General Question

gondwanalon's avatar

Who do you think were worse, the Spanish conquistadors of the 1500’s or the Inca, Aztec and Maya?

Asked by gondwanalon (21017points) February 21st, 2021

My DNA is 10% indigenous El Salvadoran. So I thought that I’d learn about some history of Central and South American Indians. Just looking at the dark side, pre Colombian Indian empires of Inca, Aztec and Maya were largely engaged in aggressive and violent warfare for political and resources control. They also had slaves and engaged in human sacrifice (including children to a large extent) and cannibalism.

Of course the Spanish conquistadors were guilty of atrocities but no worse than the weaker empires they conquered.

Who were the bad guys? I think the Inca, Aztec and Maya were quite exceptionally bad and the Conquistadors just mediocre bad.

What do you think?

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19 Answers

stanleybmanly's avatar

I think it’s pointless to attempt to gauge any of the civilizations mentioned in regards to ruthlessness. While the indigenous peoples excelled at gruesome human sacrifices as a matter of routine, the conquistadors proved quite capable of matching their ferocity at inflicting horrors at the mere mention of even imaginary gold to plunder.

Demosthenes's avatar

Well, I think it’s important to not view pre-Columbian Americans as “noble savages” who lived in peace and harmony until the evil Europeans came. They were human beings, and like all humans they could be greedy, ferocious, and corrupt, just like the conquering Europeans. The Spanish certainly viewed the indigenous Americans as inferiors whose culture was worthy of destruction, but the indigenous Americans could be just as savage to each other. I don’t think it’s a question of “who’s worse”, but the effects of colonialism aren’t mitigated because the indigenous Americans “were bad too”.

sadiesayit's avatar

I find myself wondering about the purpose of this question. @gondwanalon, what would it mean for the American civilizations to be deemed “better” or “worse” than the invading Spanish?

To try and answer the question, I think a reasonable rule of thumb is:

If you’re conquering, plundering, and enslaving, you’re “worse” than the peoples you’re conquering, plundering, and enslaving.

It would be like if extra-terrestrials arrived on earth to take over countries, steal things of value, and capture humans for forced labor—they don’t get to say, “well, you’ve conquered, plundered, and enslaved each other in ways we think are more violent and brutal than what we’re doing, so what we’re doing is actually better.”

Zaku's avatar

The Spanish conquistadors, of course. They were invaders who destroyed entire cultures. Even entire world views.

The Inca, Aztec and Maya deserve to be studied and understood from their own cultural context. Unfortunately that’s a bit challenging to do, because of how thoroughly they were destroyed by Europeans. Europeans practiced slavery too. Even human sacrifice can be understood in a more benign way than an outside culture sees it (especially self-righteous Christian-based perspectives). Europeans have practiced human sacrifice too, both literally and in terms of other service choices that lead to death for the betterment of the community.

An imperialist perspective that says it’s ok to wipe out another culture and replace it with your own occupation and replacement culture, basically says the other culture’s whole world view is invalid and doesn’t deserve to exist.

The only thing that comes to my mind as being worse than that, is the mindset that other species and their habitats don’t deserve to exist, and that we shouldn’t protect them from destruction by our industrial excesses. Or that there’s no option but to drive other species to extinction, and to destroy entire habitats and ecosystems so that the rich can continue to get richer faster.

To my mind, the cultures and ways of thinking that destroy other cultures and entire species, ecosystems, and habitats, are the ones that need to stop existing in forms that think those ways.

hello321's avatar

The Spanish Conquistadors.

But like @sadiesayit said above, the purpose – or the origin – of the question is interesting. If we were to decide to rate the actions of imperialists based on supposed problems with the victims of imperialism, we’d quickly have to advocate for a complete invasion and colonization of the United States.

gondwanalon's avatar

The purpose and origin of this quest is simple. I was trying to decide who were the bad guys and simply wonder what others thought.

I appreciate the interesting responses. Thanks for that.

In the past I’ve always thought that the Conquistadors were the bad guys. But after learning of the brutal nature of the stated indigenous people I’ve reconsidered. The sacrificing innocent children in such barbaric and brutal ways is just beyond the scope of a reasonable mind to comprehend. The Inca like to drug select kids with cocaine and alcohol and club them to death on mountain tops. Maya and Aztec like to cut their kid’s hearts out on the tops of their pyramids (but not before torturing the kids to make them cry innocent tears). Before pyramids were built, Pre Inca liked to cut select kid’s hearts out while overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

If the Native American people had the know how, advance ships and advanced weapons over the European back in 1500 then would they take advantage? Observing how they treated each other leads me to think that they likely would have. And they likely would not cared much for maintaining any of the European culture that got in their way.

flutherother's avatar

The Spanish conquistadors’ purpose was mass killing and the annihilation of native South American cultures for gold. That is difficult to justify, but one way of doing it is to stress the human sacrifice aspect of the people you are murdering.

Zaku's avatar

I think it would be a mistake to assume that you know how the Aztecs, Incas, or Maya thought or were, especially if only thinking about through the lens of what you think you know about their attitude to child sacrifices, and trying to apply that to what they would or wouldn’t do to other cultures.

gondwanalon's avatar

I don’t assume to know what I know about the Inca, Aztec and Mayan cultures. I read about their culture through archeological discovery. If you want I can provide references.

