Learning from Aztecs and Bon Vivants — Empathy in the Time of the Coronavirus (VIII)

Teotihuacan — not Aztec, but a forbear

One of the books that I’ve been listening to (and actually, also paging through the WSU library in digital form) is Buddy Levy’s Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs (2008). It’s a crazy-ass story, like all conquistador stories, well-written, researched and rich with detail, on one of the most famous military campaigns of all time.

What’s even more fabulous is I actually know Buddy, and have had a beer or two down through the years with him. I met him through my primary kayaking partner back in my younger days — Pat Harper. The advantage that gives is I can more deeply understand Buddy’s perspective.

Buddy also happens to be an adjunct professor of English at WSU. But what Buddy really is is an anachronism — an adventurous, world-traveling bon vivant, fond of great food, boisterous and funny. He followed my friend Pat around the world in a series of Eco-Challenge races — those brutal races where teams of athletes would take extended treks across amazing, but harsh wild landscapes. What this means to me is Buddy is an observer — he’s not so very political. And his books reflect this — riveting narratives of great treks. You can be relatively confident he’s describing what he’s seen. Though it’s obvious that he’s done his research, he’s not thinking so much about the implications of the story — he’s just telling a great yarn.

Why does this matter? If you read his books closely, there are lots of descriptions of interesting phenomena not often discussed that have direct relevance by giving inadvertent historic perspective on current issues. In his book River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon he describes the scene of Orellana’s amazing trip down the Amazon, which includes densely populated villages of Indians all the way down, with tons of human activity. Not exactly the trackless jungle one thinks of. Reading this for me, it was a moment of hope for restoring the Amazon, which is often consigned to the “hopeless sacrifice” pile of human activity.

In a similar way, Conquistador, the other book’s predecessor, reveals many things about the Spanish, their inherent fractiousness, and the crazy gamble that Cortes took when he burned his ships on the Caribbean coast and began the trek to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, to meet Moctezuma, their leader, and capture and convert to Catholicism, the entire Aztec empire.

The actual story is long and convoluted — it’s a terrifying read, beyond the imagination even of someone like Quentin Tarantino. But there are two aspects of the Aztec story arc which are known, but not well understood.

The first is that the Aztecs were large-scale, systemic cannibals. Through their campaigns of terror against neighboring tribes, they had set up what can only be described as a “factory farm pipeline” of humans from surrounding conquering tribes to be sacrificed and fed to the Aztecs. How they got to that point in their culture has been a topic of discussion — from protein deficiency in the highlands of Mexico, to what I think is more likely — a ritual that over time got completely out of hand, sowing bountiful seeds of trauma that inevitably capped the rulers’ ability to see anything that did not suit their worldview. And that led to their undoing.

Levy’s book describes great plenty in the food supply of the Aztec capital. There were plenty of game fowl, and deer. But I suspect that the lack of large animals to sacrifice drove the magical/authoritarian hierarchical society of the Aztecs, along with an inherited legacy of human sacrifice from their predecessors, to normalize the process on a daily basis. Aztecs sacrificed victims regularly to make sure the sun would rise and set, as well as almost every other reason imaginable. That is never a good feedback loop to make. Once a society institutes Divine Rationalization justifying any depravity, the end is near.

What such constant, chronic sacrifice certainly did was destroy empathy, and create a massively dissociated nation. Levy describes various rituals where specific individuals were raised as sacrifice victims, living like kings for a year, and then pumped full of drugs, carried up the pyramids, and had their hearts cut out. What is interesting is that such treatment of people, both within, and very much without their society, destroys the ability of a society to have more evolved empathy. The last thing you would ever want to do is connect to someone having their heart cut out and then subsequently decapitated.

And to maintain such a distorted, ungrounded view of the world — that the sun and moon rose on a society solely because of sacrificing other humans — would stop complexity development in its track. The book does an amazing job describing the art and layout of the Aztec’s capital city. Such behavior does NOT stop the development of sophistication. The empathy-disordered can, and still are capable of fabulous art, architecture, and literature, which is why I inherently chafe at the idea that empathy can be solely learned from books or poets. But it freezes in time a magical milieu.

