Indigenous American Historiography Research Paper

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1. Terminology

History is information handed down from generation to generation. Since information can be inherited in the form of natural objects as well as by culture itself, a basic distinction needs to be drawn between natural history and the history of civilization. The way people develop consciousness of their history is by taking information from their natural environment, their cultural artifacts, and their memory, which is then collectively conceptualized by means of interpreting, reconsidering, and agreeing on its meaning. Historical concepts resulting from this always reflect the people’s experience of their natural environment as well as their specific cultural achievements. In exceptional cases a historical concept can be limited to the individual. However, historical research is more concerned with collective concepts, since it is characteristic of human societies that mainly those dominant concepts are handed down. Thus each society cultivates a particular historical concept, which again needs to be handed down in order to become and remain effective. All cultures are alike in inheriting their historical concepts in the form of oral (stories and myths) and figural traditions (monuments). In addition to this, civilizations often use writing (books and inscriptions) as the preferred means for handing down historical concepts to future generations.

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2. America

The only people of pre-colonial America to develop a fully functioning writing system were the Lowland Maya. They used the written records to maintain knowledge of a wide thematic range and thus stored and conserved an enormous amount of cultural information from which they formed their own distinctive historical concept. Rather incomplete writing systems (picture-writing) were characteristic of their northern and western neighbors—that is in historical order the Epi-Olmecs, the Zapotecs, the Mixtecs, and the Aztecs. Taken together, these cultures form the core of the cultural area Mesoamerica, characterized by similar, and in many respects uniform, conceptions of history, and therefore can be treated to all purposes of this research paper as a unit.

On their first contacts with indigenous peoples of the Americas, the European conquerors came across various forms of picture writing that was used to note down historical events. This even occurred in some areas of North America, predominantly in the eastern woodlands and on the plains and prairies west of the Mississippi. South America was in this respect quite the reverse, even though pictorial representations in painting (Moche, Nasca), weaving (Paracas, Nasca), and rock engraving (Nasca) were highly elaborated.

The description in Sect. 3 is mainly restricted to Mesoamerica, which is distinguished from all other cultural areas by its emergent writing systems.

3. Components Of Mesoamerican History

The Mesoamerican Weltbild shows three basic components, inasmuch as the world is conceived of as consisting in discrete and ordered entities, often arranged in cycles. Connections and explanations of meaning beyond the historical facts make use of analogy, i.e., interpreting something that is identical or similar in form to be also identical in substance or related in a causal way. Another method is the reification of originally mental constructs and their material (picture-written) form of expression. This is particularly significant if information is handed down over a long time and cannot be clarified independently from written or pictorial sources. These and other methods of interpretation were operating in historical traditions, which is why they contain to a great extent patterns, topics, and stereotypes extraneous to the historical facts.

Mesoamerican cultures have also developed methods of dating. A cyclical and public calendar based on the solar year of 365 days, in addition to a ritual 260-day almanac for private and personal use that is likewise cyclical and parallels the solar calendar, are the foremost methods of dating historical events. The Lowland Maya included in their historical writing the calculation of temporary celestial phenomena like the lunar, Venus and Mars cycles, and observed the positions of planets in constellations of fixed stars; comparable to the Zodiacs of the Mediterranean cultures. They even managed the complex arithmetic of interrelations between some of these celestial cycles. Yet they accomplished only the arithmetic calculation of it, but never presented a geometrical model of the world’s system corresponding to the Ptolemaic and Copernican models.

