‘Archaeology Can Cover the Totality of the Human Story’

Ideas A conversation with David Carballo about the fall of the Aztec empire Courtesy of David Carbal

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Courtesy of David Carballo / The Atlantic

In the spring of 2018, I took my family on a trip to Teotihuacan, the great metropolis of ancient Mexico that flourished roughly at the time of imperial Rome. My archaeologist friends unanimously urged: “Before you go, you must talk to David Carballo at Boston University.” I found Carballo. He could not have been more generous with his time and advice. At the end of the conversation I asked, “By the way, do they still do that wonderful sound-and-light show in the evenings? I enjoyed that so much when I visited back in the ’80s.” There was an awkward pause before Carballo replied, “I personally dismantled one of those lights. They were damaging the structures.”

I was embarrassed, but of course, Carballo was right.

Carballo has now produced a new history of the overthrow of the Aztec empire for Oxford University Press, just in time for the 500th anniversary of the event. There is no shortage of major English-language histories of the conquest: Hugh Thomas produced one in 1993, J. H. Elliott and Camilla Townsend each added their own in 2006, and Matthew Restall offered another in 2018, to name just a few notable works.

Those authors, however, were experts in ancient texts. Carballo came from the field. I interviewed him by email in early July about the innovation of his approach to the foundation of modern Mexico; our exchange has been edited for brevity.

David Frum: Is there something distinctively different about the approach of those who dig in dirt from those who dig in archives?

David Carballo: At its most ambitious, archaeology can cover the totality of the human story, from our evolution as a species to today, since the focus is on material culture rather than on texts—though we typically examine both in tandem. By material culture I mean the places we inhabit (“sites”) and the stuff we use (“artifacts”). Much of our history as a species has no written records and can only be accessed through material remains like sites and artifacts, whereas for other places and times we may have texts, but they represent the official transcripts of the rich and powerful. In those cases, archaeology can provide a voice to the “99 percent” who were non-elites yet played their part in shaping history.

Frum: What’s the current thinking about the comparative material development of everyday life on the opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean when Hernando Cortés landed on the Mexican shore in 1519?

Carballo: A significant first point of comparison is in the origins of agriculture and the domestication of animals in both areas. Whereas early Mesoamericans first domesticated maize (corn) and other crops locally, early Iberians largely received a complete package of domesticated crops and animals first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent region of Southwest Asia. Another contrast is there were not large animals in the Americas that lent themselves to being domesticated except for camelids (llama, alpaca) in the Andes. Mesoamericans domesticated turkeys (think Thanksgiving) and dogs but didn’t have large pack animals or horses driving military technology as cavalry. Oxen and other plow animals allowed Eurasian peoples living in certain environments to till extensive field systems, which may have also created greater inequities in landholding and wealth. And living with these animals for millennia, sometimes within the confines of the same four walls, transferred diseases to Eurasians that were then transposed to Native populations in the Americas who had not developed immunities to them.

Lacking large domesticated animals, Mesoamerican civilizations developed other solutions to common concerns. Rather than extensive, plowed-field systems, Mesoamericans intensified agriculture in various ways. The ingenious system of lakeshore fields called chinampas is especially noteworthy, as they permitted multiple crop harvests per year and led to a population boom in the Aztec period. Lacking pack animals, Mesoamericans moved commodities using human porters over land and using canoes over water. For maximizing the circulation of goods in this environment, it made economic sense for populations to nucleate and develop brisk marketplace exchange, daily in larger cities and on a rotating schedule in more rural areas. The twin-city capital of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, was the largest of these, and likely larger than any city in Europe at the time except for Paris. Spanish chroniclers were continually wowed by the size of Aztec marketplaces and compared Tlatelolco’s to the largest they knew from the Mediterranean world, at Constantinople, and the marketplaces of smaller cities to cities in Spain, such as Granada. As a result, and in contrast to their earlier colonization of the Caribbean, the Spanish encountered highly urbanized civilizations in Mesoamerica and continually equated them with those of the Islamic and Greco-Roman Mediterranean.

