Pyramid of the Sun. Teotihuacan. Mexico. View from the Pyramid of the Moon
Pyramid of the Sun. Teotihuacan. Mexico. View from the Pyramid of the Moon

One of the most famous tribes of North America, the Aztecs were based primarily in the Valley of Mexico in the modern-day capital, Mexico City.  Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Aztecs controlled large tracts of Mesoamerica until the Spanish Conquest in the early sixteenth century.  As one of the most dominant groups in Mexican history, the Aztec people’s influence on the culture of Mexico was and is still profound.

Early History of the Aztecs

Under the umbrella of Toltec ancestry, the Aztecs were likely nomadic people who entered central Mexico from the north, according to scholars.  These early people were also known as the Mexica—a name that would later be applied to the whole nation.  Their arrival in central Mexico roughly corresponded to the fall of the Toltec civilization.  According to legend, when migrating Aztecs saw an eagle atop a cactus, they took it as prophecy and chose to build their capital there—on the southwest border of Lake Texcoco.  Though many areas were swampy, the Aztecs undertook drainage projects.  By 1325, they had built the foundation for their capital, Tenochtitlan.

From Sophisticated Farmers to Empire Builders

Part of the early success of the Aztecs was to their sophisticated farming methods.  They grew crops such as maize, beans, squash, and tomatoes.  Their agricultural diet was supplemented by hunting and fishing.  Having established successful irrigation and cultivation processes, they also honed their military traditions.  Their strong warrior class built a strong state upon which they could later create their empire.  By the early 1500s, the Aztecs dominated more than 500 small states and ruled over as many as 600 million people.  They employed a highly structured and rigid hierarchy that was led by an emperor and nobles.  At the bottom of this system were indentured servants and slaves, a class composed mainly of conquered peoples.

Aztec Sun Calendar. The Aztec calendar stone is a large monolithic sculpture that was excavated in the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main square, on December 17, 1790

Cortes Brings Disaster to Montezuma

Montezuma II was the leader of the Aztec Empire when Cortes arrived in the town of Tabasco in 1519.  Cortes was able to gain various indigenous tribes as allies; they marched on the Aztec capital where the Spanish were greeted by Montezuma himself.  Within a short time, Cortes and his men took Montezuma and several other nobles hostage and killed thousands of Aztecs to gain control of the city.  At some point during this massacre, Montezuma was also killed.  The Spanish virtually wiped out the Aztecs; many of those who were not killed by the sword perished due to European disease.

Columns of a Thousand Warriors, Chichen Itza, Mexico

Aztec Contributions to the Culture of Mexico

The Aztecs shared many similar practices with other indigenous tribes like the Toltecs such as the worship of similar gods and the practice of human sacrifice.  They spoke the Nahuatl language which is still spoken by more than a million people in Mexico today.  Many dishes and cuisine, particularly chocolate, enjoyed in Mexico City are attributed to the Aztec people.  They also created their own pottery, celebrated the arts, and used a form of the Mesoamerican calendar used by the Mayans.  Because many of their practices developed from or were influenced by other Mesoamerican cultures, their culture is greatly linked to all of central Mexico at the time they ruled.

Finding Traces of the Aztec Civilization Today

Many tourists visit Mexico City in the hopes of discovering more about Aztec culture.  When the Spanish vanquished their capital, they essentially destroyed it and built the new capital of Mexico City on its remains.  Nevertheless, many of the Federal Districts world-class museums showcase artifacts and relics of Aztec life.  Some codices have survived along with weaponry, pottery, and some architecture.  The history of the Aztecs is kept alive in the many festivals and museums that continue to remember and showcase their contribution to the present nation.

9 Responses to Aztecs

  1. […] babies and Dia de los Muertos (Nov. 2) honoring adult departed souls. The tradition pre-dates the Aztecs, though those Nahuatl or Aztecs were a real partying bunch. Their celebration lasted for a month. […]

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