History Affairs

Six Inventions Owed to American Civilization

Did you know these ancient civilizations invented some surprising things? Learn about 6 of their remarkable creations.

Six Inventions Owed to American Civilization

While Columbus initially sought riches, his voyages uncovered a world teeming with novel flora, fauna, and sophisticated technologies. From culinary wonders to astonishing medical practices, Mesoamerican and South American civilizations astounded European explorers with their inventions – including chocolate and brain surgery – some of which profoundly influence modern life.

1. Inca Ingenuity: Freeze-Drying and Advanced Medicine

Inca food storehouse, or qullqa, at Ollantaytambo, Peru. Photo author’s own.

Centuries before refrigerators became commonplace, food preservation posed a significant challenge. Yet, necessity fueled innovation, and the Inca became masters of a technique we now call freeze-drying. This method was essential for sustaining populations in the face of potential food insecurity.

Modern freeze-drying relies on specialized equipment, but the Inca achieved similar results by harnessing the unique Andean climate. Potatoes, a crucial crop, were freeze-dried for long-term storage and ease of transport, a vital advantage for their armies. This process created chuño, a staple food that continues to be produced today.

The Inca’s ingenuity extended to meat preservation. Thin strips of llama or alpaca were freeze-dried, yielding a portable, long-lasting product: the precursor to modern jerky (or ch’arki). The conquistadors embraced this convenient food, contributing to its global spread.

2. The Inca: Masters of Ancient Brain Surgery

While brain surgery is often associated with modern medical advancements, its practice dates back thousands of years. The Inca civilization of ancient Peru were particularly skilled practitioners, demonstrating remarkably high success rates for their time.

  • inca-skull-trepanned-brain-surgery
  • Tools found buried with a pre-Inca Sican surgeon, circa 900-1050 CE, Lambayeque, Peru
  • A skull from the Inca Empire boasting five healed trepanation holes. Source: World Neurosurgery, Volume 114, June 2018

Trepanation, the act of creating an opening in the skull, was employed for various reasons, often to treat head injuries. Despite the inherent risks of the procedure – performed without antibiotics or anesthesia – the Inca demonstrated remarkable expertise.

Preserved by the arid Andean climate, hundreds of trepanned Inca and pre-Inca skulls provide valuable insights. Early examples (400-200 BCE) show survival rates of approximately 40%. Incredibly, this is comparable to battlefield trepanations during the American Civil War over 2,000 years later, where survival rates averaged around 50%.

During the height of their surgical prowess, Inca practitioners achieved survival rates as high as 80%. Some skulls display evidence of multiple healed trepanations, suggesting the procedure was used beyond treating battle wounds, potentially addressing ailments like headaches or epilepsy.

How did they do?

Archaeological evidence demonstrates a progressive refinement of trepanation techniques over time. Post-mortem trepanations discovered on Inca skulls suggest that surgeons actively studied anatomy to enhance procedural safety. This growing knowledge base led to smaller surgical openings and a shift from drilling to a less invasive “grooving” technique. This reduced the risk of puncturing the brain’s protective membrane. Additionally, incision sites were strategically chosen to minimize the potential for excessive bleeding.

The Inca possessed a broad understanding of medicinal herbs, which could have been employed for patient anesthesia and potential infection prevention. While a direct link between these herbs and trepanation remains unconfirmed, the Incas’ documented use of coca leaves for topical pain relief, cinchona bark to reduce fever, and chicha (a fermented corn beer) as a rudimentary anesthetic demonstrates their pharmacological expertise.

3. Chewing Gum

Florentine Codex illustration depicting an Aztec woman chewing gum
Florentine Codex illustration depicting an Aztec woman chewing gum

While the nuisance of a discarded wad of gum might lead to annoyance, the practice of chewing gum has endured for millennia. From the ancient Greeks to various other cultures, humans have long embraced the habit of chewing plant-based resins. Interestingly, our modern chewing gum traces its origins back to the Aztec Empire and the sapodilla tree.

This tree, native to Central America and the Caribbean, produces a sticky, sweet latex when its bark is damaged. The Aztecs and Mayans discovered the appeal of chewing this substance, known as tzictli in Nahuatl. This word was transformed into the Spanish chicle, and ultimately inspired the name for Chiclets gum.

The Aztecs used chewing gum to clean their teeth and freshen their breath. However, social customs dictated who could enjoy this practice. Historical accounts indicate that in public, only children and unmarried women were permitted to chew gum. Married women could chew in private, while men chewing gum were generally looked down upon.

Vintage American Chicle Company chewing gum advertisement

While early Americas produced many types of chewing gum from natural sources, the contemporary iteration evolved in the late 19th century. Exiled Mexican leader Antonio López de Santa Anna introduced chicle to inventor Thomas Adams in the hope of using it as a rubber substitute. Though unsuccessful, Adams recognized the potential for transforming chicle into a commercial chewing gum product. The American Chicle Company was born in 1899, and this marked the beginning of widespread chicle importation for chewing gum manufacturing. Eventually, synthetic materials replaced chicle in the 1960s.

4. Popcorn’s Ancient Origins

The history of popcorn is closely intertwined with the domestication of maize (corn). Both standard and popping corn varieties were distributed across the Americas as early as 4000 BCE, eventually reaching the southwestern United States around 2500 years ago. The transformation of maize into a staple food began in present-day Mexico.

