Pre-Columbian American Warfare Research Paper

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The earliest evidence of specialized arms for warfare in Mesoamerica dates to post-1150 BCE in Mexico. While North American weapons were used primarily for hunting (at least before 900 CE), Mesoamerican weaponry emphasized hand-to-hand combat and was designed to capture and kill people. Despite this greater emphasis on weapons, perhaps the most crucial element of Mesoamerican warfare was organization and discipline.

The identifiable history of specialized weaponry in pre-Columbian North and Middle America begins some three thousand years ago against a backdrop of knives, spears, and atlatls (spear throwers). These implements probably formed part of the tool inventory that accompanied the first migrants into the New World. Although they could be turned to martial use, they were primarily used for hunting animals. Armed conflicts at this point probably involved clashes between rival groups, with the weaker fleeing from the without engaging in sustained confrontations.

Emergence of Warfare

Warfare became more important after the development of the settled, agricultural communities that became widespread in Mexico between 2500 and 1400 BCE, but much later further north. (Although this article covers both North America and Mesoamerica, it will concentrate on Mesoamerica, as the development of complex society, including warfare, was more developed much earlier there, and the archaeological record is richer.) The creation of settlements paralleled the growth of political complexity and specialized weapons, which do not emerge in isolation but require complex social support. The earliest evidence of such weaponry occurs with the Olmecs of the southern Mexican Gulf coast after 1150 BCE.

Hunting tools such as atlatls were used, but it was clubs, maces, and stone-tipped spears that emerged as the most important weapons. Clubs, maces, and spears used as staff weapons (a blade set on a staff, such as a halberd in Europe) are quintessentially martial arms. Designed to capture and kill people, these arms required specialized training.

These weapons also emphasized hand-to-hand combat; spears were used for thrusting and slashing rather than throwing, and clubs and maces were used as crushers. Hand-to-hand shock weapons, not projectiles, dominated early Olmec battlefields. Defensive arms—shields, helmets, and armor—were rare among the Olmecs, perhaps reflecting their monopoly of specialized weapons of war. Whether the Olmecs employed their forces individually or in organized formations is unknown, but given the low populations of Olmec settlements—with maximum populations of about 1,500 to 2,500 people per settlement—Olmec armies were almost certainly small. Some soldiers may have accompanied merchants traveling throughout Mesoamerica, though they were for the most part employed domestically, a fact that is more easily understood when one realizes that typical march rates without roads averaged approximately 19 kilometers per day. Even merchants used dirt trails because formal stone roads had yet to be developed. The appearance of slings and spherical stone and clay shot by 900 BCE gave the Olmecs an effective projectile capability, which, combined with their shock tactics, let them dominate the battlefield for the next half millennium. And their way of war spread with them.

The Olmecs had stretched over much of central Mexico and down the Pacific coast as far as El Salvador, but around 550–500 BCE, they began withdrawing from these outlying settlements and apparently retreated back into their heartland on the Gulf coast of southern Veracruz / northern Tabasco. Following the Olmec withdrawal after 500 BCE, thrusting spears dominated elite warfare in Mesoamerica. Clubs persisted among nonurban groups, but along with maces they became less common as the use of helmets and large wood, cane, and leather shields spread. Faced with these defenses, warriors turned from clubs and maces to longer, lighter cutting, and penetrating arms. Armor also reduced the effectiveness of slings. The appearance of large bodies of opposing soldiers also suggests the emergence of formations. Specialized fortifications also emerged: there were fortifications at smaller sites for protection, but larger ones arose to dominate local regions. Walls at least tripled the strength of defenders, minimized logistical problems, and permitted the use of a larger percentage of the populace. Walls give defenders a major advantage over attackers by giving them places from which to fight with maximum protection—and with food and other supplies close at hand—while forcing the attackers to expose themselves with little or no protection. Some walls were accompanied by extensive dry moats, but many were hilltop fortifications whose altitude multiplied the difficulty of assaults.

