Thriving in the Valley: A History of Aztec Civilization

Aztec cosmogram in the pre-Hispanic Codex Fejérváry-Mayer—the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli is in the center / Wikimedia Commons

Aztec culture had complex mythological and religious traditions.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican people of central Mexico in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. They were a civilization with a rich cultural heritage whose capital, Tenochtitlan, rivaled the greatest cities of Europe in size and grandeur.

The nucleus of the Aztec Empire was the Valley of Mexico, where the capital of the Aztec Triple Alliance was built upon raised islets in Lake Texcoco. After the 1521 conquest of Tenochtitlan by Spanish forces and their allies which brought about the effective end of Aztec dominion, the Spanish founded the new settlement of Mexico City on the site of the now-ruined Aztec capital. The greater metropolitan area of Mexico City now covers much of the Valley of Mexico and the now-drained Lake of Texcoco.

Aztec culture had complex mythological and religious traditions. The most alarming aspect of the Aztec culture was the practice of human sacrifice, which was known throughout Mesoamerica prior to the Spanish conquest. A hegemonic power, the Aztecs sacrificed human beings on a massive scale in bloody religious rituals, enslaved subject peoples, and, by Spanish accounts, practiced cannibalism. Spanish invaders, led by Hernán Cortés, sought both to claim the new lands and resources for the Spanish Crown and to promulgate Christianity, and demanded that local native allies forswear human sacrifice and cannibalism. Some Aztecs also anticipated the return of the white-skinned god Quetzalcoatl from the east, an expectation which may have contributed to the success of the militarily overmatched Spanish forces.

Aztec civilization sustained millions of people and developed from a history of thousands of years in complete isolation from European and Asian cultures. Aztec agriculture, transportation, economy, architecture, arts, and political institutions bear extraordinary witness to the creative and collaborative capability of humankind, and of the universal inclination to find transcendent meaning to human life. Spanish conquerors and later occupiers largely ignored Aztec cultural achievements, and through a policy of subjugation by Spanish colonial authorities, and the inadvertent introduction of diseases for which they had no immunity, the Aztec civilization of Mesoamerica was almost completely eradicated.


Nahuatl central / Marrovi, Wikimedia Commons

In Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztec, “Azteca” means “someone who comes from Aztlán,” thought to be a mythical place in northern Mexico. However, the Aztec referred to themselves as Mexica (meˈʃihkah) or Tenochca and Tlatelolca according to their city of origin. Their use of the word Azteca was like the modern use of Latin American, or Anglo-Saxon: a broad term that does not refer to a specific culture.

The modern usage of the name Aztec as a collective term applies to all the peoples linked by trade, custom, religion, and language to the Mexica state, the Triple Alliance, and was suggested by Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the German naturalist and explorer, and was later adopted by Mexican scholars of the nineteenth century as a way to distance “modern” Mexicans from pre-conquest Mexicans.

“Mexica,” the origin of the word Mexico, is a term of uncertain origin. Very different etymologies are proposed: the old Nahuatl word for the sun, the name of their leader Mexitli, a type of weed that grows in Lake Texcoco. The most renowned Nahuatl translator, Miguel León-Portilla (born 1926) suggests that it means “navel of the moon” from Nahuatl metztli (moon) and xictli (navel) or, alternatively, it could mean navel of the maguey (Nahuatl metl).

The Aztecs spoke classical Nahuatl. Although some contemporary Nahuatl speakers identify themselves as Aztecs, the word is normally only used as a historical term referring to the empire of the Mexicas.

Legends and Traditions

Aztec culture is generally grouped with the cultural complex known as the nahuas, because of the common language they shared. According to legend, the various groups who were to become the Aztecs arrived from the north into the Anahuac Valley around Lake Texcoco. The location of this valley and lake of destination is clear—it is the heart of modern Mexico City—but little can be known with certainty about the origin of the Aztec.

In the legend, the ancestors of the Aztec came from a place in the north called Aztlán, the last of seven nahuatlacas (Nahuatl-speaking tribes, from tlaca meaning “man”) to make the journey southward. The Aztec were said to be guided by their god Huitzilopochtli, meaning “left-handed hummingbird.” When they arrived at an island in the lake, they saw an eagle eating a snake while perched on a nopal cactus, a vision that fulfilled a prophecy telling them that they should found their new home on that spot. The Aztec built their city of Tenochtitlan on that site, building a great artificial island, which today is in the center of Mexico City. This legendary vision is pictured on the Mexican flag.

According to legend, when the Aztec arrived in the Anahuac valley around Lake Texcoco, they were considered by the other groups as the least civilized of all, but the Aztec decided to learn, and they took all they could from other peoples, especially from the ancient Toltec (whom they seem to have partially confused with the more ancient civilization of Teotihuacan). To the Aztec, the Toltecs were the originators of all culture; “Toltecayotl” was a synonym for culture. Aztec legends identify the Toltecs and the cult of Quetzalcoatl (the feathered snake) with the mythical city of Tollan, which they also seem to have identified with the more ancient Teotihuacan.

