Posts Tagged ‘Warfare’


Teotihuacan was a powerful metropolis whose ruins can be seen just 50km north east of present day México City. This was the nucleus of a civilization that exercised an incomparable influence over the whole Central America. Its art and distinct architecture appear in all subsequent great cultures of the region and expanded throughout the Mayan territory, from northern Yucatan to the border zones of Honduras and the Pacific coast of Guatemala, passing trough the central Mexican territory. We still have doubts about the origins of this culture and their language, but some investigators think that there was an affiliation to the nahua people, probably Otomis, or maybe the city was constructed by the Olmecas-Xicalanca, a group of Mixtec speech.

With a theocratic based political structure, dominated by a priesthood elite and warring nobility (there is no evidence of individualistic power concentration, like on the figure of a king) it is most probable that Teotihuacan had a strong military potential, in order to ensure order and supremacy of the dominant civilization and its rulers.

The influence which Teotihuacan exercised among the Maya was multifaceted and full of cultural resonance, persisting long after the fall of the city. The capacity of Teotihuacan to directly influence the Maya history, besides the temporary sovereignty over conquered territories, indicates that this dominance was mostly political, though occasionally founded on the military power.


Teotihuacan was a cosmopolitan city, having received a considerable number of foreigners like Maya groups coming from colonies set in such territories, from the Oaxaca region and from Veracruz. Altogether they formed an independent district, in which most elements of their original cultures were preserved.

Militaristic individuals populate the visual arts in large numbers, marching on painted walls near the city center and out in the more secluded apartment compounds. Likewise, warriors circle around the painted and stuccoed vases or boldly appear on the carved surfaces of Thin Orange ceramics, and in some statuettes. Thus both art and archaeology indicate the dominant role played by the military in Teotihuacan society.

One crucial element of Teotihuacan warrior was the ‘mirror’ worn on his back. Called a tezcacuitlapilli by the later Mexica, the mirror consisted of a small stone disk to which pieces of iron pyrite were attached in a mosaic. Visual depictions indicate that feathers commonly ringed these mirrors. An additional decorative touch might include a knot securing a swath of feathers to the mirror.

Many of the other costume elements of the warriors are not restricted to the military. Brilliant sprays of feathers fell from the various headdresses and trailed behind them. They wore sandals, shell or bread necklaces, large earflares and short loincloth skirts; all clothing of a typical – if elite – Teotihuacan male. The main warring emblems tucked amongst this otherwise ordinary clothing were year signs, owl pectorals, and the ultimate warrior costume accessory: circular Tlaloc goggles. These usually rang the human eye, but were sometimes shoved up on the forehead in a style similar to modern goggle wearing.


A final characteristic of the Teotihuacan military apparel is nevertheless the most interesting, because it opens a window on the conceptual underpinnings of warfare itself and onto the underlying social organization. Teotihuacan warriors did not enter battle solely with protective armaments of the martial sort: they wore spiritual armaments as well. These features, found in the city’s military imagery are the incorporation of animal attributes in the costume of most warriors. That’s why the list includes nahualli warriors (a nahuatl term, that in this case means an animal co-essence; this designates an entity, relating to an ancient and widspread mesoamerican belief, in which one part of the human soul manifests itself as a sort of animal) that can be viewed as a precursor of the military orders latter developed by other Mesoamericans cultures, like the Toltecas or the later Mexicas.

Although a shamanic rationale may have underlined the existence of animal warriors at Teotihuacan, the real strength of the costumes was their ability to foster collective identities. The animal costumes of Teotihuacan do not seem to represent an individual as much they designate groups of warriors who wore the same costume and shared an animal companion. A vessel from the site of Las Colinas near Teotihuacan confirms the existence of these groups: on the bowl each warrior in the procession walks behind the symbol of is military order. The depicted heraldry includes such entities as a bird, a canine, a feathered serpent and a tassel headdress, the later indicating that animals were not the only military emblems. In the white patio of Atetelco there can be seen images of eagle and coyote warriors and there are also representations of jaguar warriors in the murals of Teotihuacan.

The multiethnic warrior units represent the most warlike soldiers, foreigners willing to join the ranks because of direct allegiances or just as a result of politic and cultural affinities. These would strengthen an army mainly composed of farmers and therefore largely seasonal or dependant on conscripts.


As for the different implements of war that are represented in Teotihuacan the atlatl propeller is the most recurring, including all other offensive and defensive devices. Anyway from a tactical perspective it will be illogical to think that this was the sole weapon used by the Teotihuacanos. Some investigators agree about the existence of other kinds of weapons like contusing maces, as suggested by the discovery of stone arums with a hole in the center, where a wooden handle would fit; such maces would be straight without external protuberances. On the other hand curved sticks, largely used in the early Post Classic (900-1200 AD) can be seen in the white patio of Atetelco-Portico 3, where several dressed characters carry these contusing implements.

