What Caused the Aztec Empire to Fall? Scientists Uncover New Clues

What Caused the Aztec Empire to Fall? Scientists Uncover New Clues

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

In 1545, an unknown disease struck the Aztec Empire. Those who came down with it might become feverish, start vomiting, and develop blotches on their skin. Most horrific of all, they’d bleed from their eyes, mouth, and nose, then die within a few days.

Over the next five years, the disease—then called “cocoliztli,” or “pestilence”—killed between seven and 17 million people. Scientists and historians have long wondered what the source of this mysterious epidemic was. Now, a group of researchers may have found the answer: salmonella.

On January 15, 2017, the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution published a study of Salmonella enterica bacteria in the teeth of cocoliztli victims. Most Americans know salmonella as a foodborne illness that you can get if you eat, for example, raw eggs or chicken.

Though S. enterica was the only germ that researchers detected in the victims’ teeth, they do caution that other indetectable pathogens could have been involved, too.

“We cannot say with certainty that S. enterica was the cause of the cocoliztli epidemic,” Kirsten Bos, a molecular paleopathologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and co-author of the recent study, told The Guardian. “We do believe that it should be considered a strong candidate.”

European invaders brought many new and devastating illnesses to the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s possible that Spanish invaders brought salmonella to the Aztecs in modern-day Mexico through domesticated animals.

The study doesn’t pinpoint the source of the bacteria, leaving open the possibility that it originated in the Americas. Yet even if the Spanish didn’t bring the bacteria, they likely still played a role in how it affected the Aztec people.

“We know that Europeans very much changed the landscape once they entered the new world,” Bos told NPR. “They introduced new livestock, [and] there was lots of social disruption among the indigenous population which would have increased their susceptibility to infectious disease.”

What Caused the Aztec Empire to Fall? Scientists Uncover New Clues - HISTORY

Laslovarga/Wikimedia Commons Tikal, an ancient Mayan city that dates from 800 B.C. to 900 A.D.

Many theories have been explored to try and explain the collapse of the Maya civilization. For years, evidence trying to prove these theories had been inconclusive – until now.

The Maya Empire, located in what is now present-day Guatemala, was a cultural epicenter that excelled at agriculture, pottery, writing, and mathematics. They reached their peak of power in the sixth century A.D., however, by 900 A.D. most of their great cities were abandoned.

For centuries researchers have tried to discover exactly how this great civilization could have fallen apart so quickly. A new report in Science, released on August 3, has finally given quantifiable evidence confirming the most widely-believed theory to explain how the Mayan civilization met its end: drought.

The key to unlocking the mystery ended up being located in Lake Chichancanab on the Yucatan Peninsula. For the report, researchers examined oxygen and hydrogen isotopes in sediment from the lake, which was close enough to the heart of Mayan civilization to provide an accurate sample of the climate.

For the report, Nicholas Evans, a Cambridge University research student and co-author of the paper, measured the isotopic composition of water found in the lake’s sediment to quantify exactly how much precipitation rates fell during the end of the Mayan civilization.

According to the Washington Post, analyzing sediment cores is a common practice for discovering information about the past. Scientists are able to inspect the dirt, layer by layer, and record the information found in the soil to construct an accurate timeline of the past conditions.

After examining the sediments samples, Evans, along with his team of researchers, concluded that annual rainfall levels declined 41 to 54 percent in the area surrounding the lake for several long periods over roughly 400 years, according to IFLScience.

The report also revealed that humidity in the area dropped by 2 to 7 percent. These two factors combined to had a devastating effect on the civilization’s agriculture production.

Because these drought conditions occurred frequently over hundreds of years, the civilization must not have been able to build up food reserves enough to make up for the drop in agricultural production, eventually leading to their demise.

Josh Giovo/Wikimedia Commons Ruins of a Mayan temple.

Even though this paper ties up some loose ends surrounding the Mayan people, some big unanswered questions still remain, like what precisely brought on this massive and sustained drought?

A previous study showed that the Mayan’s deforestation could have contributed to the dry conditions, decreasing the moisture of the area and destabilizing the soil.

Evans said that the drought could have also been caused by changes to the atmospheric circulation and a decline in tropical cyclone frequency.

Matthew Lachinet, a professor in geosciences at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, who was not involved in the study, told the Washington Post that this study is impactful because it offers insights into how humans can change the climate around them.

“Humans are affecting climate,” Lachinet said. “We’re making it warmer and it’s projected to become drier in Central America. What we could end up with is double-whammy of drought. If you coincide drying from natural causes with drying from human causes, then it amplified the strength of that drought.”

Despite these new findings, there is still much to learn about the collapse of Mayan civilization.

Origins of Tenochtitlán

According to legend, the Aztec people left their home city of Aztlan nearly 1,000 years ago. Scholars do not know where Aztlan was, but according to ancient accounts one of these Aztec groups, known as the Mexica, founded Tenochtitlán in 1325.

The legend continues that Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, the sun and human sacrifice, is said to have directed the Mexica to settle on the island. He “ordered his priests to look for the prickly pear cactus and build a temple in his honor. They followed the order and found the place on an island in the middle of the lake . &rdquo writes University of Madrid anthropologist Jose Luis de Rojas in his book "Tenochtitlán: Capital of the Aztec Empire" (University of Florida Press, 2012).

De Rojas notes that the “early years were difficult.&rdquo People lived in huts, and the temple for Huitzilopochtli “was made of perishable material.&rdquo Also in the beginning, Tenochtitlán was under the sway of another city named Azcapotzalco, to which they had to pay tribute.

Political instability at Azcapotzalco, combined with an alliance with the cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan, allowed the Tenochtitlán ruler Itzcoatl (reign 1428-1440) to break free from Azcapotzalco&rsquos control and assert the city&rsquos independence.

Over the next 80 years, the territory controlled by Tenochtitlán and its allies grew, and the city became the center of a new empire. The tribute that flowed in made the inhabitants (at least the elite) wealthy. “The Mexica extracted tribute from the subjugated groups and distributed the conquered lands among the victors, and wealth began to flow to Tenochtitlán,&rdquo writes de Rojas, noting that this resulted in rapid immigration into the city.

The city itself would come to boast an aqueduct that brought in potable water and a great temple dedicated to both Huitzilopochtli (the god who led the Mexica to the island) and Tlaloc, a god of rain and fertility.

Changing Climate and the Maya

New data suggests climate&mdashspecifically, severe drought&mdashplayed a key role in the collapse of the Maya civilization.

Anthropology, Biology, Earth Science, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, World History

Maya civilization thrived thousands of years ago in present-day Central America. Anthropologists and archaeologists thought Maya culture originated in the northern reaches of what is now Guatemala about 600 BCE, and migrated north to the Yucatan Peninsula beginning around 700 CE.

Throughout the film Quest for the Lost Maya, a team of anthropologists led by Dr. George Bey discovers the Maya may have been in the Yucatan as far back as 500 BCE. This new evidence indicates the Maya of the Yucatan had a very complex social structure, distinctive religious practices, and unique technological innovations that made civilization possible in the harsh jungle.

Archaeologists have long puzzled over the collapse of Mayan civilization. What led to the massive depopulation of major Mayan cities in the 900s? Scientists have considered war and political factors, but this segment of Quest for the Lost Maya suggests another explanation.

In a University of Florida lab, Dr. Mark Brenner evaluates sediment cores which have produced new data that suggests climate&mdashspecifically, severe drought&mdashplayed a key role in the decline of Maya civilization. This segment of Quest for the Lost Maya outlines how scientists use snail shells and sediment layers from the bottom of a lake to create a picture of climate conditions at various periods in the ancient past.

Although climate was likely a major factor of the Mayan collapse, it's not the only one. Civilizations carefully balance a host of factors&mdashpolitical, environmental, military, and cultural. Troubles in one area often lead to problems in other areas.

What do different bands of color in the core sediment samples represent?

Brown bands represent organic material, whereas white bands represent gypsum (a type of salt).

How does the gypsum found in the core sediment samples form? What does this formation indicate?

The gypsum sediment layer formed as water evaporated. Salt in the water did not evaporate, and settled in layers at the bottom of the lake. This evaporation process indicates a period of drought.

How did scientists determine the age of the gypsum? With what did these dates coincide?

Scientists performed radio-carbon dating to find that the gypsum layers dated from the same time period as the collapse of Mayan civilization.

How have snail shells helped climatologists determine aspects of the ancient environment of the Stairway site?

Snail shells contain two distinct oxygen isotopes, one of which occurs much more strongly in a drought environment. Analysis of shells obtained from sediment cores at the Mayan archaeological site indicates droughts of the highest magnitude during the last 7,000 years.

How many serious droughts were recorded in the sediment core, and how long did they last? What were their impacts?

Climatologists determined there were a series of eight droughts lasting three to twenty years. These droughts likely forced the people living at the Stairway site to evacuate the area.

Disease can drive human history

Of course, the Aztecs were not the only indigenous people to suffer from the introduction of European diseases. In addition to North America’s Native American populations, the Mayan and Incan civilizations were also nearly wiped out by smallpox. And other European diseases, such as measles and mumps, also took substantial tolls – altogether reducing some indigenous populations in the new world by 90 percent or more. Recent investigations have suggested that other infectious agents, such as Salmonella – known for causing contemporary outbreaks among pet owners – may have caused additional epidemics.

The ability of smallpox to incapacitate and decimate populations made it an attractive agent for biological warfare. In the 18th century, the British tried to infect Native American populations. One commander wrote, “We gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” During World War II, British, American, Japanese and Soviet teams all investigated the possibility of producing a smallpox biological weapon.

Mass vaccination against smallpox got going in the second half of the 1800s. Photo courtesy of Everett Historical via Shutterstock.cm

Happily, worldwide vaccination efforts have been successful, and the last naturally occurring case of the disease was diagnosed in 1977. The final case occurred in 1978, when a photographer died of the disease, prompting the scientist whose research she was covering to take his own life.

Many great encounters in world history, including Cortés’s clash with the Aztec empire, had less to do with weaponry, tactics and strategy than with the ravages of disease. Nations that suppose they can secure themselves strictly through investments in military spending should study history – time and time again the course of events has been definitively altered by disease outbreaks. Microbes too small to be seen by the naked eye can render ineffectual even the mightiest machinery of war.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

Left: A skeleton discovered at a ruined pyramid in Tlateloco in Mexico City February 10, 2009. Archaeologists have discovered a mass grave with four dozen neatly lined up human skeletons in the heart of Mexico City, revealing clues about the Spanish conquest that killed millions in battle and disease. The 49 bodies, all lying face up with their arms crossed over their chests, were discovered as investigators searched for a palace complex in the Tlatelolco area, once a major religious and political center for the Aztec elite. Photo By Daniel Aguilar/Reuters


Archaeology is the study of the human past using material remains. These remains can be any objects that people created, modified, or used.

Arts and Music, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, World History

This lists the logos of programs or partners of NG Education which have provided or contributed the content on this page. Leveled by

Archaeology is the study of the human past using material remains. These remains can be any objects that people created, modified, or used.

Portable remains are usually called artifacts. Artifacts include tools, clothing, and decorations. Non-portable remains, such as pyramids or post-holes, are called features.

Archaeologists use artifacts and features to learn how people lived in specific times and places. They want to know what these people&rsquos daily lives were like, how they were governed, how they interacted with each other, and what they believed and valued.

Sometimes, artifacts and features provide the only clues about an ancient community or civilization. Prehistoric civilizations did not leave behind written records, so we cannot read about them.

Understanding why ancient cultures built the giant stone circles at Stonehenge, England, for instance, remains a challenge 5,000 years after the first monoliths were erected. Archaeologists studying Stonehenge do not have ancient manuscripts to tell them how cultures used the feature. They rely on the enormous stones themselves&mdashhow they are arranged and the way the site developed over time.

Most cultures with writing systems leave written records that archaeologists consult and study. Some of the most valuable written records are everyday items, such as shopping lists and tax forms. Latin, the language of ancient Rome, helps archaeologists understand artifacts and features discovered in parts of the Roman Empire. The use of Latin shows how far the empire&rsquos influence extended, and the records themselves can tell archaeologists what foods were available in an area, how much they cost, and what buildings belonged to families or businesses.

Many ancient civilizations had complex writing systems that archaeologists and linguists are still working to decipher. The written system of the Mayan language, for instance, remained a mystery to scholars until the 20th century. The Maya were one of the most powerful pre-Columbian civilizations in North America, and their Central American temples and manuscripts are inscribed with a collection of squared glyphs, or symbols. A series of circles and lines represents numbers.

By deciphering the Mayan script, archaeologists were able to trace the ancestry of Mayan kings and chart the development of their calendar and agricultural seasons. Understanding the basics of the Mayan writing system helps archaeologists discover how Mayan culture functioned&mdashhow they were governed, how they traded with some neighbors and went to war with others, what they ate, and what gods they worshipped.

As archaeologists become more fluent in Mayan writing, they are making new discoveries about the culture every day. Today, some archaeologists work with linguists and poets to preserve the once-lost Mayan language.

History of Archaeology

The word &ldquoarchaeology&rdquo comes from the Greek word &ldquoarkhaios,&rdquo which means &ldquoancient.&rdquo Although some archaeologists study living cultures, most archaeologists concern themselves with the distant past.

People have dug up monuments and collected artifacts for thousands of years. Often, these people were not scholars, but looters and grave robbers looking to make money or build up their personal collections.

For instance, grave robbers have been plundering the magnificent tombs of Egypt since the time the Pyramids were built. Grave robbing was such a common crime in ancient Egypt that many tombs have hidden chambers where the family of the deceased would place treasures.

In Egypt in the mid-1800s, an Egyptian man searching for a lost goat stumbled across the tomb of Pharaoh Ramses I. (Many archaeologists doubt this story and say grave robbers, working as an organized group, routinely scouted and plundered many tombs in the area.) Ramses I ruled for a short time in the 1290s BCE. Besides the body of the pharaoh, the tomb held artifacts such as pottery, paintings, and sculpture. The man sold the mummies and artifacts from the tomb to anyone who would pay.

The mummy of Ramses I wound up in a museum in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, where it remained until the museum closed in 1999. The Canadian museum sold the Egyptian collection to the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, which confirmed the mummy&rsquos royal status through the use of CT scanners, X-rays, radiocarbon dating, computer imaging, and other techniques. Ramses I was returned to Egypt in 2003.

One of the most well-known archaeological finds is the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, also known as King Tut. Unlike many other Egyptian tombs, grave robbers had never discovered King Tut. His resting place lay undisturbed for thousands of years, until it was discovered in 1922. In addition to mummies of Tutankhamun and his family, the tomb contained some 5,000 artifacts.

Many early archaeologists worked in the service of invading armies. When Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte of France successfully invaded Egypt in 1798, he brought artists, archaeologists, and historians to document the conquest. Napoleon&rsquos troops took home hundreds of tons of Egyptian artifacts: columns, coffins, stone tablets, monumental statues. Today, these Egyptian antiquities take up entire floors of the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.

Some archaeologists of this time were wealthy adventurers, explorers, and merchants. These amateur archaeologists often had a sincere interest in the culture and artifacts they studied. However, their work is often regarded as an example of colonialism and exploitation. The so-called Elgin Marbles are an example of this controversy.

In 1801, Greece had been taken over by the Ottoman Empire. The British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, received permission to remove half of the sculptures from the famous Acropolis of Athens, Greece. These marble sculptures were a part of buildings such as the Parthenon. Lord Elgin claimed he wanted to protect the valuable sculptures from damage caused by conflict between the Greeks and the Ottomans.

The government of Greece has been lobbying for the return of the Elgin Marbles ever since. Most Greeks view the sculptures as part of their cultural heritage. Greece has cut off diplomatic relations to the United Kingdom several times, demanding the return of the sculptures, which remain in the British Museum in London.