True that the Spanish Conquistadors used the horrors that they discovered to help them justify their atrocities. But they certainly didn’t have to exaggerate.

Mimishu1995's avatar

I like @sadiesayit‘s analogy of aliens. However, I lean more on @stanleybmanly and @Demosthenes. It’s pointless to try to find out who is worse than who. I’m pretty sure human would jump at the chance to invade another planet we are kind of doing that already with the Moon and Mars, and I could be wrong, but I remember that some Native tribes had wars with each other to dominate each other. I believe the Native saw the sacrifice as necessary honor for their Gods, just like some religious colonists who genuinely believed they were saving the Native from damnation. Both sides are just humans with flaws and all.

And I’d also like to see your reference too :)

zenvelo's avatar

”...decide who were the bad guys.” That statement is too enmeshed in binary thinking, that one group is good and the other bad.

Consider the Franciscans. They believe from the deepest part of their hearts that they were saving the souls of indigenous people, doing God’s work on earth with all humility. Yet nowadays no one would try to justify their enslavement of indigenous tribes and slaughter of thousands. Were the Franciscans bad? Are you asking from a 16th century perspective or from a 21st century perspective.

The Maya, Aztec, and Inca civilizations were only brutal if viewed from a 21st century perspective.

JLeslie's avatar

Everyone was bad. Who was worse is almost impossible to say.

The Spanish were the invaders and aggressors so in a way they instigated any battles or wars. We don’t know how the indigenous people in that part of the Americas might have progressed without the influence of Europeans.

Stories of sacrificing children, do we know how often that was happening? Was that just a few select tribes while the vast majority would never contemplate such a horror? Many Europeans treated children like servants and slaves.

gondwanalon's avatar

Thanks @zenvelo it’s good to know that I’m a binary thinker. Well I guess that that clears everything up. You are so kind. I don’t think that tortured and terrified Maya, Aztec and Inca children had a positive perspective on the brutal death that they were about to experience.

People are capable of doing evil things (in the past, present and future) in the interest of religion and conquest if there are no checks and balances.

All I was trying to do was learn about the Inca, Maya and Aztec cultures because some of my DNA is from Central America. Not much of what I learned was good.

Here’s just a few of the references. There was one reference that I can’t find of a very recent architectural dig that show a horrific slaughter. First the Inca attacked and killed all members of a small Spanish settlement (including men, women and children). The Spanish retaliated and did more that wipe out an Inca village, they hacked the dead bodies up into pieces.

Call_Me_Jay's avatar

I have not read the responses above.

In my mind, the conquistadors maybe committed the worst genocide of the past 500 (maybe 1,000) years, because they destroyed advanced cultures completely.

The Holocaust eliminated a HUGE percentage of Jews, but the culture and memories survived. The Jewish tradition of Europe exists, probably mostly because of the diaspora to America.

In contrast, the Mesoamerican world is gone. It is archeology.

capet's avatar

Obviously they both did terrible things, the conquistadors caused much more death and destruction, the question is subjective, the answer doesn’t matter, and we don’t want to play into civilizational/racialized narratives that draw hard lines between different cultures and ascribe essential features to them.

But I think it’s also obvious that you know all that and I’m taking the question in the spirit in which it seems to have been intended: You seem to want some fun “ESPN top 10 bad guys” type discussion and I will give you my banter:

I think the conquistadors are worse because
a. they clearly did not have to do what they did to survive, they could have just hung out in southern Europe;
b. we have documented evidence from the time of people who knew better (like certain parts of the church, etc), so you can’t easily excuse what they did based on their culture;
c. the conquistadors share more cultural elements with most modern people (since various white cultures have pretty much taken over the world), so it’s more important for us to hate them than to hate various indigenous leaders from the past (so we learn the lessons of what not to do).

gondwanalon's avatar

The Holocaust was an organized and intensional evil attempt to wipe out the Jews.

The conquistadors mostly unintentionally wiped out the Maya, Aztec, Inca and likely others through European diseases (small pox, measles and mumps). No one had a clue about microbes back then.

capet's avatar

@gondwanalon You’re right about the microbes and the Holocaust. Unfortunately we’ll never know how the conquistadors would have acted had they known about the potential for their diseases to kill so many. This just underscores a broader point about how it’s tough to make moral judgments about the past.


I have a guess as to what the conquistadors and their associates/descendants would have done. Some of them would probably have ignored it, some would have tried to slow the spread. Most would probably have done whatever it took to maximize their landholdings, just like the other colonists (not just white) from that time. And of course, the most impactful few would probably have infected the natives on purpose, just as colonists like Amherst did once the information became available.

Also, a quick google of spanish monks disease south america pointed me here: ; based on this it looks like there was a monk hanging out with Cortes who already knew what was up. According to the linked article, that Monk wrote this:

“As the Indians did not know the remedy of the disease, they died in heaps, like bedbugs. In many places it happened that everyone in a house died, and as it was impossible to bury the great number of dead, they pulled down the houses over them, so that their homes became their tombs.”

gondwanalon's avatar

@capet Thanks for your thoughts.

Interesting how the monk realized what was happening. So horrible. And yet I think that it would have been highly unlikely that the Spanish conquistadors would have taken much of an effort the stop the pandemic even if they could.

As you likely know, there was no remedy or cure for the small pox virus (or measles or mumps) back in the 1500’s.

capet's avatar

@gondwanalon Yeah, I’m afraid you’re right…..

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