Because the Aztec adopted and combined several traditions with their own earlier traditions, they had several creation myths; one of these describes four great ages preceding the present world, each of which ended in a catastrophe. Our age—Nahui-Ollin, the fifth age, or fifth creation—escaped destruction due to the sacrifice of a god Nanahuatl (“full of sores,” the smallest and humblest of the gods), who was transformed into the Sun. This myth is associated with the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which was already abandoned and destroyed when the Aztec arrived. Another myth describes the earth as a creation of the twin gods Tezcatlipoca (the Smoking Mirror) and Quetzalcoatl. Tezcatlipoca lost his foot in the process of creating the world and all representations of these gods show him without a foot and with a bone exposed. Quetzalcoatl is also called “White Tezcatlipoca.” Quetzalcoatl represented conscious intelligence, and Tezcatlipoca the subconscious opposite. The former was the lighter, the latter the darker, side of human nature (although no real distinction was made between good and evil). Tezcatlipoca ruled the night, the earth’s surface and was god of war. Quetzalcoatl, representing dawn and the rising sun, and healing, wisdom, art, poetry, skills, and crafts had been banished by the Smoking Mirror and war came to dominate human affairs. Aztec scholars had predicted that the year 1519 (500 years after his departure) would herald the Feathered Snake’s return from exile, and with it the creation of a new, more harmonious era, under the guidance of Quetzalcoatl. Some said he would return with “white Gods” accompanying him.

Rise of the Aztecs

There were 12 rulers or tlatoani of Tenochtitlan:

  • Legendary Founder: Tenoch
  • 1375: Acamapichtli
  • 1395: Huitzilihuitl
  • 1417: Chimalpopoca
  • 1427: Itzcoatl
  • 1440: Moctezuma I (or Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina)
  • 1469: Axayacatl
  • 1481: Tizoc
  • 1486: Auitzotl
  • 1502: Moctezuma II (or Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, the famous “Montezuma,” aka Motecuhzoma II)
  • 1520: Cuitlahuac
  • 1521: Cuauhtémoc
Templo Mayor / Ckn8u, Wikimedia Commons

After the fall of Tula in the twelfth century, the valley of Mexico and surroundings contained several city states of Nahua-speaking people: Cholula, Huexotzingo, Tlaxcala, Atzcapotzalco, Chalco, Culhuacan, Xochimilco, Tlacopan, etc. None of them was powerful enough to dominate other cities, all of them were proud of their Toltec heritage. Aztec chronicles describe this time as a golden age, when music was established, people learned arts and craft from surviving Toltecs, and rulers held poetry contests in place of wars.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, around Lake Texcoco in the Anahuac valley, the most powerful of these city states were Culhuacan to the south and Azcapotzalco to the west. Their rule extended over all the area around Lake Texcoco.

As a result, when the Mexica arrived to the Anahuac valley as a semi-nomadic tribe, they had nowhere to go. They established themselves temporarily in Chapultepec, but this was under the rule of Azcapotzalco, the city of the “Tepaneca,” and they were soon expelled. They then went to the zone dominated by Culhuacan and, in 1299, the ruler Cocoxtli gave them permission to settle in Tizapan, a rocky place where no one wanted to live. They began to acquire as much culture as they could from Culhuacan: they took and married Culhuacan women, so that those women could teach their children. In 1323, they asked the new ruler of Culhuacan, Achicometl, for his daughter, in order to make her the goddess Yaocihuatl. The Mexica sacrificed her. The people of Culhuacan were horrified and expelled the Mexica. Forced to flee, in 1325 they went to a small islet in the center of the lake where they began to build their city “Mexico–Tenochtitlan,” eventually creating a large artificial island. After a time, they elected their first tlatoani, Acamapichtli, following customs learned from the Culhuacan. Another Mexica group settled on the north shore: this would become the city of Tlatelolco. Originally, this was an independent Mexica kingdom, but eventually it merged with the islet.

During this period, the islet was under the jurisdiction of Azcapotzalco, and the Mexica had to pay heavy tributes to stay there.

Initially, the Mexica hired themselves out as mercenaries in wars between Nahuas, breaking the balance of power between city states. Eventually they gained enough glory to receive royal marriages. Mexica rulers Acamapichtli, Huitzilihuitl and Chimalpopoca were, from 1372 to 1427, vassals of Tezozomoc, a lord of the Tepanec nahua.

When Tezozomoc died, his son Maxtla assassinated Chimalpopoca, whose uncle Itzcoatl allied with the ex-ruler of Texcoco, Nezahualcoyotl, and besieged Maxtla’s capital Azcapotzalco. Maxtla surrendered after 100 days and went into exile. Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan formed a “Triple Alliance” that came to dominate the Valley of Mexico, and then extended its power beyond. Tenochtitlan gradually became the dominant power in the alliance.

Itzcoatl’s nephew Motecuhzoma I inherited the throne in 1449 and expanded the realm. His son Axayacatl (1469) conquered the surrounding kingdom of Tlatelolco. His sister was married to the tlatoani of Tlatelolco, but, as a pretext for war, he declared that she was mistreated. He went on to conquer Matlazinca and the cities of Tollocan, Ocuillan, and Mallinalco. He was defeated by the Tarascans in Tzintzuntzan (the first great defeat the Aztecs had ever suffered), but recovered and took control of the Huasteca region, conquering the Mixtecs and Zapotecs.