Teosinte, the wild ancestor of maize, was vastly different from the corn we enjoy today. Its ‘ears’ were minuscule, containing only 5-12 hard kernels, in sharp contrast to the multiple, large cobs brimming with soft kernels we now know. Mesoamerican peoples, remarkably undeterred by this, found a way to create a delicious snack while working to develop more edible varieties of corn.

Through generations of selective breeding, Indigenous communities in present-day Mexico gradually cultivated a plant yielding more numerous, softer, and edible kernels. However, before this was fully achieved, they found a way to utilize the earlier, hard-kernelled forms. While inedible raw or even when ground, they discovered that applying heat would cause the kernels to burst open. This “popped” form was edible and proved a vital food source, remaining popular long after the development of softer varieties.

Although popcorn’s invention predates the Mexica (Aztecs), it was Spanish colonizers who first documented the snack during their invasion of the Aztec Empire. Popcorn, referred to as momochitl, held both culinary and cultural significance. It is believed to have been associated with Tlaloc, the god of rain. Festivities honoring Tlaloc included garlands and necklaces of popcorn. As described by Spanish chronicler Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, the Festival of Toxcatl, held before the rainy season, featured a “popcorn dance” performed by women to seek the gods’ blessings for plentiful rains.

Rubber’s Ancient Origins: The Mayan Legacy

Vessel with ballgame scene, circa 600-900 CE, Guatemala. Source: Denver Art Museum
Vessel with ballgame scene, circa 600-900 CE, Guatemala. Source: Denver Art Museum

While Charles Goodyear is often associated with the invention of rubber, its widespread use in modern applications obscures a deeper history. The Maya civilization and its predecessors were utilizing rubber thousands of years before Goodyear’s vulcanization process came to be.

The Maya are renowned for their elaborate ball courts, central to a ritual game that demanded a resilient, bouncy rubber ball. The oldest known rubber ball in Mesoamerica dates back to 1600 BCE, suggesting that the Olmec, a civilization predating and influencing the Maya, were the pioneers of rubber creation. Notably, the Nahuatl word for “Olmec” translates to “rubber people.”

The Maya inherited and expanded the ceremonial ballgame tradition, while refining rubber for broader applications, including footwear. By the Spanish Conquest, a flourishing Mesoamerican rubber industry produced thousands of balls annually, alongside various other rubber goods.

The source of this ancient rubber was the Castilla elastica, or Panama rubber tree. However, raw sap (latex) is sticky and brittle – hardly suitable for sports. Ingeniously, it was combined with morning glory vine juice to yield a more elastic and durable rubber.

Depiction of the so-called Mesoamerican ballgame, as illustrated on a Mayan vase. Photograph by Justin Kerr. Source: Mayavase Database, University of Oregon
Depiction of the so-called Mesoamerican ballgame, as illustrated on a Mayan vase. Photograph by Justin Kerr. Source: Mayavase Database, University of Oregon

Modern research confirms this Maya recipe. By varying the proportions of latex and vine juice, different properties emerge – including a less bouncy form likely used for sandals. While no physical ancient sandals survive, 16th-century Spanish records describe natives wearing such footwear.

Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization process, involving heating Brazilian tree latex with sulfur, further enhanced rubber’s strength and elasticity. Intriguingly, the Maya’s morning glory additive contains sulfur-rich compounds. Though they may not have grasped the science of polymers, the Maya were undoubtedly masters of an early form of vulcanization.

6. The World’s Original Chocolatiers

The beloved treat enjoyed around the world today owes its origins to the ingenuity of the ancient Maya. While modern chocolates have been transformed over the centuries, every contemporary confection has its roots in Mayan innovation.

  • Maya clay chocolate pot, circa 750 CE. Source: Minneapolis Institute of Art
  • Spouted jar, Maya design for creating frothed chocolate, 1st century BCE -1st century CE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • The Princeton Vase, a Maya chocolate cup with an illustration showing a woman pouring chocolate, 670-750 CE. Source: Princeton University Art Museum

Though the word “chocolate” likely derives from the Nahuatl ‘xocolatl’, and the Aztecs were known for their consumption of the beverage, the Maya and their predecessors pioneered the processing of cacao beans into an edible form.

Archaeological evidence suggests cacao consumption as far back as 1500 BCE. Pre-Maya Olmec artifacts reveal traces of theobromine, a signature chemical of cacao (and the reason it’s toxic to dogs!)

The initial discovery of chocolate’s potential remains a mystery. Raw cacao beans are inedible, and their transformation is complex. Seeds require fermentation, drying, roasting, and grinding.

After the Olmecs (around 350 BCE), the Maya continued developing cacao. Their extensive records demonstrate chocolate’s societal importance – used in rituals, celebrations, and as currency. The word ‘cacao’ derives from the Mayan ‘kakaw’, and they actively cultivated cacao trees, not merely harvesting them.

Maya chocolate was unsweetened, yet its bitter, frothy form (often spiced with chilis and other flavorings) known as ‘chocolhaa’, was widely enjoyed.

Importantly, the Maya conceived of chocolate exclusively as a beverage. Solid forms like truffles and candy bars emerged centuries later after Europeans adopted the bean, leading to the vast array of sweet chocolate treats we know today – all thanks to the humble Maya ‘kakaw’ bean.

History Affairs
Kim Luu is a writer specializing in Chinese history and civilization. Born and raised in Vietnam, a country with a shared cultural heritage with China, he developed an early fascination and conducted in-depth studies on the greatest civilization in East Asia.

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