The Aztecs and Incans are two Columbian civilizations that show many similarities with one another, but also have their own distinct differences and characteristics. The two groups were both rapidly expanding civilizations that lasted for only a short period of time, making it interesting to compare the striking similarities that led to their rise and downfall. However, it is also important to recognize what made the Aztecs and Incans unique in their own ways.
Although history has revealed certain facts regarding their political, economical, religious, and social systems, we do not know exactly how and why the Aztecs and Incans expanded and became such a dominant force in their respective regions. Many theories have been formed to explain the reason why expansion occurred, but it is still a highly debated question that needs further exploration. For both the Aztecs and Incas, the origin of expansion can be traced back to imperial ideology.
There are other factors that are also very important when looking at what initiated expansion, but ideology is arguably the dominant reason that encompasses them all and connects the pieces together. The onset of expansion for both peoples can be traced back to some kind of war in which the Aztecs and Incans emerged victorious and claimed the superiority for their region. For the Aztecs, defeating the Tepanecs was the turning point that marked the beginning of their expansion; for the Incans, defeating the Chankas.
As a result, the Aztecs and Incas claimed superiority within their regions and began to present themselves as such, by creating a glorious past and revamping the social and religious structure that was previously in place. These reformations modified the Mesoamerican and Andean institutions that were already in place, and according to the text, formed nationalistic and militaristic policies which fueled expansion because they promoted war and conquest. The escalation of human sacrifice and split-inheritance demonstrate this very clearly.
Practices such as these, which stemmed from honoring the cult of Huitzilopochtli and the cult of the ancestors , began to set the Aztecs and Incas on a course of expansion for more sacrificial victims and tribute, because it created a need to grow. This is important to recognize because expansion became more like a necessity; there was a need to expand due to nationalist fervor and religious duty. For the Aztecs, previous beliefs were used to create the cult of Huitzilopochtli and the majestic mission of helping him fight the battle against darkness with human blood sacrifice.
For the Incas, Pachacuti modified the institution of split-inheritance to create the Malquis, consequently heightening the scale of the cult of ancestors and requiring more acquisition of land and resources. Furthermore, to honor the idea of reciprocity, the Sepa Inca restrained from asking more labor of the existing population and chose to expand instead. Since these new ideologies came with economical aims that reinforced political authority, it is possible to question whether religious changes prompted this dramatic shift, or if credit should be given to the political and economic environment.
It could be that the new national cults were created by figures of authority who sought power and wealth and consequently pursued ways to fulfill their self interests. However, it would be incorrect to apply westernized thinking and assume that these grand religious cults were made solely out of selfish ambitions and motivations. It is more likely that these cults were very real to the Aztecs and Incas, and not only beneficial to the leaders but to society as a whole.
The text comments on this concept, saying that the ideological changes were highly “adaptive” to society as whole”, defining adaptation as “the body of ideas and strategies that constitute its culture” and its value the measurement “of overall benefit to society as a system”. Essentially, this contradicts the thought that “society acts as an organism”, because different social classes within the Aztec and Inca societies embraced their respective ideologies with different motivations. In other words, they might have gone forward towards the same purpose, but their aim to do so were not the same.
The overall benefit of their ideologies to society, then, was perceived as highly favorable because the system offered people at every level of the social hierarchy some relevant goal of self-interest to pursue. For the nobility, this could be obtaining the most wealth from redistribution of wealth and networks of trade. For the commoners, probably the possibility of social mobility through expansion and the state. These examples clearly show the different roles ideology played according to the status of the individual.
Depending on a person’s social standing, different benefits were accessible to the individual. For both empires, we see similarities in the general emergence an unequal social structure, establishment of networks throughout the region, and an ideology that involved people from all ranks of society. Differences exist however, in the ways that ideology provoked these two groups to expand and the ways in which ideology legitimized and reinforced itself through the policies and beliefs manifested in society. From a broad perspective, the basic route that led up to and pushed towards expansion look very similar.
Both the Aztecs and the Incas experienced a drastic restructuring of social structure after conquering the Tepanecs and Chankas. Those that had participated directly in the victory, warriors and leaders, received the most land and wealth afterwards, and this unequal redistribution of resources created a nobility class we can see in both societies. Along with the development of an unequal social hierarchy inevitably came with the development of policies and regulations that maintained the new social structure.
These policies and regulations played important roles in causing expansion (although it is important to realize they alone could not have caused the expansion) because they reinforced and legitimized the reason for expansion in economic and political terms. These economic and political factors include, for example, agriculture potential and environmental diversity. These factors can be seen as essentially what allowed the state to continually expand its wealth and meet the goals of the state, based on goals of their ideology.
