How effective was Native American weaponry and armor when compared to contemporary european equipment in 1500? • /r/AskHistorians

By /u/400-Rabbits

The Spanish Conquistadors regularly expressed their respect of both native weaponry and armor. Bernal Díaz del Castillo gives us our most vivid descriptions of combat when engaging with Mesoamerican forces. For instance, this passage from the second time the Spanish and Tlaxcalans clashed:

When, therefore, the attack commenced, a real shower of arrows and stones was poured upon us; the whole ground was immediately covered with heaps of lances, whose points were provided with two edges, so very sharp that they pierced through every species of cuirass, and were particularly dangerous to the lower part of the body, which was in no way protected.

There’s really two aspects to both native and foreign arms and armor being demonstrated here. One thing to note is that the Spanish who accompanied Cortés were very rarely wearing anything resembling full-body steel armor. Spanish accounts confirm that the “infantry” would have had at least a sword and shield, but armament beyond that was up to the individual soldier to supply for themselves. The most common pieces of armor mentioned are helmets, gorgets, and cuirasses, though the presence of these were not universal to all soldiers, nor did the initial arms and armor of the Spanish always last through the rigors of the campaign. To quote Díaz del Castillo again, he remarks that when a group was traveling back to the Gulf coast to confront Narvaez:

We were altogether in want of defensive armour, and on that night many of us would have given all we possessed for a cuirass, helmet, or steel gorget.

Even the steel cuirasses of the Spanish were not always protection from Mesoamerican weaponry, as the first passage quoted indicates. Díaz del Castillo himself writes about one instance where his steel cuirass was pierced by an atl-atl dart, and he was saved from serious injury only by the cotton armor he had taken to wearing underneath it. Indeed, the Spanish often took to adopting some form of the quilted cotton ichcahuipilli, sometimes paired with a Spanish cuirass but sometimes not, because of the both the protection and comfort it afforded.

Whatever steel armor the Spanish could afford for themselves did provide a more effective defense, but rarely did it protect the whole body. Ross Hassig notes, in his Mexico and the Spanish Conquest:

Clubs and swords had their effect, but Spanish steel armor was proof against most Indian projectile, except perhaps darts cast from very close range. Indeed, Spanish wounds were typically limited to the limbs, face, neck, and other vulnerable areas unprotected by armor…

Those unprotected areas could find themselves very vulnerable given the rain of arrows that accompanied assaults, and reports of injuries and deaths from volleys of arrows (and sling stones) are not uncommon in Conquistador accounts. Hassig, however, points to an advantage in the missile weapons of the Spanish, noting their crossbows and harquebuses were most effective at close range, with the inaccurate latter weapon even more effective against closely masses troops, as Mesoamerican military doctrine at the time tended to provide. Nevertheless, we see native forces sometimes retreating back to a point where the guns of the Spanish were largely ineffective, but that the bows of the indigenous archers could rain arrows down on the Spanish at a much greater rate then the Spanish crossbows could reply. If the Spanish were unlucky, as in the case of the Cordoba expedition in a Maya town, the arrow/sling barrage could keep them pinned down until more Maya forces arrived and swamped the Spanish, resulting in the loss of about 50 of the 100 Spanish soldiers, including Cordoba himself later dying from injuries.

If the Spanish were lucky, they could maintain a defensive formation and withdraw, using cavalry charges or artillery to break the lines of the opposing force. These are the tactics Cortés used in his clashes with the Tlaxcalans. No matter the defensive advantage of steel armor or the offensive advantages of crossbows, guns, and artillery on massed troops, the Spanish quite often found themselves having to maintain a defensive position and execute strategic withdrawals in the face of more numerous and better supplied foes who were quite capable of enacting grievous harm on them. Only with the alliance with native groups would the Spanish (and their allies) see a distinct military advantage. To quote Hassig again:

Thus, while the Spanish enjoyed greater firepower, which prevented their enemies from engaging them in organized formations, and although they could disrupt the enemy fron much more easily than could Mesoamerican armies, they were too few to exploit these breaches fully. If they joined forces with large Indian armies, however, these allies could exploit the breaches created by the Spaniards, while maintaining the integrity of their own units, because other Indian armies lacked the Spanish edge in arms and armor. Together they could wreak havoc on the enemy.

