would later call salsa.

  • Blue-Green Algae (Spirulina): The Aztec harvested blue-green algae from lakes and dried it. algae, which contains 70 percent protein, was a staple in their diet. Today it is sold in health food stores.

  • Chocolate: In about A.D. 1, the Maya were the first to make chocolate from cacao beans, inventing a four-step chemical proces to remove much of the bitterness from the beans.

  • Cotton: Cotton was independently domesticated by the people of Meso- and South america between 3500 and 2300 B.C. Much of the cotton that is grown today is a cross between Egyptian cotton and American Indian cotton. Tobacco: Starting in about A.D. 1, Indians of the Americas began growing tobacco. By 1492 it was grown from Canada to the Amazon and in parts of what is now Peru. They did not consider it a recreational drug; for the most part, people smoked tobacco during ceremonies.

  • Aloe Vera: Indians of the Southwest were the first to use the sap of the American aloe to treat chapped lips and skin rashes. Today American aloe is grown commercially to produce aloe vera, a popular remedy. Botanical Gardens: Aztec rulers ordered the planting of elaborate gardens that contained local plants as well as those imported from hundreds of miles away. The gardens served as laboratories for the study of medicinal plants.

  • Black Walnuts: Indian cooks of the Northeast used black walnut oil in corn pudding. Plains cooks ground the nuts and used then for soup.

  • Strawberries: Indian people of the Northeast gathered strawberries and made a pudding-like bread from cornmeal and berries. European colonists borrowed the idea and turned it into strawberry shortcake.

  • Potatoes: Native peoples of the Andes began domesticating the potato in about 8000 B.C. By Pizarro's arrival in A.D. 1531, they had developed approximately 3,000 types, including white potatoes and sweet potatoes.

  • Shampoo: Balsam is one of the plants that pre-contact Indians used as shampoo, and it has become an ingredient in commercial shampoos that are sold today. Indigenous people of the Southwest used jojoba as hair conditioner.

  • Plumbing: The Olmec built stone channels to bring water to their citries between 1700 and 400 B.C. Much later, the Aztec did the same. The Inca used copper pipes to carry hot and cold water into their bathhouses.

  • Latex: The Olmec, called the "Rubber People" by neighboring tribes, gathered latex from trees and used it to make balls and rubber bulb syringes. Some pre-contact people of Mesoamerica applied rubber to clothing to make it repel water, and they waterproofed the soles of their sandals.

  • Deodorants: The Aztec used copal and American balsam to neutralize body odor. Indians of the Great Plains stored sweetgrass with their clothing.

  • Sunscreens: Northeastern tribes used sunflower oil as protection against sun and windburn. The Zuni of the Southwest used a mixture of western wallflower and water. Other Southwestern tribes protected against sunburn with aloe vera.

  • Daily Bathing: American Indians bathed on a daily basis whenever possible. North american and Mesoamerican Indians bathed in sweat baths or lodges. Hot springs and steams wer other favored bathing places. Europeans, who were forbidden by the Church to bathe, did not practice daily bathing until the 1900s.

  • Detergents: Indians throughout the Americas used plants that contained saponins, chemicals that lift soil from a surface so that it can be more easily rinsewd away. Natives of the Southwest used roasted yucca roots as a laundry detergent, shampoo, and a body wash.

  • Fishhooks: Between 5000 and 4000 B.C., indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes made the first metal fishooks in the Americas and perhaps the world. Other groups of Indian fishers carved hooks from antler, bone, or wood. Early South American fishers made hooks from shells and from plant spines.

  • Copper Metallurgy: Paleo-Indians who lived in the northern Great Lakes region first dug shallow pits to mine copper from the south shore of Lake Superior and parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota in about 5000 B.C. They used copper to make awls, knives, needles, fishhooks, and beads.

  • Soldering: Indian metallurgists of the Andes discovered how to solder pieces of gold together with copper, salt and resin.

  • Annealing: Paleo-Indians of the Great Lakes were the first people in the Americas to discover that heating and slowly cooling metal makes it stronger and easier to shape. Some archaeologiests believe they were the first metal-workers in the world to discover annealing.