Eventually, archaeology evolved into a more systematic discipline. Scientists started using standard weights and measures and other formalized methods for recording and removing artifacts. They required detailed drawings and drafts of the entire dig site, as well as individual pieces. Archaeologists began to work with classicists, historians, and linguists to develop a unified picture of the past.

In the 20th century, archaeologists began to re-assess their impact on the cultures and environments where they dig. Today, in most countries, archaeological remains become the property of the country where they were found, regardless of who finds them. Egypt, for example, is scattered with archaeological sites sponsored by American universities. These teams must obtain permission from the Egyptian government to dig at the sites, and all artifacts become the property of Egypt.

Disciplines of Archaeology

Archaeology is based on the scientific method. Archaeologists ask questions and develop hypotheses. They use evidence to choose a dig site, then use scientific sampling techniques to select where on the site to dig. They observe, record, categorize, and interpret what they find. Then they share their results with other scientists and the public.

Underwater archaeologists study materials at the bottom of lakes, rivers, and oceans. Underwater archaeology encompasses any prehistoric and historic periods, and almost all sub-disciplines as archaeology. Artifacts and features are simply submerged.

Artifacts studied by underwater archaeologists could be the remains of a shipwreck. In 1985, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Robert Ballard helped locate the wreck of RMS Titanic, which sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912, killing about 1,500 people. Ballard and other scientists used sonar to locate the wreck, which had been lost since the ocean liner sank. By exploring Titanic using remote-controlled cameras, Ballard and his crew discovered facts about the shipwreck (such as the fact the ship broke in two large pieces as it sank) as well as hundreds of artifacts, such as furniture, lighting fixtures, and children&rsquos toys.

Underwater archaeology includes more than just shipwrecks, however. Sites include hunt camps on the continental shelf of the Gulf of Mexico, and portions of the ancient city of Alexandria, Egypt, submerged due to earthquakes and sea level rise.

This basic framework carries across many different disciplines, or areas of study, within archaeology.

Prehistoric and Historic Archaeology
There are two major disciplines of archaeology: prehistoric archaeology and historic archaeology. Within these groups are subdisciplines, based on the time period studied, the civilization studied, or the types of artifacts and features studied.

Prehistoric archaeology deals with civilizations that did not develop writing. Artifacts from these societies may provide the only clues we have about their lives. Archaeologists studying the Clovis people, for instance, have only arrowheads&mdashcalled projectile points&mdash and stone tools as artifacts. The unique projectile points were first discovered in Clovis, New Mexico, in the United States, and the culture was named after the town. So-called Clovis points establish the Clovis people as one of the first inhabitants of North America. Archaeologists have dated Clovis points to about 13,000 years ago.

A subdiscipline of prehistoric archaeology is paleopathology. Paleopathology is the study of disease in ancient cultures. (Paleopathology is also a subdiscipline of historical archaeology.) Paleopathologists may investigate the presence of specific diseases, what areas lacked certain diseases, and how different communities reacted to disease. By studying the history of a disease, paleopathologists may contribute to an understanding of the way modern diseases progress. Paleopathologists can also find clues about people&rsquos overall health. By studying the teeth of ancient people, for example, paleopathologists can deduce what kinds of food they ate, how often they ate, and what nutrients the foods contained.

Historic archaeology incorporates written records into archaeological research. One of the most famous examples of historic archaeology is the discovery and decipherment of the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone is a large slab of marble discovered near Rashid, Egypt, by French archaeologists in 1799. It became an important tool of historic archaeology.

The stone is inscribed with a decree made on behalf of Pharaoh Ptolemy V. The decree was written and carved into the stone in three different languages: hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek. Hieroglyphics are the picture-symbols used for formal documents in ancient Egypt. Demotic is the informal script of ancient Egypt. Before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, Egyptologists did not understand hieroglyphics or demotic. They could, however, understand Greek. Using the Greek portion of the Rosetta Stone, archaeologists and linguists were able to translate the text and decipher hieroglyphs. This knowledge has contributed vastly to our understanding of Egyptian history.

Historic archaeology contributes to many disciplines, including religious studies. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, are a collection of about 900 documents. The tightly rolled parchment and other writing sheets were found between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves near Qumran, West Bank, near the Dead Sea. Among the scrolls are texts from the Hebrew Bible, written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest versions of Biblical texts ever found, dating from between the third century BCE to the first century CE. The scrolls also contain texts, psalms, and prophecies that are not part of today&rsquos Bible. Discovery of the scrolls has increased our knowledge of the development of Judaism and Christianity.

A subdiscipline of historic archaeology is industrial archaeology. Industrial archaeologists study materials that were created or used after the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s and 1800s. The Industrial Revolution was strongest in Western Europe and North America, so most industrial archaeologists study artifacts found there.

One of the most important sites for industrial archaeologists is the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire, England. The River Severn runs through the gorge, and during the Industrial Revolution, it allowed for the transport of raw materials such as coal, limestone, and iron. In fact, the world&rsquos first iron bridge spans the Severn there. By studying artifacts and features (such as the iron bridge), industrial archaeologists are able to trace the area&rsquos economic development as it moved from agriculture to manufacturing and trade.

Other Disciplines
Ethnoarchaeologists study how people use and organize objects today. They use this knowledge to understand how people used tools in the past. Archaeologists researching the ancient San culture of southern Africa, for instance, study the way modern San culture functions. Until the mid-20th century, the San, maintained a somewhat nomadic lifestyle based on hunting and gathering. Although the San culture had evolved significantly, archaeologists studying the tools of the modern San could still study the way ancient San tracked and hunted animals and gathered native plants.

Environmental archaeologists help us understand the environmental conditions that influenced people in the past. Sometimes, environmental archaeology is called human paleoecology. Environmental archaeologists discovered that the expansion of the Taquara/Itararé people of the Brazilian highlands is closely linked with the expansion of the evergreen forest there. The forest grew as the climate became wetter. As the forest provided more resources to the Taquara/Itararé people (timber, as well as plants and animals that depended on the evergreen trees), they were able to expand their territory.

Experimental archaeologists replicate the techniques and processes people used to create or use objects in the past. Often, re-creating an ancient workshop or home helps experimental archaeologists understand the process or method used by ancient people to create features or artifacts. One of the most famous examples of experimental archaeology is the Kon-Tiki, a large raft built by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. In 1947, Heyerdahl sailed the Kon-Tiki from South America to Polynesia to show that ancient mariners, with the same tools and technology, could have navigated the vast Pacific Ocean.

Forensic archaeologists sometimes work with geneticists to support or question DNA evidence. More often, they excavate the remains of victims of murder or genocide in areas of conflict. Forensic archaeology is important to the understanding of the &ldquoKilling Fields&rdquo of Cambodia, for instance. The Killing Fields are the sites of mass graves of thousands of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, forensic archaeologists studied the remains of the bodies in the Killing Fields, discovering how and when they died. The forensic archaeologists helped establish that the Khmer Rouge used starvation and overwork, as well as direct killing, to silence opponents of the regime.

Archaeologists working in the field of cultural resource management help assess and preserve remains on sites where construction is scheduled to occur. Archaeologists working as cultural resource managers often collaborate with local governments to balance the infrastructure and commercial needs of a community with historic and cultural interests represented by artifacts and features found on construction sites.

Where to Dig?

Most archaeology involves digging. Winds and floods carry sand, dust and soil, depositing them on top of abandoned features and artifacts. These deposits build up over time, burying the remains. Sometimes catastrophes, like volcanic eruptions, speed up this burial process. In places where earth has been carved away&mdashlike in the Grand Canyon in the U.S. state of Arizona&mdashyou can actually see the layers of soil that have built up over the centuries, like layers of a cake.

Cities and communities also tend to be built in layers. Rome, Italy, has been an urban center for thousands of years. The streets of downtown Rome today are several meters higher than they were during the time of Julius Caesar. Centuries of Romans have built it up&mdashmedieval home on top of ancient home, modern home on top of medieval home.

Establishing a dig site in an inhabited area can be a very difficult process. Not only are the inhabitants of the area inconvenienced, archaeologists don&rsquot know what they may find. Archaeologists looking for an ancient Roman fortress, for instance, may have to first excavate a Renaissance bakery and medieval hospital.

Because most artifacts lie underground, scientists have developed methods to help them figure out where they should dig. Sometimes they choose sites based on old myths and stories about where people lived or where events occurred. The ancient city of Troy, written about by Greek poet Homer as early as 1190 BCE, was thought to be a work of fiction. Homer&rsquos epic poem the Iliad was named after Troy, which the Greeks knew as Ilion. Using the Iliad as a guide, German amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ruins of the city near the town of Hisarlik, Turkey, in 1870. Schliemann&rsquos find helped provide evidence that the Trojan War may have actually taken place, and that ancient manuscripts may be based on fact.

Sometimes, archaeologists use historical maps to find ancient artifacts. In 1973, for instance, archaeologists used historical maps and modern technology to locate the wreck of the USS Monitor, an &ldquoironclad&rdquo ship used by the Union during the Civil War. The Monitor sunk in a storm off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in 1862. After archaeologists identified the ironclad, the United States designated the area as the nation&rsquos first marine sanctuary.

Before securing a site, an archaeological team surveys the area, looking for signs of remains. These might include artifacts on the ground or unusual mounds in the earth. New technology has greatly increased their ability to survey an area. For example, aerial and satellite imagery can show patterns that might not be visible from the ground.

Other technologies give clues about what lies under the surface. These techniques involve radar and sonar. Radar and sonar technologies often use radio waves, electrical currents, and lasers. Archaeologists send these signals into the earth. As the signals hit something solid, they bounce back up to the surface. Scientists study the time and paths the signals take to familiarize themselves with the underground landscape.

Accidental finds can also lead archaeologists to dig sites. For instance, farmers plowing their fields might come across sherds of pottery. A construction crew might discover ruins beneath a building site.

Another monumental discovery was made by accident. In 1974, agricultural workers in Xian, China, were digging a well. They discovered the remains of what turned out to be an enormous mausoleum for Qin Shi Huangdi, China&rsquos first emperor. The complex includes 8,000 life-sized clay soldiers, horses, chariots, and artillery, popularly known as the Terra Cotta Warriors. The archaeological research surrounding the Terra Cotta Warriors has provided insight on the organization and leadership style of Qin Shi Huangdi and the development of Chinese culture.

Once a site is chosen, archaeologists must get permission to dig from the landowner. If it is public land, they must obtain the proper permits from the local, state, or federal government.

Before moving a single grain of dirt, archaeologists make maps of the area and take detailed photographs. Once they begin digging, they will destroy the original landscape, so it is important to record how things looked beforehand.

The last step before digging is to divide the site into a grid to keep track of the location of each find. Then archaeologists choose sample squares from the grid to dig. This allows the archaeological team to form a complete study of the area. They also leave some plots on the grid untouched. Archaeologists like to preserve portions of their dig sites for future scientists to study&mdashscientists who may have better tools and techniques than are available today.

For example, during the Great Depression in the 1930s, programs to create jobs led to many archaeological digs around the United States. Some scientists on these digs removed artifacts, such as pottery, but threw away charcoal and animal bones. These items were considered junk. Today, scientists are able to carbon-date the charcoal and analyze the bones to see what kinds of animals people were domesticating and eating at the time. It is important that archaeologists today keep some parts of each site pristine.

Not all archaeology involves digging in the earth. Archaeologists and engineers work with sophisticated technology to probe the earth below without disturbing the ground. National Geographic Emerging Explorer Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin leads an innovative archaeological project centered in Mongolia. The Valley of the Khans project is using digital imaging, aerial photography, radar, and digital surveying to locate the tomb of Genghis Khan. Using satellite technology, Lin and his team can access information about the project without disturbing the land or even going to Mongolia.

The Big Dig

The process of researching and securing a dig site can take years. Digging is the field work of archaeology. On occasion, archaeologists might need to move earth with bulldozers and backhoes. Usually, however, archaeologists use tools such as brushes, hand shovels, and even toothbrushes to scrape away the earth around artifacts.

The most common tool that archaeologists use to dig is a flat trowel. A trowel is a hand-held shovel used for smoothing as well as digging. Archaeologists use trowels to slowly scrape away soil. For very small or delicate remains, archaeologists might also dig with dental picks, spoons, or very fine blades. Often, they will sift dirt through a fine mesh screen. Tiny remains, such as beads, can often be found this way.

Archaeologists take lots of notes and photographs along each step of the process. Sometimes they include audio and video recordings. Global positioning system (GPS) units and data from geographic information systems (GIS) help them map the location of various features with a high level of precision.

When archaeologists find remains, they are often broken or damaged after hundreds or even thousands of years underground. Sunlight, rain, soil, animals, bacteria, and other natural processes can cause artifacts to erode, rust, rot, break, and warp.

Sometimes, however, natural processes can help preserve materials. For example, sediments from floods or volcanic eruptions can encase materials and preserve them. In one case, the chill of an Alpine glacier preserved the body of a man for more than 5,300 years! The discoverer of the so-called &ldquoIceman,&rdquo found in the Alps between Switzerland and Italy, thought he was a recent victim of murder, or one of the glacier&rsquos crevasses. Forensic archaeologists studying his body were surprised to learn that he was a murder victim&mdashthe crime just took place more than 5,000 years ago.

Uncovered Artifacts

As artifacts are uncovered, the archaeological team records every step of the process through photos, drawings, and notes. Once the artifacts have been completely removed, they are cleaned, labeled, and classified.

Particularly fragile or damaged artifacts are sent to a conservator. Conservators have special training in preserving and restoring artifacts so they are not destroyed when exposed to air and light. Textiles, including clothing and bedding, are especially threatened by exposure. Textile conservators must be familiar with climate, as well as the chemical composition of the cloth and dyes, in order to preserve the artifacts.

In 1961, Swedish archaeologists recovered the ship Vasa, which sank in 1628. Conservators protected the delicate oak structure of Vasa by spraying it with polyethylene glycol (PEG). The ship was sprayed with PEG for 17 years, and allowed to dry for nine. Today, Vasa sits in its own enormous museum, a hallmark of Swedish heritage.

Then the artifacts are sent to a lab for analysis. This is usually the most time-consuming part of archaeology. For every day spent digging, archaeologists spend several weeks processing their finds in the lab.

All of this analysis&mdashcounting, weighing, categorizing&mdashis necessary. Archaeologists use the information they find and combine it with what other scientists have discovered. They use the combined data to add to the story of humanity&rsquos past. When did people develop tools, and how did they use them? What did they use to make clothing? Did their clothing styles indicate their social ranks and roles? What did they eat? Did they live in large groups or smaller family units? Did they trade with people from other regions? Were they warlike or peaceful? What were their religious practices? Archaeologists ask all of these questions and more.

The scientists write up their findings and publish them in scientific journals. Other scientists can look at the data and debate the interpretations, helping us get the most accurate story. Publication also lets the public know what scientists are learning about our history.

Photograph by Richard Hewitt Stewart

Sherds and Shards
Many archaeologists study broken bits of pottery. These fragments are called potsherds, and sometimes just sherds. Sherds can be anything from bits of a broken water jug to a piece of a clay tablet to the components of China's "Terra Cotta Warriors."

Shards are broken bits of glass, which are also important to archaeology. Shards include fragments of ancient windows, wine bottles, and jewelry.

Trashy Science
Most archaeologists study the past, but some study people who are still alive. For example, Dr. William Rathje uses his archaeological skills to dig through present-day garbage bins and landfills to learn about what Americans consume, discard, and waste.

Ancient Cannibals
Some ancient humans may have indulged in cannibalism on a regular basis. Archaeologists discovered 800,000-year-old remains from an early human species, Homo antecessor, in a Spanish cave. Among the remains were human bones with marks on them that appear to come from stone tools used to prepare meals.

The ABCs of Dating
Sometimes dates are listed as BC or AD. Other times they show up as BCE or CE. What is the difference?

