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I want to have a powerful Mesoamerican civilisation by the 1100s; one that decides to sail east and discover Europe. Earlier versions of the story had them contacted by Zheng He in the 1400s, but I want to move the setting farther into the past and do something with the fabled Toltec society. So I need to provide them with the means to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and become a country as powerful as the China of that time.

So how do I buff them, and make them able to traverse oceans? There are a handful of obvious picks: I am making the American horse survive and become a suitable draft animal. I am also going to move the Rio Grande south a bit, and provide a fertile plain ripe for agriculture and an even larger population (not that the Valley of Mexico was ever underpopulated to begin with, but it can help the advancement of a state in Anahuac to have a northern rival to eventually conquer).

But the biggie is seafaring. Early Europeans had the gentle Mediterranean to cross, and plenty of reason to cross it in order to trade with the countries on the other side. I think the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico can function in much the same way, but I need a reason for my country to traverse it, and learn navigational skills from a thousand round trips to Cuba and the other islands.

What can I put on those islands to make them desirable to sail towards?

My idea: guano! That second fertile plain I added; if over-exhaustive agriculture can make it lose its fertility after time, accumulated bird poo can do wonders as a fertiliser, and my Mesoamericans would have to mine those guano islands in order to avoid starvation. More interestingly, there is a real string of islands going farther and farther east, until it stops with the Atlantic. So back to my original idea: that expedition that discovers Europe? It could have been a quest for more guano islands!

What I would like to know is how reasonable this scenario is; and particularly the agriculture and guano part. If it isn't; is there anything I can add to those islands, to make them a desirable destination, in order to have a seafaring Mesoamerican nation by the start of the 12th century?

Specifically, out of scope are:

  • Getting a state as powerful as China in Mexico. I think that's a solvable problem; just alter the climate and geography until it's paradise on Earth.
  • The trans-Atlantic expedition. Their path has been addressed in the linked question, and their specific motivations would be story-based.

In scope is:

  • Having my powerful Nahuatl state possess seafaring technology. For that I surmise they need a motivation to routinely traverse the Gulf of Mexico, which the Aztecs historically did not. Getting them that motivation, or that technology through some other means, is what the question is about.
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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented May 26, 2020 at 10:08

4 Answers 4

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They need a reason to go to sea and it needs to be a good one

You're starting to look in the right direction, they need the population to back anything up so they'd need to have solid agriculture, but they'd have to get to the islands to know they had guano and they'd have to understand what it was. Check that was known at the time. Really the first thing to check is the state of the coastal fisheries. If there's good fishing out there, they'd have a reason to put to sea on a regular basis.

Once they're actually at sea they'll discover the local islands, if there are people there then either trade or raiding will be a thing. If there aren't yet people there, there will be fairly soon once they've been discovered. Again it's just a matter of population pressures, you'll end up with Mesoamerican vikings.

However you have a problem for long distance ocean travel. Columbus knew the Earth was round, but his maths was bad and he thought it was smaller than everyone else knew it was. But even so, he had a good reason to set sail, trade. Columbus knew there were valuable goods on the other side of the world, he just had to find a better way to get to them and his fortune was made. The goods were coming over land, and he thought an ocean route was possible. Who are the Mesoamericans trading with to know that there's something out there worth sailing far out to sea to find? Up and down the coasts certainly, but not out into the great oceans.