And that did not serve the Aztecs well. Part of the reason the Aztecs were initially so easily defeated by the Spaniards was the fact that the Spaniards had iron and steel weapons, for which the Aztec obsidian spears were no match. But the reason the Aztecs had focused so much on these same obsidian spears was because they had completely subjugated their neighbors, to the point where ambassadors from the Aztec nation could expect tribes like the neighboring Totonac to line up their sons and daughters to be marched off to the Aztec capital to literally be sold as slaves, or sacrificed and eaten. And the purpose of the obsidian spears? Only to wound their enemies, so they could also be taken back alive for sacrifice. To look at the Valley of Mexico through a pure, technological lens, with no differentiation in empathetic developmental stages, there would be no reason to think the Aztecs could not come up with equivalent weaponry. Tenochtitlan was generally agreed to be the largest city in the world at its time (200K people, sitting within a larger metro area of 1.5M-2M inhabitants.)

Yet instead of being future focused, the psychopaths in charge created an entire civilization run off the rails by trauma. The key here to understanding this is not that chronic, cross-societal trauma makes everyone sad. On the contrary — it creates a social system that can only feed (quite literally) on that trauma as a positive thing — that suffering of large out-groups of people was necessary for the society to thrive, and if they were quite literally eaten, that was a good and beneficial thing. But there is no way that watching humans who look identical to you, save some marginal cosmetic difference in jewelry, won’t affect the way literally hundreds of thousands of brains were wired. Through promotion of a class of highly sophisticated psychopaths who could both manage, exult in and design the grisly daily rituals of suffering and death, unmoored from their obvious consequences, should serve as a warning to all of us. Current Wall Street dynamics, anyone?

There was a passage in the book about one phase of the campaign where the Spaniards were recruiting allies, and had gone out in defense of the Otomo people to recruit them for their broader campaign against the Aztecs. They came across an abandoned parcel of roasted baby parts from Aztec allies that they had defeated and killed. Such things were so commonplace that it’s hard to imagine that such an incident was really very useful as far as propaganda. After all, the Aztecs were marching up any Spaniards up their pyramids and sacrificing, skinning and eating them in plain view. This blog typically does not talk about moral justice in all of this. But it’s very hard to argue that the Aztecs didn’t have it coming. Something we might think about when we have our own version of sacrificing the poor as morally justifiable in order to keep our civilization running. What is the end game here? What can history teach us?


The other fascinating takeaway from Conquistador, as directly applicable to the current COVID-19 crisis, is Levy’s description of the smallpox epidemic that was part of the reason the Aztec empire was defeated. The disease was brought to Tenochtitlan by one of the Spaniard’s African slaves, Francisco de Eguia, who was quartered in a household in Cempoala, close to the coast. Though it took a couple of months, by that October of 1520, the disease reached the Aztec capital, after Cortes had retreated. It killed upwards of 40% of the population, brutally, to the point where the Aztecs took to throwing dead bodies in the surrounding lakes, because there was simply no way to keep up with ritual cremation. Social practices that were ingrained in Aztec culture, such as ritualistic steam baths, and communal washing, also directly helped exacerbate the spread.

And not surprisingly, the disease spread to allied tribes of the Spaniards as well, taking out leaders and peasants alike. It was an unmitigated disaster to the Indians of central Mexico, in that it also wiped out leadership cohorts as well. The complicated and sophisticated, yet deeply crazy-irrational society that counted on its endless authority-driven hierarchies was almost decapitated. When you combine that with food shortages from devastation in the peasant ranks, which were also well-documented, there is no question (as described by both Levy, and Diamond’s research) that disease was a key factor in the Aztec Empire’s collapse.

But the interesting thing to my mind — not attempting to appear cold-hearted about this — is that 60% of the population survived the initial epidemic. Native tribes with smaller villages exposed to smallpox often suffered losses of 90% of individuals, and the 90% number is often used to talk about depopulation of Native people in the Americas after the Columbian exchange.

