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Religion and Empire: Aztec and Inca Expansionism

Religion and empire: The dynamics of Aztec and Inca expansionism is written by Geoffrey W. Conrad and Arthur A. Demarest and seems to be a comparative historical analysis of two Mesoamerican cultures. This work demonstrates that the Aztec and Inca Empires were the two major pre-Columbian American nations with similar patterns behind their development and fall. Moreover, the authors claim that inception and extension are the fundamental points of similarity of these empires that eventually caused their recession (Conrad & Demarest, 1984). Although the authors argued that the book aims to critically examine the existing written and archeological evidence, the work does not present such a synthesis; yet, its focus on expansion presents an exciting view.

The general topic of the book is the comparison of the Aztec and Inca empires through the lens of their cultures, religions, and state formation processes. The book begins with two stories depicting the ideological perspectives of the Aztecs and the Incas. The Aztecs are described as somewhat brutal and macabre, while the Incas are well-organized and peaceful (Conrad & Demarest, 1984). The following two chapters provide an extensive overview of Aztec and Inca cultural history. The authors constantly underline their point about the influence of expansionism through the demonstration of instability of ideological processes. The final two chapters of the work compare and contrast the Inca and Aztec instances. On these pages, the authors situate the rise of these empires into the framework of distinction between ideological and materialistic directions and mechanisms of state management (Conrad & Demarest, 1984). The final chapter is entirely devoted to the writers’ speculations and theoretical arguments. Hence, Religion and empire: The dynamics of Aztec and Inca expansionism’ content is not an enumeration of historical facts but rather a reflection on the process of empire formations and the sources of their longevity.

Next, it is helpful to discuss the intended audience, the ultimate purpose of the book, and the thesis that the authors present in it. As such, the work is probably for academic scholars that can appreciate its declared critical approach and theoretical reflection. It might also be for students of history, archeology, and anthropology; however, the lengthy and polemic nature of these writings does not intend to attract the general public. The writers want to use the new and increasing in the abundance of textual, ethnographic, and archeological materials to answer how human civilizations function in their research via the example of the Aztecs and Incas. The authors are interested in what causes their growth and prosperity and what causes their collapse and failure. These purposes are discussed in the introduction, where Conrad and Demarest (1984) define the issues of ethnography and the possibilities for acquiring solutions for its most important questions. Finally, the thesis of the book lies in that historical courses of the two Pre-Colombian empires resulted from the complicated interaction of ideological transformations with political and economic variables, and especially the expansion.

Furthermore, to properly analyze the value of the mentioned book, several matters should be uttered. First, the credentials of the authors are essential to examine to assess the reliability of the work. As such, Geoffrey W. Conrad is a professor of anthropology; Arthur A. Demarest is also an American scholar of anthropology and archaeology. The principal hypothesis of these individuals in the book is that the ideology and materialism of Aztecs and Incas correspondingly produced their empires’ extension. For example, to prove this point, the authors discuss the need for sacrificial prisoners gained from new territories for Aztecs and the urge to conquer land to build familial palaces for Incas (Conrad & Demarest, 1984). The writers mostly employ existing studies to present evidence, claiming that their research’s method lies in analyzing this material and combining it with archeological data. However, the work sources are primarily used only to prove the thesis, and some factors, such as geographical ones, are not described in detail. The lack of thorough observation of all historical phenomena presents a flaw in the book that makes the interpretation demonstrated in it somewhat partial.

Finally, to evaluate the book, some finishing statements should be named. As such, it could be said that the authors genuinely demonstrated comprehensive material in this book to prove their hypothesis, yet it does not seem convincing since other factors than religion, politics, and culture might underlie the rise and fall of the Aztec and Inca empires. Moreover, the writers did not entirely accomplish their purpose of critical assessment of all sources. Namely, the studies they used to support their points were instead interpreted differently than evaluated and examined thoroughly. Thus, although the book illustrates an unusual approach for analyzing history, it does not employ evidence as declared by its authors.

To conclude, Religion and empire: The dynamics of Aztec and Inca expansionism is an exciting piece of academic work aimed at scholar readers primarily. The book describes connections between religion, ideology, and society that cause changes in the empires, resulting in their rise and fall. Yet, the authors’ intention for a thorough analysis of newly available data from different sources is partially realized in the work, while its thesis seems not multifaceted enough.


Conrad, G. W., & Demarest, A. A. (1984). Religion and empire: The dynamics of Aztec and Inca expansionism (1st ed.). Cambridge UP.

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StudyKraken. (2023) 'Religion and Empire: Aztec and Inca Expansionism'. 7 February.

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