An itinerant coastal trader going up into the far north might have found a way across to Russia and then on down to the spice islands. That gets them across the pacific, you could then sail straight home with a suitable ship. After that you'd need someone to make Columbus' mistake and think it was shorter to go the other way. They'd be experienced ocean travellers by the point they reached Europe, but they'd already have common trading partners in the Spice islands with the Europeans and hence the great "discovery of Europe" would simply be shortcutting the already existing "wool road" from Europe the long way round to America.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the answer. Specifically regarding the use: the very word guano comes from Quechua, the language of the Inca, who had been using it for thousands of years. Different continent, but the use of manure as fertiliser isn't a novel idea so I think I can justify the Mesoamericans discovering it as well; perhaps first when a fishing vessel hit one of the islands by accident. That of course requires coastal fishing but I honestly cannot think of a state with a coast that never bothered to do fishing. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 11:47
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm, yep that seems reasonable. I'd push heavily into fishing first though, then you end up with fishing and guano digging communities on the islands and a ready build set of trades. Coastal and offshore fishing is dangerous, you need sufficient population pressure for the risk to be worth it when you have river fishing available. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 11:51
  • $\begingroup$ Could it be the same reason why the fertile plain I added lost its fertility? An unsustainable excess of fishing and agriculture could have derived that place of both sources of food; leading them to start doing offshore fishery until they found guano and could re-fertilise their farms. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 12:17
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm, if you want to play that game you definitely need a secondary plotline of someone pushing for a more sustainable use of a 3 or 4 field system rather than endless consumption of a limited guano supply (the runoff from which could be poisoning the rivers but it's probably too early to know that) $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 12:32
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, definitely. All I need is the motivation (and means) for one ship or expedition to cross the Atlantic. For all we know the others could have considered it a fool's endeavour and laboured on finding more sustainable ways to do agriculture instead. But after contact is made, the original motivation won't matter as much as there are more pressing concerns. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 12:39
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Firstly you are correct to suggest having beasts of burden as this would certainly make their civilisation much more productive and would be a prerequisite.

You might find this question of interest which asks the reverse question of the Romans.

The key points are that the Romans didn’t cross the Atlantic because they had no idea there would be anything to find except endless ocean, and even if there was land some where there would be little to gain by travelling to such a remote, dangerous and difficult to reach location. The same would be true of the Maya.

However whereas the Romans could have reached the Americas but would have found it very hard to return home, the Maya would find it very hard to get started, but easier to return. This is because the position of the winds and currents at the closest crossing point are against them. Also like the Romans the Maya were not great explorers like some other civilisations.

I propose a similar solution for the Maya crossing the Atlantic that I proposed for the Romans. The primary need is for a motive and the only one I can think of is religious. Changes would be needed to the basic religious underpinnings of their civilisation. This is not an easy thing to deal with and would change the character of the people, but is probably necessary.

I suggest that they are driven to the east to discover the source of the portal on Earth through which the sun god Kinich Ahau emerges from the underworld and transforms from a jaguar into the sun. The exact theological requirements would be a interesting project in its own right, but given the variegated nature of their beliefs and hundreds of gods it should be possible.

If this was a strong enough conviction they might well develop a much greater interest in the sea and in the oceans and currents. Their ships would get bigger to carry more supplies and they would discover all the islands of the Caribbean. They might even cross the Gulf of Mexico and reach Florida.

At some point an observant Maya would begin to pick up on the way the winds and currents flowed and realise how they varied with the time of the year and how they might be able to sail ever closer to the point on Earth that the sun rose from by first sailing north east* then south and home in ever bigger loops.

Huge losses would be expected due to storms but some might eventually have made it and returning home would be easier for them than for the Romans. Losses might even have been considered as sacrifices to Kinich Ahau. What they would have made of the “New World” and it’s inhabitants is impossible to say. No doubt disappointment at not finding the portal.

*They had no compass and this would have been a major problem, but they had considerable knowledge of astronomy and might have navigated by the stars like the pole star. Much later when Spanish arrived in the New World they found that the Aztecs were able to predict the movement of the planet Venus more accurately than they could.

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Iron from West Africa.

You can find loads of speculation about ancient West African trade with the Olmecs and Mesoamerica. Here is an example.

http://raceandhistory.com/historicalviews/ancientamerica.htm

Theories about Mesoamerica get as wild as you want them - Egyptians, Israelties, Atlanteans, Australians, Aliens etc. But the West Africa one is a little less wild than most, and is good for your purposes. West Africans had iron from way back and iron would be a valuable to the ancient mesoamericans. If West Africans with ships showed up periodically with iron to trade the mesoamericans might decide to go over there themselves, if only to get better prices for their stuff. And if you augment the west African kingdoms of the period to become ocean-crossing traders I do not think anyone will take offense.

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You have several rich resources that could drive seafaring:

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  • $\begingroup$ Did people keep alligators as pets? :O $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ Not "people"; the wealthy and powerful who own ships and banks and influence kings...and who need to keep a lavish display of the weird on hand for parties. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 15:51
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    $\begingroup$ It would be closer to a menagerie than a pet, but certainly an alligator would fit nicely into a menagerie. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 19:32

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