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Latin America, pre-Columbian and indigenous thought in

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-ZA017-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

The term ‘pre-Columbian thought’ refers to the set of beliefs and ideas held by the civilizations existing in Latin America prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Research in pre-Columbian thought poses several questions linked to language, interpretation, chronology and cultural diversity. They can roughly be organized according to the three main regions in which the indigenous cultures flourished upon the arrival of the Spanish invaders: Nahuatl/Aztec in central and southern Mexico, Quiché/Maya from Yucatan in southern Mexico to Honduras in central America and Quechua/Inca, from Ecuador to northern Chile. They each correspond to an empire into which previously many diverse, distinguishable peoples were assimilated. Since the Spanish invaders had destroyed most of their ‘heretical’ cultural objects by 1550, the question arises whether an accurate knowledge of their thought can be obtained.

Some ethnohistorians believe that each of the aforementioned cultures developed a hieroglyphic system of codification and documentation, called Codices, to preserve their theocosmogony, history and wisdom. Since the sixteenth century, however, it is known with certainty that only the Aztec and Mayan cultures developed such a system. According to some historians, the Incan culture did not use any kind of writing. They probably created ‘paintings’, as the Spaniards called their hieroglyphs, but these were totally destroyed.

It is known that all pre-Columbian religions worshipped the events and forces of nature. The term used to name them was translated into Spanish as ‘gods’ when they were acceptable, or ‘demons’ when they seemed heretical – the indigenous peoples were polytheistic. The gods did not dwell in a region beyond our world, but rather populated it and were actively intertwined with it. All pre-Columbian cultures believed the sun to be the highest deity. The universe was conceived as a holistic structure in which human life, society and the gods were parts of an interrelated universe. Beyond these, however, the three cultures believed in an intangible, abstract deity, or principle, which ruled above all others.

The sun, being the highest tangible deity, led the priests of these cultures to observe the skies. Based on a highly developed knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, they established an accurate solar calendar.

Citing this article:
Schrenk, Laura Mues De. Latin America, pre-Columbian and indigenous thought in, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-ZA017-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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