Why did 60% survive, in what was an urban area, where only 10% survived in native villages? It’s worth considering in the context of the current epidemic in how social structure influences epidemic trajectories. My take is that if you get sick in a small village, everyone comes into contact (and likely helps take care of) the symptomatic patient. Someone erupting with smallpox sores is by the very definition a super-spreader of the virus. Soon, everyone in the smaller circle gets the disease symptomatically, which is almost always a killer.

But in an urban area, especially the largest in the world, not everyone knows everyone else. Areas of the disease likely got flagged, and people would avoid them, as the plague burned through geographical nearest-neighbor areas. That gave the disease far longer to spread asymptomatically, through small exposure, that Edward Jenner, our modern father of vaccines, would use with cowpox. And the practice of spreading immunity through low dose exposure — Jenner’s forbears already had used the residue of smallpox pustules to give immunity — was ingrained across cultures. The Chinese had been practicing this, called variolation , since the 15th century.

The Wikipedia page linked is a fascinating read for everyone interested in understanding viral spread. Part of the intractability and terror we feel in the face of COVID-19 is that we think we ought to be able to control it. Yet the reality is that societies without vaccines faced broad-scale pandemics in the past, and attempted to manage them — especially after the devastation of the bubonic plague, which lasted most of the 14th Century. All the current issues with any kind of immune issue are covered, including relapse, or fading immunity with time, or lack of development of immunity in certain individuals. It would serve as profound journalistic context for modern reporters. Variolation proved to be their best bet, absent meaningful treatment or vaccines, which didn’t even intellectually exist.

We might consider the lessons of variolation and apply them to the problem of asymptomatic spread in the current context. Note, as I’ve said in earlier pieces, I’m NOT advocating things like “virus parties” or intentional variolation. But the reality is that background processes in pandemics, because of their broad exposure potentials, are always in play, and affecting end-game outcomes, regardless whether we like them or not. All pandemics end, one way or another.

The overall messaging from political leadership is that they know the deep ‘Why’ of how actions work, as well as their inherent dynamics — even in the face of obviously shifting, inaccurate testing data. That somehow they KNOW how to end this pandemic.

The deeper, more uncertain truth is that in the absence of a vaccine, this one will end as well — once exposure and background immunity take over the governing epidemic dynamics. The notion of isolation of the symptomatic — a key element of any quarantine strategy — only makes sense on the broad scale, once the genie is out of the bottle (spread is so broad as to be uncontainable) if it is understood in the context that lower level, background processes like asymptomatic spread are in play, and delivering some level of herd immunity. In short, there is plenty of history that dose size matters — and creating strategies that build that into the governing ethos behind actions must be done if we are serious in ameliorating population damage or unnecessary death.

There are lots of lessons to learn from history — and you’ve got to do something with those late evening hours. So grab a copy of Buddy’s book. Pour yourself a glass of whiskey or cognac. And start doing some thinking. Not all the answers are there, of course. But it will help in the inevitable bullshit sort we all need to do about what’s happening in our current situation.

5 thoughts on “Learning from Aztecs and Bon Vivants — Empathy in the Time of the Coronavirus (VIII)

  1. Great article. variolation. Dose size matters. Viral Load. This was also discussed early on on the Bret Weinstein Dark horse podcasts (2 / week I listen live). Buddy Levy is a stud, Fundamentally we know this stuff instinctively.

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    1. You read the Rate post, no? The logic in that is straightforward and incontrovertible. I think we have a case with a virus that has similar timescales to immune system response — which typically doesn’t happen. So epidemiologists aren’t used to thinking that way. So they just delete it, instead of understanding what might be the implications. It all comes down to the v-Memes.

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  2. Some argue that the Conquistadors were so able to defeat the Aztecs because so many of the enemy soldiers were already sick and weak. By the time the Conquistadors arrived, the city was in a chaotic state where an organized defense was no longer possible. Imagine if an invading army that was immune to bubonic plague had attacked Europe while mass infection and death was taking hold. It would’ve been an easy victory even for a small invading army.