 In reality there are no direct examples of weapons with razor parts such as macuahitl like swords, if we exclude some representations in the so called Zone II. There a series of vertical lines present along the whole edges to form triangular motifs that can be recognized as macanas, namely because this pattern relates to another mural of the same group identified as a military subject. It is very well attested that the Teotihuacanos where experts in obsidian cutting of and in the manufacture of sharp utilities such as prismatic razors, which were fundamental elements in the assembling of those weapons. One figure in stela 5 of the Maya City of Uaxactún – representing a figure clearly in Teotihuacan dress – also carries a weapon much like a macuahuitl.

A similar reasoning would apply to other piercing tools such as spears, for which there are no mural representations. It is likely that this type of weapons were known because several found objects made of obsidian, silex and stone, have a shape and length compatible with spear heads. One ceramic plaque found near the Ciudadela shows a character unmistakably armed with a spear.

For defence, square or rectangular shields were used, flexible or rigid, similar to those found among the Maya.

In its ensemble the city of Teotihuacan and the culture of its habitants constituted an unmatched phenomenon. It was the most complex and populated urban centre of the Classical period. Its splendour endured for more than 500 years, before undergoing devastating decadency by the VII century.

 Main references:

Arzave, Alfonso A. Garduño. De las armas ofensivas en el arte y la arqueología de Teotihuacán; La pintura mural prehispánica en México num. 24-25, 2006

Coe, Michael D. O México; Editorial Verbo, 1970

Headrick, Annabeth. The Teotihuacan Trinity; University of Texas Press, 2007

Martin, Simon. La gran potencia occidental: Los Mayas y Teotihuacan; Konemann, 2006

Moctezuma, Eduardo Matos. El milenio Teotihuacano; Conaculta, 2000


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The Maya civilization of the classical period included a variety of city states widespread by the lowland geographical area of this ethnic culture, including Mexico, Belice, Guatemala and Honduras. In this political landscape of close one to another kingdoms, each ruled by a K´uhul ajaw or “ divine king “, its not surprising that conflicts did often occur.

With the eruption of the classical period military themes did occupy a key position in the art of the lowlands and the idea of a “warrior king” became increasingly perceived as a determinant quality of the ideal ruler among the Maya. By the 6th century onwards the development of strong political centers, emerging simultaneously in numerous rival kingdoms, led to new aspirations of supremacy and novel alliances. The martial hieroglyph inscriptions of the late classical period are more related to attempts of dynastic legitimacy than descriptions of actual heroic deeds.

Palenque (Baakal in this period) and Toniná (Po’) where serious enemies for a long time; like Yaxchilán (Pa’Chan) and Piedras Negras (Yokib); or Copán and its neighbor Quiriguá. Yet the major conflicts took place between Tikal and Calakmul that fought for the control of the city states in the central zone of the Maya area during the 7th and 8th centuries. The aggressor was more often Calakmul, having established alliances with several kingdoms east, south and west of Tikal.

Payment of tributes had a central role in whole of the documented Maya history. Besides major political motifs war could also be triggered by more trifle reasons, like personal offense, debts or other dissensions, which could persist thorough many generations. The Maya also fought among themselves for ritual reasons, mostly during the celestial sight of Venus which brought bad omens and set the time for political reassessment. In the whole Mesoamerican cultures the celestial lord for war was not Mars but Venus, which the Maya called Chak Ek’ (the great star).


One of the most enigmatic aspects of Maya’s written records remains “the star wars”. In the classical inscriptions battles may be linked to one astronomical phenomenon, symbolized by a not yet deciphered hieroglyph consisting of a star emanating a liquid – water or blood – fouling down to the earth. These most dramatic representations always end on the execution of a king or on the fall of a dynasty.

The study of the actual events related in the “star wars” has established that only some of them coincided with the significant stations of the Venus cycle. This may suggest that, despite the relevance of the consulted omens and the observation of the complicated planetarium movements, the decision and timing to start a war were in the first place determined by practical tactical criteria and not by esoteric considerations.

It is difficult to deduce if the Maya society had a warrior caste and if this was accompanied by some sort of permanent army. Investigators that have statistically analyzed the relations between war occurrence and the time of the year have concluded that there might be an increase of bellicose events during the dry seasons. By these periods troop movement would be easier, plus these facts reinforced the thesis that the majority of the wars occurred when the crops were completed and a maximum number of men were available. All this suggests that the largest number of effectives a Maya army could raise would be very high, when circumstances required. It is hard to imagine that the violent clashes that ended with the occupation of foreign towns and the capture or death of kings would be carried by a small number of professionals.