BC stands for Before Christ, and it is used to date events that happened before the birth of Jesus, whom Christians consider the son of God. AD refers to Anno Domini, Latin for year of our Lord, and refers to all the years from Jesus birth onward. In the late 20th century, scientists realized they were basing the entire history of the world around the birth of one religious figure.

Many archeologists now prefer the terms BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era). The dates are still the same, only the letters have changed.


The Nahuatl words (aztecatl [asˈtekat͡ɬ] , singular) [9] and (aztecah [asˈtekaʔ] , plural) [9] mean "people from Aztlan," [10] a mythical place of origin for several ethnic groups in central Mexico. The term was not used as an endonym by Aztecs themselves, but it is found in the different migration accounts of the Mexica, where it describes the different tribes who left Aztlan together. In one account of the journey from Aztlan, Huitzilopochtli, the tutelary deity of the Mexica tribe, tells his followers on the journey that "now, no longer is your name Azteca, you are now Mexitin [Mexica]". [11]

In today's usage, the term "Aztec" often refers exclusively to the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan (now the location of Mexico City), situated on an island in Lake Texcoco, who referred to themselves as Mēxihcah (Nahuatl pronunciation: [meːˈʃiʔkaʔ] , a tribal designation that included the Tlatelolco), Tenochcah (Nahuatl pronunciation: [teˈnot͡ʃkaʔ] , referring only to the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, excluding Tlatelolco) or Cōlhuah (Nahuatl pronunciation: [ˈkoːlwaʔ] , referring to their royal genealogy tying them to Culhuacan). [12] [13] [nb 1] [nb 2]

Sometimes the term also includes the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan's two principal allied city-states, the Acolhuas of Texcoco and the Tepanecs of Tlacopan, who together with the Mexica formed the Aztec Triple Alliance that controlled what is often known as the "Aztec Empire." The usage of the term "Aztec" in describing the empire centered in Tenochtitlan, has been criticized by Robert H. Barlow who preferred the term "Culhua-Mexica", [12] [14] and by Pedro Carrasco who prefers the term "Tenochca empire." [15] Carrasco writes about the term "Aztec" that "it is of no use for understanding the ethnic complexity of ancient Mexico and for identifying the dominant element in the political entity we are studying." [15]

In other contexts, Aztec may refer to all the various city states and their peoples, who shared large parts of their ethnic history and cultural traits with the Mexica, Acolhua and Tepanecs, and who often also used the Nahuatl language as a lingua franca. An example is Jerome A. Offner's Law and Politics in Aztec Texcoco. [16] In this meaning, it is possible to talk about an "Aztec civilization" including all the particular cultural patterns common for most of the peoples inhabiting central Mexico in the late postclassic period. [17] Such a usage may also extend the term "Aztec" to all the groups in Central Mexico that were incorporated culturally or politically into the sphere of dominance of the Aztec empire. [18] [nb 3]

When used to describe ethnic groups, the term "Aztec" refers to several Nahuatl-speaking peoples of central Mexico in the postclassic period of Mesoamerican chronology, especially the Mexica, the ethnic group that had a leading role in establishing the hegemonic empire based at Tenochtitlan. The term extends to further ethnic groups associated with the Aztec empire, such as the Acolhua, the Tepanec and others that were incorporated into the empire. Charles Gibson enumerates a number of groups in central Mexico that he includes in his study The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule (1964). These include the Culhuaque, Cuitlahuaque, Mixquica, Xochimilca, Chalca, Tepaneca, Acolhuaque, and Mexica. [19]

In older usage the term was commonly used about modern Nahuatl-speaking ethnic groups, as Nahuatl was previously referred to as the "Aztec language". In recent usage, these ethnic groups are referred to as the Nahua peoples. [20] [21] Linguistically, the term "Aztecan" is still used about the branch of the Uto-Aztecan languages (also sometimes called the yuto-nahuan languages) that includes the Nahuatl language and its closest relatives Pochutec and Pipil. [22]

To the Aztecs themselves the word "aztec" was not an endonym for any particular ethnic group. Rather, it was an umbrella term used to refer to several ethnic groups, not all of them Nahuatl-speaking, that claimed heritage from the mythic place of origin, Aztlan. Alexander von Humboldt originated the modern usage of "Aztec" in 1810, as a collective term applied to all the people linked by trade, custom, religion, and language to the Mexica state and the Triple Alliance. In 1843, with the publication of the work of William H. Prescott on the history of the conquest of Mexico, the term was adopted by most of the world, including 19th-century Mexican scholars who saw it as a way to distinguish present-day Mexicans from pre-conquest Mexicans. This usage has been the subject of debate in more recent years, but the term "Aztec" is still more common. [13]

Sources of knowledge

Knowledge of Aztec society rests on several different sources: The many archeological remains of everything from temple pyramids to thatched huts, can be used to understand many of the aspects of what the Aztec world was like. However, archeologists often must rely on knowledge from other sources to interpret the historical context of artifacts. There are many written texts by the indigenous people and Spaniards of the early colonial period that contain invaluable information about precolonial Aztec history. These texts provide insight into the political histories of various Aztec city-states, and their ruling lineages. Such histories were produced as well in pictorial codices. Some of these manuscripts were entirely pictorial, often with glyphs. In the postconquest era many other texts were written in Latin script by either literate Aztecs or by Spanish friars who interviewed the native people about their customs and stories. An important pictorial and alphabetic text produced in the early sixteenth century was Codex Mendoza, named after the first viceroy of Mexico and perhaps commissioned by him, to inform the Spanish crown about the political and economic structure of the Aztec empire. It has information naming the polities that the Triple Alliance conquered, the types of tribute rendered to the Aztec Empire, and the class/gender structure of their society. [23] Many written annals exist, written by local Nahua historians recording the histories of their polity. These annals used pictorial histories and were subsequently transformed into alphabetic annals in Latin script. [24] Well-known native chroniclers and annalists are Chimalpahin of Amecameca-Chalco Fernando Alvarado Tezozomoc of Tenochtitlan Alva Ixtlilxochitl of Texcoco, Juan Bautista Pomar of Texcoco, and Diego Muñoz Camargo of Tlaxcala. There are also many accounts by Spanish conquerors who participated in Spanish invasion, such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo who wrote a full history of the conquest.

Spanish friars also produced documentation in chronicles and other types of accounts. Of key importance is Toribio de Benavente Motolinia, one of the first twelve Franciscans arriving in Mexico in 1524. Another Franciscan of great importance was Fray Juan de Torquemada, author of Monarquia Indiana. Dominican Diego Durán also wrote extensively about prehispanic religion as well as a history of the Mexica. [25] An invaluable source of information about many aspects of Aztec religious thought, political and social structure, as well as history of the Spanish conquest from the Mexica viewpoint is the Florentine Codex. Produced between 1545 and 1576 in the form of an ethnographic encyclopedia written bilingually in Spanish and Nahuatl, by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún and indigenous informants and scribes, it contains knowledge about many aspects of precolonial society from religion, calendrics, botany, zoology, trades and crafts and history. [26] [27] Another source of knowledge is the cultures and customs of the contemporary Nahuatl speakers who can often provide insights into what prehispanic ways of life may have been like. Scholarly study of Aztec civilization is most often based on scientific and multidisciplinary methodologies, combining archeological knowledge with ethnohistorical and ethnographic information. [28]

Central Mexico in the classic and postclassic

It is a matter of debate whether the enormous city of Teotihuacan was inhabited by speakers of Nahuatl, or whether Nahuas had not yet arrived in central Mexico in the classic period. It is generally agreed that the Nahua peoples were not indigenous to the highlands of central Mexico, but that they gradually migrated into the region from somewhere in northwestern Mexico. At the fall of Teotihuacan in the 6th century CE, a number of city states rose to power in central Mexico, some of them, including Cholula and Xochicalco, probably inhabited by Nahuatl speakers. One study has suggested that Nahuas originally inhabited the Bajío area around Guanajuato which reached a population peak in the 6th century, after which the population quickly diminished during a subsequent dry period. This depopulation of the Bajío coincided with an incursion of new populations into the Valley of Mexico, which suggests that this marks the influx of Nahuatl speakers into the region. [29] These people populated central Mexico, dislocating speakers of Oto-Manguean languages as they spread their political influence south. As the former nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples mixed with the complex civilizations of Mesoamerica, adopting religious and cultural practices, the foundation for later Aztec culture was laid. After 900 CE, during the postclassic period, a number of sites almost certainly inhabited by Nahuatl speakers became powerful. Among them the site of Tula, Hidalgo, and also city states such as Tenayuca, and Colhuacan in the valley of Mexico and Cuauhnahuac in Morelos. [30]

Mexica migration and foundation of Tenochtitlan

In the ethnohistorical sources from the colonial period, the Mexica themselves describe their arrival in the Valley of Mexico. The ethnonym Aztec (Nahuatl Aztecah) means "people from Aztlan", Aztlan being a mythical place of origin toward the north. Hence the term applied to all those peoples who claimed to carry the heritage from this mythical place. The migration stories of the Mexica tribe tell how they traveled with other tribes, including the Tlaxcalteca, Tepaneca and Acolhua, but that eventually their tribal deity Huitzilopochtli told them to split from the other Aztec tribes and take on the name "Mexica". [31] At the time of their arrival, there were many Aztec city-states in the region. The most powerful were Colhuacan to the south and Azcapotzalco to the west. The Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco soon expelled the Mexica from Chapultepec. In 1299, Colhuacan ruler Cocoxtli gave them permission to settle in the empty barrens of Tizapan, where they were eventually assimilated into Culhuacan culture. [32] The noble lineage of Colhuacan traced its roots back to the legendary city-state of Tula, and by marrying into Colhua families, the Mexica now appropriated this heritage. After living in Colhuacan, the Mexica were again expelled and were forced to move. [33]

According to Aztec legend, in 1323, the Mexica were shown a vision of an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus, eating a snake. The vision indicated the location where they were to build their settlement. The Mexica founded Tenochtitlan on a small swampy island in Lake Texcoco, the inland lake of the Basin of Mexico. The year of foundation is usually given as 1325. In 1376 the Mexica royal dynasty was founded when Acamapichtli, son of a Mexica father and a Colhua mother, was elected as the first Huey Tlatoani of Tenochtitlan. [34]

Early Mexica rulers

In the first 50 years after the founding of the Mexica dynasty, the Mexica were a tributary of Azcapotzalco, which had become a major regional power under the ruler Tezozomoc. The Mexica supplied the Tepaneca with warriors for their successful conquest campaigns in the region and received part of the tribute from the conquered city states. In this way, the political standing and economy of Tenochtitlan gradually grew. [35]

In 1396, at Acamapichtli's death, his son Huitzilihhuitl (lit. "Hummingbird feather") became ruler married to Tezozomoc's daughter, the relation with Azcapotzalco remained close. Chimalpopoca (lit. "She smokes like a shield"), son of Huitzilihhuitl, became ruler of Tenochtitlan in 1417. In 1418, Azcapotzalco initiated a war against the Acolhua of Texcoco and killed their ruler Ixtlilxochitl. Even though Ixtlilxochitl was married to Chimalpopoca's daughter, the Mexica ruler continued to support Tezozomoc. Tezozomoc died in 1426, and his sons began a struggle for rulership of Azcapotzalco. During this struggle for power, Chimalpopoca died, probably killed by Tezozomoc's son Maxtla who saw him as a competitor. [36] Itzcoatl, brother of Huitzilihhuitl and uncle of Chimalpopoca, was elected the next Mexica tlatoani. The Mexica were now in open war with Azcapotzalco and Itzcoatl petitioned for an alliance with Nezahualcoyotl, son of the slain Texcocan ruler Ixtlilxochitl against Maxtla. Itzcoatl also allied with Maxtla's brother Totoquihuaztli ruler of the Tepanec city of Tlacopan. The Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan besieged Azcapotzalco, and in 1428 they destroyed the city and sacrificed Maxtla. Through this victory Tenochtitlan became the dominant city state in the Valley of Mexico, and the alliance between the three city-states provided the basis on which the Aztec Empire was built. [37]

Itzcoatl proceeded by securing a power basis for Tenochtitlan, by conquering the city-states on the southern lake – including Culhuacan, Xochimilco, Cuitlahuac and Mizquic. These states had an economy based on highly productive chinampa agriculture, cultivating human-made extensions of rich soil in the shallow lake Xochimilco. Itzcoatl then undertook further conquests in the valley of Morelos, subjecting the city state of Cuauhnahuac (today Cuernavaca). [38]

Early rulers of the Aztec Empire

Motecuzoma I Ilhuicamina

In 1440, Motecuzoma I Ilhuicamina [nb 4] (lit. "he frowns like a lord, he shoots the sky" [nb 5] ) was elected tlatoani he was son of Huitzilihhuitl, brother of Chimalpopoca and had served as the war leader of his uncle Itzcoatl in the war against the Tepanecs. The accession of a new ruler in the dominant city state was often an occasion for subjected cities to rebel by refusing to pay tribute. This meant that new rulers began their rule with a coronation campaign, often against rebellious tributaries, but also sometimes demonstrating their military might by making new conquests. Motecuzoma tested the attitudes of the cities around the valley by requesting laborers for the enlargement of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. Only the city of Chalco refused to provide laborers, and hostilities between Chalco and Tenochtitlan would persist until the 1450s. [39] [40] Motecuzoma then reconquered the cities in the valley of Morelos and Guerrero, and then later undertook new conquests in the Huaxtec region of northern Veracruz, and the Mixtec region of Coixtlahuaca and large parts of Oaxaca, and later again in central and southern Veracruz with conquests at Cosamalopan, Ahuilizapan and Cuetlaxtlan. [41] During this period the city states of Tlaxcalan, Cholula and Huexotzinco emerged as major competitors to the imperial expansion, and they supplied warriors to several of the cities conquered. Motecuzoma therefore initiated a state of low-intensity warfare against these three cities, staging minor skirmishes called "Flower Wars" (Nahuatl xochiyaoyotl) against them, perhaps as a strategy of exhaustion. [42] [43]

Motecuzoma also consolidated the political structure of the Triple Alliance, and the internal political organization of Tenochtitlan. His brother Tlacaelel served as his main advisor (Nahuatl languages: Cihuacoatl) and he is considered the architect of major political reforms in this period, consolidating the power of the noble class (Nahuatl languages: pipiltin) and instituting a set of legal codes, and the practice of reinstating conquered rulers in their cities bound by fealty to the Mexica tlatoani. [44] [45] [42]

Axayacatl and Tizoc

In 1469, the next ruler was Axayacatl (lit. "Water mask"), son of Itzcoatl's son Tezozomoc and Motecuzoma I's daughter Atotoztli. [nb 6] He undertook a successful coronation campaign far south of Tenochtitlan against the Zapotecs in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Axayacatl also conquered the independent Mexica city of Tlatelolco, located on the northern part of the island where Tenochtitlan was also located. The Tlatelolco ruler Moquihuix was married to Axayacatl's sister, and his alleged mistreatment of her was used as an excuse to incorporate Tlatelolco and its important market directly under the control of the tlatoani of Tenochtitlan. [46]

Axayacatl then conquered areas in Central Guerrero, the Puebla Valley, on the gulf coast and against the Otomi and Matlatzinca in the Toluca valley. The Toluca valley was a buffer zone against the powerful Tarascan state in Michoacan, against which Axayacatl turned next. In the major campaign against the Tarascans (Nahuatl languages: Michhuahqueh) in 1478–79 the Aztec forces were repelled by a well organized defense. Axayacatl was soundly defeated in a battle at Tlaximaloyan (today Tajimaroa), losing most of his 32,000 men and only barely escaping back to Tenochtitlan with the remnants of his army. [47]