  • Colanders: Mesoamerican Indians made holes in large gourds. They used them to drain corn that they had soaked in lime water (calcium hydroxide) in order to make hominy.

  • Vulcanization: In its raw state, rubber latex is not useful. The Olmec learned that if they held latex over a smoking fire to cure it, the resulting rubgber would retain its shape in hot weather. The process they used is similar to vulcanization, which was independently invented by Charles Goodyear in 1844.

  • Mouthwash: North American Indians used mouthwash in order to keep their breath fresh and to treat mouth and gum problems. In the Northeast, many tribes used gold thread, a plant that contains substances that ease mouth pain. Some used it as a teething lotion. The Aztec used salt-water mouth rinses and gargles.

  • Needles: Paleo-Indians living in what is now Washington State invented the first bone needle with an eye in about 8000 B.C. Indigenous people of the Andes made copper needles with eyes between A.D. 800 and 1100 for a type of knitting that they did with one needle. Suspension Bridges: The Inca built suspension bridges hung from thick ropes in the A.D. 1300s. The largest ones were about 150 feet long. The entire Inca road system had over 40 large bridges and more than 100 smaller ones.

  • Oil Wells (Petroleum): Indians were the first people to discover oil in what is now Pennsylvania. They did so long before William Drake, who is often credited with digging the first U.S. oil well). Indian people dug 15- to 20-foot deep pits and used the oil that collected there for skin lotion and to fuel ceremonial fires.

  • Ecology: The understanding that all living organisms and their environment are related is anciet in the Americas. Unlike Europeans, who believed they had a religous mandate to dominate the earth and its creatures, American Indians generally believe that humans were in equal partnership with land, water, sky, plants, and animals.

  • Cedar Shingles and Siding: Native builders of the Northwest used moisture-resistant western red cedar to roof and side their homes. Modern builders continue to use cedar for the same reason.

  • Adobe: Throughout the Americas, Indians used adobe, a mixture of clay and water, as a building material. ancient builders of the Southwest used it to create adobe aparment complexes. Today adobe remains an important part of Southwestern architectural style.

  • Gold Plating: ancient metalworkers of South America invented gold electroplating that used chemicals between 200 B.C. and A.D. 600. Europeans did not independently invent electroplating until the early 1800s.

  • Metal Foil: ancient metalworkers of the Andes Mountains were the first peoples in the Western Hemisphere to make gold foil, between 1900 B.C. and 1400 B.C. Knowledge of the process was lost unti about 200 B.C., when the Chauvin, who lived on the northern coast of what is now Peru, began making copper foil and electoplating it with gold.

  • Concrete: Between 300 B.C. and A.D. 300, the Maya discoverted how to make concrete. They used a mixture of lime (calcium oxide), clay, water, sand, and crushed rock to surface roads and buildings.

  • Asphalt: The Chumash of California used asphalt, which they collected from what are now the La Brea tar pits, to waterproof baskets and to caulk their boats. They also traded it. Soil Rotation: Native farmers kew that nutrients in the soil were depleted with constant use. After a field had been planted with crops for a few growing seasons, they abandoned it and cleared land for another field. Allowing land to lie fallow would later be encouraged by the U.S. Department of Agricuture, beginning with the Soil Bank Program in 1956.

  • Fertilizer: Northeastern Indians used fish to fertilize their crops, which they planted in hills rather than in rows as Europeans did. The Inca transported bird droppings from islands off their coastline to enrich their fields. Guano, which is high in nitrogen and phosphorous, is used by organic farmers today.

  • Irrigation: Before A.D. 300, Hohokam farmers of the Southwest began to establish a network of irrigation canals in the Arizona desert that eventually extended to more than 150 miles. Some of these canals are 30 feet wide and 10 feet deep. The city of Phoenix still uses some sncient Hohokam canals for irrigation today.

  • Carpentry Techniques: Northwest indians, who wer master carpenters, began building wooden homes at least 5,000 years ago. Their toolboxes contained mussel-shell knives, stone drills, grinding stones, and fine shark-skin "sandpaper." The Haida used mortise and tenon joints to join the beams of their wooden homes.

