Civilization and the History of Latin America

A video essay by Steve Anderson on the major characteristics of a civilization, including an excerpt from the BBC television series, “Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark” (1969).

Video referencES

Video transcript

Video References

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View of Tenochtitlan, capital city of the Aztecs

00:00 – 00:34

An artistic rendering of Tenochtitlan, circa 1500, by Thomas Filsinger in 2005. The capital of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan was a floating city traveled by canoe and causeway. On the right side of the image is the levee built under the reign of Nezahualcoyotl. This barrier in the lake separated the fresh spring waters of Chapultapec on the left side of the lake, from the brackish waters on the right. In the colonial period the lakes were drained, and modern Mexico City was built on top of the Aztec ruins. Because of the valley’s geography and history as a lakebed, heavy stone buildings are sinking into the ground, and drought is a constant problem for Mexico City’s residents.

“Reconstrucción de México-Tenochtitlan ca. 1500”. Thomas Filsinger y Antonio González Cuesta. Mapas y Vistas del Anáhuac. Espacio y Tiempo en la Cuenca y la Ciudad de México, 1325-2000.

Remebering the Cuban Missile Crisis (Image 2 of 28)

00:35 – 00:41

Remembering the Cuban Missile Crisis: 50 Years from the Brink of Armageddon

“Onlookers gather on George Smathers Beach in Key West, Florida to see the Army’s Hawk anti-aircraft missiles positioned there during Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962.” (Underwood Archives / Getty Images)

Remebering the Cuban Missile Crisis (Image 1 of 28)

00:42 – 00:49

Remembering the Cuban Missile Crisis: 50 Years from the Brink of Armageddon

“This 1962 newspaper map from the Cuban Missile Crisis shows the distances from Cuba of various cities on the North American Continent.” (Bettmann / CORBIS)

Civilisation, A Personal View by Kenneth Clark

00:50 – 04:49

BBC, television series, 1969
Introduction from “The Skin of Our Teeth,” Episode 1

The Meeting of Cortés and Moctezuma

05:15 – 05:28

Second half of the seventeenth century.
Oil on canvas.
Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (092.00.00)

“Moctezuma, leader of the Aztec empire, and Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés meet for the first time outside the city on the shores of Lake Texcoco.”

LOC, Exploring the Early Americas, “The Meeting of Cortés and Moctezuma”

Santiago Matamoros, or Saint James the Moor-slayer

05:29 – 05:50

Statue of St. James, the Moor Slayer, Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba, Cordoba, Spain
— Photograph by Marshall Henrie – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0:

Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca

(Glyphe de Cholula Tlachihual)
05:51 – 06:05

Mexico, A.D. 1547-60
European paper and pigment
52 leaves: 11 13/16 x 8 11/16 in. (30 x 22 cm)
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, Dept. of Manuscrits orientaux
Mexicain (46-58; RC-B-04492; RC-C-14947)

LACMA, Children of the Plumed Serpent exhibit, June 2012
Photograph of codex by Steve Anderson


06:06 – 06:20

Peru, Chuquitanta
late 15th-16th century
Knotted and plied cotten and camelid
American Museum of Natural History, Division of Anthropology, New York, B-8705
LACMA, Contested Visions exhibit, December 2011
Photograph of quipu by Steve Anderson

“A brillantly conceived recording device that was portable and had infinite number capability, the quipu was essential to the complex administration of the massive Inca Empire and is still used today in some towns. Based on a system of colored and knotted cords, quipus kept track of everything, including provincial populations, contents of huge storehouses, hours of compulsory labor and supplues, and amounts of offerings to the many gods worshipped by the Inca and their subjects.” LACMA, Contested Visions, December 2011

Characteristics of a Civilization

06:21 – 08:46

The eight characteristics of a civilization are listed below in the video transcript.

I added the eighth characteristic, and the first seven are from World History, Vol. 1 to 1800, 6th edition, William J. Duiker and Jackson J. Spielvogel, Cengage Learning, 2010. (Google Books link)

Folding Screen with the Conquest of Mexico (front) and View of the City of Mexico (back)

08:47 – 09:12

Mexico, late 17th century
Oil on canvas
Collection of Vera Da Costa Autrey
LACMA, Contested Visions exhibit, December 2011
Photographs of the folding screen by Steve Anderson

“This Asian-inspired folding screen (biombo) depicts the conquest of Tenochtitlan on one side, from Moctezuma’s reception of the conquistador Hernán Cortés to the rebellion against the Aztec emperor. In the center, Moctezuma is stoned by his own people, adhering to the view of the conquest promoted by Spanish authors, who blamed the Aztecs for the ruler’s death.
The reverse depicts the viceregal capital as an orderly city filled with plazas, fountains, and aqueducts. The implication of the two sides is clear. Following the arrival of the Spaniards, Mexico had been transformed from a pagan, chaotic site of conflict to a spacious and orderly Christian city.” LACMA, Contested Visions exhibit, December 2011

Video transcript

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Civilization and the History of Latin America

I’m Steve Anderson, and in this video essay we’ll take a look at Civilization and The History of Latin America.

This video essay is about 10 minutes in length, and by the end we should have a good understanding of the major characteristics of complex societies.

Within this video essay is a short clip, about 2 minutes, of Kenneth Clark from the BBC video series, “Civilisation” produced in 1969.
Clark discusses the long span of Western civilization and the importance of art in studying history.

