What happened to the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca?
The great civilizations of Mexico and of Central and South America faced many internal conflicts
at the start of the sixteenth century. But their troubles became far greater when the first Spanish
explorers arrived. In 1519, Hernando Cortés landed on the Gulf of Mexico with 600 men, and plenty
of horses and guns. The last of the Aztec rulers, Montezuma II, greeted Cortés with gifts of gold
and other treasures. However, Cortés recognized an opportunity to weaken the Aztecs by allying with
groups that the Aztecs oppressed. With the help of his new allies, Cortés defeated Montezuma's forces.
Cortés then turned on his allies. By 1521, he had destroyed the Aztec Empire. Within ten years,
Cortés governed all of Mexico for Spain. Present-day Mexico City covers the area where the Aztec
capital once stood. Much of Aztec culture was destroyed, but some artifacts are now held in museums.
Ruins of the Aztec capital have been uncovered from beneath the streets of modern Mexico City.
When Christopher Columbus and his crew encountered Maya people in 1502, the Maya civilization had greatly
declined. After 900, conflicts within the Maya lands had resulted in divisions that caused the civilization
to fall from its former height. In 1523, Cortés sent Pedro de Alvarado to conquer the Maya in Guatemala.
The Maya fought back valiantly. By the mid-1500s, Spanish cities were founded in the Maya lands. Many Maya were
killed or mistreated, but a few high-ranking members of the community retained some official control.
The Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro invaded the Incan Empire in 1532, seeking riches. The Inca had already
had some contact with Europeans, and many had died of European diseases. The empire was also weakened by a civil
war between two ruling brothers. Pizarro manipulated the two sides, eventually defeating both. The Spanish took
over all the Incan lands within 40 years, taking vast quantities of gold, destroying the cities, and nearly
erasing an entire civilization. Much of what is known today about the Inca comes from archaeologists. The
mountaintop ruins of the Incan city of Machu Picchu were discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American
explorer. Located high in the Andes Mountains, the city was hidden from the Spanish and left intact.
Credits: Aztec Calendar Stone © Kimball Morrison/South American Pictures.
Top of Page