  • Forest Management: North American Indians regularly burned underbrush from the forests where they hunted. This created parklike areas with large trees. The U.S. Forest Service has adopted controlled burning to reduce the risk of large forest fires.

  • Stonemasonary Techniques: The Inca are considered to be the most skilled stoneworkers of the pre-contact Americas. They carved huge stone blocks into polygons and set them so precisely that it is impossible to push a razor blade into the space between the blocks today.

  • Sunflowers: American Indians domesticated and raised sunflowers for the high nutritional content of the seeds. After the Hidatsa of the Plains harvested the seeds, they parched them, ground them, and shaped them into balls. Sunflower seeds are a popular snack today.

  • Zucchini: Although zucchini, a type of summer squash, has an Italian name, it was domesticated by Indian farmers along with other squash in the Valley of Mexico. Indigenous farmers of the Northeast considered squash one of the "three sisters," along with corn and beans. They planted these three crops together in small hills. Together, the three sisters provide a balanced diet. Vanilla: Vanilla was first developed by indigenous people of what is now Vera Cruz, Mexico. They developed a complex process for turning the pods of the vanilla orchid into the flavoring that is popular throughout the world today. They kept the process a secret for hundreds of years after the Spanish arrived.

  • Avocados: Native farmers in the Valley of Mexico first domesticated avocados between 3400 and 2300 B.C. Much later, Spanish priests banned the trees from mission gardens because they thought, based on the fruit's appearance, that avocados were an aphrodisiac.

  • Pineapples: Ancient farmers in what is now Brazil domesticated pineapples. The fruit was eventually cultivated by Native peoples in other parts of South America and in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean.

  • Blueberries: North American Indians ate fresh and dried blueberries. Most blueberries sold in grocery stores today were domesticated from North American wild blueberries - the same type of blueberries that North American Indians gathered.

  • Cashews: Rainforest Indians used cashews for food and medicine. They built houses from cashew wood, which contains natural insect repellent. Today cashews are eaten throughout the world.

  • Straight Pins: Indians who lived in what is now Florida betwen 5000 and 3000 B.C. made straight pins from bone. Chauvin metalworkers of South America made silver straight pins with golden heads between 900 and 200 B.C.

  • Parkas: The Inuit invented the hooded parka as an outer garment made from animal skins. Today people throughout the world wear parkas made from many materials. Hammocks: Indians of the Circum-Caribbean and Amazon Basin knottred hammocks from cotton twine. Europeans borrowed the idea for their naval and merchant ships. Ponchos: The Mapuche of what are now Chile and Argentina invented the poncho, a simple jacket with unsewn sides. Spaniards adopted this garment. Because the poncho was practical for an equestrian lifestyle, the gauchos of the Pampas wore it to herd cattle. Today ponchos are popular casual wear in many countries.

  • Weaving Techniques: The Anasazi people of the Southwest wove blankets on large upright looms. Pueblo people continued this tradition. When some Pueblo people lived among the Navajo to escape the Spaniards, they taught the Navajo how to weave blankets. Navajo rugs and blankets are collected throughout the world today.

  • Briquettes: From about 600 B.C. to A.D. 200, indigenous cooks in what is now Louisiana and florida cooked with dried clay briquettes. They placed as many as 200 into a fire until they were red hot and then transferred them to a roasting pit.

  • Umbrellas: The Maya invented unmbrellas - made from feathers - to protect themselves from the sun.

  • Calendars: Mesoamerican astronomers used their observational skills to calculate a year's length with an accuracy of 19 minutes. They did this without telescopes or fractions. The Inca of South America developed a calendar as well.

  • Disability Rights: The Inca had formal laws to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities would be met. They were given food, clothing, and shelter as well as jobs, such as shelling corn by the blind.

  • Flotation Devices (Wet Suits): Inuit whale hunters wore waterproof clothing made from sealskin. They made these special suits with hooded shirts sewn to trousers. The hood was tightened with a drawstring, and the wrist and ankle openings were tied to trap air inside the suit. The suits allowed hunters to float in the water when butchering whales.

