Human Nature, Technology, and the Environment


Thunder on their Ships

They are landing with rulers, squares, compasses
White skin fair eyes, naked word
Thunder on their ships.
Leopold Sedar Senghor, “Ethiopiques” (Adas)

“Thunder on their ships” can be used to describe Herman Cortes when he landed at what is now Veracruz, Mexico in 1519 A.D. The light skinned and bearded Spaniard led his men into territory occupied by the Aztec civilization. Little did Cortes know, but that happened to be the same year in the Aztec culture when a white and bearded deity was expected to arrive. Montezuma, the Aztec’s ruler, greeted Cortes with honors fit for a God and opened up his empire for Spanish invasion. Cortes and his followers, equipped with the most up to date technology of the time, successfully caused the demise of the Aztec civilization. However, the most contemporary weaponry and technology did not solely destroy the Aztecs. Smallpox, a deadly disease introduced to the Americas by Spanish soldiers, infected the non-immune natives who died rapidly after exposure (Ehrlich, 253). This epidemic swept through the Aztec population, decreasing numbers from twenty-five million to six million (Ponting, 230). The European invasion of the Aztec civilization is just one of many examples of how European expansion affected the world. For centuries, Europeans were the leaders of expansion and exploration to many areas of the world. However, expansion of other, less researched civilizations, such as the Aztecs, occurred on a much smaller scale. The differences between the movement of the Aztec people and the Europeans as well as their effects on the environment are directly correlated to cultural and technological factors of both civilizations.

The war-like and aggressive Aztecs were known as the “nouveaux riches of Mesoamerica”, not because of their great intellect and genius, but rather their use of copying other civilization’s architectural style and traditions (Teresi, 343). The Aztec empire began when groups of nomads and wanderers in the wilderness of what is now South America joined together. They arrived in the Mexican Valley between 1200 and 1267 A.D. At the time, the Mexican Valley was a rich environment, full of deep plentiful soils with shallow swamps and lakes full of fish, turtles, insects, and blue-green algae. The Aztecs resided there and began to expand and invade other territories for a variety of reasons: in order to obtain goods and land to support a growing population, a more abundant supply of sacrificial victims, and to maintain their religious beliefs that the lands of Mexico were theirs by “divine right”. The expansion and movement of the Aztecs had a distinct effect on the Mexican Valley and surrounding areas. Their capital, Tenochtitlon, was constructed in the middle of Lake Lexcoco and eventually a new lake-based agricultural system was established. As the Aztec population flourished, central Mexico was transformed into a “social landscape” with plentiful resources (Teresi, 342-4).

When Cortes witnessed the native lifestyle and traditions in “breadbasket of the Valley of Mexico,” he took the opportunities given to him, mainly through chance, and overthrew Montezuma, beginning the Spanish reign in this new part of the world. Europe, at the time, was going through its adventurous exploration phase. Sailing ships with “superior maneuverability and armaments permitted Europeans to explore, trade, and conquer all around the world” (Adas 2). New technologies left natives baffled and in awe of these new light skinned people that took over their territory. While the Europeans felt they were steps ahead of most non-westerners technologically, they also believed it was their duty to help these religiously “lost souls”. Missionaries were sent out, sometimes before an invasion occurred, to help teach lessons of God and prayer to the natives. However, most Europeans main motivation to explore the globe was for economic profit (Cipolla 134). The gains from travel and exploration were endless. In the Americas unlike Europe, the country was not densely populated; therefore, there was plenty of land for all. The natives were technologically primitive, so the Europeans could introduce new products and a whole new way of living to these people (Class Discussion 3/4/03). In addition, following their religious and cultural beliefs, the Aztecs were cruelly forced to welcome and help any strangers from foreign lands (Cipolla 142-3). Last, the trading of goods, specifically gold, was an enormous motivation for Europeans to take the trip to foreign lands (Class Discussion 3/4/03).

Increases in trade as well as oceanic expansion were two major effects of European expansion. As sailing ships and transportation vessels became more advanced and new areas with foreign resources were “discovered”, trading began to stimulate the growth of factories, new companies, and businesses and the industrial revolution began. The industrial revolution encouraged more voyages for foreign goods that could be sold back in Europe. With more Europeans exploring and settling in new territories, a greater variety of crops and agricultural ideas were also spread throughout the world, changing natural environments (Cipolla 145-6). Another major effect of European expansion was the transmittance of new diseases all over the globe killing populations of people. Europe had a very densely populated society where crowding diseases were prevalent. Also, Europe was one of the first areas where animals, carrying a slew of different diseases, were domesticated (Ponting 225-226). People that lived in the European societies may have built up the immunity necessary for survival; however, people on the opposite side of the world, such as the Aztecs, did not have resistance to these diseases and when exposed died at a frighteningly rapid pace.
Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Aztecs, and European nations, such as Cortes and Spain, had very different exploration and expansion mentalities that were directly related to their own environment and culture. The Aztecs mostly conquered territories and resided there, making them as prosperous and rich as possible. There was a vast amount of land in Mesoamerica that was not urbanized or very populated, so the Aztecs moved into the territory and expanded their empire. Europe, on the other hand, was extremely densely populated from the start with a large number of nations, in a close proximity to one another, present. When European nations would conquer other territories, they would usually leave a few fleets of officials to stay there and keep order (i.e. make sure taxes are being paid and trading is occurring), and most people will stay in their home country. In both situations force was used to conquer territories, but the Aztecs did not use the same weapons as the Europeans. The Europeans had their fancy ships with guns and cannons while the Aztecs did not need those items to take over Mesoamerican lands. In addition, the Aztecs conquered new territory mainly for religious purposes while in Europe capitalism and economic profit was the major motivation (Class Discussion 3/4/03). Every civilization wants to expand and gain as much land and power as they can. The Aztecs and European nations are two examples of how different cultures and lifestyles influence the movement and effects of civilizations and their environment worldwide.


Adas, Michael, “Machines as the Meaure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies
of Western Dominance”, Cornell Univ. Press 1989, pp. 1-35.
Cipolla, Carlo M., Epilog from “Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and
the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700” Sunflower Univ. Press,
1996, pp. 132-148.
Ehrlich, Paul R., “Gods, Dive-Bombers, and Bureaucracy” in “Human Natures:
Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect” Island Press, 2000, pp. 253-279.
Ponting, Clive. “The Changing Face of Death” in “A Green History of the World.” St.
Martins Press, NYC, 1991, pp. 224-239.
Teresi, Dick, “Lost Discoveries: The ancient roots of modern science”’, Simon and
Schuster, 2002, ISBN 0-684-83718-8, pp. 325-367.


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Last updated 3/19/2003