The Aztecs, often associated with warfare and elaborate rituals, gave birth to a sophisticated system of government that governed vast territories, remarkable artistic endeavors and a resilient language, Nahuatl, which over one million people in Mexico continue to speak today.
And that's only a few of the most notable Aztec achievements.
Their mastery of intricate crafts and unique understanding of the natural world provide an intriguing glimpse into Aztec culture. Let's dive deeper into the remarkable contributions of this influential empire.
Aztec Civilization and Its Enduring Legacy
The Aztecs, also known as the Mexica, stood as pivotal figures in the Pre-Columbian Americas. Their roots trace back to the Chichimecas, a group of nomadic and semi-nomadic Indigenous peoples of northern Mexico.
In the 14th century, they migrated from Aztlan to the Valley of Mexico and established their capital city, Tenochtitlan, on an islet within Lake Texcoco. This location, now modern-day Mexico City, was once the epicenter of Aztec culture, adorned with architectural masterpieces like grand pyramids and temples.
The Aztecs' intricate social structure empowered priests and nobles while their economy prospered from agriculture, trade and tributes. Their spiritual depth was evident in their polytheistic practices, with grand ceremonies and human sacrifices to honor their gods. Alliances, particularly the Triple Alliance with Texcoco and Tlacopan, propelled their empire's expansion.
Yet, in 1521 C.E., their reign met its demise at the hands of Hernán Cortés and his small army.
Despite their empire's fall, the Aztecs' imprint on art, science and culture endures. Their descendants, the Nahua people, uphold many Aztec traditions, especially in Mexico's central regions. Over a million individuals still communicate in Nahuatl, a testament to the Aztec culture's lasting influence.
This rich heritage, from gastronomy to festivities, has woven itself into Mexico's national fabric.
The Aztecs settled in a challenging area of the Valley of Mexico, building their big city, Tenochtitlán, on an island in the marshy Lake Texcoco.
This place, though tricky, had some advantages. Even with limited land, the Aztecs came up with innovative ways to feed the large population of Tenochtitlán, including the creation of "chinampas" or floating gardens.
They grew lots of crops on these man-made islands located in the shallow parts of the lake. Among the crops were corn, beans and squash — often referred to as the "Three Sisters" due to their complementary growth patterns — which were crucial for feeding the city's inhabitants. They also raised animals, such as turkeys, for food and other products.
To create these agricultural wonders, large areas were staked out in the lake to mark the desired garden's perimeter.
Between these stakes, a mat of intertwined reeds, twigs and branches was woven, creating a foundational base. Atop this base, they layered mud from the lakebed combined with decaying vegetation, forming a fertile soil for farming.
Willow trees were strategically planted around the chinampas' borders, serving dual purposes: Their growing roots stabilized the garden, and their branches acted as windbreakers.
Regular maintenance ensured these remarkable agricultural plots remained productive and afloat. Human manure was used as fertilizer, which served the dual purposes of providing nutrients for the crops while keeping the city clean.
The Sacred Calendar System
The Aztec calendar system is a testament to the civilization's intricate understanding of time and cosmology. With its foundation in Mesoamerican traditions, the calendar melded the 260-day Tonalpohualli and the 365-day Xiuhpohualli.
The Tonalpohualli, divided into 20 periods of 13 days, held profound spiritual significance, while the Xiuhpohualli aligned closely with the solar year, broken into 18 months and an additional 5 "unlucky" days. Their synchronization every 52 years marked the "Calendar Round" or "New Fire Ceremony," symbolizing a renewal of time.
The Aztec Sun Stone, while often mistakenly termed the "Aztec Calendar," serves as a visual representation of their timekeeping system and cosmological beliefs.
This monumental disc intricately depicts the cycles, deities and symbols associated with their calendar. Its detailed carvings provide insights into how the Aztecs perceived time's progression, cosmic events and their place in the universe.
Education was highly valued among the Aztecs, who many believe set the stage for universal education as we know it. Children began their educational journey at home, where they learned important life skills. Girls were taught domestic chores, while boys were instructed in their fathers' trades. To instill discipline, children were given limited amounts of food to learn self-control.
For young boys, there were additional challenges. They underwent physical hardships, including exposure to extreme temperatures, as part of their warrior training, aiming to develop a strong sense of determination.