Ultimately, if we look at the clashes between Spanish and indigenous groups in Mesoamerica, neither guns, steel, or horses (or germs, for that matter), were decisive. While it is tempting to crudely lump the Aztecs into the “Stone Age,” while putting the Spanish further along some imaginary and arbitrary tech tree, we must keep in mind that the macuahuitl and tepoztopilli were not “crude” weapons, but the result of centuries of refinement and practical tests in Mesoamerican warfare. The Spanish rightly feared and respected those weapons. So to were the tactics of the Aztecs refined for the opponents they faced. Prior to the Spanish, the Aztecs had enjoyed a century of almost ubiquitous military victories, and though we can absolutely see how their tactics were thrown for stumble by the addition of never before seen weaponry like artillery and cavalry, particularly at early encounters like Otumba, this was an intelligent and adaptive war machine. By the time the Spanish licked their wounds from La Noche Triste and returned in force with the Tlaxcalans, the Aztecs had autochthonously invented cavalry counter-measures with pike-like spears and ensuring the chosen field of battle with marshy or strewn with stones. They had adopted tactics to blunt the guns and artillery of the Spanish with breastworks and zig-zag maneuvers.

Bottom line, both the Spanish and the Aztecs respected each other as deadly opponents.

A painting of Nahui Quiyahuitl, Four Rain, which was the Third Sun or era. In this era, the Sun was ruled by Tlaloc, Teotl of rain. This was the Sun of Fire, and on a day Four Rain, the earth was destroyed by a rain of fire. The men of this creation who were not destroyed in fire were turned into turkeys, the ancient symbol of the nobility. Here, Tlaloc descends and destroys the Third Creation.

Una pintura de Nahui Quiyahuitl, Cuatro Lluvia, que fue el Tercer Sol o era. En esta era, el Sol fue gobernado por Tlaloc, Teotl de lluvia. Este fue el Sol de Fuego, y en un día Cuatro Lluvia, la tierra fue destruida por una lluvia de fuego. Los hombres de esta creación que no fueron destruidos en el fuego se convirtieron en pavos, el antiguo símbolo de la nobleza. Aquí, Tlaloc desciende y destruye la Tercera Creación.
Collapse of Aztec society linked to catastrophic salmonella outbreak
DNA of 500-year-old bacteria is first direct evidence of an epidemic — one of humanity's deadliest — that occurred after Spanish conquest.

One of the worst epidemics in human history, a sixteenth-century pestilence that devastated Mexico’s native population, may have been caused by a deadly form of salmonella from Europe, a pair of studies suggest.

In one study, researchers say they have recovered DNA of the stomach bacterium from burials in Mexico linked to a 1540s epidemic that killed up to 80% of the country’s native inhabitants. The team reports its findings in a preprint posted on the bioRxiv server on 8 February1.

This is potentially the first genetic evidence of the pathogen that caused the massive decline in native populations after European colonization, says Hannes Schroeder, an ancient-DNA researcher at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen who was not involved in the work. “It’s a super-cool study.”

Dead bodies and ditches

In 1519, when forces led by Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés arrived in Mexico, the native population was estimated at about 25 million. A century later, after a Spanish victory and a series of epidemics, numbers had plunged to around 1 million.

The largest of these disease outbreaks were known as cocoliztli (from the word for ‘pestilence’ in Nahuatl, the Aztec language). Two major cocoliztli, beginning in 1545 and 1576, killed an estimated 7 million to 18 million people living in Mexico’s highland regions.

“In the cities and large towns, big ditches were dug, and from morning to sunset the priests did nothing else but carry the dead bodies and throw them into the ditches,” noted a Franciscan historian who witnessed the 1576 outbreak.