4. Historical Topics

By means of chronology Mesoamerican people created histories (theogonies and myths) of anthropomorphic and theriomorphic deities. This is conveyed in detail particularly for the Aztecs through the Legend of the Suns (Lehmann 1938) and the famous calendar stone. Mesoamerican people believed in the existence of four or five successive world ages, each with duration of a few thousand years. Each age is quite distinct with different creatures inhabiting a world, which is then destroyed in cataclysm by water, fire, and air (wind)— the reader may note the analogy to the ancient Greek theory of the elements. A new creation marks the beginning of each world age. Not even the contemporary world age of the Aztecs around 1500 was considered to be of unlimited duration. Within the chronological framework of this age man appears relatively late, and more detailed chronological units (years, year bundles of 52 years) apply to his history. Yet Mesoamerican people connect themselves occasionally, and in a speculative way with the world of their deities anteceding the human epoch. This holds especially true for the ruling dynasties of the Maya who very often consider themselves to be descendants of the gods of preceding world ages (Palenque). Such a Mayan world age lasts exactly 1,872,000 days, which is about 5000 years. The duration of the world ages in Central Mexico is not exactly known, since their chronology is technically less developed. The interrelation of the people with their pantheon becomes, furthermore, apparent in the tutelary deities of each tribal group. These are commonly organized in citystates during Postclassic times: Quetzalcoatl for the Toltecs (capital: Tollan) around AD 900–1100 and for the Chololtecs (capital: Cholula) around AD 1000– 1500, Tohil for the Quiche (capital: Utatlan) around AD 1000–1500, and Huitzilopochtli for the Aztecs (capital: Mexico) around AD 1350–1500. In this manner origin-related, trans-historical interrelations take form in a similar way as they are known for the civilizations in the Old World (Sumer, Ancient Egypt, Babylon, Jewish culture of the Old Testament).

Tribes with their leaders, the ruling dynasties arising from them during the process of getting sedentary and their tutelary deities are the main actors of Mesoamerican history. Rulers are described with their most important rites de passage (birth, inauguration, marriage, procreation of offspring, death), martial triumphs, and—to a lesser extent—civilizing deeds (introduction of cultivated plants or technical skills). There exists the idea among Mesoamerican tribes that they originated from a distinct place, which is the tree of Apoala for the Mixtecs, the Seven Caves or the island of Aztlan in the center of a lake for the Central Mexicans and the Totonacs; and this origin is placed in an apparently rather historical not very remote time; according to the Aztec main tradition this happened in the year AD 1064. In some areas, the version of an origin in an even more historical setting, namely the city of Tollan can be encountered (Cakchiquel). This Tollan was the capital of the famous Toltecs, who were actually a historical people, admired for their skills and accomplishments. Migration myths, apart from being descriptions of historical events, which are to a certain extent factual—as far as can be concluded from language history and geography—seem to have functioned as a means of political legitimization. The successfully migrating and thus surviving tribal group legitimizes its right to rule over the traversed territories and the cities within, or at least to exert indirect political control in case the areas in question are too distant for factual dominance. After settling down, topics such as marriage alliances, conspiracies, insidious martial acts, and heroic selfsacrifice appear in the form of historical episodes. It is in these later times, when major wars between the different Mesoamerican polities become a subject of history. In Central Mexico it is learned that the Mexicans throw off the yoke of Tepanec rule by Azcapotzalco and gain completely independent status, prestige and property of lands. In the Southern Maya Lowlands the city-states of Calakmul and Tikal are at war with each other for hegemony of the region; and the Guatemalan Highlands are the scene of frequent warfare between the Mam, Quiche, and Cakchiquel. Since the range of historical accounts rarely transgresses the own polity and is immediate neighbors and never exceeds the limits of the Mesoamerican core area, ‘world history’ from the precolonial Indian perspective is very limited. Nevertheless this compares, albeit on a more narrow basis, with antique and medieval concepts of the world in Near Eastern and European cultures. No statements revealing knowledge or speculation about countries and peoples beyond this horizon can be found, even though archaeological investigations indicate external contacts in the form of trade relations with peoples far outside Mesoamerica, namely with the North American Southwest, with Panama, and with Ecuador. This seemingly odd and willful limitation of the historical horizon is characteristic for many early states and for most chiefdoms worldwide.