In 1481, Axayacatl’s son Tizoc ruled briefly, but he was considered weak, so, possibly he was poisoned, and he was replaced by his younger brother Ahuitzol who had reorganized the army. The empire was at its largest during his reign. His successor was Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (better known as Moctezuma II), who was tlatoani when the Spaniards arrived in 1519, the auspicious year predicted as the return of the Quetzalcoatl “Feathered Snake”.

The Empire

Map of the Aztec Empire lead by Tenochtitlan circa 1519, before the arrival of the Spanish / Wikimedia Commons

The Aztec empire is not completely analogous to the empires of European history. Like most European empires, it was ethnically very diverse, but unlike most European empires, it was more a system of tribute than a single system of government. Arnold Toynbee (1889–1975) compared it to the Assyrian Empire in this respect. However, he also classed it as “universal,” which means that it was the dominant culture.

Although cities under Aztec rule seem to have paid heavy tributes, excavations in the Aztec-ruled provinces show a steady increase in the welfare of common people after they were conquered. This probably was due to an increase of trade, thanks to better roads and communications, and the tributes were extracted from a broad base. Only the upper classes seem to have suffered economically, and only at first. There appears to have been trade even in things that could be produced locally; love of novelty may have been a factor.

The most important official of Tenochtitlan government is often called “The Aztec Emperor.” The Nahuatl title, Huey Tlatoani (plural huey tlatoque), translates roughly as “Great Speaker”; the tlatoque (“speakers”) were an upper class. This office gradually took on more power with the rise of Tenochtitlan. By the time of Auitzotl, “Emperor” was an appropriate analogy, although as in the Holy Roman Empire, the title was not hereditary.

Most of the Aztec empire was forged by one man, Tlacaelel (Nahuatl for “manly heart”), who lived from 1397 to 1487. Although he was offered the opportunity to be tlatoani, he preferred to stay behind the throne. Nephew of Tlatoani Itzcoatl, and brother of Chimalpopoca and Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, his title was “Cihuacoatl” (in honor of the goddess, roughly equivalent to “counselor”), but as reported in the Ramírez Codex, “what Tlacaellel ordered, was as soon done.” He gave the Aztec government a new structure; he ordered the burning of most Aztec manuscripts (his explanation being that they were full of lies) and he rewrote their history. In addition, Tlacaelel reformed Aztec religion, by putting the tribal god Huitzilopochtli at the same level as the old Nahua gods Tlaloc, Tezcatlipoca, and Quetzalcoatl. Tlacaelel thus created a common awareness of history for the Aztecs. He also created the institution of ritual war (the flowery wars) as a way to have trained warriors, and created the necessity of constant sacrifices to keep the sun moving.

Some writers believe upper classes were aware of this forgery, which would explain the later actions of Moctezuma II when he met Hernán Cortés (or Cortez). But eventually this institution helped to cause the fall of the Aztec empire. The people of Tlaxcala were spared conquest, at the price of participating in the flower wars. When Cortés came to know this, he approached them and they became his allies. The Tlaxcaltecas provided thousands of men to support the few hundred Spaniards. The Aztec strategy of war was based on the capture of prisoners by individual warriors, not on working as a group to kill the enemy in battle. By the time the Aztecs came to recognize what warfare meant in European terms, it was too late.

Aztec Society

Class Structure

The society traditionally was divided into two social classes; the macehualli (people) or peasantry and the pilli or nobility. Nobility was not originally hereditary, although the sons of pillis had access to better resources and education, so it was easier for them to become pillis. Eventually, this class system took on the aspects of a hereditary system. The Aztec military had an equivalent to military service with a core of professional warriors. An Aztec became a pilli through his abilities in war. Only those that had taken prisoners could become full-time warriors, and eventually the honors and spoils of war would make them pillis. Once an Aztec warrior had captured 4 or 5 captives, he would be called tequiua and could attain a rank of Eagle or Jaguar Knight, sometimes translated as “captain,” eventually he could reach the rank of tlacateccatl or tlachochcalli. To be elected as tlatoani, one was required to have taken about 17 captives in war. When Aztec boys attained adult age, they stopped cutting their hair until they took their first captive; sometimes two or three youths united to get their first captive; then they would be called iyac. If after certain time, usually three combats, they could not gain a captive, they became macehualli; it was shameful to be a warrior with long hair, indicating lack of captives; one would prefer to be a macehualli.

The abundance of tributes led to the emergence and rise of a third class that was not part of the traditional Aztec society: pochtecas or traders. Their activities were not only commercial: they also were an effective intelligence-gathering force. They were scorned by the warriors, who nonetheless sent to them their spoils of war in exchange for blankets, feathers, slaves, and other presents.

In the later days of the empire, the concept of macehualli also had changed. It has been estimated that only 20 percent of the population was dedicated to agriculture and food production. Most of the macehuallis were dedicated to arts and crafts.