  • Basketball: The Olmec invented the first game played by throwing a rubber ball through hoops on either end of a court. The game spread throughout Mesoamerica to the Southwest, where evidence of about 200 Hohokam ball courts has been found in Arizona.

  • Lacrosse: Indians throughout North America played lacrosse. Teams could number in the hundreds, and playing fields were from 500 yards to half a mile long. French colonist were the first non-Indians to adopt the game that half a million people play today. It is the national sport (not hockey) of Canada.

  • Hockey (Shinny): The modern game of hockey owes its existence to North American Indians. Non-Indians based both ice and field hockey on shinny, a stickball game that Indians of the Great Plains, Plateau, Southwest, and Northeast cultures played.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Significance of The Circle

"The Gathering of Nations Dance Circle"

The foundational significance of the circle in Native American culture can be evidenced in Native concepts of time. Unlike their European-oriented counterparts, who respect a linear, or sequential, approach to the time continuum; Native Americans conceive time in a circular context. Non-Natives perceive the past, present, and future as being part of one long and continuous path punctuated, and marked, by important events or ideas that characterize the era. The past is remote and somewhat alien; the present is ephemeral; and the future is distant and unknown. In effect, the perspective has the capability to separate people from the past experiences, ancestors, traditions, and occurrences that greatly influences both the present and the future. Not all Native Americans share a collective consciousness about all issues, and their supportive belief systems may differ, certain aspects of their symbols are profound and overarching in their cultural applications. Hill observes that the Native way of thinking can be seen in such things as “the use of the circle as a symbol of unity, in the use of animal totems to represent the sharing of power between the people and the animal world, and in a different attitude about the land – one that sees the earth as alive and sacred, to be shared by all. [1] Developing an understanding of these shared values is central to gaining any insight into the inner workings and hidden mechanisms that ground the perspectives

[1] Richard Hill, Pathways of Tradition: Indian Insights into Indian Worlds. An exhibition at the George
Gustav Heye Center of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, New York City.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Native American Concepts of "The Circle"

“Since the drum is often the only instrument used in our sacred rites. I should perhaps tell you here why it is especially sacred and important to us. It is because the round form of the drum represents the whole universe, and its steady strong bet is the pulse, the heart, throbbing at the center of the universe. It is as the voice of Wakan Tanka, and this sound stirs us and helps us to understand the mystery and power of all things”

Michael Oren Fitzgerald, Indian Spirit (Bloomington, IA: World Wisdom, 1949), 69.

“All of our essays and artwork found here contribute to a large and ever-expanding circle that we call the Native Universe. Yet, numerous circles exist within the overarching circle: cultures, tribes, clans, families, and individuals. Our circles today are based on ancient teachings, values, and beliefs handed down through the oral tradition. Stories, songs, languages, medicines, music, paintings, pottery, basketry, beadwork, clothing, and a host of other arts and teachings convey these circles. Some have changed dramatically over time, but others have remained the same for centuries. Each is part of living Native cultures that continue to pass on their knowledge, beliefs, and feelings to subsequent generation.

N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), 88.

“We sing our songs, perform our dances, and pray. In many ways, we remember the old traditions, and by telling our stories of being, we reenter and renew our sacred circles. With each song, story or ceremony, the Native world is re-created, linking the present with the past. In so doing, we bring ourselves into the larger circle of Indian people, nurtured by sweet medicine that lives today. Native Americans stand in the center of a sacred circle, in the middle of four directions. At this time and for all time, American Indians are in the presence of, and part of, many vast, living, and diverse Native universes.

From Our Universes. An exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the
American Indian, Washington, D.C., opened on September 21, 2004.

“New circles are bringing American Indians together in ways unforeseen by our ancestors. Satellites are orbiting Earth beaming information from one end of Turtle Island (The United States) to the next; telephone lines and fiber optics connect Indian people from the most distant regions of the Arctic, Amazon, Pampas, Caribbean, and Great Plains; and modern transportation systems allow us to gather together and celebrate more often and in greater numbers. Through books, magazines, newspapers, and the Internet, we are getting our messages across about our diverse worlds. Radio and television networks now offer programs that bring American Indian history and cultures into the homes of millions of non-Indian people. And in Canada, the new Native-run Aboriginal Peoples Television Network broadcasts throughout the country twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with the catchphrase, “Sharing our stories with all Canadians.” Like a great swirling hurricane, the circle of Native America has been enlarged and broadened – in many ways enriching us to see and speak with newfound authority.”