    The difference of deaths in urban and rural areas is interesting. I could think of one possible explanation. There also had been a drought, malnutrition, and famine preceding the arrival of the Conquistadors. There was also a salmonella outbreak. This would’ve made the population susceptible to infectious diseases and rural areas might have been affected more harshly. The urban areas, as the centers of trade networks, may have more access to high quality foods.

    About human sacrifice, that is a complex issue. At around same the time, the Spaniards were committing human sacrifice as well, even if by other means. Between the Inquisition and genocide, millions upon millions were killed, far beyond the scope of Aztec brutality. Public torture, hangings, quarterings, etc was common practice in Europe during that era, from feudalism to colonialism. That moral depravity and lack of empathy didn’t stop these countries from creating advanced societies and rising into empires.

    Interestingly, it was during this period of mass oppression, violence, and suffering in Europe that the ideals of empathy were emerging. It had more to do with a new understanding of individuality and psychology, such as what developed in the violently warring Italian city-states in the Renaissance. Some believe the changes in mindset had more to do with changes in technology and media, such as the printing press that made books more widespread. Also, there were changes in how text was written, as seen in the introduction of punctuation and spaces between words that allowed silent reading in the privacy of one’s own mind.

    Empathy developed despite a dominant social order that was the complete opposite of encouraging empathy. The conditions that make greater empathy possible are complex and can take long periods to accrue. Julian Jaynes explores how the earliest signs of a more modern empathy appeared after the fall of the Bronze Age civilizations. Others have studied this in terms of the Axial Age societies and religions that came out of that prior period of dark ages, often using the Greeks as the key example. Interestingly, the Bronze Age civilizations became most brutally violent right before their collapse. Jaynes argues that is because the bicameral social order was weakening. Empathy, as we understand it, was not necessary to the communally-oriented bicameral mind with its collective identity of external voice-hearing.

    By the way, Jaynes does discuss the Aztecs. He was writing at a time when info was more limited and so he didn’t know about the drought, famine, and disease that preceded the Conquistador attack. His suggestion was that the Aztecs were still a bicameral society or beginning transition out of bicamerality and that their defeat partly came from an incomprehension about the mentality of the Conquistadors. Bicameral societies operated in a very different way. According to theory, individuality and hence sacrifice wouldn’t be experienced as is done with Jaynesian egoic consciousness. Here is what he wrote:

    “The conquered Aztecs told the Spanish invaders how their history began when a statue from a ruined temple belonging to a previous culture spoke to their leaders. It commanded them to cross the lake from where they were, and to carry its statue with them wherever they went, directing them hither and thither, even as the unembodied bicameral voices led Moses zigzagging across the Sinai desert.

    “And finally the remarkable evidence from Peru. All the first reports of the conquest of Peru by the Inquisition-taught Spaniards are consistent in regarding the Inca kingdom as one commanded by the Devil. Their evidence was that the Devil himself actually spoke to the Incas out of the mouths of their statues. To these coarse dogmatized Christians, coming from one of the most ignorant counties of Spain, this caused little astonishment. The very first report back to Europe said, “in the temple [of Pachacamac] was a Devil who used to speak to the Indians in a very dark room which was as dirty as he himself.” And a later account reported that

    ” “… it was a thing very common and approved at the Indies, that the Devill spake and answered in these false sanctuaries … It was commonly in the night they entered backward to their idoll and so went bending their bodies and head, after an uglie manner, and so they consulted with him. The answer he made, was commonly like unto a fearefull hissing, or to a gnashing which did terrifie them; and all that he did advertise or command them, was but the way to their perdition and ruine.” “

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    1. No question the story is long and complex. At the same time, mainstreaming other humans as part of your diet is a bad plan. I didn’t play up the disease in the population when Cortez returned, and that was a factor, as well as the essential social decapitation. The main thing was that Cortez had two things going for him — the profound hatred of the neighboring communities who had been serving as a food source, as well as the brigantines he constructed to sail on Lake Texcoco. It’s all a crazy-ass story, for sure!

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