Yesterday evening, I got into a discussion with a friend of mine about the fierceness of the Aztecs as compared to the Mayans. Unfortunately, it was during an intermission at a Christmas concert which was about to start up again before we came to any resolution. So I decided to marshal my arguments here in print.
Two Archeologists Weigh In
Some years back, I attended a symposium at UCLA including two eminent Mesoamerican archeologists, Michael D. Coe and Nigel Davies. At one point in the discussion, they mused whether they would rather be prisoners of the Aztecs or the Mayas. Both quickly agreed that they would fare better with the Aztecs. After all, they fearfully accepted Cortes and his conquistadores despite the fact that they outnumbered his forces by thousands to one. Also, the Aztecs were an empire: If the emperor (Moctezuma) said the Spanish were welcome, then the welcome mat was unrolled for them everywhere in the empire.
The Maya, on the other hand, lived in decentralized city states which, in the Postclassic period, were ruled by merchants and nobles. If Tiho (present-day Merida) accepted the Spanish—which they most certainly did not—there were other Maya city states nearby such as Mayapán, Cobá, and Calakmul which may or may not. The Maya were never unified. Even today, there are some twenty-eight Mayan dialects among the eight million Maya living in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Who Was Stronger?
Cortes didn’t take long to conquer the Aztecs, only about a year or two. After that, the Aztec culture went into a precipitous decline. Today, there are few speakers of the Nahuatl language around, and few Aztec religious rituals practiced by those Nahuatl speakers.
The Maya were eventually conquered by the Spanish, but only after almost two hundred years of warfare. In 1697, Martín de Ursúa y Arismendi attacked the last Maya sate, Tayasal, with hundreds of Spanish troops and native auxiliaries.
Who Was More Fierce?
The Maya were a tough people. Imagine the lives led by their god/kings. On certain ceremonial occasions, they punctured their tongues or their penises with sting ray spines and let the blood drip onto pieces of paper which they sacrificed to the gods. And the various Maya polities frequently fought wars with one another. When a king lost, he was sacrificed in a bloody ritual.
The Aztecs also went in for human sacrifice, but the Maya have been known to resort to cannibalism of their victims.
I think that Coe and Davies were right: You’d have a much better chance of surviving with the wavering Moctezuma than with the Maya.