Gerald McMaster & Clifford E. Trafzer, Native Universe: Voices of Indian America
(Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2003).

“Powwow,” as described by George P. Horse Capture: “Led by two veterans, one carrying the Stars and Stripes and the other holding the Indian flag – a buffalo fur-wrapped curved staff, decorated with feathers from the golden eagle – we form a large circle in the entry procession. Like tipis, drums, Sun Dance lodges, and the Earth itself, the dance arena shares in the ancient and sacred Native symbolism of the circle.”

Tom Dunkel, “Powwow on the Potomac,” (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, November
2002), 44.

In Native North American philosophy, the roundness of a drum symbolizes the inseparable unity of the past, present and future. This unit is a circle that binds all people. The beating of the drum represents the eternal rhythms of nature. For Native North Americans, these rhythms are echoed in the speech of the traditional storyteller and the stories of the modern Indian writer . . . According to many Native North Americans, the rhythms of the universe are like those of a steady drumbeat, renewed and repeated only for as long as the drummer performs. In order to be renewed, the rhythms and cycles of nature also require human participation, in the form of rituals that mark important points in the cosmic circle.

Most Native peoples respect the earth as the source of an endless cycle of generation, destruction and regeneration, through which all things are believed to pass.

Scattered across the plains and prairies of North America are large stone circles known as “medicine wheels.” They were built out of the small boulders left on the surface of the earth by retreating glaciers. The “hub” of each medicine wheel is a pile of stones, or cairns; other cairns may be positioned around the circumference. Lines of stones sometimes radiate like spokes from the central cairn to the outer ring.
The best-known of these structures is the Big Horn medicine wheel in Wyoming, which is nearly all feet (30 km) in diameter with 28 spokes and six small cairns around the rim. The identity of its builders, and when and why it was made, are unknown. A widely-held theory is that the “spokes” of a medicine wheel are (or were originally) aligned with astronomical events, such as the position of the sun at dawn on Midsummer’s Day.
Another theory is that medicine wheels are more purely symbolic, perhaps intended as visual representations of sacred cyclical principles that bind the universe. They resemble forms found in Native dance and the shape of some lodges. Many are on high ground, so their form may symbolize the dome of the heavens.

Larry J. Zimmerman & Brian Leigh Molyneaux, Native North America (Norman, OK:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

The Aztec View of the World

The Aztecs visualized the earth as a flat disk surrounded by water (sometimes it was also seen as a giant crocodilian monster swimming in a sea covered by water lilies) and was divided into four cardinal directions:
EAST- the east of the rising sun signified birth, life, and masculinity
WEST- the west of the setting sun signified death, destruction, and
ABOVE- above the earth rose the thirteen layers of the heavens, the
place of the clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets and
stars. The topmost heaven was the home of the Lord and
Lady Duality. The upper world of the sun was also the
paradise of warriors killed in battle, sacrificial victims, and
women who died in childbirth.
BELOW- the underworld was divided into nine layers and was
governed by the nine lords of the night. The entrance to
the earth was through the gaping jaws of a saurian earth
monster. The underworld was the destination of those who
died an ordinary death. Their souls had to travel through
the many dangers and could be accompanied by a small
dog. This was not a place of punishment- unpleasant but
morally indifferent. Underworld related to night and
starry sky, while the upper world related to the daytime
and the sunny sky.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Human Sacrifice

Earth Goddess

An Aztec Legend

Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca represent the bright and dark aspects of the Creator. The earth herself is the nourisher of life; but she is also the burial ground of the dead. One purpose of this myth is to validate the Aztec custom of sacrificing live human hearts.

The gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca brought the earth goddess Tlalteuctli down from on high. All of the joints of her body were filled with eyes and mouths biting like wild beasts. Before they got down, there was water already below, upon which the goddess then moved back and forth. They did not know who created it.