Slaves or tlacotin (distinct from war captives) also constituted an important class. This slavery was very different from what Europeans of the same period were to establish in their colonies, although it had much in common with the slave system in the classical European world of ancient Greece and Rome. The appropriateness of the term “slavery” for this Aztec institution has been questioned. First, slavery was personal, not hereditary: a slave’s children were free. A slave could have possessions and even own other slaves. Slaves could buy their liberty, and slaves could be set free if they were able to show they had been mistreated or if they had children with or were married to their masters.

Typically, upon the death of the master, slaves who had performed outstanding services were freed. The rest of the slaves were passed on as part of an inheritance.

Another rather remarkable method for a slave to recover liberty was described by Manuel Orozco y Berra in La civilización azteca (1860): if, at the tianquiztli (marketplace; the word has survived into modern-day Spanish as “tianguis“), a slave could escape the vigilance of his or her master, run outside the walls of the market and step on a piece of human excrement, he could then present his case to the judges, who would free him. He or she would then be washed, provided with new clothes (so that he or she would not be wearing clothes belonging to the master), and declared free. In stark contrast to the European colonies, a person could be declared a slave if he or she attempted to “prevent” the escape of a slave (unless that person were a relative of the master), that is why others would not typically help the master in preventing the slave’s escape.

Wooden collar / Wikimedia Commons

Orozco y Berra also reports that a master could not sell a slave without the slave’s consent, unless the slave had been classified as incorrigible by an authority. (Incorrigibility could be determined on the basis of repeated laziness, attempts to run away, or general bad conduct.) Incorrigible slaves were made to wear a wooden collar, affixed by rings at the back. The collar was not merely a symbol of bad conduct: it was designed to make it harder to run away through a crowd or through narrow spaces. When buying a collared slave, one was informed of how many times that slave had been sold. A slave who was sold four times as incorrigible could be sold to be sacrificed; those slaves commanded a premium in price. However, if a collared slave managed to present him- or herself in the royal palace or in a temple, he or she would regain liberty.

An Aztec could become a slave as a punishment. A murderer sentenced to death could instead, upon the request of the wife of his victim, be given to her as a slave. A father could sell his son into slavery if the son was declared incorrigible by an authority. Those who did not pay their debts could also be sold as slaves.

People could sell themselves as slaves. They could stay free long enough to enjoy the price of their liberty, about 20 blankets, usually enough for a year; after that time they went to their new master. Usually this was the destiny of gamblers and of old ahuini (courtesans or prostitutes).

Toribio Motolinía (1490–1569), author of History of the Indians of New Spain, reports that some captives, future victims of sacrifice, were treated as slaves with all the rights of an Aztec slave until the time of their sacrifice, but it is not clear how they were kept from running away.

Recreation and Entertainment

Although one could drink pulque, a fermented beverage made from the heart of the maguey, with an alcoholic content equivalent to beer, getting drunk before the age of 60 was forbidden under penalty of death.

Like in modern Mexico, the Aztecs had strong passions over a ball game, but this in their case it was tlachtli, the Aztec variant of the ulama game, the ancient ball game of Mesoamerica. The game was played with a ball of solid rubber, about the size of a human head. The ball was called “olli,” whence derives the Spanish word for rubber, “hule.” The city had two special buildings for the ball games. The players hit the ball with their hips. They had to pass the ball through a stone ring. The fortunate player who could do this had the right to take the blankets of the public, so his victory was followed by general running of the public, with screams and laughter. People used to bet on the results of the game. Poor people could bet their food; pillis could bet their fortunes; tecutlis (lords) could bet their concubines or even their cities, and those who had nothing could bet their freedom and risk becoming slaves.


Tenochtitlan covered an area of eight square kilometers. There is no agreement on the estimated population of the city. Most authorities prefer a conservative 80,000 to 130,000 inhabitants, still bigger than most European cities of the time, surpassed only by Constantinople with about 200,000 inhabitants; Paris with about 185,000; and Venice with about 130,000. Spanish accounts refer to as many as 50,000 houses and from between 300,000 to as many as 700,000 people, if the populations of Tlatelolco and the small satellite cities and islets around Tenochtitlan are included. Tlatelolco was originally an independent city, but it became a suburb of Tenochtitlan.

The city was divided into four zones or campan, each campan was divided into 20 districts (calpullis), and each calpulli was crossed by streets or tlaxilcalli. There were three main streets that crossed the city and extended to firm land; Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492–1584), author of The Conquest of New Spain, reported it was wide enough for ten horses. The calpullis were divided by channels used for transportation, with wood bridges that were removed at night. It was in trying to cross these channels that the Spaniards lost most of the gold they had acquired from Moctezuma.

Each calpulli had some specialty in arts and craft. When each calpulli offered some celebration, they tried to outdo the other calpullis. Even today, in the south part of Mexico City, the community organizations in charge of church festivities are called “calpullis.”

Each calpulli had its own tianquiztli (marketplace), but there was also a main marketplace in Tlatelolco. Cortés estimated it was twice the size of the city of Seville with about 60,000 people, trading daily; Sahagún give us a more conservative amount of 20,000 people trading daily and 40,000 doing so on feast days. Aztecs had no coins, so most trade was made in goods, but cacao beans (used to make chocolate) were so appreciated, they were used as an equivalent of coins. Gold had no intrinsic value: it was considered as a raw material for crafts. Gold jewelry had value, but raw gold had little. For the Aztecs, the destruction of objects to get a few pieces of gold was incomprehensible.