It is men who predominate the historical records as well as the actual political scene, and these are generally members of the nobility as all Mesoamerican societies were ranked. The historical records give special emphasis to particularly successful individuals: such as to ruler ‘8 Deer Tiger Claw’ among the Mixtecs or to the rulers ‘Pakal’ of Palenque and ‘Kakupakal’ of Chichen Itza among the Lowland Maya. In addition to politically active members of the ruling nobility, historical records of the Maya and the Aztec convey a few names of artists (painters, sculptors, poets, and performing artists), thus demonstrating to some extent interest in cultural and art history.

Taking into account that political history is predominantly the subject of men, the reader’s attention must be drawn to the occasional significance of women among the Lowland Maya, especially in the city-states of Palenque and Yaxchilan around AD 600 700. These women presumably never equaled men in rank, but gained prominence in their patrilineal societies only in order to substitute for a male heir and to uphold dynastic continuity. It remains unclear whether this role involved real implementation of power or whether it was confined to representational duties, although—in keeping with ethnological theory of gender studies—a rather representative and symbolic function is suggested. Apart from this, noble women appear as objects in marriage alliances that serve to enlarge the ruling territory and become instruments of political provocation (loot, rape, and sacrificial death).

5. Indian Reflections On History

It is impossible to give a definite description of historical thinking among the Mesoamerican Indians, since no explicit statements related to this can be found in the historical sources. It is, however, manifest that man is controlled and directed by deities to whom, he for his part, is compelled to pay tribute in the form of prayers, offerings, and cult (there are 18 major monthly feasts per year) in order to maintain and ensure the world’s existence. This is most evident in the Aztec’s dogmatic obligation of invigorating the sun on its course with sacrificed human hearts. This compulsion to human sacrifice led to those sacrificial excesses that were later witnessed by the Spanish conquerors. Prior to the conquest, several Indian philosophers had already criticized and perceived the practice of human sacrifice as incorrect by expressing their desire for the idealized Toltec times (around AD 1000) to return, when people sacrificed flowers and animals instead of human beings.

The general Mesoamerican outlook on life is pessimistic and fatalistic, which manifests itself especially in the divinatory rituals of the Maya, Zapotec, and Aztecs where negative prophecies are outnumbered by the indifferent or positive ones. The collective fatalistic behavior of the colonial Yucatec Maya and—two centuries later—of the Itza concerning their own political fate might serve as an example of this common way of thinking. However, it needs to be taken into account that the Yucatec case could well be the result of traumatic experiences during the Spanish conquest; since only colonial sources give information on this topic, it is difficult to decide, whether fatalism is a traditional or an adopted behavior. Human life is considered to be hard and fateful (like in Old Jewish faith), controlled by deities, and improvement can only be gained by religious manipulation. Consolatory is hence the Aztec concept of the otherworld, where sweet paradise awaits those who endure dangerous labor and hardship on earth, favoring warriors and childbearing women. Yet we lack a theologically differentiated comprehension of the Aztec idea of an afterlife, since this is not further described in the historical accounts. The Lowland Maya left more written and pictorial documents regarding this topic, although these have not been systematically analyzed thus far.

Rarely, reflections on antecedent cultures can be found among the descriptive historical traditions of the Central Mexican Aztecs. The major city Teotihuacan, which had been abandoned prior to Aztec times, is taken by myth as the place of origin of the gods. Earlier cultures are remembered by conserving their artifacts and imitating their products. The idealization of such a past culture—the Toltecs—has been mentioned earlier.

6. Traditions And Sources

The numerous monuments from lasting material (stone), although not yet completely understood, are an important source for historical thinking. They date back as far as 1000 BC: Beginning with sculptures portraying Olmec rulers and slabs illustrating Zapotec conquests (so called danzantes). The first real inscriptions date from the first two centuries of the Christian era, called the Epi-Olmec period. Especially noteworthy is the stela from La Mojarra, although its long inscription presumably representing the Proto-Zoquean language of the Isthmus region is not fully deciphered yet.

