Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education 10/31/1991 V.III; N.2 p. 14 Word Count: 3335


Colleges Before Columbus: Mayans, Aztecs and Incas Offered Advanced Education Long Before the Arrival of Europeans

Crum, Steven J.

An age-old tradition of advanced higher education existed in the lower Western Hemisphere (Mesoamerica and South America) centuries before the arrival of the first Europeans. Various groups of native peoples, commonly referred to as Indians, created advanced schools to perpetuate knowledge as well as native traditions. As will be noted in this article, some scholars, both past and present, have labeled these indigenous educational institutions as colleges and universities.

Unfortunately, the Western Hemispheric natives have not been credited for being the first to establish a higher education tradition in the Western hemisphere. Instead, much of the history had been written by ethnocentric Euro-Americans who gave themselves the credit for introducing advanced schooling in this part of the world. In 1936, for example, one scholar called the Spanish-created College of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, established in 1536 near Mexico City, the "first college in America."(1) His assertion was reinforced in 1962 by another scholar who also wrote that Tlatelolco was "the first college in America."(2) These kinds of statements, of course, give the impression that it was the Europeans who brought higher education to the Western Hemisphere. Most educational historians fail to mention that the indigenous Mayans, Aztecs and Incas possessed advanced education well before the Spanish arrival of 1492.

The Mayans of Central America were perhaps the first to establish advanced education. Not all is known about the early history of these remarkable people, largely because their Golden Age existed centuries ago, from 300 A.D. to about 900 A.D. However, solid evidence tells us that by the sixth and seventh centuries, the Mayans had created an advanced society. They adopted domesticated agriculture which had existed in Mesoamerica for some time, and grew such staples as corn, beans, and squash. The Mayans built large urban centers such as Copán, Tikal, and Chichén Itsá, located in the vicinity of today's Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and the Yucatan region of southeastern Mexico. These centers possessed public markets, ball courts, ceremonial centers, temples and astronomical observatories. The Mayans developed an elaborate hieroglyphic written language which is still being studied and analyzed by scholars today. They were also scientists and mathematicians. From this, the Mayans developed an accurate calendar, consisting of 365 days for a year, and also a shorter 260-day calendar for ceremonial purposes. They were perhaps the first in the world to utilize the concept of zero, something that did not become popular in Europe until the thirteenth century.(3) Because of Mayan accomplishments, scholars of the twentieth century have been fascinated by their early history. Historians Michael Meyer and William Sherman write that the Mayans were the "premier scientists of ancient America."(4) Sylvanus Griswold Morley writes that "the most notable characteristic of Mayan civilization, however, was its achievements in the abstract intellectual fields of writing, astronomy, mathematics, and calendrics."(5)

For various speculative reasons, including drought, agricultural failures, or maybe invasion, the Classic Maya period ended around 900 A.D. Thus, we have limited information about some aspects of early Mayan history.(6) However, because of their scientific accomplishments, some scholars maintain that Mayans possessed advanced education. Historian Germán Arcineigas calls Copán, the once-thriving Mayan urban center, "their seat of learning, their university city."(7) Enrique Oltra, who cites Spanish colonial scholar Diego de Landa as his authority, writes that the Mayans had"a large house, like a college of students of our time."(8) Perhaps the scholars now deciphering the Mayan hieroglyphs might give us more information about the early educational history of the ancient Mayan people of Central America.

If less is known about some aspects of Mayan history, more is known about the Aztecs, or Mexica, of central Mexico. For example, they were late arrivals to the valley of Mexico, arriving in 1253 A.D. and establishing their impressive capital, Tenochtitlan, in 1325. By the 1400s and early 1500s, the Aztecs possessed an advanced society, similar in many respects to the Mayans. Tenochtitlan was surrounded by more than one suburb, including Tlatelolco. These urban centers had botanical gardens, zoos, ceremonial centers, temples, and other impressive architectural structures. The Aztecs developed their own calender that integrated religious practices and ceremonies. They also continued the ancient Mesoamerican tradition of agriculture. The Aztec empire was led by educated administrators, priests and military leaders. The cultural traditions included hieroglyphic writing, poetry and other areas of the humanities. In short, a rich lifestyle was flourishing when Spanish conquistador Fernando Cortés entered the valley of Mexico in 1519.(9)