There has been little consensus on the cause of cocoliztli — although measles, smallpox and typhus have all been mooted. In 2002, researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City proposed that a viral haemorrhagic fever, exacerbated by a catastrophic drought, was behind the carnage2. They compared the magnitude of the 1545 outbreak to that of the Black Death in fourteenth-century Europe.

Bacterial genomics

In an attempt to settle the question, a team led by evolutionary geneticist Johannes Krause at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, extracted and sequenced DNA from the teeth of 29 people buried in the Oaxacan highlands of southern Mexico. All but five were linked to a cocoliztli that researchers think ran from 1545 to 1550.

Ancient bacterial DNA recovered from several of the people matched that of Salmonella, based on comparisons with a database of more than 2,700 modern bacterial genomes.

Further sequencing of short, damaged DNA fragments from the remains allowed the team to reconstruct two genomes of a Salmonella enterica strain known as Paratyphi C. Today, this bacterium causes enteric fever, a typhus-like illness, that occurs mostly in developing countries. If left untreated, it kills 10–15% of infected people.

It’s perfectly reasonable that the bacterium could have caused this epidemic, says Schroeder. “They make a really good case.” But María Ávila-Arcos, an evolutionary geneticist at UNAM, isn’t convinced. She notes that some people suggest that a virus caused the cocoliztli, and that wouldn’t have been picked up by the team’s method.

The question of origin

Krause and his colleagues’ proposal is helped by another study posted on bioRxiv last week, which raises the possibility that Salmonella Paratyphi C arrived in Mexico from Europe3.

A team led by Mark Achtman, a microbiologist at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK, collected and sequenced the genome of the bacterial strain from the remains of a young woman buried around 1200 in a cemetery in Trondheim, Norway. It is the earliest evidence for the now-rare Salmonella strain, and proof that it was circulating in Europe, according to the study. (Both teams declined to comment on their research because their papers have been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.)

“Really, what we’d like to do is look at both strains together,” says Hendrik Poinar, an evolutionary biologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. And if more ancient genomes can be collected from Europe and the Americas, it should be possible to find out more conclusively whether deadly pathogens such as Salmonella arrived in the New World from Europe.

The existence of Salmonella Paratyphi C in Norway 300 years before it appeared in Mexico doesn’t prove that Europeans spread enteric fever to native Mexicans, says Schroeder, but that hypothesis is reasonable. A small percentage of people infected with Salmonella Paratyphi C carry the bacterium without falling ill, so apparently healthy Spaniards could have infected Mexicans who lacked natural resistance.

Paratyphi C is transmitted through faecal material, and a collapse of social order during the Spanish conquest might have led to the poor sanitary conditions that are ripe for Salmonella spread, Krause and his team note in the paper.

Krause’s study offers a blueprint for identifying the pathogens behind ancient outbreaks, says Schroeder. His own team plans to look for ancient pathogens in Caribbean burial sites that seem to be linked to catastrophic outbreaks, and that were established after the Europeans arrived. “The idea that some of them might have been caused by Salmonella is now a distinct possibility,” he says.

The Second Sun, Nahui Ehecatl, Four Wind. This was the sun of the second creation; ruled by Ehecatl Quetzcalcoatl, Teotl of the Wind. In this sun, the inhabitants of the earth were destroyed on the day Four Wind by mighty hurricanes and tornadoes, save for those who were transformed into monkeys. The second of the Four Suns prior to the current, Fifth Sun. From the Aztec sacred narrative.

El segundo sol, Nahui Ehecatl, Cuatro Viento. Este era el sol de la segunda creación; gobernado por Ehecatl Quetzcalcoatl, Teotl del Viento. En este sol, los habitantes de la tierra fueron destruidos en el día Cuatro Viento por huracanes poderosos y tornados, excepto para aquellos que fueron transformados en monos. El segundo de los Cuatro Soles antes de la corriente, Quinto Sol. De la narración sagrada azteca.


I think this gets the basics of Nahuatl and Yucatec down well enough