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The Aztecs are a Mesoamerican people of central Mexico tribe with a rich mythology and cultural heritage. In Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztecs, "Aztec" means "someone who comes from Aztlán". The Aztec also referred to themselves as the Mehika or Meshika or Mexica, the origin of the name "Mexico". The modern usage of the name Aztec as a collective term, applied to all the peoples linked by trade, custom, religion, and language to the Mexica was suggested by Alexander von Humboldt.

Table of contents
1 Legendary
2 Rise of Aztecs
3 The Empire
4 Sacrifices
5 Downfall
6 External link


The Aztecs' is one of several cultures, that are described in general as "nahuas" after their common language. When the Aztec arrived to the Anahuac valley, they were considered by the other nahuas as the least civilized of all, so they decided to learn, and took all they could from other peoples, specially they took care to learn from the ancient Toltecs (who they seem to have partially confused with the more ancient civilization Teotihuacan). They combined several traditions and mixed with their own. So they had several creation myths, one of them describes four great ages preceding the present world, all of which ended in catastrophes. Fifth age lived due to the sacrifice of a hero who was transformed into the Sun. This myth is associated with the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which was already destroyed when the aztecs arrived. Another myth describes the earth as a creation of the twin gods, Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl. Tezcatlipoca lost his foot in the process and all the representation of this gods shows him withouth a foot and a bone exposed. Quetzalcoatl is also called White Tezcatlipoca.

According to legend, they traveled to the Lago de Texcoco in Central Mexico from a place to the north called Aztlán. They were said to be guided by their god Huitzilopochtli. When they arrived at an island in the lake they saw an eagle eating a snake while perched on a nopal cactus, which was taken as a sign that they should found their new home on that spot. The Aztec built their city of Tenochtitlan on that site, which today is in the center of Mexico City. The legendary eagle is pictured on the Mexican flag.

Rise of Aztecs

There were twelve rulers of

Initially Mexica hired themselves as mercenaries in wars between Toltecs. Eventually they gained enough glory to receive royal marriages. Mexica rulers Acamapichtili, Huitzilíhuitl and Chimalpopoca were vassals of Tepanec lord Tezozomoc in 1372-1427.

When Tezozomoc died, his son Maxtla assassinated Chimalpopoca whose uncle Itzcoatl allied with ex-ruler of Texcoco, Nezhualcouyotl and besieged Maxtla's capital Azcapotzalco. Maxtla surrendered after 100 days and went to exile. Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan formed an alliance that came to dominate the Valley of Mexico, and then extend 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) surrounded the kingdom of Axayacatl and took control of Mixtechs and Zapotecs. In 1481 his son Tizoc ruled briefly before he was replaced by his younger brother Ahuitzol who reorganized the army. The empire was in its largest during his reign. His successor was Motecuhzoma II (better know as Moctezuma II)

The Empire

The Aztec Empire is not completely accurate analogy to the empires of European history. It was ethnically very diverse. The most important official of Tenochtitlan government is often called The Aztec Emperor. His title huey tlatoque translates as Chief Speaker. This office gradually took on more power with the rise of Tenochtitlan, and by the time of Auitzotl "Emperor" is an appropriate analogy, like in the Holy Roman Empire, it was not an hereditary title.

Most of the Aztec empire was forged by one man, Tlacalel, although he was offer to be tlatoani, he prefered to stay behind the throne. He gave the Aztec government a structure, he ordered to burn most of the aztec books, saying they were full of lies and rewrote their history, also he reform their religion. He put their tribal god, Huitzilopochtli at the same level as the old nahuas gods, Tlaloc, Tezcatlipoca and Quetalcoatl. He created the institution of the ritual war, and the necesity of constant sacrifices to keep the Sun moving. Some writers think that the upper clases were concient of this forgery, this would explain the later actions of Moctezuma when he meet Cortez.

Aztec military had a equivalent to military service with a core of professional warriors. Once an Aztec warrior had captured 4-5 captives, he could attain a rank of Eagle of Jaguar warrior.