They said to each other, "We must make the earth." So saying, they changed themselves into two great serpents, one of whom seized the goddess from the right hand down to the left foot, the other from the left hand down to the right foot. As they tightened their grip, she broke in the middle. The half with the shoulders became the earth. The remaining half they brought to the sky--which greatly displeased the other gods.

Afterward, to compensate the earth goddess for the damage those two had inflicted upon her, all the gods came down to console her, ordaining that all the produce required for human life would issue from her. From her hair they made trees, flowers and grasses; from her skin, very fine grasses and tiny flowers; from her eyes, wells and fountains, and small caves; from her mouth, rivers and large caves; from her nose, valleys and mountains; from her shoulders, mountains.

Sometimes at night this goddess wails, thirsting for human hearts. She will not be silent until she receives them. Nor will she bear fruit unless she is watered with human blood.

- from the webpage: (

Human Sacrifice was an important part of Aztec ritual. It was a renewal process for the gods, so that they could continue to provide sustenance for the humans "Human beings counted in the cosmic order only insofar as their offerings nourshed their gods," (Fagan,228). It was also a test of manhood for the victims. In certian rituals women and children were sacrificed, but a warriors heart was credited as the highest sacrifice to give.

There were many types of sacrifice, from self mutilation to the most commonly known method of removing the heart while the person was still alive. After the still beating heart was removed, the body was thrown down the long alley of stairs to the crowd below. Sometimes the bodies were eaten, and their heads saved on poles. Some believe that this particular method of sacrifice was symbolic. "The climbing prisoner was the young sun rising to his zenith at the moment of sacrifice. The tumbling body was the setting sun, returning to the earth," (230).

Fagan, B. The Aztecs. W.H. Freeman: New York, 1984

Metaphors of Cyclic Living

The Aztecs honored the circle by recognizing that they lived in reoccurring, cyclic patterns. It was easy to see the cyclic patterns in nature: the sun, the phases of the moon, the seasons. These patterns were also identified in the everyday life of the Aztecs most obviously through the cycle of birth and death. The Aztecs saw transformation as a cyclic pattern as well. "The two basic metaphors for transformation in Ancient Mesoamerica were sexuality and death, because both were seen to result in the creation of life," (Pasztory, 57).
The sexual metaphor was used to explain the seasonal renewal of life. This conclusion comes from combining information from hymns and rituals, because similar to so many of the Aztec myths, there is no one source or story behind most of their beliefs. Even the creation myth varies from one sect of the Aztecs to the next. Here is one collaboration of information pertaining to the sexual metaphors of life:
- The sun god was believed to descend into the earth at the end of the dry season to mate with the earth goddess, who then gave birth to the maize and the other plants that growing the rainy season. The sun god died in the sexual encounter, to be reborn in the form of maize. The earth goddess died subsequently in the process of giving birth, (57).
- the sun god and the earth goddess are basically the Lord and Lady of Duality in the creation myth of the Aztecs. They stand for the Union of male and female principles who were responsible for the eternal renewal of nature (57).

An Aztec poem declares:

The giver of life mock of us
only a dream we chase
oh my friends
our hearth trust
But he really mock of us
but with emotion we enjoy
in the green things and in the paintings
The giver of life make us live
he knows, he rules
how we, the men, will die
nobody, nobody, nobody
really lives on earth.

(Manuscript, Cantares Mexicanos/National Library of Mexico)

(from webpage:

The second metaphor used to explain change was death as a result of armed combat. This notion of war as a metaphor for transformation came from the military aristocracies of the classic period in the Aztec timeline. "It is associated with the development of stratified state societies and the military upper class," (57).

"The disappearance of the sun at night was metaphorically described as a battle between the forces of light and those of the darkness of the earth in which the sun died. The reappearance of the sun in the morning signified its rebirth, after successfully fighting the night,"(57).

Beliefs from older periods of Mesoamerican peoples saw life and death as locked in an endless struggle of alternating victory and defeat. Even the gods were not immune to this cycle, they were not considered immortal.