The Aztec empire established two types of schools. The higher one was called the calmécac, labeled as the "centro náhuatl de educación superior" (Aztec center of higher education) by Mexican scholar Miguel Léon-Portilla. It is however misleading to use the singular, for there were at least a dozen or more calmécacs located in and around Tenochtitlan. In his study on pre- and post-contact Aztec education, José María Kobayashi identifies seven places where indigenous calmécacs existed: Tlillan, Mexico, Huitznahuac, Tetlanman, Tlamatzinco, Yopico and Tzonmolco. Others also existed in Tetzecuco and Tlatelolco.(10)

The Aztecs were a religious people, and their calmécacs were dedicated to the deity Quetzalcóatl, the ancient universal God of Mesoamerica. Quetzalcóatl, also called the Feathered Serpent, was a benevolent and positive force. According to oral tradition and belief, he created humans and gave them their existing culture. He also introduced agriculture and taught people how to produce corn, cotton, pumpkins and other domesticated crops. Thus, the calmécacs perpetuated things of the previous Mesoamerican cultures, including the belief in Quetzalcóatl. The Aztec word calmécac therefore had the figurative meaning of the house that passes down tradition.(11)

Since the calmécacs were an integral part of Aztec religion, the dedicated priests -- known for their wisdom, knowledge, and personal talents -- were chosen as the teachers. Logically, the calmécacs were located near temples where instruction often took place. The students were taught astronomy, dramatic arts, music and dance, philosophy and religion, poetry, rhetoric and public speaking, Aztec writing, and the history of the Aztec nation. Because they were required to become the future national leaders (high priests, military leaders, and government officials), their education placed heavy emphasis on public speaking, ethical awareness, discipline and self-control. The training was therefore rigorous and intense. They abstained from the youthful social life, were given limited food and sleep, underwent hard physical training, and inflicted self-punishment with the thorns of the maguey plant. Contrary to popular belief, not all students came from leading or wealthy families. Some lower class individuals also attended the calmécacs as they came from dedicated families who placed emphasis upon intense training and discipline.(12)

When the Spanish leadership militarily defeated the Aztec empire in 1521, they destroyed the visible Aztec institutions, including the calmécacs, and replaced them with Spanish ones. The College of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, established in 1536 as the first European-created college of the Western Hemisphere, was built over the earlier calmécac of the Aztec suburb Tlatelolco. Commenting on this development, scholar Luis Nicholau D'Olmer writes that "the Colegio de Santa Cruz surmounts morally upon the calmécac of Tlatelolco in the same way that the Church of Los Remedios physically rises from the Temple of Quetzalcóatl."(13)

Run by the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church, the College of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco was an all-Indian college for the sons of Aztec leaders. Its objective was to create a native clergy who would "Catholicize" and "hispanicize" the larger native population of Mexico. By making the college available to the so-called Aztec nobility, the Spaniards hoped to develop amiable relations with the former "ruling class" to control the native masses.(14)

From an academic standpoint, and as pointed out by more than one scholar, the College of Tlatelolco was a success. The Aztec students made rapid progress, taking European-oriented courses, including "reading, writing, music, Latin, rhetoric, logic, and philosophy," and also native-oriented courses such as Aztec medicine and the Náhuatl language.(15) One author referred to the college as a "kind of center for Mexican studies."(16) Ironically, it was Indianness that the Spaniards wanted to eradicate. However, the Franciscan Order was somewhat receptive to native culture and allowed it to persist. Also, the Náhuatl (Aztec) language was considered valuable as a means to convert the masses who could not yet speak Spanish.(17)

Several Aztec students at the College of Tlatelolco, including Antonio Valeriano, became proficient in both Aztec and Latin. They provided the Spanish scholar Bernardino de Sahagún valuable assistance in putting together the voluminous History of the Things of New Spain which focused on the history and culture of the Aztecs before Spanish contact. The Aztec students became successful scholars in Tlatelolco because they came from an earlier native society that cherished knowledge and possessed advanced education -- the calmécac. When students made marked academic progress, they became a threat to Spanish hegemony. This was one of the reasons why the College of Tlatelolco was closed in 1595.(18)