There were also specialized tianquiztli in the small towns around Tenochtitlan. In Chollolan, there were jewels, fine stones, and feathers; in Texcoco, there were clothes; in Aculma, was the dog market. The Aztecs had three special breeds of dogs with no hair, of which only one survives. They were the tepezcuintli, the itzcuitepotzontli, and the xoloizcuintli. These hairless dogs were mainly for eating and also were offerings for sacrifice. The Aztecs also had dogs for companionship.

In the center of the city were the public buildings, temples, and schools. Inside a walled square, 300 meters to a side, was the ceremonial center. There were about 45 public buildings, the Templo Mayor (main temple), the temple of Quetzalcoatl, the ball game, the tzompantli or rack of skulls, the temple of the sun, the platforms for the gladiatorial sacrifice, and some minor temples. Outside was the palace of Moctezuma, with 100 rooms, each one with its own bath, for the lords and ambassadors of allies and conquered people. Near also was the cuicalli or house of the songs, and the calmecac. The city had a great symmetry. All constructions had to be approved by the calmimilocatl, a functionary in charge of the city planning. No one could invade the streets and channels.

The palace of Moctezuma also had two houses or zoos, one for birds of prey and another for other birds, reptiles, and mammals. About three hundred people were dedicated to the care of the animals. There was also a botanical garden and an aquarium. The aquarium had ten ponds of saltwater and ten ponds of clear water, containing fishes and aquatic birds. Places like this also existed in Texcoco, Chapultepec, Huastepec (now called Oaxtepec), and Tezcutzingo.

Bernal was amazed to find latrines in private houses and a public latrine in the tianquiztli and main streets. Small boats went through the city collecting garbage, and excrement was collected to be sold as fertilizer. About 1,000 men were dedicated to cleaning the city’s streets.

For public purposes, and to be able to set the pace of official business, trumpets were sounded from the tops of the temples six times a day: at sunrise, later on in the morning, at midday, again in the mid-afternoon, after sunset, and at midnight.

Although the lake was salty, dams built by the Aztecs kept the city surrounded by clear water from the rivers that fed the lake. Two double aqueducts provided the city with fresh water; this was intended mainly for cleaning and washing. For drinking, water from mountain springs was preferred. Most of the population liked to bathe twice a day; Moctezuma was reported to take four baths a day. As soap they used the root of a plant called copalxocotl (saponaria americana); to clean their clothes they used the root of metl. Also, the upper classes and pregnant women enjoyed the temazcalli, which was similar to a [[sauna] bath and is still used in the south of Mexico; this was also popular in other Mesoamerican cultures.

Sahagún reports that the city also had beggars (only crippled people were allowed to beg), thieves, and prostitutes. At night, in the dark alleys one could find scantily clad ladies with heavy makeup (they also painted their teeth), chewing tzicli (chicle, the original chewing gum) noisily to attract clients. There seem to have been another kind of women, ahuianis, who had sexual relations with warriors. The Spaniards were surprised because they did not charge for their work, so perhaps they had other means of support.

To feed the city of Tenochtitlan required a huge quantity of food, most of which had to be raised as tribute. One account lists over 225,000 bushels of maize and 123,400 cotton mantles with equal quantities of beans and herbs and other produce due each year (Overy, 2004: 164).


Until the age of 14, the education of children was in the hands of their parents. There was a collection of sayings, called huehuetlatolli (“The sayings of the old”) that represented the Aztecs’ ideals. It included speeches and sayings for every occasion, the words to salute the birth of children, and to say farewell at death. Fathers admonished their daughters to be very clean, but not to use makeup, because they would look like ahuianis. Mothers admonished their daughters to support their husbands, even if they turn out to be humble peasants. Boys were admonished to be humble, obedient, and hard workers.

Male children went to school at age 15. There were two types of educational institutions. The telpochcalli taught history, religion, military fighting arts, and a trade or craft (such as agriculture or handicrafts). The calmecac, attended mostly by the sons of pillis, was focused on turning out leaders (tlatoques), priests, scholars/teachers (tlatimini), and codex painters (tlacuilos). They studied rituals, the reading of the codex, the calendar, songs (poetry), and, as at the telpochcalli, military fighting arts.

Aztec teachers propounded a Spartan regime of education—cold baths in the morning, hard work, physical punishment, bleeding with maguey thorns and endurance tests—with the purpose of forming a stoical people.

There is contradictory information about whether calmecac was reserved for the sons and daughters of the pillis; some accounts said they could choose where to study. It is possible that the common people preferred the tepochcalli, because a warrior could advance more readily by his military abilities; becoming a priest or a tlacuilo was not a way to rise rapidly from a low station.

Girls were educated in the crafts of home and child-raising. They were not taught to read or write.

There were also two other opportunities for those few who had talent. Some were chosen for the house of song and dance, and others were chosen for the ball game. Both occupations had high status.