Frum: What has archaeology added to our understanding of Mesoamerica over your working career? Are there important things that are known today that weren’t known when you started or, vice versa, things that were believed when you started that have been discredited since?

Carballo: Just like historical texts can be biased to the rich and powerful, early archaeologists also prioritized excavating the tombs, palaces, and monuments in the centers of ruined cities, which of course give us a similar top-down bias to ancient societies. The shift to studying the demographics of entire societies by surveying regions and excavating households had begun before I got into archaeology in the 1990s, but has only intensified since then. Household archaeology has helped us to understand how most Mesoamericans actually lived and how they varied by social status, gender, age, or ethnicity.

The peopling of Mesoamerica and the Americas more broadly is also being clarified and moved back in time. When I got into archaeology, the consensus opinion was that people first arrived to the Americas some 12,000 years ago. Now new discoveries have pushed the entry back thousands of years. New forms of mapping and imaging are revolutionizing how archaeologists detect sites, especially in densely forested regions such as the Maya lowlands. My colleagues working there have shown the Classic-period populations, centuries before the Aztecs, to have been very dense as well.

Frum: Archaeology tries to use the methods of science, while history inevitably has moral dimensions. The story of the overthrow of the Aztec empire has been especially morally contested. How do we not moralize about Aztec human sacrifice or Spanish forced conversions? How do you think about these questions?

Carballo: When it comes to difficult subjects like the violence of the Spanish Inquisition or Aztec human sacrifice, or the imperial strategies of either society, a comparative and materially grounded perspective can help illuminate how these articulated with other facets of social life. Fixating just on the practice of Aztec human sacrifice, like many sensationalist TV documentaries do, would be akin to portraying the Romans only through gladiatorial combats, crucifixions, and take-no-prisoners warfare. For the Aztecs, the main point of most war was to take prisoners in battle to be sacrificed to the gods back at a temple, so many of the casualties on the battlefield were moved to that ritual-religious stage. Although intimidating to the conquistadors, indigenous armies fought with quickly dulled obsidian weapons. Cities were usually not fortified, and so they were vulnerable to European-style sieges that hadn’t been part of Mesoamerican warfare until the Aztec-Spanish war. Although war was waged towards political ends, it contained highly ritualized elements common to pre-state warfare across the globe, including norms regarding where to kill and how to treat dead bodies. As in many other early states, warfare was one of best ways to rise in socioeconomic status in Aztec society, and warriors were credited not for kills on the battlefield but by taking captives to sacrifice to the gods, so shock troops fought to maim and capture rather than “take no prisoners.” As always, technology and ideology were interwoven.

All that said, it doesn’t mean that I personally approve of state-sanctioned violence or the colonization of formerly autonomous peoples. Archaeology operates within a contemporary setting and can contribute to conversations we are having today about how history is memorialized through monuments and what sort of principles we may want to elevate on pedestals in the public square while what others are best moved to museums.

Frum: Let me press you on the point about moral concerns, though. A lot of today’s moral reading of the Spanish-Aztec encounter depends on projecting back in time our own concepts that would have been radically alien to people living in Mexico in 1519. They didn’t know they were “indigenous”! As you point out, it was the population-annihilating infectious diseases that radically remade New Spain. Would the Spanish conquistadors otherwise merely have replaced one ruling group with another, in a way maybe not dissimilar to the Mughal conquest of northern India about the same time?

Carballo: In the cases of the Mughals or ancient Rome, imperial expansion occurred among societies that had been in continued interaction for centuries prior and had generally shared understandings about how warfare and politics worked. In the case of European colonialism of the Americas, cultures who had followed completely separate developmental trajectories held apart by an ocean came into contact, in mutual ignorance of one another. Columbus began enslaving indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, hundreds of whom died at sea when he looked for markets for them back in Europe. Spain’s monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, banned the practice of enslaving peoples of the “Indies” in 1501, but their exploitation continued under the serflike encomienda system and the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans intensified.