The cycle of living and dying was also frequently represented by the metaphor of eating. For example, when humans ate maize, it was thought that they were eating the flesh of the actual maize god, and the favor needed to be returned, via human sacrifice. The dead were "eaten" by the earth (which was portrayed as a huge monster). "In the Aztec view, the gods and humans had a contract: they agreed to keep each other alive by providing one another with the appropriate nourishment," (58). The myth that conisides with this contract is as follows:

-"In the fourth destruction of the world, the gods got together at the ruins of Teotihuacan and built a bonfire- the god who would throw himiself in to the fire would become the sun god. One god made many great offerings to the fire but could not throw himself in. Nanahuatizin, who had nothing to offer but himself jumped fearlessly into the fire and became the sun. Ashamed of himself, Tecuciztecatl followed, and became the moon. The sun remained stationary until all of the other gods jumped into the fire," (58).

Visual Breakdown of Aztec Calender Stone

The Great Aztec Calendar

The Days and their Names:
The Aztec year consisted of 18 months divided by 20 days, in addition to five days called Nemontemi. The day symbols were taken from nature. Starting from where number 2 points, and going clockwise around the same ring.

  • 20th day Xochital (flower)
  • 19th day Quiahuitl (rain)
  • 18th day Tecpatl (flint knife)
  • 17th day Ollin (earthquake)
  • 16th day Cozcacuahtli (buzzard)
  • 15th day Cuauhti (eagle)
  • 14th day Ocelotl (jaguar)
  • 13th day Acatl (reed)
  • 12th day Malinalli (grass)
  • 11th day Ozomatli (monkey)
  • 10th day Itzcuintli (dog)
  • 9th day Atl (water)
  • 8th day Tochtli (rabbit)
  • 7th day Mazatl (deer)
  • 6th day Miquiztli (death)
  • 5th day Coatl (snake)
  • 4th day Cuetzpallin (lizard)
  • 3rd day Calli (house)
  • 2nd day Ehecatl (wind)
  • 1st day Cipactli (crocodile)

  • The Cardinal Points:
    3. The symbol of the North: Date 1 Tecpatl (1-obsidian knife).
    14. The symbol of the East: The Xiuhuitzolli
    15. The symbol of the West: Date 7 Ozomatli (7-monkey)
    16. The symbol of the South: Date 1-Quiahuitl (1-rain)

    The Suns or Cosmic Eras:
    4. The Jaguar Sun - Ocelotonatiuh - symbolizes the first of the earth's four epochs. It was believed that in this era the world was inhabited by giants that were devoured by jaguars. The jaguar is adorned with a "smoking mirror", symbol of the god Tezcatlipoca.

    6. Tonatiuh's claws imprison human hearts, symbolizes the need to perform human sacrifices in honor of him.

    7. The Water God - Atonatiuh. At the end of the forth era, humanity was exterminated by a flood and the surivors turned into fish. This epoch is represented by a vessel of water, and the goddess Chalchiuhtlicue.

    9. The Sun of Movement - Ollin Tonatiuh - who is portrayed in the center of the Aztec Calendar, governed the universe in all its manifestations.

    11. The Rain Sun - Quiauhtonatiuh. the god that reigned over this period was Tlaloc, god of rain, since it was believed that humanity was then destroyed by a rain of fire, The men who survived were converted into birds.

    12. The Wind God - Ehecatonatiuh - symbolizes the second era. At its end humanity was destroyed by hurricanes and the survivors transformed into monkeys. The god of this era is Quetzalcoatl.

    Circle of Blood, Solar Rays, and Exterior Cirle:
    The Exterior Circle is formed by the numeral 13 Acatl and 2 fire serpents that are placed face to face.

    1. Plate showing the date 13 acatl (13 reed). The day of the sun's birth.

    5. Solar Ray.

    8. The god Tonatiuh, the sun, faces Xiutecuitli. On each new day the sun appears as an eagle, after having vanquished the moon and the stars.