In 1481 at Axayacatls death, his older brother Tizoc was elected ruler. Tizoc's coronation campaign against the Otomi of Metztitlan failed as he lost the major battle and only managed to secure 40 prisoners to be sacrificed for his coronation ceremony. Having shown weakness, many of the tributary towns rebelled and consequently most of Tizoc's short reign was spent attempting to quell rebellions and maintain control of areas conquered by his predecessors. Tizoc died suddenly in 1485, and it has been suggested that he was poisoned by his brother and war leader Ahuitzotl who became the next tlatoani. Tizoc is mostly known as the namesake of the Stone of Tizoc a monumental sculpture (Nahuatl temalacatl), decorated with representation of Tizoc's conquests. [48]


Final Aztec rulers and the Spanish conquest

In 1517, Moctezuma received the first news of ships with strange warriors having landed on the Gulf Coast near Cempoallan and he dispatched messengers to greet them and find out what was happening, and he ordered his subjects in the area to keep him informed of any new arrivals. In 1519, he was informed of the arrival of the Spanish fleet of Hernán Cortés, who soon marched towards Tlaxcala where he formed an alliance with the traditional enemies of the Aztecs. On 8 November 1519, Moctezuma II received Cortés and his troops and Tlaxcalan allies on the causeway south of Tenochtitlan, and he invited the Spaniards to stay as his guests in Tenochtitlan. When Aztec troops destroyed a Spanish camp on the gulf coast, Cortés ordered Moctezuma to execute the commanders responsible for the attack, and Moctezuma complied. At this point, the power balance had shifted towards the Spaniards who now held Motecuzoma as a prisoner in his own palace. As this shift in power became clear to Moctezuma's subjects, the Spaniards became increasingly unwelcome in the capital city, and in June 1520, hostilities broke out, culminating in the massacre in the Great Temple, and a major uprising of the Mexica against the Spanish. During the fighting, Moctezuma was killed, either by the Spaniards who killed him as they fled the city or by the Mexica themselves who considered him a traitor. [51]

Cuitláhuac, a kinsman and adviser to Moctezuma, succeeded him as tlatoani, mounting the defense of Tenochtitlan against the Spanish invaders and their indigenous allies. He ruled only 80 days, perhaps dying in a smallpox epidemic, although early sources do not give the cause. He was succeeded by Cuauhtémoc, the last independent Mexica tlatoani, who continued the fierce defense of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs were weakened by disease, and the Spanish enlisted tens of thousands of Indian allies, especially Tlaxcalans, for the assault on Tenochtitlan. After the siege and complete destruction of the Aztec capital, Cuahtémoc was captured on 13 August 1521, marking the beginning of Spanish hegemony in central Mexico. Spaniards held Cuauhtémoc captive until he was tortured and executed on the orders of Cortés, supposedly for treason, during an ill-fated expedition to Honduras in 1525. His death marked the end of a tumultuous era in Aztec political history.

Nobles and commoners

The highest class were the pīpiltin [nb 7] or nobility. The pilli status was hereditary and ascribed certain privileges to its holders, such as the right to wear particularly fine garments and consume luxury goods, as well as to own land and direct corvée labor by commoners. The most powerful nobles were called lords (Nahuatl languages: teuctin) and they owned and controlled noble estates or houses, and could serve in the highest government positions or as military leaders. Nobles made up about 5% of the population. [52]

The second class were the mācehualtin, originally peasants, but later extended to the lower working classes in general. Eduardo Noguera estimates that in later stages only 20% of the population was dedicated to agriculture and food production. [53] The other 80% of society were warriors, artisans and traders. Eventually, most of the mācehuallis were dedicated to arts and crafts. Their works were an important source of income for the city. [54] Macehualtin could become enslaved, (Nahuatl languages: tlacotin) for example if they had to sell themselves into the service of a noble due to debt or poverty, but enslavement was not an inherited status among the Aztecs. Some macehualtin were landless and worked directly for a lord (Nahuatl languages: mayehqueh), whereas the majority of commoners were organized into calpollis which gave them access to land and property. [55]

Commoners were able to obtain privileges similar to those of the nobles by demonstrating prowess in warfare. When a warrior took a captive he accrued the right to use certain emblems, weapons or garments, and as he took more captives his rank and prestige increased. [56]

Family and gender

The Aztec family pattern was bilateral, counting relatives on the father's and mother's side of the family equally, and inheritance was also passed both to sons and daughters. This meant that women could own property just as men, and that women therefore had a good deal of economic freedom from their spouses. Nevertheless, Aztec society was highly gendered with separate gender roles for men and women. Men were expected to work outside of the house, as farmers, traders, craftsmen and warriors, whereas women were expected to take the responsibility of the domestic sphere. Women could however also work outside of the home as small-scale merchants, doctors, priests and midwives. Warfare was highly valued and a source of high prestige, but women's work was metaphorically conceived of as equivalent to warfare, and as equally important in maintaining the equilibrium of the world and pleasing the gods. This situation has led some scholars to describe Aztec gender ideology as an ideology not of a gender hierarchy, but of gender complementarity, with gender roles being separate but equal. [57]

Among the nobles, marriage alliances were often used as a political strategy with lesser nobles marrying daughters from more prestigious lineages whose status was then inherited by their children. Nobles were also often polygamous, with lords having many wives. Polygamy was not very common among the commoners and some sources describe it as being prohibited. [58]

While the Aztecs did have gender roles associated with "men" and "women" they did not live in strictly a two-gendered society. In fact, there were multiple "third gender" identities that existed throughout their society and came with their own gender roles. The term "third gender" isn't the most precise term that can be used. Rather, their native Nahuatl words such as patlache and cuiloni are more accurate since "third gender" is more of a Western concept. The names for these gender identities are deeply connected to the religious customs of the Aztecs, and as such, did play a large role in Aztec society. [59]

Altepetl and calpolli

The main unit of Aztec political organization was the city state, in Nahuatl called the altepetl, meaning "water-mountain". Each altepetl was led by a ruler, a tlatoani, with authority over a group of nobles and a population of commoners. The altepetl included a capital which served as a religious center, the hub of distribution and organization of a local population which often lived spread out in minor settlements surrounding the capital. Altepetl were also the main source of ethnic identity for the inhabitants, even though Altepetl were frequently composed of groups speaking different languages. Each altepetl would see itself as standing in a political contrast to other altepetl polities, and war was waged between altepetl states. In this way Nahuatl speaking Aztecs of one Altepetl would be solidary with speakers of other languages belonging to the same altepetl, but enemies of Nahuatl speakers belonging to other competing altepetl states. In the basin of Mexico, altepetl was composed of subdivisions called calpolli, which served as the main organizational unit for commoners. In Tlaxcala and the Puebla valley, the altepetl was organized into teccalli units headed by a lord (Nahuatl languages: tecutli), who would hold sway over a territory and distribute rights to land among the commoners. A calpolli was at once a territorial unit where commoners organized labor and land use, since land was not in private property, and also often a kinship unit as a network of families that were related through intermarriage. Calpolli leaders might be or become members of the nobility, in which case they could represent their calpollis interests in the altepetl government. [60] [61]

In the valley of Morelos, archeologist Michael E. Smith estimates that a typical altepetl had from 10,000 to 15,000 inhabitants, and covered an area between 70 and 100 square kilometers. In the Morelos valley, altepetl sizes were somewhat smaller. Smith argues that the altepetl was primarily a political unit, made up of the population with allegiance to a lord, rather than as a territorial unit. He makes this distinction because in some areas minor settlements with different altepetl allegiances were interspersed. [62]

Triple Alliance and Aztec Empire

The Aztec Empire was ruled by indirect means. Like most European empires, it was ethnically very diverse, but unlike most European empires, it was more of a system of tribute than a single system of government. Ethnohistorian Ross Hassig has argued that Aztec empire is best understood as an informal or hegemonic empire because it did not exert supreme authority over the conquered lands it merely expected tributes to be paid and exerted force only to the degree it was necessary to ensure the payment of tribute. [63] [64] It was also a discontinuous empire because not all dominated territories were connected for example, the southern peripheral zones of Xoconochco were not in direct contact with the center. The hegemonic nature of the Aztec empire can be seen in the fact that generally local rulers were restored to their positions once their city-state was conquered, and the Aztecs did not generally interfere in local affairs as long as the tribute payments were made and the local elites participated willingly. Such compliance was secured by establishing and maintaining a network of elites, related through intermarriage and different forms of exchange. [64]

Nevertheless, the expansion of the empire was accomplished through military control of frontier zones, in strategic provinces where a much more direct approach to conquest and control was taken. Such strategic provinces were often exempt from tributary demands. The Aztecs even invested in those areas, by maintaining a permanent military presence, installing puppet-rulers, or even moving entire populations from the center to maintain a loyal base of support. [65] In this way, the Aztec system of government distinguished between different strategies of control in the outer regions of the empire, far from the core in the Valley of Mexico. Some provinces were treated as tributary provinces, which provided the basis for economic stability for the empire, and strategic provinces, which were the basis for further expansion. [66]

Although the form of government is often referred to as an empire, in fact most areas within the empire were organized as city-states, known as altepetl in Nahuatl. These were small polities ruled by a hereditary leader (tlatoani) from a legitimate noble dynasty. The Early Aztec period was a time of growth and competition among altepetl. Even after the confederation of the Triple Alliance was formed in 1427 and began its expansion through conquest, the altepetl remained the dominant form of organization at the local level. The efficient role of the altepetl as a regional political unit was largely responsible for the success of the empire's hegemonic form of control. [67]

Agriculture and subsistence

As all Mesoamerican peoples, Aztec society was organized around maize agriculture. The humid environment in the Valley of Mexico with its many lakes and swamps permitted intensive agriculture. The main crops in addition to maize were beans, squashes, chilies and amaranth. Particularly important for agricultural production in the valley was the construction of chinampas on the lake, artificial islands that allowed the conversion of the shallow waters into highly fertile gardens that could be cultivated year round. Chinampas are human-made extensions of agricultural land, created from alternating layers of mud from the bottom of the lake, and plant matter and other vegetation. These raised beds were separated by narrow canals, which allowed farmers to move between them by canoe. Chinampas were extremely fertile pieces of land, and yielded, on average, seven crops annually. On the basis of current chinampa yields, it has been estimated that one hectare (2.5 acres) of chinampa would feed 20 individuals and 9,000 hectares (22,000 acres) of chinampas could feed 180,000. [68]

The Aztecs further intensified agricultural production by constructing systems of artificial irrigation. While most of the farming occurred outside the densely populated areas, within the cities there was another method of (small-scale) farming. Each family had their own garden plot where they grew maize, fruits, herbs, medicines and other important plants. When the city of Tenochtitlan became a major urban center, water was supplied to the city through aqueducts from springs on the banks of the lake, and they organized a system that collected human waste for use as fertilizer. Through intensive agriculture the Aztecs were able to sustain a large urbanized population. The lake was also a rich source of proteins in the form of aquatic animals such as fish, amphibians, shrimp, insects and insect eggs, and water fowl. The presence of such varied sources of protein meant that there was little use for domestic animals for meat (only turkeys and dogs were kept), and scholars have calculated that there was no shortage of protein among the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico. [69]

Crafts and trades

The excess supply of food products allowed a significant portion of the Aztec population to dedicate themselves to trades other than food production. Apart from taking care of domestic food production, women weaved textiles from agave fibers and cotton. Men also engaged in craft specializations such as the production of ceramics and of obsidian and flint tools, and of luxury goods such as beadwork, featherwork and the elaboration of tools and musical instruments. Sometimes entire calpollis specialized in a single craft, and in some archeological sites large neighborhoods have been found where apparently only a single craft speciality was practiced. [70] [71]

The Aztecs did not produce much metal work, but did have knowledge of basic smelting technology for gold, and they combined gold with precious stones such as jade and turquoise. Copper products were generally imported from the Tarascans of Michoacan. [72]

Trade and distribution

Products were distributed through a network of markets some markets specialized in a single commodity (for example the dog market of Acolman) and other general markets with presence of many different goods. Markets were highly organized with a system of supervisors taking care that only authorized merchants were permitted to sell their goods, and punishing those who cheated their customers or sold substandard or counterfeit goods. A typical town would have a weekly market (every five days), while larger cities held markets every day. Cortés reported that the central market of Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan's sister city, was visited by 60,000 people daily. Some sellers in the markets were petty vendors farmers might sell some of their produce, potters sold their vessels, and so on. Other vendors were professional merchants who traveled from market to market seeking profits. [73]

The pochteca were specialized long-distance merchants organized into exclusive guilds. They made long expeditions to all parts of Mesoamerica bringing back exotic luxury goods, and they served as the judges and supervisors of the Tlatelolco market. Although the economy of Aztec Mexico was commercialized (in its use of money, markets, and merchants), land and labor were not generally commodities for sale, though some types of land could be sold between nobles. [74] In the commercial sector of the economy, several types of money were in regular use. [75] Small purchases were made with cacao beans, which had to be imported from lowland areas. In Aztec marketplaces, a small rabbit was worth 30 beans, a turkey egg cost 3 beans, and a tamal cost a single bean. For larger purchases, standardized lengths of cotton cloth, called quachtli, were used. There were different grades of quachtli, ranging in value from 65 to 300 cacao beans. About 20 quachtli could support a commoner for one year in Tenochtitlan. [76]


Another form of distribution of goods was through the payment of tribute. When an altepetl was conquered, the victor imposed a yearly tribute, usually paid in the form of whichever local product was most valuable or treasured. Several pages from the Codex Mendoza list tributary towns along with the goods they supplied, which included not only luxuries such as feathers, adorned suits, and greenstone beads, but more practical goods such as cloth, firewood, and food. Tribute was usually paid twice or four times a year at differing times. [23]

Archaeological excavations in the Aztec-ruled provinces show that incorporation into the empire had both costs and benefits for provincial peoples. On the positive side, the empire promoted commerce and trade, and exotic goods from obsidian to bronze managed to reach the houses of both commoners and nobles. Trade partners also included the enemy Purépecha (also known as Tarascans), a source of bronze tools and jewelry. On the negative side, imperial tribute imposed a burden on commoner households, who had to increase their work to pay their share of tribute. Nobles, on the other hand, often made out well under imperial rule because of the indirect nature of imperial organization. The empire had to rely on local kings and nobles and offered them privileges for their help in maintaining order and keeping the tribute flowing. [77]

Aztec society combined a relatively simple agrarian rural tradition with the development of a truly urbanized society with a complex system of institutions, specializations and hierarchies. The urban tradition in Mesoamerica was developed during the classic period with major urban centers such as Teotihuacan with a population well above 100,000, and at the time of the rise of the Aztec, the urban tradition was ingrained in Mesoamerican society, with urban centers serving major religious, political and economic functions for the entire population. [78]


The capital city of the Aztec empire was Tenochtitlan, now the site of modern-day Mexico City. Built on a series of islets in Lake Texcoco, the city plan was based on a symmetrical layout that was divided into four city sections called campan (directions). Tenochtitlan was built according to a fixed plan and centered on the ritual precinct, where the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan rose 50 m (164.04 ft) above the city. Houses were made of wood and loam, roofs were made of reed, although pyramids, temples and palaces were generally made of stone. The city was interlaced with canals, which were useful for transportation. Anthropologist Eduardo Noguera estimated the population at 200,000 based on the house count and merging the population of Tlatelolco (once an independent city, but later became a suburb of Tenochtitlan). [68] If one includes the surrounding islets and shores surrounding Lake Texcoco, estimates range from 300,000 to 700,000 inhabitants. Michael E. Smith gives a somewhat smaller figure of 212,500 inhabitants of Tenochtitlan based on an area of 1,350 hectares (3,300 acres) and a population density of 157 inhabitants per hectare. The second largest city in the valley of Mexico in the Aztec period was Texcoco with some 25,000 inhabitants dispersed over 450 hectares (1,100 acres). [79]