Besides the Mayans and Aztecs, the native people of the Andean region of South America also possessed a tradition of advanced education. Higher education existed in the pre-Inca period in the area of today's Peru. Spanish colonial historian and chronicler Fernando Montesinos, in his Memorias Antiguas Historiales Del Peru, wrote the following about early Andean native education:

He [Torca Corca Apu Capac, the fortieth king of ancient Peru] founded in Cuzco a University, which was celebrated among them because of their small learning. And, in his time, according to what the Indians say, there were letters and characters upon parchment and on the leaves of trees, until all this was lost for a period of four hundred years.(19)

When the Incas created their empire, they continued this tradition of advanced education. Historian Germán Arcineigas wrote that when Spanish conquistador Hernando Pizarro entered the Incan capital Cuzco in 1533, he saw "the monumental Quechua [Incan] `university".(20) Although Arcineigas did not elaborate on this point, he was actually referring to the Yachahuasi, the so-called university created by Incan King Inga Roca years earlier and enlarged by a successor, Inga Pachacutec. The Yachahuasi was open to the Incan nobility and included instruction in Quechuan laws, poetry, rhetoric, the oral tradition, and science. Special emphasis was placed upon the Quechuan language since oratory was highly regarded by the ruling class. The students also learned history, based on the quipus, or knotted strings which denoted special meanings of historic events. All the subjects taught in the Yachahuasi were important in perpetuating Incan culture and tradition.(21)

Regarding the Yachahuasi, Spanish colonial scholar Antonio Vazquez de Espinosa wrote the following account in the 1620s:

To clearly follow with the description of this city of Incas (Cuzco) we have to come back to the Huacapunca neighborhood, also called the sanctuary's door, that was located north of the central part of the city. On the south side of that park there was a university founded by king Inca Roca. That university was actually a group of school buildings called `the schools' neighborhood' and known as Yacha Huaci. This was the home of wisemen known as Amautes and poets that would teach science to the students.(22)

However, not all scholars maintain that a native university existed in Cuzco before Spanish contact. Roberto MacLean y Estenos writes that "nothing gives us the authority to talk about the existence of a university in the Incan Empire, although there did exist centers of a select culture (education) destined to the imperial aristocracy. They were called the `Yachuhuasi".(23) In her doctoral dissertation on the Incan Empire, Sally Jane Wolfe Gordon writes that "although universities and writing systems are attributed to a pre-Incan era, such must be assumed to be mythological."(24) The positions taken by these researchers stem from two factors. First, some modern-day scholars don't regard some earlier colonial writers, and Fernando Montesinos in particular, as legitimate scholars. Second, they don't believe in the reliability of the native oral tradition and maintain that the earlier advanced education -- called a university education by some -- was only a myth, not reality. In quoting another scholar, MacLean y Estenos writes that Montesino's discussion of a university "brought an uproar among other more conservative historians."(25)

Regardless of the debate, the Yachuhuasi, like the Aztec calmécacs, was also suppressed by the early Spaniards. However, the Incas and other native people of the Andean region have never forgotten about their earlier tradition of advanced indigenous education. In March 1980 they came together in Cuzco, Peru and sponsored a large conference called Indian Nations and Organizations of South America. One objective was to restore and revive older native traditions, including educational institutions. Thus, one of their recommendations was the need for a World Indian University.(26) Information does not exist on the current status of this proposed university. One hopes that it will be established in the near future.

Some persons living in the United States also acknowledge the existence of the advanced education that existed before European contact. John Collier, who served as the commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945, wrote in 1947 that "the first historical Inca, Sinchi Roca, founded at Cuzco the Yachuhuasi, intended to become the first national university, and the ninth Inca, Pachacutec, greatly expanded it."(27) In making reference to the calmécac, Jack D. Forbes, professor of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis wrote in 1985 that "the ancient Mexicans possessed the calmécac, an advanced college or university for the education of religious and secular leaders."(28) Forbes and others created D-Q University in 1970, a native post-secondary institution that recognizes the earlier Mesoamerican history. A wall-sized painting of the Aztec calendar is located at the entrance of the college's auditorium.