Vase paintings of the Maya with their pictorial and partially narrative depictions and hieroglyphic explanations are one of the chief sources for reconstructing the Mesoamerican classic from AD 300–800 AD. These vessels show painted scenes from royal palaces, royal visits, payment of tribute, or the hunting of deer and birds. All illustrations do probably depict scenes from the otherworld. Since daily life can be assumed to have served as the calcque for the concept of this otherworld, it is possible to reverse this relation in deducing every-day life of the Maya from the vase paintings. Vase paintings have been similarly exploited for reconstructing daily life of the South-American culture of Moche, which was contemporaneous but unrelated to the Maya.

Further sources of historical records are manuscripts with historical contents, which—due to their fragility—generally do not date back too far. About a dozen precolonial manuscripts and perhaps a hundred copies and extracts compiled during early colonial times have been preserved. Most are of Central Mexican (Codex Huitzilopochtli) and Mixtec (Codex Nuttall) origin.

Christian missionaries introduced the writing with the Latin alphabet in the early colonial times (AD 1520–1650). Written documents of this type are especially numerous in Central Mexico. Basically European in form, and to some extent even in content, the object of these written sources is almost completely related to the colonial situation (lawsuits dealing with inheritances, properties, and privileges). The writings obviously connect pre-Spanish traditions of picture writing with oral traditions and form a new integrated genre. In the Guatemalan highlands (Popol Vuh, Annals of the Cakchiquels), as well as with the Yucatec Maya (Books of Chilam Balam) these sources are not only less numerous but show less European influence. From other Mesoamerican regions only a few historical documents have been preserved, written in the Spanish language by Spaniards who drew on remembered information and interviews. Thus Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes reported on the Nicarao who lived at the southern periphery of Mesoamerica; the Franciscan missionary Juan de Torquemada conveyed comparable traditions of the Pipil; and the accounts of the Mixtecs by Francisco de Burgoa were comprehensive but a little concise.

A major European element in sources, which have been written in the indigenous languages but with Latin letters, is the synthesis regarding world history and natural history. This synthesis can be noted, for instance, in a general chronology drawn from the uncoordinated lists recording royal succession in individual Indian city-states as presented by the Annals of Quauhtitlan and the works of Domingo Chimalpahin. As suggested by its subdivision into 12 books, the topics, and the illustrations, the Historia General of the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun obviously resembles medieval European natural history and its antique origins (Pliny the Elder).

7. Problems Of Research

Without explanations from the creators themselves, it remains difficult to understand form and symbolism of the great range of historical objects and sources, even though researchers have presented seemingly comprehensive and highly sophisticated interpretations (in particular Eduard Seler around 1924–5). Hieroglyphic captions of Mayan vase paintings, which have been subject to serious research since the 1980s, are— although seemingly well understood—overly standardized (e.g., ‘this is the beaker for cacao belonging to X’) and, therefore, still meager in cultural content and fuzzy in context. Most inscriptions that designate singular objects like ‘earring’ or ‘[sack full of ] beans’ are short and do neither contribute to a differentiated understanding of the depicted scene, since they only name the object, nor do they help much in a broader comprehension of local history, since they only mention the owner or receiver of said object.

Although theoretically achievable, the decipherment of pictorial and hieroglyphic writing systems (Zapotecs, Epi-Olmecs, Maya, Mixtecs, Aztecs, Tetzcocans) has not been completed yet and not all documents have been thoroughly studied. The research strategy regarding these documents assumes a uniform paradigm underlying all different regional forms of pictorial and syllabic writing (Maya, Mixtec, Aztec, Tetzcocan, etc.). Nevertheless, painstaking and detailed analysis of each document, as well as methodological reasoning in decipherment and interpretation are required. Investigation should strategically begin with thematical complexes that are especially revealing because their cultural contexts are well understood, such as burials at major archaeological sites containing inscribed goods.