The center of Tenochtitlan was the sacred precinct, a walled-off square area which housed the Great Temple, temples for other deities, the ballcourt, the calmecac (a school for nobles), a skull rack tzompantli, displaying the skulls of sacrificial victims, houses of the warrior orders and a merchants palace. Around the sacred precinct were the royal palaces built by the tlatoanis. [80]

The Great Temple

The centerpiece of Tenochtitlan was the Templo Mayor, the Great Temple, a large stepped pyramid with a double staircase leading up to two twin shrines – one dedicated to Tlaloc, the other to Huitzilopochtli. This was where most of the human sacrifices were carried out during the ritual festivals and the bodies of sacrificial victims were thrown down the stairs. The temple was enlarged in several stages, and most of the Aztec rulers made a point of adding a further stage, each with a new dedication and inauguration. The temple has been excavated in the center of Mexico City and the rich dedicatory offerings are displayed in the Museum of the Templo Mayor. [81]

Archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, in his essay Symbolism of the Templo Mayor, posits that the orientation of the temple is indicative of the totality of the vision the Mexica had of the universe (cosmovision). He states that the "principal center, or navel, where the horizontal and vertical planes intersect, that is, the point from which the heavenly or upper plane and the plane of the Underworld begin and the four directions of the universe originate, is the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan." Matos Moctezuma supports his supposition by claiming that the temple acts as an embodiment of a living myth where "all sacred power is concentrated and where all the levels intersect." [82] [83]

Other major city-states

Other major Aztec cities were some of the previous city state centers around the lake including Tenayuca, Azcapotzalco, Texcoco, Colhuacan, Tlacopan, Chapultepec, Coyoacan, Xochimilco, and Chalco. In the Puebla valley, Cholula was the largest city with the largest pyramid temple in Mesoamerica, while the confederacy of Tlaxcala consisted of four smaller cities. In Morelos, Cuahnahuac was a major city of the Nahuatl speaking Tlahuica tribe, and Tollocan in the Toluca valley was the capital of the Matlatzinca tribe which included Nahuatl speakers as well as speakers of Otomi and the language today called Matlatzinca. Most Aztec cities had a similar layout with a central plaza with a major pyramid with two staircases and a double temple oriented towards the west. [78]

Aztec religion was organized around the practice of calendar rituals dedicated to a pantheon of different deities. Similar to other Mesoamerican religious systems, it has generally been understood as a polytheist agriculturalist religion with elements of animism. Central in the religious practice was the offering of sacrifices to the deities, as a way of thanking or paying for the continuation of the cycle of life. [84]


The main deities worshipped by the Aztecs were Tlaloc, a rain and storm deity, Huitzilopochtli a solar and martial deity and the tutelary deity of the Mexica tribe, Quetzalcoatl, a wind, sky and star deity and cultural hero, Tezcatlipoca, a deity of the night, magic, prophecy and fate. The Great Temple in Tenochtitlan had two shrines on its top, one dedicated to Tlaloc, the other to Huitzilopochtli. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca each had separate temples within the religious precinct close to the Great Temple, and the high priests of the Great Temple were named "Quetzalcoatl Tlamacazqueh". Other major deities were Tlaltecutli or Coatlicue a female earth deity, the deity couple Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl were associated with life and sustenance, Mictlantecutli and Mictlancihuatl, a male/female couple of deities of the underworld and death, Chalchiutlicue, a female deity of lakes and springs, Xipe Totec, a deity of fertility and the natural cycle, Huehueteotl or Xiuhtecuhtli a fire god, Tlazolteotl a female deity tied to childbirth and sexuality, and a Xochipilli and Xochiquetzal gods of song, dance and games. In some regions, particularly Tlaxcala, Mixcoatl or Camaxtli was the main tribal deity. A few sources mention a deity Ometeotl who may have been a god of the duality between life and death, male and female and who may have incorporated Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl. [85] Apart from the major deities there were dozens of minor deities each associated with an element or concept, and as the Aztec empire grew so did their pantheon because they adopted and incorporated the local deities of conquered people into their own. Additionally the major gods had many alternative manifestations or aspects, creating small families of gods with related aspects. [86]

Mythology and worldview

Aztec mythology is known from a number of sources written down in the colonial period. One set of myths, called Legend of the Suns, describe the creation of four successive suns, or periods, each ruled by a different deity and inhabited by a different group of beings. Each period ends in a cataclysmic destruction that sets the stage for the next period to begin. In this process, the deities Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl appear as adversaries, each destroying the creations of the other. The current Sun, the fifth, was created when a minor deity sacrificed himself on a bonfire and turned into the sun, but the sun only begins to move once the other deities sacrifice themselves and offers it their life force. [88]

In another myth of how the earth was created, Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl appear as allies, defeating a giant crocodile Cipactli and requiring her to become the earth, allowing humans to carve into her flesh and plant their seeds, on the condition that in return they will offer blood to her. And in the story of the creation of humanity, Quetzalcoatl travels with his twin Xolotl to the underworld and brings back bones which are then ground like corn on a metate by the goddess Cihuacoatl, the resulting dough is given human form and comes to life when Quetzalcoatl imbues it with his own blood. [89]

Huitzilopochtli is the deity tied to the Mexica tribe and he figures in the story of the origin and migrations of the tribe. On their journey, Huitzilopochtli, in the form of a deity bundle carried by the Mexica priest, continuously spurs the tribe on by pushing them into conflict with their neighbors whenever they are settled in a place. In another myth, Huitzilopochtli defeats and dismembers his sister the lunar deity Coyolxauhqui and her four hundred brothers at the hill of Coatepetl. The southern side of the Great Temple, also called Coatepetl, was a representation of this myth and at the foot of the stairs lay a large stone monolith carved with a representation of the dismembered goddess. [90]


Aztec religious life was organized around the calendars. As most Mesoamerican people, the Aztecs used two calendars simultaneously: a ritual calendar of 260 days called the tonalpohualli and a solar calendar of 365 days called the xiuhpohualli. Each day had a name and number in both calendars, and the combination of two dates were unique within a period of 52 years. The tonalpohualli was mostly used for divinatory purposes and it consisted of 20 day signs and number coefficients of 1–13 that cycled in a fixed order. The xiuhpohualli was made up of 18 "months" of 20 days, and with a remainder of 5 "void" days at the end of a cycle before the new xiuhpohualli cycle began. Each 20-day month was named after the specific ritual festival that began the month, many of which contained a relation to the agricultural cycle. Whether, and how, the Aztec calendar corrected for leap year is a matter of discussion among specialists. The monthly rituals involved the entire population as rituals were performed in each household, in the calpolli temples and in the main sacred precinct. Many festivals involved different forms of dancing, as well as the reenactment of mythical narratives by deity impersonators and the offering of sacrifice, in the form of food, animals and human victims. [91]

Every 52 years, the two calendars reached their shared starting point and a new calendar cycle began. This calendar event was celebrated with a ritual known as Xiuhmolpilli or the New Fire Ceremony. In this ceremony, old pottery was broken in all homes and all fires in the Aztec realm were put out. Then a new fire was drilled over the breast of a sacrificial victim and runners brought the new fire to the different calpolli communities where fire was redistributed to each home. The night without fire was associated with the fear that star demons, tzitzimime, might descend and devour the earth – ending the fifth period of the sun. [92]

Human sacrifice and cannibalism

To the Aztecs, death was instrumental in the perpetuation of creation, and gods and humans alike had the responsibility of sacrificing themselves in order to allow life to continue. As described in the myth of creation above, humans were understood to be responsible for the sun's continued revival, as well as for paying the earth for its continued fertility. Blood sacrifice in various forms was conducted. Both humans and animals were sacrificed, depending on the god to be placated and the ceremony being conducted, and priests of some gods were sometimes required to provide their own blood through self-mutilation. It is known that some rituals included acts of cannibalism, with the captor and his family consuming part of the flesh of their sacrificed captives, but it is not known how widespread this practice was. [93] [94]

While human sacrifice was practiced throughout Mesoamerica, the Aztecs, according to their own accounts, brought this practice to an unprecedented level. For example, for the reconsecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs reported that they sacrificed 80,400 prisoners over the course of four days, reportedly by Ahuitzotl, the Great Speaker himself. This number, however, is not universally accepted and may have been exaggerated. [95]

The scale of Aztec human sacrifice has provoked many scholars to consider what may have been the driving factor behind this aspect of Aztec religion. In the 1970s, Michael Harner and Marvin Harris argued that the motivation behind human sacrifice among the Aztecs was actually the cannibalization of the sacrificial victims, depicted for example in Codex Magliabechiano. Harner claimed that very high population pressure and an emphasis on maize agriculture, without domesticated herbivores, led to a deficiency of essential amino acids among the Aztecs. [96] While there is universal agreement that the Aztecs practiced sacrifice, there is a lack of scholarly consensus as to whether cannibalism was widespread. Harris, author of Cannibals and Kings (1977), has propagated the claim, originally proposed by Harner, that the flesh of the victims was a part of an aristocratic diet as a reward, since the Aztec diet was lacking in proteins. These claims have been refuted by Bernard Ortíz Montellano who, in his studies of Aztec health, diet, and medicine, demonstrates that while the Aztec diet was low in animal proteins, it was rich in vegetable proteins. Ortiz also points to the preponderance of human sacrifice during periods of food abundance following harvests compared to periods of food scarcity, the insignificant quantity of human protein available from sacrifices and the fact that aristocrats already had easy access to animal protein. [97] [95] Today many scholars point to ideological explanations of the practice, noting how the public spectacle of sacrificing warriors from conquered states was a major display of political power, supporting the claim of the ruling classes to divine authority. [98] It also served as an important deterrent against rebellion by subjugated polities against the Aztec state, and such deterrents were crucial in order for the loosely organized empire to cohere. [99]

The Aztec greatly appreciated the toltecayotl (arts and fine craftsmanship) of the Toltec, who predated the Aztec in central Mexico. The Aztec considered Toltec productions to represent the finest state of culture. The fine arts included writing and painting, singing and composing poetry, carving sculptures and producing mosaic, making fine ceramics, producing complex featherwork, and working metals, including copper and gold. Artisans of the fine arts were referred to collectively as tolteca (Toltec). [100]

Urban standard details Mexico-Tenochtitlan remnants in Templo Mayor Museum (Mexico City)

The Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli 1400–1521 cedrela wood, turquoise, pine resin, mother-of-pearl, conch shell, cinnabar height: 16.8 cm, width: 15.2 cm British Museum (London)

The Mask of Tezcatlipoca 1400–1521 turquoise, pyrite, pine, lignite, human bone, deer skin, conch shell and agave height: 19 cm, width: 13.9 cm, length: 12.2 cm British Museum

Double-headed serpent 1450–1521 cedro wood (Cedrela odorata), turquoise, shell, traces of gilding & 2 resins are used as adhesive (pine resin and Bursera resin) height: 20.3 cm, width: 43.3 cm, depth: 5.9 cm British Museum

Page 12 of the Codex Borbonicus, (in the big square): Tezcatlipoca (night and fate) and Quetzalcoatl (feathered serpent) before 1500 bast fiber paper height: 38 cm, length of the full manuscript: 142 cm Bibliothèque de l'Assemblée nationale (Paris)

Aztec calendar stone 1502–1521 basalt diameter: 358 cm thick: 98 cm discovered on 17 December 1790 during repairs on the Mexico City Cathedral National Museum of Anthropology (Mexico City)

Tlāloc effigy vessel 1440–1469 painted earthenware height: 35 cm Templo Mayor Museum (Mexico City)

Kneeling female figure 15th–early 16th century painted stone overall: 54.61 x 26.67 cm Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)

Frog-shaped necklace ornaments 15th–early 16th century gold height: 2.1 cm Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)

Writing and iconography

The Aztecs did not have a fully developed writing system like the Maya, however like the Maya and Zapotec, they did use a writing system that combined logographic signs with phonetic syllable signs. Logograms would, for example, be the use of an image of a mountain to signify the word tepetl, "mountain", whereas a phonetic syllable sign would be the use of an image of a tooth tlantli to signify the syllable tla in words unrelated to teeth. The combination of these principles allowed the Aztecs to represent the sounds of names of persons and places. Narratives tended to be represented through sequences of images, using various iconographic conventions such as footprints to show paths, temples on fire to show conquest events, etc. [101]

Epigrapher Alfonso Lacadena has demonstrated that the different syllable signs used by the Aztecs almost enabled the representation of all the most frequent syllables of the Nahuatl language (with some notable exceptions), [102] but some scholars have argued that such a high degree of phoneticity was only achieved after the conquest when the Aztecs had been introduced to the principles of phonetic writing by the Spanish. [103] Other scholars, notably Gordon Whittaker, have argued that the syllabic and phonetic aspects of Aztec writing were considerably less systematic and more creative than Lacadena's proposal suggests, arguing that Aztec writing never coalesced into a strictly syllabic system such as the Maya writing, but rather used a wide range of different types of phonetic signs. [104]

The image to right demonstrates the use of phonetic signs for writing place names in the colonial Aztec Codex Mendoza. The uppermost place is "Mapachtepec", meaning literally "On the Hill of the Raccoon ", but the glyph includes the phonetic signs "MA" (hand) and "PACH" (moss) over a mountain "TEPETL" spelling the word "mapach" ("raccoon") phonetically instead of logographically. The other two place names, Mazatlan ("Place of Many Deer") and Huitztlan ("Place of many thorns"), use the phonetic element "TLAN" represented by a tooth (tlantli) combined with a deer head to spell "MAZA" (mazatl = deer) and a thorn (huitztli) to spell "HUITZ". [105]

Music, song and poetry

Song and poetry were highly regarded there were presentations and poetry contests at most of the Aztec festivals. There were also dramatic presentations that included players, musicians and acrobats. There were several different genres of cuicatl (song): Yaocuicatl was devoted to war and the god(s) of war, Teocuicatl to the gods and creation myths and to adoration of said figures, xochicuicatl to flowers (a symbol of poetry itself and indicative of the highly metaphorical nature of a poetry that often utilized duality to convey multiple layers of meaning). "Prose" was tlahtolli, also with its different categories and divisions. [106] [107]

A key aspect of Aztec poetics was the use of parallelism, using a structure of embedded couplets to express different perspectives on the same element. [108] Some such couplets were diphrasisms, conventional metaphors whereby an abstract concept was expressed metaphorically by using two more concrete concepts. For example, the Nahuatl expression for "poetry" was in xochitl in cuicatl a dual term meaning "the flower, the song". [109]

A remarkable amount of this poetry survives, having been collected during the era of the conquest. In some cases poetry is attributed to individual authors, such as Nezahualcoyotl, tlatoani of Texcoco, and Cuacuauhtzin, Lord of Tepechpan, but whether these attributions reflect actual authorship is a matter of opinion. Important collection of such poems are Romances de los señores de la Nueva España, collected (Tezcoco 1582), probably by Juan Bautista de Pomar, [nb 8] and the Cantares Mexicanos. [110]


The Aztecs produced ceramics of different types. Common are orange wares, which are orange or buff burnished ceramics with no slip. Red wares are ceramics with a reddish slip. And polychrome ware are ceramics with a white or orange slip, with painted designs in orange, red, brown, and/or black. Very common is "black on orange" ware which is orange ware decorated with painted designs in black. [111] [5] [112]

Aztec black on orange ceramics are chronologically classified into four phases: Aztec I and II corresponding to ca, 1100–1350 (early Aztec period), Aztec III ca. (1350–1520), and the last phase Aztec IV was the early colonial period. Aztec I is characterized by floral designs and day- name glyphs Aztec II is characterized by a stylized grass design above calligraphic designs such as s-curves or loops Aztec III is characterized by very simple line designs Aztec IV continues some pre-Columbian designs but adds European influenced floral designs. There were local variations on each of these styles, and archeologists continue to refine the ceramic sequence. [5]