The Aztec created artificial floating islands or chinampas on Lake Texcoco, on which they cultivated crops. The Aztec’s staple foods included maize, beans, and squash. Chinampas were a very efficient system and could provide up to seven crops a year. On the basis of current chinampa yields, it has been estimated that one hectare of chinampa would feed 20 individuals, with about 9,000 hectares of chinampa, there was food for 180,000 people.

Much has been said about a lack of protein in the Aztec diet, to support the arguments on the existence of cannibalism (M. Harner, Am. Ethnol. 4, 117 (1977)), but there is little evidence to support it: a combination of maize and beans provides the full quota of essential amino acids, so there is no need for animal proteins. The Aztecs had a great diversity of maize strains, with a wide range of amino acid content; also, they cultivated amaranth for its seeds, which have a high protein content. More important is that they had a wider variety of foods. They harvested acocils, a small and abundant shrimp of Lake Texcoco, also spirulina algae, which was made into a sort of cake that was rich in flavonoids, and they ate insects, such as crickets or grasshoppers (chapulines), maguey worms, ants, larvae, etc. Insects have a higher protein content than meat, and even now they are considered a delicacy in some parts of Mexico. Aztec also had domestic animals, like turkey and some breeds of dogs, which provided meat, although usually this was reserved for special occasions. Another source of meet came from the hunting of deer, wild peccaries, rabbits, geese, ducks, and other animals.

A study by Montellano (Medicina, nutrición y salud aztecas, 1997) shows a mean life of 37 (+/- 3) years for the population of Mesoamerica.

Aztec also used maguey extensively; from it they obtained food, sugar (aguamiel), drink (pulque), and fibers for ropes and clothing. Use of cotton and jewelry was restricted to the elite. Cocoa grains were used as money. Subjugated cities paid annual tribute in form of luxury goods like feathers and adorned suits.

After the Spanish conquest, some foods were outlawed, like amaranth, and there was less diversity of food. This led to a chronic malnutrition in the general population.

Human Sacrifice

Aztec ritual human sacrifice portrayed in page 141 (folio 70r) of the Codex Magliabechiano / Wikimedia Commons

For the Europeans, human sacrifice was the most abhorrent feature of Aztec civilization. Human sacrifice was widespread at this time in Mesoamerica and South America (during the Inca Empire), but the Aztecs practiced it on a particularly large scale, sacrificing human victims on each of their 18 festivities. Overy (2004) comments that according to “European colonial sources…between 10,000 and 80,000 sacrifices were offered at the dedication of the main temple in Tenochtitlan in 1487….” Most were captured in war or ritually exchanged victims with other communities (164).

Most cultures of Mesoamerica gave some kind of offerings to the gods, and the sacrifice of animals was common, a practice for which the Aztecs bred special dogs. Objects also were sacrificed; they were broken and offered to their gods. The cult of Quetzalcoatl required the sacrifice of butterflies and hummingbirds. Self-sacrifice was also quite common; people would offer maguey thorns, tainted with their own blood. Blood held a central place in Mesoamerican cultures; in one of the creation myths, Quetzalcoatl would offer blood extracted from a wound in his own penis to give life to humanity, and there are several myths where Nahua gods offer their blood to help humanity. In the myth of the fifth sun, all the gods sacrifice themselves so humanity could live.

In the usual procedure of human sacrifice, the victim would be painted with blue chalk (the color of sacrifice) and taken to the top of the great pyramid. Then the victim would be laid on a stone slab, his abdomen ripped open with a ceremonial knife (an obsidian knife could hardly cut through a ribcage) and his heart taken out and raised to the sun. The heart would be put in a bowl held by a statue, and the body thrown on the stairs, where it would be dragged away. Afterwards, the body parts would be disposed of various ways: the viscera were used to feed the animals in the zoo, the head was cleaned and placed on display in the tzompantli, and the rest of the body was either cremated or cut into very small pieces and offered as a gift to important people. Evidence also points to removal of muscles and skinning (José Luis Salinas Uribe, INAH, 2005).

Other kinds of human sacrifice existed, some of them involving torture. In these, the victim could be shot with arrows, burned, or drowned. For the construction of the Templo Mayor, the Aztecs reported that they sacrificed about 84,400 prisoners in four days. Some scholars, however, believe that it is more probable that only 3,000 sacrifices took place and the death toll was drastically inflated by war propaganda.

Another figure used is from Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who traveled with Cortés, participated in the conquest of the Aztecs in 1521, wrote his account of the conquest 50 years after the fact. In the description of the tzompantli, he writes about a rack of skulls of the victims in the main temple and reports counted about 100,000 skulls. However, to accommodate that many skulls, the tzompantli would have had a length of several kilometers, instead of the 30 meters reported. Modern reconstructions account for about 600 to 1,200 skulls. Similarly, Díaz claimed there were 60,000 skulls in the tzompantli of Tlatelolco, which was as important as that of Tenochtitlan. According to William Arens (1979), excavations by archeologists found 300 skulls.

Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), the Franciscan missionary, Juan Bautista de Pomar (circa 1539–1590), and Motolinía reported that the Aztecs had 18 festivities each year. Motolinía and de Pomar clearly state that only in those festivities were sacrifices made. De Pomar interviewed very old Aztecs for his “Relación de Juan Bautista Pomar” (1582) and is considered by some to be the first anthropologist. He was very interested in Aztec culture. Each god required a different kind of victim: young women were drowned for Xilonen; sick male children were sacrificed to Tlaloc (Juan Carlos Román: 2004 Museo del templo mayor); Nahuatl-speaking prisoners to Huitzilopochtli; and an Aztec (or simply nahua, according to some accounts) volunteered for Tezcatlipoca.