Aztecs staple foods included maize, beans and squash. It's interesting to note thar much has been said about a lack of proteins in the Aztec diet, but there is little evidence to suport it. First, it should be noted that a combination of maize and beans provide with the full quota of essential aminoacids, so there is no need for animal proteins, also they cultivated amarant, which has a high content of proteins. More important is that they had a more variety of foods, they recolected acocils, a small and abundant shrimp of the Texcoco lake, also spirulin algae, rich in flavonoids, and they had a diet of insects, like crickets (chapulines), maguey worms, ants, larvae etc. Insects have a higher content in protein than meat, and even now, they are considered a delicacy in the mexican diet.

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

The Aztecs created artificial islands or chinampas on the Tenochtitlan lake on which they cultivated.


Aztecs are notorious for their religious human sacrifice that they performed in great numbers, but the actual number of sacrifices is object of debate. For the construction of the main temple, they reported that they sacrificed about 100,000 prisioners in four days. How a city of 80,000 people could take, accommodate and dispose of that many prisioners is not clear. Specially since they reported that Ahuitzotl sacrificed them personally. This means about 17 sacrifices by minute, every 24 hours for 4 days. Some scholars thing that problable they took about 3,000 sacrifices and the rest were war propaganda.

Another figure used, is from Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the spanish soldier who wrote his account of the conquest 50 years later. In the description of the "Zompantli", a rack of skulls of the victims, of the main temple, he reports to have counted about 100,000 skulls. But wiht those figurs the Zompantli would have had a lengh of several kilometers, instead of the 30 metters reported. Modern reconstructions account for about 600 to 1,200 skulls.

Aztecs waged "flower wars" to capture prisoners to sacrifices they called nextlaualli, "debt payment to the gods" so that the sun could rise every morning. Harvard professor David Carrasco has compared this practice to "bringing home the war" in modern television.

Materialist anthropologist Marvin Harris has suggested that the flesh of the victims was a part of aristocratic diet as reward, since the Aztec diet was lacking in proteins. According to him, the Aztec economy couldn't support feeding them as slaves, so the columns of prisoners were "marching meat". Most other historians of Mesoamerica believe that while there was ritual cannibalism related to human sacrifices, human flesh was never a significant portion of the Aztec diet. It's important to note that there is little documentation on this matter. There are only four acounts of canibalism from the date of the conquest. The difference between this accounts and what has been described as the Cannibal kingdom, has led to some people to believe there is a complot to hide the "real evidence".

So the only accounts of cannibalism are:

There are no other reports, or evidence, although Bernal Diaz reported cannibalism, a close reading show that he does not claim to have see it done, he is only reporting it.


The Aztec were conquered by Spain in 1521, when after long battle and a long siege where much of the population died from hunger and smallpox, Cuautemoc surrendered to Hernan Cortes. Cortes with his up to 500 men did not fight alone but with maybe up to 150.000 - 200.000 allies from Tlaxcala and eventually from Texcoco that resisted Aztec rule. He defeated Tenochtitlan's forces in August 13 1521,.

An anonimous Aztec poet wrote:

How can we save our homes, my people
The Aztecs are deserting the city
The city is in flames and all
is darkness and destruction

Weep my people
Know that with these disasters
We have lost the Mexican nation
The water has turned bitter
Our food is bitter
These are the acts of the Giver of Life.

But even in this moment, most of the other Mesoamerican cultures were intact. The Tlaxcaltec expected to get their part, Purepechas and Mixtecs probably were happy of the defeat of their long time enemy and it was the same for other cultures.

It seem that the intention of Cortez was to maintain the structure of the Aztec empire, and at first it seems the Aztec empire could survive. 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 learn Spanish, and several learn 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. There is a surviving record of a dialogue between the "Tlatimine" or wise man, and the misioners, where the Aztec try to defend their ways.

But soon all changed. The second wave of missionaries, and authorities showed what it seems like a profund hate for every aspect of the Mesoamerican cultures, and they began a process to wipe it. Eventually, the Indians were forbidden, not only to learn of their cultures, but they were forbidden to learn to read and write in Spanish, and under the law, they had the status of minors.

It has been reported that epidemics of smallpox and typhus killed up to 75% of population, from an estimated population of 15 million, seventy years after the conquest, the estimated population was of 3 million. Mexico City was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan.

Information about Aztecs survives in contemporary sources like Codex Mendoza collected in 1541 and the works of Bernardino de Sahagún who worked with the surving aztec wise men.

Nahuatl is still spoken by Mexican Indians.

External link