Typical vessels for everyday use were clay griddles for cooking (comalli), bowls and plates for eating (caxitl), pots for cooking (comitl), molcajetes or mortar-type vessels with slashed bases for grinding chilli (molcaxitl), and different kinds of braziers, tripod dishes and biconical goblets. Vessels were fired in simple updraft kilns or even in open firing in pit kilns at low temperatures. [5] Polychrome ceramics were imported from the Cholula region (also known as Mixteca-Puebla style), and these wares were highly prized as a luxury ware, whereas the local black on orange styles were also for everyday use. [113]

Painted art

Aztec painted art was produced on animal skin (mostly deer), on cotton lienzos and on amate paper made from bark (e.g. from Trema micrantha or Ficus aurea), it was also produced on ceramics and carved in wood and stone. The surface of the material was often first treated with gesso to make the images stand out more clearly. The art of painting and writing was known in Nahuatl by the metaphor in tlilli, in tlapalli - meaning "the black ink, the red pigment". [114] [115]

There are few extant Aztec painted books. Of these none are conclusively confirmed to have been created before the conquest, but several codices must have been painted either right before the conquest or very soon after - before traditions for producing them were much disturbed. Even if some codices may have been produced after the conquest, there is good reason to think that they may have been copied from pre-Columbian originals by scribes. The Codex Borbonicus is considered by some to be the only extant Aztec codex produced before the conquest - it is a calendric codex describing the day and month counts indicating the patron deities of the different time periods. [25] Others consider it to have stylistic traits suggesting a post-conquest production. [116]

Some codices were produces post-conquest, sometimes commissioned by the colonial government, for example Codex Mendoza, were painted by Aztec tlacuilos (codex creators), but under the control of Spanish authorities, who also sometimes commissioned codices describing pre-colonial religious practices, for example Codex Ríos. After the conquest, codices with calendric or religious information were sought out and systematically destroyed by the church - whereas other types of painted books, particularly historical narratives and tribute lists continued to be produced. [25] Although depicting Aztec deities and describing religious practices also shared by the Aztecs of the Valley of Mexico, the codices produced in Southern Puebla near Cholula, are sometimes not considered to be Aztec codices, because they were produced outside of the Aztec "heartland". [25] Karl Anton Nowotny, nevertheless considered that the Codex Borgia, painted in the area around Cholula and using a Mixtec style, was the "most significant work of art among the extant manuscripts". [117]

The first Aztec murals were from Teotihuacan. [118] Most of our current Aztec murals were found in Templo Mayor. [119] The Aztec capitol was decorated with elaborate murals. In Aztec murals humans are represented like they are represented in the codices. One mural discovered in Tlateloco depicts an old man and an old woman. This may represent the gods Cipactonal and Oxomico.


Sculptures were carved in stone and wood, but few wood carvings have survived. [120] Aztec stone sculptures exist in many sizes from small figurines and masks to large monuments, and are characterized by a high quality of craftsmanship. [121] Many sculptures were carved in highly realistic styles, for example realistic sculpture of animals such as rattlesnakes, dogs, jaguars, frogs, turtle and monkeys. [122]

In Aztec artwork a number of monumental stone sculptures have been preserved, such sculptures usually functioned as adornments for religious architecture. Particularly famous monumental rock sculpture includes the so-called Aztec "Sunstone" or Calendarstone discovered in 1790 also discovered in 1790 excavations of the Zócalo was the 2.7 meter tall Coatlicue statue made of andesite, representing a serpentine chthonic goddess with a skirt made of rattlesnakes. The Coyolxauhqui Stone representing the dismembered goddess Coyolxauhqui, found in 1978, was at the foot of the staircase leading up to the Great Temple in Tenochtitlan. [123] Two important types of sculpture are unique to the Aztecs, and related to the context of ritual sacrifice: the cuauhxicalli or "eagle vessel", large stone bowls often shaped like eagles or jaguars used as a receptacle for extracted human hearts the temalacatl, a monumental carved stone disk to which war captives were tied and sacrificed in a form of gladiatorial combat. The most well known examples of this type of sculpture are the Stone of Tizoc and the Stone of Motecuzoma I, both carved with images of warfare and conquest by specific Aztec rulers. Many smaller stone sculptures depicting deities also exist. The style used in religious sculpture was rigid stances likely meant to create a powerful experience in the onlooker. [122] Although Aztec stone sculptures are now displayed in museums as unadorned rock, they were originally painted in vivid polychrome color, sometimes covered first with a base coat of plaster. [124] Early Spanish conquistador accounts also describe stone sculptures as having been decorated with precious stones and metal, inserted into the plaster. [122]


An especially prized art form among the Aztecs was featherwork - the creation of intricate and colorful mosaics of feathers, and their use in garments as well as decoration on weaponry, war banners, and warrior suits. The class of highly skilled and honored craftsmen who created feather objects was called the amanteca, [125] named after the Amantla neighborhood in Tenochtitlan where they lived and worked. [126] They did not pay tribute nor were required to perform public service. The Florentine Codex gives information about how feather works were created. The amanteca had two ways of creating their works. One was to secure the feathers in place using agave cord for three-dimensional objects such as fly whisks, fans, bracelets, headgear and other objects. The second and more difficult was a mosaic type technique, which the Spanish also called "feather painting." These were done principally on feather shields and cloaks for idols.Feather mosaics were arrangements of minute fragments of feathers from a wide variety of birds, generally worked on a paper base, made from cotton and paste, then itself backed with amate paper, but bases of other types of paper and directly on amate were done as well. These works were done in layers with "common" feathers, dyed feathers and precious feathers. First a model was made with lower quality feathers and the precious feathers found only on the top layer. The adhesive for the feathers in the Mesoamerican period was made from orchid bulbs. Feathers from local and faraway sources were used, especially in the Aztec Empire. The feathers were obtained from wild birds as well as from domesticated turkeys and ducks, with the finest quetzal feathers coming from Chiapas, Guatemala and Honduras. These feathers were obtained through trade and tribute. Due to the difficulty of conserving feathers, fewer than ten pieces of original Aztec featherwork exist today. [127]

Mexico City was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, gradually replacing and covering the lake, the island and the architecture of Aztec Tenochtitlan. [128] [129] [130] After the fall of Tenochtitlan, Aztec warriors were enlisted as auxiliary troops alongside the Spanish Tlaxcalteca allies, and Aztec forces participated in all of the subsequent campaigns of conquest in northern and southern Mesoamerica. This meant that aspects of Aztec culture and the Nahuatl language continued to expand during the early colonial period as Aztec auxiliary forces made permanent settlements in many of the areas that were put under the Spanish crown. [131]

The Aztec ruling dynasty continued to govern the indigenous polity of San Juan Tenochtitlan, a division of the Spanish capital of Mexico City, but the subsequent indigenous rulers were mostly puppets installed by the Spanish. One was Andrés de Tapia Motelchiuh, who was appointed by the Spanish. Other former Aztec city states likewise were established as colonial indigenous towns, governed by a local indigenous gobernador. This office was often initially held by the hereditary indigenous ruling line, with the gobernador being the tlatoani, but the two positions in many Nahua towns became separated over time. Indigenous governors were in charge of the colonial political organization of the Indians. In particular they enabled the continued functioning of the tribute and obligatory labor of commoner Indians to benefit the Spanish holders of encomiendas. Encomiendas were private grants of labor and tribute from particular indigenous communities to particular Spaniards, replacing the Aztec overlords with Spanish. In the early colonial period some indigenous governors became quite rich and influential and were able to maintain positions of power comparable to that of Spanish encomenderos. [132]

Population decline

After the arrival of the Europeans in Mexico and the conquest, indigenous populations declined significantly. This was largely the result of the epidemics of viruses brought to the continent against which the natives had no immunity. In 1520–1521, an outbreak of smallpox swept through the population of Tenochtitlan and was decisive in the fall of the city further significant epidemics struck in 1545 and 1576. [133]

There has been no general consensus about the population size of Mexico at the time of European arrival. Early estimates gave very small population figures for the Valley of Mexico, in 1942 Kubler estimated a figure 200,000. [134] In 1963 Borah and Cook used pre-Conquest tribute lists to calculate the number of tributaries in central Mexico, estimating over 18–30 million . Their very high figure has been highly criticized for relying on unwarranted assumptions. [135] Archeologist William Sanders based an estimate on archeological evidence of dwellings, arriving at an estimate of 1–1.2 million inhabitants in the Valley of Mexico. [136] Whitmore used a computer simulation model based on colonial censuses to arrive at an estimate of 1.5 million for the Basin in 1519, and an estimate of 16 million for all of Mexico. [137] Depending on the estimations of the population in 1519 the scale of the decline in the 16th century, range from around 50% to around 90% – with Sanders's and Whitmore's estimates being around 90%. [135] [138]

Social and political continuity and change

Although the Aztec empire fell, some of its highest elites continued to hold elite status in the colonial era. The principal heirs of Moctezuma II and their descendants retained high status. His son Pedro Moctezuma produced a son, who married into Spanish aristocracy and a further generation saw the creation of the title, Count of Moctezuma. From 1696 to 1701, the Viceroy of Mexico was held the title of count of Moctezuma. In 1766, the holder of the title became a Grandee of Spain. In 1865, (during the Second Mexican Empire) the title, which was held by Antonio María Moctezuma-Marcilla de Teruel y Navarro, 14th Count of Moctezuma de Tultengo, was elevated to that of a Duke, thus becoming Duke of Moctezuma, with de Tultengo again added in 1992 by Juan Carlos I. [139] Two of Moctezuma's daughters, Doña Isabel Moctezuma and her younger sister, Doña Leonor Moctezuma, were granted extensive encomiendas in perpetuity by Hernán Cortes. Doña Leonor Moctezuma married in succession two Spaniards, and left her encomiendas to her daughter by her second husband. [140]

The different Nahua peoples, just as other Mesoamerican indigenous peoples in colonial New Spain, were able to maintain many aspects of their social and political structure under the colonial rule. The basic division the Spanish made was between the indigenous populations, organized under the Republica de indios, which was separate from the Hispanic sphere, the República de españoles. The República de españoles included not just Europeans, but also Africans and mixed-race castas. The Spanish recognized the indigenous elites as nobles in the Spanish colonial system, maintaining the status distinction of the pre-conquest era, and used these noblemen as intermediaries between the Spanish colonial government and their communities. This was contingent on their conversion to Christianity and continuing loyalty to the Spanish crown. Colonial Nahua polities had considerable autonomy to regulate their local affairs. The Spanish rulers did not entirely understand the indigenous political organization, but they recognized the importance of the existing system and their elite rulers. They reshaped the political system utilizing altepetl or city-states as the basic unit of governance. In the colonial era, altepetl were renamed cabeceras or "head towns" (although they often retained the term altepetl in local-level, Nahuatl-language documentation), with outlying settlements governed by the cabeceras named sujetos, subject communities. In cabeceras, the Spanish created Iberian-style town councils, or cabildos, which usually continued to function as the elite ruling group had in the pre-conquest era. [141] [142] Population decline due to epidemic disease resulted in many population shifts in settlement patterns, and the formation of new population centers. These were often forced resettlements under the Spanish policy of congregación. Indigenous populations living in sparsely populated areas were resettled to form new communities, making it easier for them to brought within range of evangelization efforts, and easier for the colonial state to exploit their labor. [143] [144]

Today the legacy of the Aztecs lives on in Mexico in many forms. Archeological sites are excavated and opened to the public and their artifacts are prominently displayed in museums. Place names and loanwords from the Aztec language Nahuatl permeate the Mexican landscape and vocabulary, and Aztec symbols and mythology have been promoted by the Mexican government and integrated into contemporary Mexican nationalism as emblems of the country. [146]

During the 19th century, the image of the Aztecs as uncivilized barbarians was replaced with romanticized visions of the Aztecs as original sons of the soil, with a highly developed culture rivaling the ancient European civilizations. When Mexico became independent from Spain, a romanticized version of the Aztecs became a source of images that could be used to ground the new nation as a unique blend of European and American. [147]

The Aztecs and Mexico's national identity

Aztec culture and history has been central to the formation of a Mexican national identity after Mexican independence in 1821. In 17th and 18th century Europe, the Aztecs were generally described as barbaric, gruesome and culturally inferior. [148] Even before Mexico achieved its independence, American-born Spaniards (criollos) drew on Aztec history to ground their own search for symbols of local pride, separate from that of Spain. Intellectuals utilized Aztec writings, such as those collected by Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, and writings of Hernando Alvarado Tezozomoc, and Chimalpahin to understand Mexico's indigenous past in texts by indigenous writers. This search became the basis for what historian D.A. Brading calls "creole patriotism." Seventeenth-century cleric and scientist, Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora acquired the manuscript collection of Texcocan nobleman Alva Ixtlilxochitl. Creole Jesuit Francisco Javier Clavijero published La Historia Antigua de México (1780–81) in his Italian exile following the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, in which he traces the history of the Aztecs from their migration to the last Aztec ruler, Cuauhtemoc. He wrote it expressly to defend Mexico's indigenous past against the slanders of contemporary writers, such as Pauw, Buffon, Raynal, and William Robertson. [149] Archeological excavations in 1790 in the capital's main square uncovered two massive stone sculptures, buried immediately after the fall of Tenochtitlan in the conquest. Unearthed were the famous calendar stone, as well as a statue of Coatlicue. Antonio de León y Gama’s 1792 Descripción histórico y cronológico de las dos piedras examines the two stone monoliths. A decade later, German scientist Alexander von Humboldt spent a year in Mexico, during his four-year expedition to Spanish America. One of his early publications from that period was Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. [150] Humboldt was important in disseminating images of the Aztecs to scientists and general readers in the Western world. [151]

In the realm of religion, late colonial paintings of the Virgin of Guadalupe have examples of her depicted floating above the iconic nopal cactus of the Aztecs. Juan Diego, the Nahua to whom the apparition was said to appear, links the dark Virgin to Mexico's Aztec past. [152]

When New Spain achieved independence in 1821 and became a monarchy, the First Mexican Empire, its flag had the traditional Aztec eagle on a nopal cactus. The eagle had a crown, symbolizing the new Mexican monarchy. When Mexico became a republic after the overthrow of the first monarch Agustín de Iturbide in 1822, the flag was revised showing the eagle with no crown. In the 1860s, when the French established the Second Mexican Empire under Maximilian of Habsburg, the Mexican flag retained the emblematic eagle and cactus, with elaborate symbols of monarchy. After the defeat of the French and their Mexican collaborators, the Mexican Republic was re-established, and the flag returned to its republican simplicity. [153] This emblem has also been adopted as Mexico's national Coat of Arms, and is emblazoned on official buildings, seals, and signs. [145]

Tensions within post-independence Mexico pitted those rejecting the ancient civilizations of Mexico as source of national pride, the Hispanistas, mostly politically conservative Mexican elites, and those who saw them as a source of pride, the Indigenistas, who were mostly liberal Mexican elites. Although the flag of the Mexican Republic had the symbol of the Aztecs as its central element, conservative elites were generally hostile to the current indigenous populations of Mexico or crediting them with a glorious prehispanic history. Under Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna, pro-indigenist Mexican intellectuals did not find a wide audience. With Santa Anna's overthrow in 1854, Mexican liberals and scholars interested in the indigenous past became more active. Liberals were more favorably inclined to the indigenous populations and their history, but considered a pressing matter being the "Indian Problem." Liberals’ commitment to equality before the law meant that for upwardly mobile indigenous, such as Zapotec Benito Juárez, who rose in the ranks of the liberals to become Mexico's first president of indigenous origins, and Nahua intellectual and politician Ignacio Altamirano, a disciple of Ignacio Ramírez, a defender of the rights of the indigenous, liberalism presented a way forward in that era. For investigations of Mexico's indigenous past, however, the role of moderate liberal José Fernando Ramírez is important, serving as director of the National Museum and doing research utilizing codices, while staying out of the fierce conflicts between liberals and conservatives that led to a decade of civil war. Mexican scholars who pursued research on the Aztecs in the late nineteenth century were Francisco Pimentel, Antonio García Cubas, Manuel Orozco y Berra, Joaquín García Icazbalceta, and Francisco del Paso y Troncoso contributing significantly to the nineteenth-century development of Mexican scholarship on the Aztecs. [154]