Cerro del Peñón

Not all these sacrifices were made at the main temple; a few were made at Cerro del Peñón, an islet of the Texcoco lake. According to an Aztec source, in the month of Tlacaxipehualiztli, 34 captives were sacrificed in the gladiatorial sacrifice to Xipe Totec. A bigger figure would be dedicated to Huitzilopochtli in the month of Panquetzaliztli. This could put a figure as low as 300 to 600 victims a year, but Marvin Harris multiplies it by 20, assuming that the same sacrifices were made in every one of the sections or calpullis of the city. There is little agreement on the actual figure.

Aztecs waged “flower wars” to capture prisoners for sacrifices they called nextlaualli (“debt payment to the gods”), so that the sun could survive each cycle of 52 years. It is not known if the Aztecs engaged in human sacrifice before they reached the Anahuac valley and acquired and absorbed other cultures. The first human sacrifice reported by them was dedicated to Xipe Totec, a deity from the north of Mesoamerica. Aztec chronicles reported human sacrifice began as an institution in the year “five knives” or 1484, under Tizoc. Under Tlacaelel’s guidance, human sacrifice became an important part of the Aztec culture, not only because of religious reasons, but also for political reasons.

As Laurette Sejourne (1911–2003) the French ethnologist comments, the human sacrifice would also put a strain in the Aztec culture. They admired the Toltec culture, and claimed to be followers of Quetzalcoatl, but the cult of Quetzalcoatl forbids human sacrifice, and as Sejourne points, there were harsh penalties for those who dare to scream or faint during a human sacrifice.

When Hernan Cortés marched from the coast to Tenochtitlan, he forbade human sacrifice among his Indian allies, and later Spanish occupiers later eliminated the practice.


While there is universal agreement that the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice, there is a lack of scholarly consensus as to whether they also practiced cannibalism and, if so, to what extent. At one extreme, anthropologist and cultural materialist theorist Marvin Harris (1927–2001), who was interested in cultural evolution, and who wrote about cannibalism in Our Kind (1990) and Cannibals and Kings (1991), has suggested that the flesh of the victims was a part of an aristocratic diet as a reward, since the Aztec diet was lacking in proteins. According to him, the Aztec economy would have been unable to support feeding them as slaves, so the columns of prisoners were “marching meat.” At the other extreme, William Arens doubts whether there was ever any systematic cannibalism.

While most historians of Mesoamerica believe that there was ritual cannibalism related to human sacrifices, they do not support Harris’ thesis that human flesh was ever a significant portion of the Aztec diet.

There are a few contemporary accounts of Aztec cannibalism. Cortés issued an edict forbidding cannibalism to Indian allies, suggesting the practice was known to the Spanish, and recounted the gruesome scene of babies roasted for breakfast. Francisco Lopez de Gómara (1510–circa 1566) gives another account in which he has Aztecs eat prisoners with a special sauce. However, although he wrote a history of the Indies (dedicated to Cortés’ son), Gómara had never been there. It is at least interesting that the one account “by an Aztec” and the account by a “meztizo” of supposed cannibalism following ritual sacrifice claims that the apparent cannibalism was a sham. This is congruent with Laurette Séjourné (1911–2003) and Miguel León-Portilla’s theory that the upper classes were aware that the religion created by Tlacalel was something of a forgery. León-Portilla is considered to be an authority on Nahuatl culture.

Recent archeological evidence (INAH 2005) in some of the bodies found under the “Catedral Metropolitana,” from the basement of Aztec temples, show some cuttings indicating the removal of muscular masses. Not all the bodies show this treatment.


Poetry was the only occupation worthy of an Aztec warrior in times of peace. A remarkable amount of this poetry survives, having been collected during the era of the conquest. In some cases, we know names of individual authors, such as Netzahualcoyotl, Tolatonai of Texcoco, and Cuacuatzin, Lord of Tepechpan. Miguel León-Portilla, the most renowned translator of Nahuatl, comments that it is in this poetry where we can find the real thought of the Aztecs, independent of “official” Aztec ideology.

In the basement of the Templo Mayor there was the “house of the eagles,” where in peacetime Aztec captains could drink foaming chocolate, smoke good cigars, and have poetry contests. The poetry was accompanied by percussion instruments (teponaztli). Recurring themes in this poetry are whether life is real or a dream, whether there is an afterlife, and whether we can approach the giver of life.

The most important collection of these poems is Romances de los señores de la Nueva España, collected (Tezcoco 1582) probably by Juan Bautista de Pomar. This volume was later translated into Spanish by Ángel María Garibay K., teacher of León-Portilla. Bautista de Pomar was the great grandson of Netzahualcoyotl. He spoke Nahuatl, but was raised as Christian and wrote in Latin characters.