The text says that agriculture potential gave rise to and favored the expansion, which makes sense because it would’ve provided necessary resources for redistribution and growing populations. In the case of the Aztecs, this was carried out by claiming chinampa districts around the southern lake region, where they developed marshlands into intense agricultural land and built farming terraces, aqueducts, and irrigation systems. Likewise, the Incas conquered areas around the Titicaca basin, an area with great agriculture potential as well.
The text makes an intellectual comment about this, saying that “The fact that the areas of greatest agricultural potential were not in the initial Mexica and Inca homelands, but were conquered early, suggests that the environmental factors involved in the two expansions were neither simple nor obvious. ” Drawing on this comment, we can say that both the Aztecs and Incas both pursued agricultural potential logically as an attempt to support their empires, which helped give rise to expansion.
This explanation is similarly used to show how environmental diversity and demographic pressures played a role in expansion. Although environmental diversity played a slightly more important role, there were zones that possessed such diversity but never gave birth to imperial states. Although expansion was not singlehandedly generated out of the need to obtain resources through trade/networks, it is obvious to see how the ability to control different microenvironments is desirable and would have encouraged both the Aztecs and Incas to gain such ports of trade through expansion.
For the Aztecs, this is visible with their famous marketplaces where slave trade and trade for prestigious items were in high demand. This is in comparison with the Incas who used vertical archipelago and road systems to enable agricultural flow to feed not only themselves but their dead ancestors. This comparison between some causes of expansion for the Aztecs and Incas show that the origin is unclear and cannot be attributed to a particular factor. However, as mentioned before, ideology is probably the closest one because it links all possible factors together: economical , political, and social.
Besides playing an important role in promoting expansion, ideology also explains why the Aztecs and Incas ultimately faced crises that led to their downfall. Although it was helpful in the short-term for rapid expansion, in the long run it created an imbalance between population and limited resources. This conflict occurred for the Aztecs as they reached their expansion limits and strained to provide sufficient victims for human sacrifice, as demonstrated when they resorted to arranging “flower wars”.
For the Incas, this problem manifested itself as the living battled with the dead (or traditional panaqa families that resisted the idea of redistributing lands of the cults) for limited resources. In both cases, ideology created situations of tension and decline because they were not helpful for maintaining a stable state structure in the long-term. Although ideology was a powerful factor underlying expansion, there is still controversy over this belief. The most important of these focus on free will, cultural evolution, and dynamic ideologies.
The free will theory believes that the importance of ideology lies in interest groups that modify and change social structures. It finds social theories problematic because they concentrate too much on social patterns and do not consider individuals who act outside of them. It places special emphasis on interest groups who modify existing social institutions through religious reformations, consequently causing further social, economic, and political changes. The cultural evolution theory analyzes religion as an active role in cultural evolution in contrast to other theories that give it passive one. This theory does so in order to understand changes in terms of social and religious relations, taking into account “super-structural” elements. These “super-structural” elements are believed to play active roles that directly impact “relations of production” and the economic base. Consequently, elements of religion are believed to be directly involved in the economic and political workings of society. Because it is essentially a revamped Marxist school of thought, it is considered Structural Marxism and believes religion can create a new social reality.
The dynamic ideology theory is arguably the most important of all these theories because it believes religion does not only legitimize social structure; it is the driving force that creates new social realities and changes. This theory stands out from the rest because it claims ideology modifies and determines the way economics and politics function in society; ideology does more than play a direct or indirect role, it instigates and determines the direction of economic and political changes in that society. This theory expresses the idea that ideology is not just a reflection of what happens or changes in society.
Instead, ideology is a mechanism that establishes those changes. Between the Aztecs and Incas, we can trace many similarities between the two processes of expansion. Both societies adopted religious institutions that encouraged and were helpful for rapid expansion and both institutions proved to be a problem in the long term for the stability of the state. Factors such as agriculture potential and environmental diversity further assisted the expansion of the Aztecs and Incas although they cannot be considered the dominant driving force behind expansion.
Technically, one particular factor cannot be isolated to be the sole determining factor for expansion. The interaction of social, economic, and political functions of society in relation with religion and ideology forms a much more comprehensive origin of expansion that is much more complex than environmental or demographic factors. Beyond this, it is even more useful to consider the ideas behind the theories explaining expansion. It is interesting to see these theories dive deeper and raise questions to consider, showing that there are still many unanswered questions and uncertain hypotheses left to think about.