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Aztecs Ruled Complex, Rich Society
Article first published in Vol. 17, 1998.
By Chris Fumagalli and Christina Galindo Diaz
Mexico's culture is so diverse and its history so fascinating that we sometimes forget that thousands of years before the Spanish arrived, the land had supported civilizations such as the Olmecs, the Mayans and the Toltecs. After the fall of the Toltecs, a number of tribes warred with each other until the 15th century when the Mexican tribe restored order, creating a magnificent state better known today as the Aztec empire.
The word "Aztec" is derived from "Aztlan," the name of the legendary first homeland of the Mexican tribe before their migration into the Valley of Mexico. According to historian Geoffrey W. Conrad, the term "Aztec" is often used as a generic label for any or all of the Nahua-speaking peoples of Central Mexico from the 14th to 16th centuries.
Originally hired as mercenaries to the Tepanecs, the Aztecs developed a complex hierarchy with warriors and priests at the top, followed by a subservient class of free peasants and thousands of serfs at the bottom. The great success of the Aztec culture was due primarily to their highly developed level of technology, economics and religious organization. The Aztecs controlled an area reaching from the Valley of Mexico in the center of the country, east to the Gulf of Mexico and south to Guatemala. They built and controlled great city-states including Tlacopan, Texcoco and Tenonchtitlán, their capital, located on the site of present-day Mexico City. An intricate metropolis built on islands, Tenochtitlán had a system of canals, an enormous temple complex and a royal palace. At its height, the city had more than 200,000 residents.
Highly skilled engineers created a system of aqueducts which provided fresh water to Tenochtitlán and other areas of the empire. Causeways linked the island capital with the mainland, while dams, irrigation and sewer systems made the kingdom a technological marvel.
An agricultural society, the Aztecs worshiped gods representing natural forces and practiced human sacrifice to please their gods. Most important was Huitzilopochtli, god of the sun and war. Next were Tlaloc, god of rain, and Quetzalcoatl, a serpent god of the arts and morality. Huge stone pyramids crowned with temples for human sacrifice overlooked Aztec cities. Sacrificial rituals were performed according to the position of the stars, and religion pervaded every aspect of life, even war, for it provided prisoners for sacrifice.
The Aztecs used a solar calendar of 365 days and a religious calendar of 260 days by which priests determined lucky days for various rituals. The art of the Aztecs also reflected their religion, with brightly colored murals and paintings representing their gods and rituals on amati or paper made of pounded bark.
One of the most famous Aztec sculptures, presently located in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, is the calendar stone representing the Aztec universe. The face of Huitzilopochtli is carved in the center of this stone, weighing 22 metric tons. Surrounding the face of the sun god are circular bands with symbols of the days, months and cosmic ages of the Aztecs. This intricate calendar also acted as a sundial and illustrates the Aztec knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. The Aztec wrote in pictographs and based their counting system on the number 20, using the system to conduct business and to keep complex history and genealogy records.
The Aztecs developed advanced agricultural techniques including irrigation, terraced farming, and reclamation of swamp land around the valley's lakes, creating artificial islands known today as the "floating gardens". With no plows or draft animals, the Aztecs used pointed sticks to plant their primary crop, corn, as well as beans, squash, chile, tomatoes and avocados.
The Aztecs, expert craftspeople, also had a rich trade system, by which lake salt, gold ornaments, luxurious clothing and other articles were traded for cotton, tropical bird feathers, rubber and cacao beans, which were used for money.
It was to this incredibly advanced society that Cortes made his way in 1519. It would take him less than two years to destroy the civilization. Under the Mexican ruler Itzcoatl, and his successors, Montezuma I and II, the Aztec empire conquered many ethnic groups who were forced to pay tribute. Many of the vanquished tribes thus hated their Aztec lords and were ready to revolt when the Spanish arrived. The Aztec also believed that their exiled go Quetzalcoatl would return wearing a feather headdress, similar to the plumed armor worn by the Spanish soldiers.
Cortés would capitalize on these circumstances and others and capture the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in August 1521. A new culture and people would emerge - the mixed Indian and Spanish mestizo or Mexican. The Spanish would build the capital of New Spain on the ruins of the Aztec city and name it Mexico City. Mexican presidents would live in a palace built on the site of Montezuma's palace. But people living all over the world several centuries later would still trace their ancestry back to the great Aztec Empire.