There is few data concerning the military tactics of the classical Maya in contemporary representations, but some later sources might point to troops acting in close-order formation.


The main hand-to-hand weapon was the spear, composed by a heavy handle, rarely more than 2 meters long. The Maya had augmented the stone razor surface of the shorter spears, converting them into close-combat weapons, not suitable for throwing. In some occasions the distal handle is represented with saw-toothed edges able to inflict wounds. There are a great number of axes and maces depictions, some of them looking like “swords” that, like the Mexica macuahuitll, were embedded with stone or obsidian fragments. The atlatl was introduced among the Mayas from 400AD by the people of Teotihuacan, but its widespread use would only be seen latter. This weapon was called hulche among the Maya, with the warriors so represented carrying a rectangular rigid shield as well. The use of slings and javelins is also very likely.

At the center of the battleline stood the heavy infantry, represented by the nobles of the highest rank, generally ahawoob (rulers) and sahaloob (military chiefs). Their heavy dress included: a cotton protection in the torso; over this a heavy cord pectoral probably of palm fiber; and a long shell suit hang by the neck until below the knees or simply in a shape of a full suit. The attire was completed with a rigid waistband, a skirt of flexible strips, knee protections and elastic wrist. They also carried small shields, rigid or flexible. The rigid shield was round, probably of wood, fastened to the left forearm, allowing the warrior to handle its spear with both hands. The flexible shield was composed of thick ropes with knots around the edge and a handle in its upper extremity, of whom hangs a cloth or a decorated skin. This would be used to deviate blows or to entangle the opposing weaponry. They were armed with spears ending on a long cutting edge. These heavy warriors would have very poor mobility and their central position was supposedly ideal for the capture of sacrificial prisoners.


The rank warriors and the lesser nobility carried a one handed thrusting spear, rigid shield and lighter body protection. They wore cotton loin-cloth, a cord pectoral, probably of twisted cotton or palm fiber, elastic wrist, knee protection and sandals with heel protection. The shields could be square, rectangular or round shaped, made of wood, wild reed, cloth or leather, padded with skin or cotton. These would be sometimes decorated with heraldic motifs or the face of gods. These warriors took place in the flanks, pushing the enemy towards the heavy centre, to enforce the capture of prisoners.

As far as can be concluded from the observation of the art-work, headdress was mostly worn as a sumptuous adorning element, often including zoomorphic motifs. Desiccated animals, such as wild cats, deer or serpents could be used, along with ever-present large plumage fans.


In many representations the Maya sovereigns can be seen dressed and with the weapons of Teotihuacan, in an effort to assert for themselves the symbols of a superior power, whose military might was deeply admired throughout the region. However the Maya kings also bowed and prayed to the Teotihuacan gods, such as the serpent of war (waxaklajuun ubaah chan) a protector entity that was increasingly associated with the ideals of hegemonic pan Mesoamerican conquest.

It is most likely that the classical Maya stud to an honor war code. A generally recognized ethical principle impeded the complete annihilation of other peoples and of their patrimony. However, by the beginning of the 9th century those moral principles lost they mandatory character and the Mayas fell down into ceaseless war and chaos. The collapse of the Maya society was characterized by a drastic decrease of the life conditions, manifested in a mixture of ecological decadency, intense demographic depletion and the reduction of the kings’ authority. This can be summarized by uncontrolled violence ending with the disappearance of the whole classical society.

Main references:

Baudez, Claude; Picasso, Sidney. Lost cities of the Maya; Thames and Hudson, 1992

Boucher, Sylviane. Indumentaria Guerrera Maya; Arqueologia Mexicana N 17, 1996

Clark, S.; Hutchby, D. Army Lists Volume 2; WRG 7th edition, 1993

Grube, Nikolai, Los Mayas, una civilización milenaria; Tandem Verlag GmbH, 2006

Hammond, Norman. Ancient Maya civilization; Cambridge University Press, 1982

Hernández, Alfonso Arellano. Las guerras Venusianas entre los Mayas; Arqueologia Mexicana vol VIII N 47, 2001

Martin, Simon. Bajo el signo de una estrella fatal: la guerra en la época clásica Maya; Konemann, 2006

Stuart, David. Los antiguos Mayas en guerra; Arqueología Mexicana vol XIV, N 84, 2007

Wise, Terence; McBride, Angus. The Conquistadores; Osprey Publishing, 1980

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Across the Southeast of the United States of North America a great corn-fed civilization had arisen, that of the Temple Mound Builders, so named for the religious edifices which topped their great earth thumps. Also called the Mississippian culture in nod to its stronghold in the bottomlands of the Mississippi and Ohio, it aroused around 750 AD, lasted into the historic period, and would penetrate as far westwards as Oklahoma and northwards to Wisconsin.