Texts from early colonial times (until about 1650) that have been written down in the indigenous languages by means of the Latin alphabet are easier to approach, although they are still not very well understood either. Most of these documents originated with the Aztecs, some of them with the Yucatec and Highland Maya, while there are only very few from other language groups and regions. Whereas the more technical problems of translation can be met by increasing language competence, the main problem of ethnohistory (the technical term for the discipline of history that analyses sources in the writing-systems and languages of the people studied) is to grasp concepts and metaphors, etc. from the Weltbild of the Indians. These are then interpreted in terms of European historical thinking, and their authenticity elucidated with regard to events that have actually come to pass.

Devoting more time to research of chronological problems is most likely rewarding, since Mesoamerican chronology is not only of high accuracy but also omnipresent in historical records. For the time of the Maya Classic from AD 300–900 there is not a single year without several exactly datable historical accounts. Not close by region but by time, Central Mexican historiography from approximately AD 600 until the Spanish conquest is structured with about the same amount of dates. However, due to the calendrical system, Central Mexican dates are chronologically ambiguous, since they recur every 52 years. The interrelations of dates in the different calendar systems (of Mixtec and Aztec and between Aztec and Lowland Maya), and the comparison of dates with chronological reconstructions in archaeology, and the absolute dating by way of historical astronomy, making use of permanent celestial phenomena, some day will render it possible to compile a wide-ranging historical chronological chart for the Mesoamerican core area. Because of Mesoamerica’s high civilizing and political complexity as well as its dynamics, the analysis of overarching political systems and their changes is a very important field of research. A great amount of effort has already gone into acquiring knowledge on the Post-classic times in Central Mexico, Oaxaca, and Northern-Yucatan; the Lowland Maya Classic is currently subject to politico-historical analysis (Nikolai Grube and Simon Martin). No historical events can be reconstructed for the Formative Period, in which the later Mesoamerican states emerged, since it lacks sizable written records. Yet the abundant archaeological findings of this period, including monumental sculpture and buildings, serve for assessing general theories on the emergence of the state. Such theories have made use of the respective Indian cultures, mostly Aztec an Inca, since Adolph Bandelier (1880) classified the Aztecs within the scope of an evolutionary scheme, followed over 100 years later by Stefan Breuer’s (1990) more sophisticated analysis. American cultures are particularly relevant for this kind of research because it is assumed that they developed independently of Old World civilizations.

8. Survey Of Other American Regions

With its politically tight organization and its technical achievements (metallurgy, road system) the South American cultural area of the Central Andes, which was last dominated by the Incas, can be perceived as superior to Mesoamerica. The study of historical concepts is nevertheless here rendered more difficult due to a lack of pre-colonial written records. All records of Indian history originated in early colonial times, are based on oral traditions and the system of knotted cords (quipu) only, and have been written mostly by Spaniards (Juan de Betanzos, 1551) or mestizos (Garcilaso de la Vega). They thus show the categories and forms of the European conception of history. This holds true also for writings that are sometimes considered as ‘ancient Indian’ such as the preciously illustrated Nue a Coronica y Buen Gobierno of Guaman Poma de Ayala, which is formally European in its illustrations and text, even though with mainly Indian contents. The anonymous historical drama Ollantay is according to its form and subject rather similar to a baroque theater play from Europe than being an expression for Indian thinking, albeit written in a stylistically pure form of Quechua, the language of the Inca empire, which makes it appear very Indian. The general assertion alone that something like an ‘Andean Historical Concept’ exists is not helpful. If more substantial information on the Indian historical concept of this cultural area is to be revealed, progress can be achieved only by concentrating on less spectacular administrative sources ( isitas) and by diagnostic separation of European and ancient Indian components in all sources. It should also content itself with subjects of manageable size in respect to thematical scope and regional breadth, before proceeding to generalizations.

In conception and structure similar to the Mesoamerican historical tradition are the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century historical traditions of the Lenape (Algonkin language family) and the Indians of the Great Plains in North America. The Lenape (Walam Olum, the authenticity is controversial) and other related groups, e.g., Creek, cultivated an oral and possibly picture-written tradition of the tribe’s migrations led by certain chiefs; while the Plains Indians depicted individual events from the group’s daily life following the year’s seasons (Winter Count).


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