Mesoamericans had never experienced the brand of direct-control, territorial imperialism that the Spaniards and other European powers brought across the Atlantic. They were accustomed to hegemonic empires. They expected to pay some tax or tribute but to remain autonomous. Unlike the Aztec empire, the Spanish system was absolutist in its intolerance for any other faiths. It was not simply a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” And though the racial classifications of New Spain were more of a gradated spectrum than in the early U.S., with its one-drop rule, it was highly racialized by skin color and generally the darker or more culturally indigenous (in language, attire) one was, the lower in the colonial status hierarchy.

Frum: Clearly, the Spanish conquest of Mexico had more radical consequences than the Mughal conquest of northern India. But how much of that radicalism was due to the cultural contrast you describe—and how much to the shattering consequences of disease? Cortés might have wished to govern like a Mughal potentate, substituting new gods for old and inserting himself and his band at the top of the preexisting tax and tribute system. He and his fellow conquistadors were denied that option by the horrifying collapse of population after 1519: at least 50 percent, and perhaps 90 percent. When we try to understand the shock of the conquest, maybe we should focus on the effects of pathogens they carried with them?

Carballo: When smallpox and other diseases spread through Mexico, it would have seemed to Mesoamericans that their known world was crumbling around them. If the specter of mass deaths due to pandemic disease were removed, European colonialism in Latin America might have looked somewhat more like how it unfolded in British India, French Indochina, or Dutch Indonesia. But the conquering zeal of the conquistadors was the product of a cultural and historical moment. Other Spaniards invaded throughout the Americas and across the Pacific to Guam and the Philippines. Pedro de Alvarado was convinced he could use the same template from Mexico to go invade China and was heading to the Pacific to give that a try before he got caught up in a native rebellion where he met his demise.

Frum: The urban core of the Aztec empire has been overbuilt by one of the world’s hugest cities. I started visiting Mexico as a boy in the 1960s. I remember how exciting it was to see the Templo Mayor complex be gradually unearthed. Obviously, this cannot be repeated everywhere. But if you were granted magical powers to banish traffic and levitate the present structures, where would you want to dig, and why?

Carballo: This is one of the great paradoxes of Aztec archaeology. The former imperial capital was buried underneath Mexico City. As a result, even though the textual records are very rich, our archaeological understanding of the capital city is limited to a few select windows excavated within the modern metropolis. We have a much better archaeological understanding of pre-Aztec Teotihuacan, where we have much of the ancient city intact but only meager texts. For Tenochtitlan, as for Rome, many ruins came to light opportunistically through constructing the foundations of houses, sewers, and Mexico City’s metro. The largest window, as you note, is at the main temple, the Templo Mayor, currently being excavated by Leonardo López Luján and team. Thankfully, the cathedral was not built directly on top of it, or it would have never been excavated. The Urban Archaeology Program, directed by Raúl Barrera Rodríguez, is also important. This project has recently uncovered parts of Tenochtitlan’s ball court, a major school for priests, and a skull rack displaying the heads of sacrificial victims.

There are several other spots we know of only textually that would be projects of a lifetime. For treasure hunters, the best would be somewhere along the former Tacuba causeway, now a street of the same name, where Mexican forces attacked Spaniards while expelling them from the city. The fleeing foreigners are said to have been weighed down by loads of gold and other finery they were attempting to smuggle out but sunk to the bottom of the lake during the attack. Another great place to excavate would be the zoo and aviary that Moctezuma and other great speakers had near their palaces. They may have inspired European sovereigns to develop the same.

My interests lie more in the quotidian: what life was like for the majority of the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan. If I had my choice, I would excavate in a neighborhood center that would show what the local houses, temples, plazas, schools, marketplaces, and other facets of urban life most people experienced looked like. In better understanding chapters of the human story not simply as great-man narratives, we need to know how most people lived and their active participation in creating history.

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