As we go forward through the class, some of the points Clark is making about the fragility of civilization will become more clear, especially when we study the Cuban Missile Crisis in the weeks to come.

So now we’ll watch the short clip here with Clark, and I’ll return after the clip to add more perspective to the idea of civilization.

(Excerpt from, “Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark,” BBC, 1969)

Ruskin said, “great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts – the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art.”

Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last. On the whole, I think this is true.

Looking at those great works of Western man, and remembering all that he’s achieved in philosophy, poetry, science, law making, it does seem hard to believe that European civilisation can ever vanish.

And yet you know, it has happened once.

All the life giving human activities that we lump together under the word “civilisation” have been obliterated once in Western Europe – when the barbarians ran over the Roman Empire.

For two centuries the heart of European civilization almost stopped beating — we got through by the skin of our teeth.

In the last few years, we developed an uneasy feeling that this could happen again. (The Cuban Missile Crisis)

And advanced thinkers, who even in Roman times thought it fine to gang up on the barbarians, have begun to question if civilisation is worth preserving.

Well, this is why it seems to me a good moment to look at some of the ways in which man has shown himself to be an intelligent, creative, orderly, and compassionate animal.

And the time to begin looking is the time when the old world of Greece and Rome had collapsed, and the new world of Western Europe had not produced anything that one could call “civilisation.”

What is civilisation? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms, yet.

But I think I can recognize it when I see it, and I’m looking at it now.

If I had to say, which was telling the truth about society – a speech by a Minister of Housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings.

But this doesn’t mean that the history of civilisation is the history of art, far from it.

Great works of art can be produced in barbarous societies, in fact the very narrowness of primitive society gives their ornamental art a peculiar concentration and vitality.

At some time in the 9th century, a monk must have looked down in the river Seine, and seen the prow of a Viking ship coming up the river.

Looked at today, it’s a powerful work of art. But, to the mother of a family trying to settle down in her little hut, it would have seemed less agreeable.

As menacing to her civilisation as the periscope of a nuclear submarine.

A powerful work of art – more moving, to most of us, than this Greco-Roman head.

And yet, this is from the figure that was once the most admired piece of sculpture in the world, the Apollo of the Belvedere.

Well, whatever its merits as a work of art, the Apollo surely embodies a higher state of civilisation than the Viking prow.

The Northern imagination takes shape in an image of fear and darkness.

The Hellenistic imagination, in an image of harmonized proportion and human reason.

(back to the commentary by Steve Anderson)

In the beginning of the video clip, Clark cites the author, John Ruskin, remarking that “great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts – the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art.”

Together, we might simply call these three metaphorical manuscripts, “history.”

Our class begins with the study of two separate civilizations. The Spaniards, who became the conquerors of the New World. And the indigenous peoples of the Americas, as viewed through the great empires of the Maya, Aztec, and Inca.

The Western culture of the Spaniards aligns with Clark’s idea of the three manuscripts – written in stories of deeds, battles, and conquests; the religious texts of Islam, Judaism, and Catholicism; and also art itself, which often portrayed the close relationship between militarism and religion.

For the indigenous peoples of the Americas, written words were not to be found. In their place was a mixture of symbols and ideas, a history written in the form of a codex with images and pictographs explaining the indigenous past.

The Inca also used knotted strings or quipus to record their history, and Mesoamerican and South American peoples used oral storytelling as a way of sharing information about their culture and its past.

Overall, there are 8 general qualities of a civilization:

  • First is an urban focus
    • Which means that people tend to gather in cities, with buildings, roads, and networks of communication.
  • Next are political and military structures
    • Politics and military concerns often work together, with elected or hereditary political leaders also having certain responsibilities for protection and defense.
  • Third is a social structure based on economics
    • This means that goods and labor are exchanged for items of value, and trade networks exist to supply demands for food and other materials.
  • Fourth is material complexity
    • What this refers to is the idea of luxury goods, basically these are things that aren’t necessary for survival, but they help to reinforce the political, military, and religious hierarchies.
  • Fifth is a distinct religious structure, which can also be thought of as cosmovisión (Spanish Wikipedia) or a way of understanding the universe, and our place within it.
    • As with politics and the military, religion in complex societies is often intertwined with the needs of the state – and political, military, and religious leaders must also work together.
  • Sixth is the development of writing or record keeping
    • Along with written text, this also includes the pictographs found in codices, or the codex, as well as the knotted strings of the quipu.
    • One of the most important needs of a civilization or state, is a census, an accounting of the people and the goods that circulate within the city or region.
  • Seventh is artistic and intellectual activity
    • Many times the work of artists is sponsored by political, military, or religious leaders, and artwork often helps reinforce social standards and shared ideas.
  • Lastly, or eighth, is a stable geographic region
    • While heavy rain and flooding are common in many parts of Latin America, as well as earthquakes especially in the Andes, a relatively stable geographic region is necessary to support the other seven characteristics.
    • More important than the impact of a certain storm or the violent shaking of a particular earthquake is the awareness of those factors, and the ability of a society to plan for those occurrences on a regular basis. Here, stability also means predictability.

As we move forward with the class, and study various peoples in different times and places across Latin America, keep in mind these 8 characteristics of a civilization or complex society.

Consider how each component reinforces the other, and also how changing or disrupting even one of these characteristics can have a major impact on the society overall.

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