Organizational Innovation at Teotihuacan

The next major development was organizational, combining units with reinforcing arms. At Teotihuacan, the great city of central Mexico that flourished from approximately 150 CE to between 650 and 750, some soldiers used thrusting spears and bucklers that increased mobility, while others wielded atlatls and darts with rectangular shields that offered less mobility but greater protection. These shock and projectile weapons units reinforced each other, firing on the enemy from a distance (the effective range of an atlatl was approximately 53 to 63 meters), while the spearmen closed in for hand-to-hand combat. Superior helmets of cotton quilted between fabric also appeared, affording enough protection to permit the use of smaller shields.

Using complementary units halved the number of combatants who could be brought to bear at any one time, but Teotihuacan extended military training beyond the elite, allowing it to field far larger armies than was possible when warfare was the domain of the elite only. Teotihuacan’s more open system was not adopted in other cities in Mesoamerica, but its arms were, which perhaps accounted for Teotihuacan subsequently adopting armor. By 500 CE, two types of quilted cotton armor some five-to-eight centimeters thick were in wide use in Teotihuacan’s armies. One was a full-body armor that covered all the limbs; the other was a quilted tunic reaching the knees. Both types were proof against atlatl darts fired from a distance, most spear thrusts, and virtually all stones fired from a sling.

Armor, however, was extremely costly, as all the cotton had to be imported and extensively worked, so it was probably worn by only a minority. A greater problem was that it restricted the wearers’ mobility. The advantages armor did offer were not enough to stop the tide from turning against Teotihuacan, which fell by 650–750 CE.

During Teotihuacan’s heyday, permanent settlements had also emerged in North America, and by 600, bows and arrows had spread throughout North America. At this time, there were no bows and arrows in Mesoamerica; they arrived around 1100 or shortly thereafter. Their use spread southward from the north, presumably having come originally from Asia. Bows were mainly hunting tools, but they could be used as weapons that could strike effectively at a distance and from ambush. So while there is little evidence of sustained combat in North America, clashes became more deadly.

With Teotihuacan’s demise, sizable organized armies largely vanished. Among the Maya, where armor was rare, clubs and maces persisted, often coupled with bucklers, while spearmen used long, easily transportable flexible shields. Stone-pointed thrusting spears continued to dominate, but some now boasted serrated blades running down both side of the shafts as far as a foot to produce longer slashing surfaces while remaining light.

Maya innovations spread into central Mexico around 700 CE. Thrusting spears were adopted, along with round shields carried on the left wrist to free that hand, but armor was gone. Combat was lighter and more mobile, but unsuited to large-scale conquest, and was associated with groups in hilltop fortifications rather than with conventional armies.

Developments in North America

Warfare was becoming endemic in North America after 900 CE, owing at least in part to the increased reliance on a better array of crops (notably corn), which led to larger, more tightly-knit and clustered settlements and the political leadership that comes with them. Armed with bows and arrows, nomadic groups preyed on the settled, and settled groups also clashed with each other. As time went by, warfare became more organized and complex, especially in the Southwest and Southeast after 1000 CE. Many settlements became centralized, defensive sites were occupied, and military societies emerged, though with the exception of what may have been oak swords, little new weaponry was developed. In the Southeast, no armor emerged, but bladed clubs were used, indicating specialized warrior groups, and major towns now had palisades, all signs of more centralized polities. Heads were taken as trophies.

Developments in Mesoamerica, 900–1200

The next major shift in central Mexico came with the Toltecs, the major power in the region from approximately 900 to 1200. The Toltecs combined atlatls, knives, and a curved, bladed, wooden short sword with round shields and light body armor. The wrist-borne shields freed the left hand to carry darts, which soldiers could fire until they met the enemy, whereupon they shifted to swords: a single combatant thus had both projectile power prior to closing and a light shock weapon. Fortification declined with the rise of this offensive emphasis.

Arms and armors did not change significantly in the Maya area at that time, except as they were introduced from central Mexico. But one development had a significant military consequence. In some areas, Maya roads built for all-weather, swift movements were used to link internal political regions militarily.

