Pre–Columbian Education

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Pre–Columbian Education

The Aztec, Inca, and Maya of ancient America had formal educational systems. Although the Inca and Maya generally restricted formal training to the nobility, the Aztecs or Mexica educated the children of each calpulli in Tenochtitlán. The Aztecs established two schools, one for the nobility and the other for commoners. Noble Aztec boys received training to become political leaders or priests in the calmecacs that were attached to their temples. Since the Aztecs dedicated each calmecac to a different Aztec deity, training varied from school to school, but officials in all calmecacs dealt severely with their pupils. They ordered serious offenders, such as drunkards, to be shot with arrows or to be burned to death. Harsh punishments helped train future political and military leaders to endure pain in battle or in ritual bloodletting ceremonies.

By the age of fifteen, sons of Aztec commoners were given a military education in the telpochcalli, or "young men's house." School officials trained the boys to use weapons and to capture victims because, if needed, every young adult male went to war. These young men also performed manual labor, such as tending fields, which strengthened their bodies and helped them develop stamina and self-discipline.

The Aztecs insisted that all children, including girls, between the ages of twelve and fifteen train in the cuicacalli, or "house of song" for a few hours each evening. They memorized songs and poetry that told them of their past and helped them understand what their relationship with their various gods should be. Although some daughters of the nobility were sent to temples to train as priestesses, most mothers taught their daughters skills, such as spinning cotton or grinding maize on the mano and metate, that would enable them to be efficient housewives.

Much like the Aztecs, the Inca educated men and women of the nobility in Cuzco at the Coricancha. Garcilaso de la Vega wrote that Inca Roca, the sixth Inca and first "emperor," felt "it was proper that the sons of common people should not learn the sciences, and that these should be restricted to the nobility." The Inca expected children of commoners to begin serving the empire at an early age in order to help their families meet their quota for the Inca. Instruction would have interfered with service time.

Since the Spanish esteemed alphabetic languages, they assumed that Native Americans, who had not developed alphabetic writing, did not have active intellectuals. However, Amautas, philosophers held in high esteem, taught in schools for the Inca nobility and for the sons of rulers the Inca conquered. They focused on religious instruction, principles of government administration, Inca history, public speaking, the use of the quipu, and the official language, Quechua. The entire course of elite instruction culminated in a military-style examination (the huarachicoy). Inca officials collected a select number of girls—chosen for their beauty, pleasant dispositions, or good figures—as acllas (the chosen ones). For five years, mamaconas (cloistered women dedicated to the services of their gods) taught young girls between the ages of eight or nine and fourteen the arts of brewing chica (maize beer) and weaving fine textiles, after which a select few were sent to Cuzco, where the Inca assigned some to a cloistered religious life in the temples or redistributed others as wives to relatives of the Inca or neighboring lords.

The Maya, much like the Inca, educated their nobility. The sons of Maya lords and priests learned to read hieroglyphic texts or to study the movement of the stars and planets under the direction of priests. Much learning may also have occurred at the village warrior houses, where young men gathered to play ball and lived together until marriage. Sons of commoners spent most of the day with their fathers helping them in the cornfields or with other work, while daughters remained at home with their mothers, who taught them spinning, weaving, and other household tasks.

See alsoAmauta; Aztecs; Calpulli; Incas, The; Maya, The; Quechua; Quipu.


Friar Diego De Landa, Yucatán Before and After the Conquest (1566; repr. 1978).

Father Bernabé Cobo, History of the Inca Empire (1657; repr. 1988).

Huaman Poma, Letter to a King, translated by Christopher Dilke (1978).

Frances F. Berdan, The Aztecs of Central Mexico (1982).

Fray Bernadino De Sahagún, Florentine Codex, vols. 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 10 (1982).

Brian Fagan, The Aztecs (1984).

Nancy Farriss, Maya Society Under Colonial Rule (1984).

R. Tom Zuidema, Inca Civilization in Cuzco (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs: An Interpretation. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Demarest, Arthur Andrew. Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

García Márquez, Agustín. Los aztecas en el centro de Veracruz. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, Programa de Posgrado en Estudios Mesoamericanos, 2005.

Guamán Poma de Ayala, Felipe. The First New Chronicle and Good Government. Abridged. Translated by David Frye. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2006.

Hassig, Ross. Time, History, and Belief in Aztec and Colonial Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Malpass, Michael A. Daily Life in the Inca Empire. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Mignolo, Walter D. The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2nd ed., 2003.

Niles, Susan A. The Shape of Inca History: Narrative and Architecture in an Andean Empire. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Tovar, Juan de, José. Historia y creencias de los indios de México. Edited by Javier Fuente del Pilar. Transcribed into modern Castilian by Susana Urraca Uribe. Madrid: Miraguano Ediciones, 2001.

                                            Carolyn Jostock