The late nineteenth century in Mexico was a period in which Aztec civilization became a point of national pride. The era was dominated by liberal military hero, Porfirio Díaz, a mestizo from Oaxaca who was president of Mexico from 1876 to 1911. His policies opening Mexico to foreign investors and modernizing the country under a firm hand controlling unrest, "Order and Progress," undermined Mexico's indigenous populations and their communities. However, for investigations of Mexico's ancient civilizations, his was a benevolent regime, with funds supporting archeological research and for protecting monuments. [155] "Scholars found it more profitable to confine their attention to Indians who had been dead for a number of centuries." [156] His benevolence saw the placement of a monument to Cuauhtemoc in a major traffic roundabout (glorieta) of the wide Paseo de la Reforma, which he inaugurated in 1887. In world's fairs of the late nineteenth century, Mexico's pavilions included a major focus on its indigenous past, especially the Aztecs. Mexican scholars such as Alfredo Chavero helped shape the cultural image of Mexico at these exhibitions. [157]

The Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) and significant participation of indigenous people in the struggle in many regions, ignited a broad government-sponsored political and cultural movement of indigenismo, with symbols of Mexico's Aztec past becoming ubiquitous, most especially in Mexican muralism of Diego Rivera. [158] [159]

In their works, Mexican authors such as Octavio Paz and Agustin Fuentes have analyzed the use Aztec symbols by the modern Mexican state, critiquing the way it adopts and adapts indigenous culture to political ends, yet they have also in their works made use of the symbolic idiom themselves. Paz for example critiqued the architectural layout of the National Museum of Anthropology, which constructs a view of Mexican history as culminating with the Aztecs, as an expression of a nationalist appropriation of Aztec culture. [160]

Aztec history and international scholarship

Scholars in Europe and the United States increasingly wanted investigations into Mexico's ancient civilizations, starting in the nineteenth century. Humboldt had been extremely important bringing ancient Mexico into broader scholarly discussions of ancient civilizations. French Americanist Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg (1814–1874) asserted that "science in our own time has at last effectively studied and rehabilitated America and the Americans from the [previous] viewpoint of history and archeology. It was Humboldt. who woke us from our sleep." [161] Frenchman Jean-Frédéric Waldeck published Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans la province d'Yucatan pendant les années 1834 et 1836 in 1838. Although not directly connected with the Aztecs, it contributed to the increased interest in ancient Mexican studies in Europe. English aristocrat Lord Kingsborough spent considerable energy in their pursuit of understanding of ancient Mexico. Kingsborough answered Humboldt's call for the publication of all known Mexican codices, publishing nine volumes of Antiquities of Mexico (1831–1846) that were richly illustrated, bankrupting him. He was not directly interested in the Aztecs, but rather in proving that Mexico had been colonized by Jews. [ citation needed ] However, his publication of these valuable primary sources gave others access to them. [ citation needed ]

In the United States in the early nineteenth century, interest in ancient Mexico propelled John Lloyd Stephens to travel to Mexico and then publish well-illustrated accounts in the early 1840s. But the research of a half-blind Bostonian, William Hickling Prescott, into the Spanish conquest of Mexico resulted in his highly popular and deeply researched The Conquest of Mexico (1843). Although not formally trained as a historian, Prescott drew on the obvious Spanish sources, but also Ixtlilxochitl and Sahagún's history of the conquest. His resulting work was a mixture of pro- and anti-Aztec attitudes. It was not only a bestseller in English, it also influenced Mexican intellectuals, including the leading conservative politician, Lucas Alamán. Alamán pushed back against his characterization of the Aztecs. In the assessment of Benjamin Keen, Prescott's history "has survived attacks from every quarter, and still dominates the conceptions of the laymen, if not the specialist, concerning Aztec civilization." [162] In the later nineteenth century, businessman and historian Hubert Howe Bancroft oversaw a huge project, employing writers and researchers, to write the history the "Native Races" of North America, including Mexico, California, and Central America. One entire work was devoted to ancient Mexico, half of which concerned the Aztecs. It was a work of synthesis drawing on Ixtlilxochitl and Brasseur de Bourbourg, among others. [154]

When the International Congress of Americanists was formed in Nancy, France in 1875, Mexican scholars became active participants, and Mexico City has hosted the biennial multidisciplinary meeting six times, starting in 1895. Mexico's ancient civilizations have continued to be the focus of major scholarly investigations by Mexican and international scholars.

Language and placenames

The Nahuatl language is today spoken by 1.5 million people, mostly in mountainous areas in the states of central Mexico. Mexican Spanish today incorporates hundreds of loans from Nahuatl, and many of these words have passed into general Spanish use, and further into other world languages. [163] [164] [165]

In Mexico, Aztec place names are ubiquitous, particularly in central Mexico where the Aztec empire was centered, but also in other regions where many towns, cities and regions were established under their Nahuatl names, as Aztec auxiliary troops accompanied the Spanish colonizers on the early expeditions that mapped New Spain. In this way even towns, that were not originally Nahuatl speaking came to be known by their Nahuatl names. [166] In Mexico City there are commemorations of Aztec rulers, including on the Mexico City Metro, line 1, with stations named for Moctezuma II and Cuauhtemoc.


Mexican cuisine continues to be based on staple elements of Mesoamerican cooking and, particularly, of Aztec cuisine: corn, chili, beans, squash, tomato, avocado. Many of these staple products continue to be known by their Nahuatl names, carrying in this way ties to the Aztec people who introduced these foods to the Spaniards and to the world. Through spread of ancient Mesoamerican food elements, particularly plants, Nahuatl loan words (chocolate, tomato, chili, avocado, tamale, taco, pupusa, chipotle, pozole, atole) have been borrowed through Spanish into other languages around the world. [165] Through the spread and popularity of Mexican cuisine, the culinary legacy of the Aztecs can be said to have a global reach. Today Aztec images and Nahuatl words are often used to lend an air of authenticity or exoticism in the marketing of Mexican cuisine. [167]

In popular culture

The idea of the Aztecs has captivated the imaginations of Europeans since the first encounters, and has provided many iconic symbols to Western popular culture. [168] In his book The Aztec Image in Western Thought, Benjamin Keen argued that Western thinkers have usually viewed Aztec culture through a filter of their own cultural interests. [169]

The Aztecs and figures from Aztec mythology feature in Western culture. [170] The name of Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent god, has been used for a genus of pterosaurs, Quetzalcoatlus, a large flying reptile with a wingspan of as much as 11 metres (36 ft). [171] Quetzalcoatl has appeared as a character in many books, films and video games. D.H. Lawrence gave the name Quetzalcoatl to an early draft of his novel The Plumed Serpent, but his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, insisted on a change of title. [172] American author Gary Jennings wrote two acclaimed historical novels set in Aztec-period Mexico, Aztec (1980) and Aztec Autumn (1997). [173] The novels were so popular that four more novels in the Aztec series were written after his death. [174]

Aztec society has also been depicted in cinema. The Mexican feature film The Other Conquest (Spanish: La Otra Conquista) from 2000 was directed by Salvador Carrasco, and illustrated the colonial aftermath of the 1520s Spanish Conquest of Mexico. It adopted the perspective of an Aztec scribe, Topiltzin, who survived the attack on the temple of Tenochtitlan. [175] The 1989 film Retorno a Aztlán by Juan Mora Catlett is a work of historical fiction set during the rule of Motecuzoma I, filmed in Nahuatl and with the alternative Nahuatl title Necuepaliztli in Aztlan. [176] [177] In Mexican exploitation B movies of the 1970s, a recurring figure was the "Aztec mummy" as well as Aztec ghosts and sorcerers. [178]

This article was kindly written specially for us (well, we helped a little with the Aztecs bit. ) by Katherine Ashenburg, prize-winning non-fiction author, lecturer and journalist. Her latest book, &lsquoThe Dirt on Clean&rsquo, is a social history of Western cleanliness, which &lsquoholds a welcome mirror up to our intimate selves. &rsquo

Many things about Aztec civilization amazed the Spanish Conquistadores, including their intensive, highly productive agricultural system of chinampas or &lsquofloating gardens&rsquo (Picture 1), and the size and sophistication of their great city Tenochtitlan (Picture 2). At a time in Europe when street cleaning was almost non-existent and people emptied their overflowing chamber pots into the streets as a matter of course, the Aztecs employed a thousand public service cleaners to sweep and water their streets daily, built public toilets in every neighbourhood, and transported human waste in canoes for use as fertilizer.

Pic 2: The city of Tenochtitlan - painting by Luis Covarrubias, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

While London was still drawing its drinking water from the polluted River Thames as late as 1854, the Aztecs supplied their capital city with fresh water from the nearby hill of Chapultepec by means of two aqueducts, the first built by Netzahualcóyotl between 1466 and 1478, the second some 20 years later by the ruler Ahuitzotl. The symbolic importance of water to the Aztecs is clear from their (metaphorical) word for &lsquocity&rsquo - altepetl which means literally &lsquowater-mountain&rsquo in Náhuatl.
The aqueducts were described by Hernán Cortés in 1520: Along one of the causeways to this great city run two aqueducts made of mortar. Each one is two paces wide and some six feet deep, and along one of them a stream of very good fresh water, as wide as a man&rsquos body, flows into the heart of the city and from this they all drink. The other, which is empty, is used when they wish to clean the first channel. Where the aqueducts cross the bridges, the water passes along some channels which are as wide as an ox and so they serve the whole city.

Pic 3: Stylized image of Aztec daily life: detail of mural by Regina Raúll &lsquoPaisaje Mexica&rsquo, 1964, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

But probably nothing seemed more bizarre to the Spaniards than the Aztec attitude to personal hygiene. In a word, they valued cleanliness. The conquistador Andres de Tapia reported, in a tone of wonder, that Montezuma bathed twice a day. He did, but there was nothing extraordinary about that for an Aztec, since everybody, according to the Jesuit historian Francisco Javier Clavijero, &lsquobathed often, and many of them every day&rsquo in the rivers, lakes or pools.

Pic 4: Copalxocotl (&lsquosoap-tree&rsquo) (Left) Xiuhamolli (soap plant) (Middle & Right) - L & M: Badianus Manuscript (pls 104 & 11), R: Florentine Codex Book 11 (Click on image to enlarge)

They lacked true soap but made up for it with the fruit of the copalxocotl , called the &lsquosoap-tree&rsquo by the Spanish, and the sticky root of the xiuhamolli or soap-plant [Saponaria Americana] both gave a lather rich enough to wash body and clothes. The encyclopedic Florentine Codex, written with Aztec informants shortly after the Conquest, includes a small illustration and description of the amolli soap plant (see Picture 4): It is long and narrow like reeds. It has a shoot its flower is white. It is a cleanser. The large, the thick [roots] remove one&rsquos hair, make one bald the small, the slender ones are cleansers, a soap. They wash, they cleanse, they remove the filth.

Pic 5: Washing hair Florentine Codex, Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

Their documents also make frequent mention of deodorants, breath fresheners and dentifrices. (Spaniards of the time cleaned their teeth with urine.) As well as bathing in lakes and rivers, the Aztecs cleaned themselves &ndash often daily &ndash in low sauna-like hot-houses. An external fire heated one of the walls to red-hot, and the bather threw water on the baking wall, creating steam. As in a traditional Russian steam bath, the bathers could speed up perspiration by thrashing themselves with twigs and grasses. Almost every building had such a bath-house or temazcalli , used for medical treatments and ritual purifications as well as ordinary grooming (Picture 6).

Pic 6: Aztec &lsquotemazcalli&rsquo bathhouse Codex Tudela folio 62r (Click on image to enlarge)

As Jacques Soustelle has written: &lsquoA love of cleanliness seems to have been general throughout the population&rsquo: the Florentine Codex hints at the importance placed on personal hygiene in documenting the instructions given by an Aztec father to his daughter:-
[In the morning] wash your face, wash your hands, clean your mouth. Listen to me, child: never make up your face nor paint it never put red on your mouth to look beautiful. Make-up and paint are things that light women use - shameless creatures. If you want your husband to love you, dress well, wash yourself and wash your clothes.

Pic 7: Dortmund - a town in the centre of Europe in the Middle Ages

Into this hygienically enlightened place thundered the Spaniards. The 16th century was one of the dirtiest periods in European history, and on top of that, the Spaniards had their own unique distrust of cleanliness. Europe in general had gone from a culture where people enjoyed a regular trip to the town or neighbourhood bath-house to a culture that shunned water as dangerous.

Pic 8: The Black Death - illustration from the Toggenburg Bible, 1411 (Click on image to enlarge)

The catalyst was the Black Death of 1347, a plague that would ultimately kill at least one out of every three Europeans. When Philippe VI of France asked the medical faculty of the University of Paris to pronounce on this terrifying occurrence in 1348, they wrote that hot baths, which created openings in the skin, allowed disease to enter the body. Bath-houses all over Europe were closed and for four or five hundred years people avoided water as much as possible. For those who wanted to think of themselves as clean, a fresh linen shirt for a man and a fresh chemise for a woman was considered safer and even more effective than water. Louis XIV of France only bathed twice in a long, athletic life but he was regarded as unusually &lsquoclean&rsquo because he changed his linen shirt twice a day.

Pic 9: &lsquoBed bugs and head lice&rsquo - from Hortus Sanitatis, Strassburg, 1499 (Click on image to enlarge)

The 16th-century Spaniards inherited that pan-European fear of water, but they had an additional, peculiarly Spanish aversion to cleanliness. Like every other part of the Roman empire, they had had their own well-patronized bath-houses. But when the Visigoths conquered Spain in the 5th century, they scorned hot baths as effeminate and weakening, and they demolished the bath-houses. By the time the Moors invaded the country in 711, the Spanish had lost the old, bath-loving link. At that point, they saw the Moors&rsquo well-washed ways as part of their heretical convictions, and their own dirtiness as a Christian virtue. (Some early Christians had regarded cleanliness as a dangerous luxury, along with good food, wine and sexual enjoyments, and tried to abstain from it Spain continued in this austere tradition longer than most.)

Pic 10: Part of the recently restored Moorish Baths dating from 1333-1374, now in the Gibraltar Museum

Arab Spain sparkled with water, whether in fountains, pools or hundreds of bath-houses. Christians in the north of Spain, not under Arab rule, continued to revel in their squalor, washing &lsquoneither their bodies nor their clothes which they only remove when they fall into pieces,&rsquo according to a contemporary observer. The more their Arab conquerors washed, the more suspicious, decadent and un-Christian the practice seemed to the Spaniards, and their dislike endured long after the Arabs had left.

Pic 11: Diego Rivera&rsquos critical view of the role of the Spanish church in Colonial Mexico - part of his mural of Mexican history, National Palace, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Richard Ford, a 19th-century English traveller who knew Spain well, spoke for many when he connected a centuries-old Spanish distaste for washing with the Moorish occupation. He wrote:-

The mendicant Spanish monks, according to their practice of setting up a directly antagonistic principle [to the Arabs], considered physical dirt as the test of moral purity and true faith and by dining and sleeping from year&rsquos end to year&rsquos end in the same unchanged woolen frock, arrived at the height of their ambition, according to their view of the odor of sanctity, the olor de santidad. This was a euphemism for &lsquofoul smell,&rsquo but it came to represent Christian godliness, and many of the saints are pictured sitting in their own excrement.