The Temple Mound Builders did not spring pure-formed out of the air, but were the culmination of other local cultures, dating back to at least 1000 BC and the Adena of the Ohio, who constructed earthen mounds as burial sites for their deceased. Many traits of Adena culture were carried on by successive mound-building culture, the Hopewell, which radiated out from Ohio to Amerindian villages in the Midwest and east. More sophisticated agriculturalists than the Adena, the Hopewell were also major league artisans, securing obsidian from Yellowstone, tortoiseshell from the Gulf of México, silver from Ontario, bear teeth from Wyoming, all fashioned for adornments, religious ritual or as grave goods. One of the Hopewell’s most distinctive artifacts was a tubular stone pipe with animal effigies; in the pipe they smoked tobacco, not for pleasure but for ceremony. It was due to the Hopewell that pipe-smoking became universal amongst the amerindians of North America.

Hopewell pipe.

By 500 AD the Hopewell culture was in terminal decay. In is steed arose the Mississippian, with the shift to major cropping of corn encouraging more complex political and social structures; nowhere was this more clearly seen than in the Mississippian capital of Cahokia. Other best known sites are Emerald, Moundville, in the south, Etowah and Ocmulgee, and in the west, Spiro, Oklahoma.

Mississippian towns were usually established on an island or near a river. A plaza laid out, with several houses and temples enclosed by a palisade. Dwellings were constructed of long saplings set upright in trenches, and the roof frameworks was woven like a huge basket. The exterior surfaces of the walls were lathed with cane and plastered with clay. Temples seem to have been built over demolished or outworn council chambers: the flat-topped pyramids becoming the foundation for the temples. Elsewhere, entire hilltops were leveled off and terraced to create plazas, with temple mounds built on top. These traditions of building activities alongside with the practice of human sacrifices reflect Mesoamerican influences, although the architectural results were more primitive.

Over the river from modern-day St Louis, Cahokia gathered within its palisades walls over 10.000 people, ruled over by small nobility, themselves under the tutelage of an absolute monarchy, the Great Sun chief. This was a rigid theocracy, whose lieder was not permitted to put foot to the ground, so was carried in a litter. Society was stratified into Priests, Noble, Honored and Stinkard classes. Cahokia was the capital of the Temple Mound people from around 850 to 1150 AD, during which period they aggressively expanded their civilization. Military prowess was rewarded by promotion to the next class, though that to Noble was very difficult. Stinkards were replenished from conquered peoples.

Representation of warriors show wooden armor and a sword-like weapon and too many bronze weapon heads found to be explained as modern intrusions. A sculpture from the Spiro mound in Oklahoma, the western outpost of Mississippian culture, shows a warrior that wears a helmet and armor (possibly copper) on is back and front chest, and he holds a club made from a single piece of polished stone. He wears also a short breechclout. It is possible that they also used a war club of about 60cm long and described by white traders as “gun-shaped”, with an iron projection at the bend – suggesting a very similar weapon to that used by Amerindians of the Northeastern Woodlands.

Wooden or leather shields, breast pieces, arm and leg bracelets afforded some protection.

Other weapons probably used were the long bow, slings and lances, the latter surely used in the Chunkey game that was a form of widespread Amerindian game of hoop and spear, played by the Mississippians and by the historic Choctaws and Creeks during the 18th century, as witnessed by white traders. They seem to wear painted faces with particular emphasis around the eye probably representing the falcon, a bird with a formidable hunting and killing speed of attack – and thus perhaps connected with the “Southern” or “Death” Cult. Common colors were red, black and white.

In large areas Temple Mound Buildings become associated with the Death Cult or Buzzard Cult, which bound the various Mississippian chiefdoms together. The Cult was named after one of its principal practices that was the torture-sacrifice of enemy warriors, whose severed heads would later be displayed on poles around the temple. Purification came from an emetic, the cassina-based “Black Drink”, taken “until the blood comes”.

By the time the Spanish tramped to the Mississippi, Cahokia had long been left to the weeds, so had Moundville and Etowah. Yet across the south, the European encountered numerous still extant nations of Temple Mound Builders, including the Taensa, the Cherokees, Timucuas, Coosas, Muskokees, Mobiles, Quapaws and Chickasaws. These peoples when questioned about their Mound Building ancestors seemed to know little of their predecessors, although cultural traits clearly did survive. The annual rekindling of the sacred fire, an earthly symbol of the Sun, color symbolism and the Puskita or Busk (a kind of New Year or world renewal celebration which took place when the corn ripened) were all descended from Temple Mound culture. Of them all, it was the Natchez nation who practiced the old Mississippian culture in its strongest form, complete with caste system ruled over by the Great Sun.

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