    10. The god Xiuhtecutli, Lord of the Night in this context, shows his obsidian tongue.

    13. Amate paper bands

    This information comes from the webpage:








    The Aztecs used two different calenders, one measured time, while the other was used to fix religious festivals. The time-measuring calender was used to fix the best time for planting crops, while the religious calender told when to consult the gods. In the time-measuring calender, one year had 365 days divided into 18 months. Each month had 20 days, and there were 5 extra days at the end of the year, which were thought to be bad-luck days when disasters were most likely to happen. The fundamental Aztec calender, the religious calender, was a 260-day cycle, called the tonalpohualli, or the "count of days."

    Elizabeth Hill Boone excellently described how the religious calender worked in her book, "The Aztec World." She said, "Twenty day signs ran consecutively, from crocodile through flower, repeating after the 20th day. Beside the day signs ran 13 day numbers, 1 through 13, the numbers advancing with each day up to 13, when they repeated again with 1. Thus, the day count began with 1 Crocodile, 2 Wind, 3 House, 4 Lizard, and continued up to 13 Reed, when the numbers began again with 1: 1 Jaguar, 2 Eagle, 3 Vulture, and so forth. The 20 day signs and the 13 numbers, advancing side by side, yielded 260 uniquely named days. "

    Both calenders ran together and the same day in each fell at the same time once every 52 years. Thus, Aztec time was divided into 52-year cycles, similar to our current 100-year cycles called centuries. Different days belonged to different gods, so days could be good or bad depending on which god's day it was. A child born on a bad day received its name on a good day, to rule out all harmful effects of the bad day.

    At the center of the Aztecs' calendar stone is the sun god, Tonatiuh. He is surrounded by symbols of the five world creations. The symbols of the 20 days of the solar month are depicted on the stone. Also, eclipses of the sun were foretold by the calendar stone.















    From the webpage:

    Tonalpohualli - The Ritual Calendar

    The tonalpohualli (count of days) was the sacred almanac of the Mexicas. This ritual calendar was registered in the tonalamatl (book of days), a green-fold bark paper or deerskin codex from which a priest (called tonalpouque) cast horoscopes and predicated favorable and unfavorable days of the cycle. The almanac year comprised of 260 days, each of which was assigned a date by intermeshing one of 20 day-signs, represented graphically with a gylph, and a number from 1 to13, represented by dots so that no two days in the cycle could be confused. The almanac year was thus made up of 20 13-day weeks, with the first week beginning on 1-Crocodile and ending on 13-Reed, the second week running from 1-Ocelot to 13-Deaths' Head and so on. A god or godess was believed to preside over each day-sign, as shown in the following chart.


    Tonacatecuhtli- Lord of our Sustenance; male aspect of dual gods


    Quetzalcoatyl- Plumbed Serpent; god of knowledge and the preisthood


    Tepeyolohtli- Heart of the Mountain; jaguar god of the interior earth


    Huehuecoyotl- Old Coyote; back-biiter or mischief-maker


    Chalchiuhtlicue- Lady of the jade skirt; godess of ground waters

    Miquiztli-Deaths' Head

    Tecciztecatl-He from the sea-snail; moon god


    Tlaloc- He who makes things sprout; god of rain and earth fertility


    Mayahuel- She of the maguey plant; godess of pulque (maguey wine)


    Xiuhtecuhtli- Lord of the year; fire god, patron of rulers


    Miclantecuhtli- Lord of Mictlan (Region of the Dead);god of death


    Xochipilli- Flower Prince; god of flowers and plants


    Patecatl- He from the Land of Medicines; god of medicinal plants


    Tezcatlipoca- Smoking mirror; major creator of god, god of fate


    Tlazolteotl- Eater of Filth; earth mother


    Xipe- Totec- Our Flayed Lord; god of seeding and planting


    Itzapapalotl- Obsidian Butterfly; stellar and agricultural godess


    Xolotl- Double; Monster god, twin of Quetzalcoatl

    Tecpatl-Flint Knife

    Chalchiuhtotolin- Guise of Tezcatlipoca; god of night and the mysterious


    Chantico- In the House; godess of the hearth

    Xochitl- Flower

    Xochiquetzal- Flower of the Rich Plume; godess of flowers

    Pictures from the webpage: