Pre-Columbian Military

Jan 2019
Before the Europeans landed in the Caribbean what was the native american military like? Were there militaries beside the Aztec and Inca that stand out and what were there weapons. With there military did they stand a chance against European powers if they were immune to diseases?


Forum Staff
Aug 2016
I can't speak about the Inca and Aztecs, but the smaller tribes and nations like the Apache, Sioux, Iroquois, etc had a militia. Every man was expected to serve although Indians had great respect for the individual and were reluctant to tell someone what to do. There was a lot of peer pressure on Indians to meet societal expectations, but there was little legal apparatus to enforce anything like a draft. Most Indian men fought when called upon.

Every Indian man was familiar with weapons. When a man was not fighting, his primary purpose was hunting, using the same weapons. Indian tactics often resembled those of the hunt, such as ambush or driving or luring the enemy into a trap. Most Indian names for their own tribe was something like "The Human Beings" while their names for other tribes were usually sub-human. This may have contributed to the tactics of hunting their enemies, as if they were animals. Raiding and stealing property from the enemy was also common.

Warfare was perpetual. Most tribes were continually at war with most of their neighbors. There were a few examples of tribes that always maintained peaceful relations with each other, but these were the exception, not the rule.

Indians lived in small communities where everyone was either a relative or a close friend. The loss of even one member of the community had severe personal consequences for the leaders. Tactics were therefore designed to minimize casualties. Battle plans were often made with the desire to intimidate the enemy rather than to inflict casualties. Conversely, younger Indians often saw war as an opportunity to prove their courage. They would often ride or run close to an enemy, giving him an opportunity to strike. If the charging Indian could close and escape without harm, then this was seen as a great deed - the equivalent of what would earn a modern soldier a medal. There was often tension between the older leaders who wanted to minimize casualties and the younger men who wanted to prove their bravery.

Because the Indians were almost never united (Tecumseh's Confederacy was an exception) it was unlikely they would ever defeat the Europeans. The English colonies learned very early that the easiest way to defeat Indians was to get the different tribes to fight each other. The Indians also suffered from severe technological shortcomings - they could not produce their own firearms or ammunition. They also did not understand logistics and could not undertake lengthy operations like sieges.


Ad Honorem
May 2016
Before the Europeans landed in the Caribbean what was the native american military like? Were there militaries beside the Aztec and Inca that stand out and what were there weapons. With there military did they stand a chance against European powers if they were immune to diseases?
In the Caribbean region we had several “tribes/peoples”, mostly the Taínos in Hispaniola/Puerto Rico, the Ciboneyes in Cuba, and in the Southwest of current Haiti, the Subtaínos in the west part of Cuba, the Lucayos in what is currently the Bahamas, the Caribes in the smaller islands (smaller Antilles), south and east of Puerto Rico, and finally the Igneris in the area of Trinidad.

We don’t know much about them, so… we don’t know much about their military. Naturally the Spanish written sources are the best ones to understand these peoples. But those areas are inhabited since at least 4000 to 2500 BC.

In the 15th century of these groups the more culturally and technically complex seem to be the Taínos, and the more aggressive the Caribes that made constant raids against the Taínos for boot and slaves.

The Caribes could be related with the Ciboneyes from Cuba. Both used long bows and the warrior painted their body with a black paint, used long black hairs with some kind of hair “nets”.

The Caribes had an important coastal navigation (with canoes) and seemed the last of these peoples to arrive to the area. The canoes (piraguas) could have 40 or 50 warriors and could be very quick. Their bows were as big as the ones used in England and France, in the words of the Spanish chroniclers, and had arrows had poison. The war was their main activity, and they were in an expansive period when the Spanish arrived.

They kidnapped women from the Taíno villages to work for them and men that would be ritually killed and eaten. Let me joke a little bit and compare these raids with the Viking on the European coasts.
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Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
Probably besides, Incas and Aztecs, another complex military system was the Muisca, his armies were based on a "shock heavy infantry unit", the Guecha, with formed the elite for the principalities that formed the confederation, it is interesting to note that although they formed a military elite class, the position of Guecha was not hereditary but based on the merit and selection.
The moche look to had a interesting warrior culture, they even have metal armors, but we know nearly nothing about the organization.
But talking about pre-Columbian militaries they were developed to fight other pre-columbians, not old world military techniques and technology, the most successful native nations in resisting the Europeans were the ones that adapted to the new situation, like the horse, iron, fire weapons.
Aug 2016
One thing I found fascinating was that some tribes would form pike walls with obsidian-tipped pikes. The Spaniards even grudgingly admitted they were well-disciplined.

I wrote a college paper on pre-columbian Mesoamerican warfare awhile back. I'll give you the Cliff Notes version.


Basically they had a public school system wherein all boys were trained in warfare.
While most commoners had regular jobs, regular wars and drafting ensured they had plenty of opportunities to take captives.
Captives were highly valued, so much so that "flower wars" were fought with blunted weapons so that soldiers from both sides could have an opportunity to take captives to sacrifice, (which was a great honor).
Young men who failed to capture a single opponent were shamed by being forced to wear the hairstyle of children. However, great wealth and status could be gained by taking several captives, even a noble title.
Soldiers would be given different titles and equipment as they accrued captives.
Units of soldiers had mixed weaponry and different statuses.
The most decorated soldiers fought in the front.
Likely for this purpose, an enemy tribe called the Tlaxcalans were allowed to exist independently while their territory was surrounded by the Aztecs and their vassal states.
Common weapons included maces and roughly sword-shaped clubs called macanas, macuahuitls (sword-shaped clubs with obsidian edges) spears, obsidian-edged pikes likely used for slicing as well as stabbing, slings, atlatls, and bows.
The Aztec nobility prized the atlatl and preferred it to the bow.
Men who could afford it wore thick cotton armor toughened with brine.
The Aztecs and other mesoamerican tribes also commonly used a medium-sized round shield with long tassels at the bottom called a chimalli.
Wooden helmets that were carved and decorated to resemble animals were often worn to show that the soldier belonged to an elite warrior society such as the eagle warriors or jaguar warriors.
The Aztecs had a powerful trade economy, and the alleged mistreatment of their merchants was often used as a pretext for war.
Combat was fought with both sides alternating between skirmishing and melee combat.
Battles could be fought over great distances this way.
At one time the Aztecs suffered a great defeat against the Purepecha (sometimes incorrectly called the Tarascans) wherein they lost a huge amount of soldiers and were driven several miles back during the retreat.
While the Aztecs are often seen as ruling an empire, the fact is that they were merely an alliance of three city-states.
They and other tribes that spoke the Nahuatl language migrated south and pushed out the original inhabitants of northern Mexico.
The original Aztec tribe was called the Mexica which is where Mexico gets it's name from.
They had been forced into marginal swamp land around lake Texcoco, and founded their capital Tenochtitlan.
They worked as mercenaries, and eventually found a highly-productive method of farming in the lake by creating floating islands called chinampa.
Eventually they came to have a highly militarized society with a large amount of manpower.
They allied with neighboring cities Tlacopan, and Texcoco and began to dominate the region.
Eventually Tenochtitlan became more powerful than it's allies, and while they were never completely dominant, they were certainly "first among equals".

PurePecha (Tarascans):

The Purepecha ruled an area nearly as large as the Aztecs.
What they called themselves is unknown, "Purepecha" is their language, and "Tarascan" is a derogatory word for them of Aztec origin.
The Purepecha language is unrelated to Mayan and Nahuatl. It is a language isolate.
Purepecha shares some similarities with Quechua the main language of the Incan Empire as well as the Zuni, who lived in New Mexico.
They had fine copper and bronze working skills.
However, there is no evidence of them using metal weapons.
Rather, metal baubles were merely a trade good for them.
They were also known for fine mosaics made from hummingbird feathers.
They established several forts and likely had a conscription system similar to the Aztecs.
The Aztecs asked them for help against the Spaniards, they refused.
The favored the bow, which likely helped them win the previously mentioned battle against the Aztecs.
There is no surviving record of the Aztecs defeating them in battle.

Montezuma II was the emperor of the Aztecs when Cortez ignored the orders of the Governor of New Spain and sailed to Mexico.
In his youth he had been a highly aggressive emperor, and made more enemies than he likely needed to show his strength.
This made it fairly easy for Cortez to gather allies among the natives.
While it's true that the Spaniards certainly played a large role in defeating the Aztecs, the vast majority of Cortez' army was made of native troops like the Tlaxcalans (some of his most fervent allies).

This book is the most in-depth I've found regarding pre-columbian Mesoamerican, South American, and Caribbean warfare.
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Sep 2012
Tarkington, Texas
The Aztecs had fits fighting one of their neighbors that had bronze weapons.