Siege craft was never well developed in Mesoamerica, owing to logistical constraints that rendered it extremely difficult to maintain an attack on a distant region unless walls could not be quickly breeched or scaled with ladders. There is evidence of a stationary siege tower built to pour counterfire on the defenders of a pyramid temple in tenth-century Yucatan, but generally combat comprised the clash of opposing armies, and Toltec light infantry dominated the battlefield until their downfall. The Toltec demise may have been hastened by the influx of peoples from the ever-drier north, who brought bows and arrows into central Mexico for the first time and disrupted the flow of trade with their hit-and-run tactics, against which large conventional armies were ill suited.

Aztec Warfare

The Aztecs, who became established in central Mexico in the early 1300s and whose empire flourished from 1430 to 1521, made the last major weapons innovations. Under their empire, a preindustrial military complex supplied the imperial center with materials not available locally, or manufactured elsewhere. The main Aztec projectiles were arrows shot from bows and darts shot from atlatls, augmented by slingers. Arrows could reach well over a hundred meters—and sling stones much farther—but the effective range of atlatl darts (as mentioned earlier, about 60 meters) limited the beginning of all barrages to that range. The principle shock weapons were long, straight oak broadswords with obsidian blades glued into grooves on both sides, and thrusting spears with bladed extended heads. These arms culminated a long developmental history in which faster, lighter arms with increasingly greater cutting surface were substituted for slower, heavier crushing weapons. Knives persisted, but were used principally for the coup de grace. Armor consisted of quilted cotton jerkins, covering only the trunk of the body, leaving limbs unencumbered and the head free, which could be covered by a full suit of feathers or leather according to accomplishment. Warriors also carried 60-centimeter round shields on the left wrist. Where cotton was scarce, maguey (fiber from agave plants) was also fabricated into armor, but the long, straight fiber lacked the resilience and warmth of cotton. In west Mexico, where clubs and maces persisted, warriors protected themselves with barrel armor—a cylindrical body encasement presumably made of leather.

City walls and hilltop strongholds continued into Aztec times, but construction limitations rendered it too costly to enclose large areas. Built in a lake, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan lacked the need for extensive defenses, though the causeways that linked it to the shore had both fortifications and removable wooden bridges.

By Aztec times, if not far earlier, chili fires were used to smoke out fortified defenders, provided the wind cooperated. Poisons were known, but not used in battle, so blowguns were relegated to birding and sport. Where there were sizable bodies of water, battles were fought from rafts and canoes. More importantly, especially in the Valley of Mexico, canoe transports were crucial for deploying soldiers quickly and efficiently throughout the lake system. By the time of the Spanish conquest, some canoes were armored with wooden defensive works that were impermeable to projectiles.

The Importance of Organization

Despite the great emphasis placed on weaponry, perhaps the most crucial element in warfare in Mesoamerica was organization. Marshaling, dispatching, and supplying an army of considerable size for any distance or duration required great planning and coordination. Human porters bearing supplies accompanied armies in the vanguard (the body of the army); tribute empires were organized to maintain roads and provide foodstuffs to armies en route, allowing imperial forces to travel farther and faster than their opponents; and cartographers mapped out routes, nightly stops, obstacles, and water sources to permit the march and coordinate the timely meeting of multiple armies at the target.

What distinguished Mexican imperial combat from combat in North America was less technological than organizational. More effective weapons are less important than disciplining an army to sustain an assault in the face of opposition; that task requires a political structure capable not merely of training soldiers, but of punishing them if they fail to carry out commands. Polities with the power to execute soldiers for disobedience emerged in Mexico but not in North America; those polities had a decisive advantage over their competitors.

In North America, chiefdoms dominated the Southeast beginning after 900 CE, and wars were waged for status and political domination, but the chiefdoms of the Southwest had disintegrated after 1200 CE, and pueblos had emerged from the wreckage. (We use the term pueblos to refer to the settled tribal communities of the Southwest, but chiefdom is a political term that reflects the power of the chief, which was greater than that exercised by the puebloan societies after the collapse around 1200 CE.) There too warfare played a role, though for the pueblos wars were often defensive engagements against increasing numbers of nomadic groups. The golden age of North American Indian warfare emerged only after the arrival of Europeans, their arms, and horses. But even then, in the absence of Mesoamerican-style centralized political authority, individual goals, surprise attacks, and hit-and-run tactics dominated the battlefield, not sustained combat in the face of determined opposition.


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