The Aztec people also enjoyed a type of dramatic presentation, although it could not be called theatre. Some were comical with music and acrobats; others were staged dramas of their gods. After the conquest, the first Christian churches had open chapels reserved for these kinds of representations. Plays in Nahuatl, written by converted Indians, were an important instrument for the conversion to Christianity, and are still found today in the form of traditional pastorelas, which are played during Christmas to show the Adoration of Baby Jesus, and other Biblical passages.


Cuauhtémoc statue

The Aztecs were conquered by Spain in 1521, when after long battle and a long siege where much of the population died from hunger and smallpox, Cuauhtémoc surrendered to Hernán Cortés (aka “Cortez”). Cortés, with his army of up to 500 Spaniards, did not fight alone but with as many as 150,000 or 200,000 allies from Tlaxcala, and eventually from Texcoco, who were resisting Aztec rule. He defeated Tenochtitlan’s forces on August 13, 1521. Failure was not an option for Cortés, who burnt his ships upon his landfall near Veracruz to prevent retreat. His job was not so much conquest as to claim territory that, according to the Pope Alexander IV’s 1494 division of the world between Portugal and Spain (The Treaty of Tordesillas) was already theirs.

Cortés, soon after landing, appears to have been recognized as the expected white-skinned Quetzalcoatl, and played this to his advantage. Duran says that according to tradition, Quetzalcoatl had to be welcomed with “all the wealth” that the Aztecs then possessed (1994: 497). Impersonating Quetzalcoatl, Cortés faced little opposition before he occupied Tenochtitlan, seizing Montezuma as hostage. Duran says that the people complained of Montezuma’s tyranny, thus many allied themselves with the Spanish (6).

Thousands of Aztec warriors surrounded the Spanish, who promptly brought Montezuma out in an attempt to pacify his people. Unhappy with his rule, however, they stoned him. Surrounded, outnumbered, and apparently doomed, Cortés and three others managed to work their way through to the chieftain of the Aztecs and killed him. Thinking that this was a “miracle,” the Aztecs retreated.

It seemed that Cortés’s initial intention had been to maintain the structure of the Aztec empire. Thus, the Aztec empire might have survived. The upper classes at first were considered as noblemen (to this day, the title of Duke of Moctezuma is held by a Spanish noble family), they learned Spanish, and several learned to write in European characters. Some of their surviving writings are crucial in our knowledge of the Aztecs. Also, the first missionaries tried to learn Nahuatl and some, like Bernardino de Sahagún, decided to learn as much as they could of the Aztec culture. Toynbee (A Study of History 1934–1961), however, argued that even had the Spaniards not defeated the Aztecs, the empire could not have continued to sustain itself and would have imploded, being already in a troubled state, “the sequel to an antecedent breakdown” (271).

But soon all changed. The second wave of colonizers began a process of cultural subjugation. Eventually, the Indians were forbidden not only to learn of their cultures, but to learn to read and write in Spanish, and, under the law, they had the status of minors. They did have their defenders, such as Bartoleme de Las Casas (1475–1566) who roundly condemned Spanish abuses and cultural imperialism.

The fall of Tenochtitlan usually is referred as the main episode in the process of the conquest, but this process was much more complex. It took almost 60 years of wars to conquest Mesoamerica (Chichimeca wars), a process that could have taken longer, but three separate epidemics took a heavy toll on the population.

The first was from 1520 to 1521; smallpox (cocoliztli) decimated the population of Tenochtitlan and was decisive in the fall of the city.

The other two epidemics, of smallpox (1545–1548) and typhus (1576–1581) killed up to 75 percent of the population of Mesoamerica. The population before the time of the conquest is estimated at 15 million; by 1550, the estimated population was 4 million and less than 2 million by 1581. Whole towns disappeared, lands were deserted, roads were closed, and armies were destroyed. The “New Spain” of the sixteenth century was an unpopulated country and most Mesoamerican cultures were wiped out.


Most modern-day Mexicans (and people of Mexican descent in other countries) are mestizos, of mixed indigenous and European ancestry. During the sixteenth century the racial composition of Mexico began to change from one that featured distinct indigenous and immigrant (mostly Spanish) populations, to the population composed primarily of mestizos that is found in modern day Mexico.

The Nahuatl language is today spoken by 1.5 million people, mostly in mountainous areas in the states of central Mexico. Local dialects of Spanish, Mexican Spanish generally, and the Spanish language worldwide have all been influenced, in varying degrees, by Nahuatl. Some Nahuatl words (most notably “chocolate,” derived from the Nahuatl word xocolatl, and “tomato”) have been borrowed through Spanish into other languages around the world.

Mexico City was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, making it one of the oldest living cities of the Americas. Many of its districts and natural landmarks retain their original Nahuatl names. Many other cities and towns in Mexico and Central America have also retained their Nahuatl names (whether or not they were originally Mexica or even Nahuatl-speaking towns). A number of town names are hybrids of Nahuatl and Spanish.

Mexican cuisine continues to be based on and flavored by agricultural products contributed by the Mexicas/Aztecs and Mesoamerica, most of which retain some form of their original Nahuatl names. The cuisine has also become a popular part of the cuisine of the United States and other countries around the world, typically altered to suit various national tastes.


Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 12.08.2016, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.