Around the ages of 12 to 15, all Aztec children attended a school known as a cuicacalli, or "house of song." Here, they learned ceremonial songs and the cosmology of their people. To ensure attendance, elders accompanied the children to and from school to prevent truancy.
While formal education typically concluded for most girls at age 15, boys from commoner families continued their education at a telpochcalli (a type of vocational school) until they were 20. This education was primarily focused on Aztec military training.
Sons of the nobility, however, attended a different school called calmécac. Here, they not only received military training but also delved into the humanities, including subjects like architecture, mathematics, painting and history. The calmécac produced future priests and government officials.
The Aztecs played a game called ollama — akin to modern soccer — on a unique field known as a tlachtli. This field had a distinctive "I" shape and towering walls about three times the height of the players. Attached near the top of these walls were stone rings representing the sunrise and sunset.
The primary objective of ollama was to propel a small rubber ball, symbolizing celestial bodies like the sun, moon or stars, through these stone rings. Players could only use their hips, knees or elbows to score.
Notably, ollama was initially played by the Aztecs' predecessors, the Maya, but it gained an elevated status within Aztec society and was reserved for nobles. Despite its sporting nature, ollama could turn violent. Instead of a traditional halftime show, it involved human sacrifices, and scoring teams had the opportunity to attempt to rob spectators.
Vices as Old as Time
The other way in which the audience participated in the game was through betting, which they apparently did quite heavily. In fact, two of the great evils Aztec children were warned about were excessive ball playing and gambling.
The Aztecs possessed skilled physicians known as ticitl, who excelled in herbal medicine. These physicians were encouraged to conduct research in the expansive gardens maintained by the nobility.
A significant source of insight into Aztec herbal practices is the Badianus Manuscript, an illustrated text dating back to 1552. This manuscript elaborates on the use of over 180 plants and trees for treating various ailments.
Some of the remedies documented in the manuscript may appear unconventional by contemporary standards. For instance, a prescription for "pain or heat in the heart" included ingredients like gold, turquoise, red coral and the burned heart of a stag.
In another example, Aztecs believed a persistent headache was treatable by making an incision on the skull using a blade crafted from obsidian (though to be fair, bloodletting was once a common practice in many Western cultures as well).
Validation in Modern Medicine
However, scientific research has validated certain Aztec remedies. For instance, chicalote, a painkiller used by the Aztecs, has been identified as Mexican prickly poppy, a plant closely related to the opium poppy and known for its analgesic properties.
Additionally, the Aztec physicians utilized the sap of the maguey (agave) plant as a disinfectant and wound treatment, which has been found to have the capability to eliminate both Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli bacteria.
The Aztecs made a significant contribution by introducing the world to a deep scarlet color in fabric dyeing that was previously unseen in Europe before the Spanish conquest of the early 16th century.
Before this encounter, Europeans primarily used madder red, a plant-based extract, to dye their fabrics, resulting in a paler shade compared to the vibrant hue achieved by the Aztecs.
The innovation lay in their use of the cochineal beetle. This tiny insect thrived on prickly pear cacti and possessed a remarkable secret: Approximately one-quarter of its body consisted of carminic acid, the crucial ingredient responsible for producing the vivid red dye. This meant that an astonishing 70,000 cochineal insects were required to produce just one pound of this valuable dye.
Upon discovering this brilliant dye source, the Spaniards promptly began exporting it to Europe, eager to capitalize on this newfound commodity. They diligently safeguarded the source to maintain their monopoly, and cochineal dye became a cornerstone of their economy for over three centuries.
The high cost of the dye limited its use, primarily adorning the red coats of British army officers and the robes of Catholic cardinals.
As the 19th century came to a close, synthetic alternatives to cochineal were developed, leading to a decline in its usage for fabric dye. However, cochineal did not entirely disappear; it found a new purpose as a popular food dye, highly prized for its organic nature.
Today, cochineal continues to be employed in various culinary applications, leaving a lasting legacy from the Aztecs as a source of vibrant color in our modern world.
This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.
Now That's Interesting
One herbal remedy that the Aztecs discovered that's still in use today is passionflower, a creeping vine that got its name from Spanish missionaries who believed they saw the crown of thorns reminiscent of Christ's "passion" in the flower's composition. The Aztecs employed the plant as a sedative, much in the same way it's used today in herbal preparations designed to fight insomnia and agitation.
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Original article: Aztec Achievements: Crafting a Legacy of Innovation
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