Pic 12: Cardinal Cisneros the ruins of the Moorish Baths at Ronda (Click on image to enlarge)

Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros, himself a Franciscan - wrote Ford - persuaded King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to close and abolish the Moorish baths after their conquest of Granada. They forbade not only the Christians but the Moors from using anything but holy water. Fire, not water, became the grand element of inquisitorial purification.

Pic 13: Traditional Moorish baths (Click on image to enlarge)

Sure enough, one of the first things the Spaniards did during the Reconquest was to destroy the Moorish baths (just as the Visigoths had destroyed the Roman ones). Even after that, suspicions remained: Moors who converted to Christianity were forbidden to bathe. During the Inquisition, one of the worst things that could be said about Jews as well as Moors was that they were &lsquoknown to bathe.&rsquo As Richard Ford noted, these attitudes were still current in the 19th century. He tells the story of the Spanish Duke of Frias, who visited an English lady for a fortnight and &lsquonever once troubled his basins and jugs [on his washstand in his bedroom] he simply rubbed his face occasionally with the white of an egg.&rsquo This, Ford assures us, was the only ablution used by Spanish ladies in the time of Philip IV, and apparently it was good enough for the Duke.

Pic 14: The meeting of Spanish and Aztecs outside Tenochtitlan - a folding screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río (Click on image to enlarge)

Imagine, then, the redolence of the conquistadores, after weeks of close confinement in a ship, on arrival in a hot country. To make the contrast between the Spaniards and Aztecs even more stark, the Aztecs, being originally Asian, had many fewer merocrine glands than Westerners, and those are the glands that produce sweat. Asians will tell you that even a very clean Westerner smells strong to an Asian nose, so the fragrance of the unwashed conquistadores must have been . impressive if not downright disgusting to the Aztecs. Small wonder that they responded by fumigating the Spaniards with incense as they approached. The Spaniards took it as an honour, but for the Aztecs it was a practical necessity.

Sources/further reading (Aztecs)
&bull The Badianus Manuscript (Codex Barberini, Latin 241) (original in Vatican Library): An Aztec Herbal of 1552 - intro, trans & annotations by Emily Walcott Emmart, John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1940
&bull The Florentine Codex , Book 11 - Earthly Things - trans by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J.O. Anderson, University of Utah, Part XII, 1963
&bull Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition by Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano, Rutgers University Press, 1990
&bull An Aztec Herbal: The Classic Codex of 1552 - trans & commentary by William Gates, Dover Publications, 1939/2000
&bull Daily Life of the Aztecs by Jacques Soustelle, Stanford University Press, 1961 (English trans)
&bull Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Facts on File, 2006

Sources/further reading (Europe)
&bull Katherine Ashenbug, Clean: An Unsanitised History, Profile Books, 2008
&bull John A. Crow, Spain: The Root and the Flower (Harper and Row, 1963)
&bull Erna Paris, The End of Days: A Story of Tolerance, Tyranny, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (Lester, 1995).

Picture sources
&bull Pics 1, 3 & 14: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
&bull Pics 2 & 11: Photos by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
&bull Badianus Manuscript images scanned from our own copy of the 1940 facsimile edition (see above)
&bull Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence): images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
&bull Codex Tudela image scanned from our copy of the Testimonio Compañía Editorial facsimile edition, Madrid, 2002
&bull Pic 7: from Medieval Life and People (Clip Art) - Dover Publications, New York, 2007
&bull Pic 8: from Wikipedia/Black Death
&bull Pics 9 & 13: courtesy Wellcome Library, London
&bull Pic 10: from the Gibraltar Museum website
&bull Pic 12 (left): from Wikipedia/Cardinal Cisneros
&bull Pic 12 (right): photo courtesy Barry Liimakka


Migration into the continents Edit

The specifics of Paleo-Indian migration to and throughout the Americas, including the exact dates and routes traveled, are subject to ongoing research and discussion. [1] The traditional theory has been that these early migrants moved into the Beringia land bridge between eastern Siberia and present-day Alaska around 40,000 – 17,000 years ago, when sea levels were significantly lowered due to the Quaternary glaciation. [1] [2] These people are believed to have followed herds of now-extinct Pleistocene megafauna along ice-free corridors that stretched between the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets. [3] Another route proposed is that, either on foot or using primitive boats, they migrated down the Pacific Northwest coast to South America. [4] Evidence of the latter would since have been covered by a sea level rise of a hundred meters following the last ice age. [5]

Archaeologists contend that the Paleo-Indian migration out of Beringia (eastern Alaska), ranges from 40,000 to around 16,500 years ago. [6] [7] [8] This time range is a hot source of debate. The few agreements achieved to date are the origin from Central Asia, with widespread habitation of the Americas during the end of the last glacial period, or more specifically what is known as the late glacial maximum, around 16,000 – 13,000 years before present. [8] [9]

The American Journal of Human Genetics released an article in 2007 stating "Here we show, by using 86 complete mitochondrial genomes, that all Indigenous American haplogroups, including Haplogroup X (mtDNA), were part of a single founding population." [10] Amerindian groups in the Bering Strait region exhibit perhaps the strongest DNA or mitochondrial DNA relations to Siberian peoples. The genetic diversity of Amerindian indigenous groups increase with distance from the assumed entry point into the Americas. [11] [12] Certain genetic diversity patterns from West to East suggest, particularly in South America, that migration proceeded first down the west coast, and then proceeded eastward. [13] Geneticists have variously estimated that peoples of Asia and the Americas were part of the same population from 42,000 to 21,000 years ago. [14]

New studies shed light on the founding population of indigenous Americans, suggesting that their ancestry traced to both east Asian and western Eurasians who migrated to North America directly from Siberia. A 2013 study in the journal Nature reported that DNA found in the 24,000-year-old remains of a young boy in Mal’ta Siberia suggest that up to one-third of the indigenous Americans may have ancestry that can be traced back to western Eurasians, who may have "had a more north-easterly distribution 24,000 years ago than commonly thought" [15] Professor Kelly Graf said that "Our findings are significant at two levels. First, it shows that Upper Paleolithic Siberians came from a cosmopolitan population of early modern humans that spread out of Africa to Europe and Central and South Asia. Second, Paleoindian skeletons with phenotypic traits atypical of modern-day Native Americans can be explained as having a direct historical connection to Upper Paleolithic Siberia." A route through Beringia is seen as more likely than the Solutrean hypothesis. [16]

On October 3, 2014, the Oregon cave where the oldest DNA evidence of human habitation in North America was found was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The DNA, radiocarbon dated to 14,300 years ago, was found in fossilized human coprolites uncovered in the Paisley Five Mile Point Caves in south central Oregon. [17]

Lithic stage (before 8000 BCE) Edit

The Lithic stage or Paleo-Indian period, is the earliest classification term referring to the first stage of human habitation in the Americas, covering the Late Pleistocene epoch. The time period derives its name from the appearance of "Lithic flaked" stone tools. Stone tools, particularly projectile points and scrapers, are the primary evidence of the earliest well known human activity in the Americas. Lithic reduction stone tools are used by archaeologists and anthropologists to classify cultural periods.

Archaic stage (8000 BCE – 1000 BCE) Edit

Several thousand years after the first migrations, the first complex civilizations arose as hunter-gatherers settled into semi-agricultural communities. Identifiable sedentary settlements began to emerge in the so-called Middle Archaic period around 6000 BCE. Particular archaeological cultures can be identified and easily classified throughout the Archaic period.

In the late Archaic, on the north-central coastal region of Peru, a complex civilization arose which has been termed the Norte Chico civilization, also known as Caral-Supe. It is the oldest known civilization in the Americas and one of the five sites where civilization originated independently and indigenously in the ancient world, flourishing between the 30th and 18th centuries BC. It pre-dated the Mesoamerican Olmec civilization by nearly two millennia. It was contemporaneous with the Egypt following the unification of its kingdom under Narmer and the emergence of the first Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Monumental architecture, including earthwork platform mounds and sunken plazas have been identified as part of the civilization. Archaeological evidence points to the use of textile technology and the worship of common god symbols. Government, possibly in the form of theocracy, is assumed to have been required to manage the region. However, numerous questions remain about its organization. In archaeological nomenclature, the culture was pre-ceramic culture of the pre-Columbian Late Archaic period. It appears to have lacked ceramics and art.

Ongoing scholarly debate persists over the extent to which the flourishing of Norte Chico resulted from its abundant maritime food resources, and the relationship that these resources would suggest between coastal and inland sites.

The role of seafood in the Norte Chico diet has been a subject of scholarly debate. In 1973, examining the Aspero region of Norte Chico, Michael E. Moseley contended that a maritime subsistence (seafood) economy had been the basis of society and its early flourishing. This theory, later termed "maritime foundation of Andean Civilization" was at odds with the general scholarly consensus that civilization arose as a result of intensive grain-based agriculture, as had been the case in the emergence of civilizations in northeast Africa (Egypt) and southwest Asia (Mesopotamia).

While earlier research pointed to edible domestic plants such as squash, beans, lucuma, guava, pacay, and camote at Caral, publications by Haas and colleagues have added avocado, achira, and maize (Zea Mays) to the list of foods consumed in the region. In 2013, Haas and colleagues reported that maize was a primary component of the diet throughout the period of 3000 to 1800 BC. [18]

Cotton was another widespread crop in Norte Chico, essential to the production of fishing nets and textiles. Jonathan Haas noted a mutual dependency, whereby "The prehistoric residents of the Norte Chico needed the fish resources for their protein and the fishermen needed the cotton to make the nets to catch the fish."

In the 2005 book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, journalist Charles C. Mann surveyed the literature at the time, reporting a date "sometime before 3200 BC, and possibly before 3500 BC" as the beginning date for the formation of Norte Chico. He notes that the earliest date securely associated with a city is 3500 BC, at Huaricanga in the (inland) Fortaleza area.

The Norte Chico civilization began to decline around 1800 BC as more powerful centers appeared to the south and north along its coast, and to the east within the Andes Mountains.

Mesoamerica, the Woodland Period, and Mississippian culture (2000 BCE – 500 CE) Edit

After the decline of the Norte Chico civilization, several large, centralized civilizations developed in the Western Hemisphere: Chavin, Nazca, Moche, Huari, Quitus, Cañaris, Chimu, Pachacamac, Tiahuanaco, Aymara and Inca in the Central Andes (Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia) Muisca in Colombia Taínos in Dominican Republic (Hispaniola, Española) and part of Caribbean and the Olmecs, Maya, Toltecs, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Aztecs and Purepecha in southern North America (Mexico, Guatemala).

The Olmec civilization was the first Mesoamerican civilization, beginning around 1600–1400 BC and ending around 400 BC. Mesoamerica is considered one of the six sites around the globe in which civilization developed independently and indigenously. This civilization is considered the mother culture of the Mesoamerican civilizations. The Mesoamerican calendar, numeral system, writing, and much of the Mesoamerican pantheon seem to have begun with the Olmec.

Some elements of agriculture seem to have been practiced in Mesoamerica quite early. The domestication of maize is thought to have begun around 7,500 to 12,000 years ago. The earliest record of lowland maize cultivation dates to around 5100 BC. [19] Agriculture continued to be mixed with a hunting-gathering-fishing lifestyle until quite late compared to other regions, but by 2700 BC, Mesoamericans were relying on maize, and living mostly in villages. Temple mounds and classes started to appear. By 1300/ 1200 BC, small centres coalesced into the Olmec civilization, which seems to have been a set of city-states, united in religious and commercial concerns. The Olmec cities had ceremonial complexes with earth/clay pyramids, palaces, stone monuments, aqueducts and walled plazas. The first of these centers was at San Lorenzo (until 900 bc). La Venta was the last great Olmec centre. Olmec artisans sculpted jade and clay figurines of Jaguars and humans. Their iconic giant heads – believed to be of Olmec rulers – stood in every major city.

The Olmec civilization ended in 400 BC, with the defacing and destruction of San Lorenzo and La Venta, two of the major cities. It nevertheless spawned many other states, most notably the Mayan civilization, whose first cities began appearing around 700–600 BC. Olmec influences continued to appear in many later Mesoamerican civilizations.

Cities of the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas were as large and organized as the largest in the Old World, with an estimated population of 200,000 to 350,000 in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. The market established in the city was said to have been the largest ever seen by the conquistadors when they arrived. The capital of the Cahokians, Cahokia, located near modern East St. Louis, Illinois, may have reached a population of over 20,000. At its peak, between the 12th and 13th centuries, Cahokia may have been the most populous city in North America. Monk's Mound, the major ceremonial center of Cahokia, remains the largest earthen construction of the prehistoric New World.

These civilizations developed agriculture as well, breeding maize (corn) from having ears 2–5 cm in length to perhaps 10–15 cm in length. Potatoes, tomatoes, beans (greens), pumpkins, avocados, and chocolate are now the most popular of the pre-Columbian agricultural products. The civilizations did not develop extensive livestock as there were few suitable species, although alpacas and llamas were domesticated for use as beasts of burden and sources of wool and meat in the Andes. By the 15th century, maize was being farmed in the Mississippi River Valley after introduction from Mexico. The course of further agricultural development was greatly altered by the arrival of Europeans.

Classic stage (800 BCE – 1533 CE) Edit

Cahokia was a major regional chiefdom, with trade and tributary chiefdoms located in a range of areas from bordering the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Iroquois League of Nations or "People of the Long House", based in present-day upstate and western New York, had a confederacy model from the mid-15th century. It has been suggested that their culture contributed to political thinking during the development of the later United States government. Their system of affiliation was a kind of federation, different from the strong, centralized European monarchies. [20] [21] [22]

Leadership was restricted to a group of 50 sachem chiefs, each representing one clan within a tribe the Oneida and Mohawk people had nine seats each the Onondagas held fourteen the Cayuga had ten seats and the Seneca had eight. Representation was not based on population numbers, as the Seneca tribe greatly outnumbered the others. When a sachem chief died, his successor was chosen by the senior woman of his tribe in consultation with other female members of the clan property and hereditary leadership were passed matrilineally. Decisions were not made through voting but through consensus decision making, with each sachem chief holding theoretical veto power. The Onondaga were the "firekeepers", responsible for raising topics to be discussed. They occupied one side of a three-sided fire (the Mohawk and Seneca sat on one side of the fire, the Oneida and Cayuga sat on the third side.) [22]

Elizabeth Tooker, an anthropologist, has said that it was unlikely the US founding fathers were inspired by the confederacy, as it bears little resemblance to the system of governance adopted in the United States. For example, it is based on inherited rather than elected leadership, selected by female members of the tribes, consensus decision-making regardless of population size of the tribes, and a single group capable of bringing matters before the legislative body. [22]

Long-distance trading did not prevent warfare and displacement among the indigenous peoples, and their oral histories tell of numerous migrations to the historic territories where Europeans encountered them. The Iroquois invaded and attacked tribes in the Ohio River area of present-day Kentucky and claimed the hunting grounds. Historians have placed these events as occurring as early as the 13th century, or in the 17th century Beaver Wars. [23]

Through warfare, the Iroquois drove several tribes to migrate west to what became known as their historically traditional lands west of the Mississippi River. Tribes originating in the Ohio Valley who moved west included the Osage, Kaw, Ponca and Omaha people. By the mid-17th century, they had resettled in their historical lands in present-day Kansas, Nebraska, Arkansas and Oklahoma. The Osage warred with Caddo-speaking Native Americans, displacing them in turn by the mid-18th century and dominating their new historical territories. [23]

Alcohol in the Ancient World

This lecture and discussion-based course provides an introduction to the production and consumption of beer, wine, and other fermented beverages across the ancient world. We will explore the full range of available source material – written evidence, physical remains, artistic representations, ethnographic accounts, and experimental archaeology – to develop an account of alcohol as a uniquely potent form of material culture that was embedded within complex webs of social, political, economic, and ritual activity.

Watch the video: The Aztecs Explained in 14 Minutes