In conclusion, advanced indigenous education existed in the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of the Europeans. Besides the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas, other native peoples also perpetuated advanced learning. Robert Ricard writes that the ancient Zapotecs of the Oaxacan region of Mexico had a "special college" where priests were educated.(29) Unfortunately, many historians of today do not acknowledge the existence of the earlier native higher education institutions. Instead, in his article "Los universidades hispanas de America y el indio" (The Hispanic Universities of American and the Indian), scholar Juan B. Olaechea Labayan gives us the impression that it was the colonial Spanish who started the higher education tradition in the Western Hemisphere.(30) Perhaps he might one day revise his study to include a discussion of the advanced education that existed before 1492.


(1)Francis B. Steck, The first College in America: Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco," Catholic Education Review (October 1936):449-472; (December 1936): 603-617.

(2)Juan Estarellas, "The College of Tlatelolco and the Problem of Higher Education for Indians in 16th Century Mexico," History of Education Quarterly, 2 (December 1962): 235.

(3)Michael C. Meyer and William L. Sherman, The Course of Mexican History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 14-35; Elizabeth P. Benson, The Maya World (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1967).

(4)Meyer and Sherman. p. 31.

(5)Sylvanus Griswold Morley, The Ancient Maya (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1956), p. 428.

(6)Meyer and Sherman, pp. 20, 35.

(7)German Arciniegas, Latin America: A Cultural History, trans. by Joan MacLean (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), p. 9.

(8)Enrique Oltra, Paideia precolombina: Ideales pedagógicos de aztecas, mayas e incas (Buenos Aires: Ediciones casteñeda, 1977), p. 166.

(9)Colin M. MacLachlan and Jaime E. Rodriguez O., The Forging of the Cosmic Race (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), pp. 37-64; Meyer and Sherman, The Course of Mexican History, pp. 56-91.

(10)Miguel León-Portilla, La filosofia náhuatl: Estudiada en sus fuentes (Mexico: Universidad national autonoma de mexico, 1974), pp. 378-379; José María Kobayashi, La educacion como conquista (empresa franciscana en mexico (El colegio de Mexico, 1974), pp. 70-90.

(11)Kobayashi, pp. 70-90.

(12)Ibid.; Meyer and Sherman, pp. 73-76; MacLachlan and Rodriguez O., p. 53; Okra, pp. 73-93.

(13)Luis Nicholau D'Olmer, Fray Bernardino do Sahagún, 1499-1590, trans. by Mauricio J. Mixco, (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987), p. 17.

(14)Estarellas, pp. 237-238, 241; Robert Ricard, The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, trans. by Lesley Byrd Simpson, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), pp. 217-219, 224.

(15)Estarellas, pp. 237-238, 241; Ricard, pp. 220, 222, 224.

(16)Ricard, p. 224.

(17)Ibid., pp. 223-230; Estarellas, pp. 240-241.


(19)Fernando Montesinos, Memorias antiguas historialas del Peru, trans. by Philip Ainsworth, (London: Printed for Hakluyt Society, 1920), p. 53.

(20)Arciniegas, Latin America: A Cultural History, p. 34.

(21)Burr Cartwright Brundage, Lords of Cuzco: A History and Description of the Inca People in Their Final Days (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967), pp. 115-116; Daniel Valcarcel, Historia de la educación incaica (Lima: Editorial Lima, 1960), pp. 78, 113; John Collier, The Indians of the Americas (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1947), p. 56.

(22)Quoted in Daniel Valcarel, Historia de la educación incaica, p. 113.

(23)Roberto MacLean y Estenos, Sociologica educacional en el antiguo Peru (Mexico: Biblioteca de ensayos sociológicos instituto de investigaciones sociales universidad xnacional, 1955), p. 80.

(24)Sally Jane Wolfe Gordon, "The Inca Empire: A Test Case for a Hypothesis on Schooling in Civilizational States, Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, 1978, p. 151.

(25)MacLean y Estenos, p. 80.

(26)Working Commission Reports: Second Conference of Indian Nations and Organizations of South America, Tiwanaku, Bolivia, March 6-13, 1983 (Berkeley: South American Indian Information Center, 1984), pp. 12, 48.

(27)Collier, p. 56.

(28)Jack D. Forbes, Native American Higher Education: The Struggle for the Creation of D-Q University, 1960-1971 (Davis, CA: D-Q University Press, 1985), p. 56.

(29)Ricard, p. 30.

(30)Juan B. Olaechea Labayen, Las universidades hispanas de America y el indio, Anuario de Estudios Americanos 33 (1976): 885-874.

Article copyright Tribal College Journal.

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