Who Were the Aztecs?
The Aztecs were a tribal group of people who lived in the central area of Mexico from the 14th century to the 16th century (around 1345 AD to 1521 AD). They were considered one of the last greatest civilizations of Mesoamerica.
Mesoamerica is a term that refers to regions of the Americas that were inhabited by native tribes and civilizations before the Spanish arrived on the North American continent. The geography includes central Mexico to areas such as Honduras and Nicaragua.
How Did the Aztec Civilization Come to Be?
Prior to the Aztecs, Mexico and parts of central America were inhabited by groups of natives. In 200 to 700 A.D., central Mexico was dominated by a small empire called Teotihuacan. This was called the Classic period.
The inhabitants of Teotihuacan sold goods and traded with city-states throughout Mexico and other regions of Mesoamerica. After the fall of Teotihuacan, the region saw a rise in fighting for 200 years (700-900 AD).
Several cities came to power, and in 900 A.D., a group called the Toltec came to power. Their capital was Tula, which was situated about 20 miles north of Mexico City. While they were never as powerful or far-reaching as Teotihuacan, they did trade goods with other parts of Mesoamerica.
Civil unrest occurred in Toltec Empire and the Toltecs died, fled, or were dispersed. At the same time, a tribe who spoke Nahuatl moved to the center of Mexico. These Nahuatl-speaking people were the Aztecs.
Rise to Power
In their history, the Aztecs migrated from northern or north-western parts of Mexico. Anthropologically, the Aztecs may be related to the Asian groups that crossed the Bering Strait and traveled south during the Ice Age.
The Aztecs sometimes referred to as the Mexica people, traveled to the Anahuac valley. A ruling leader permitted them to live in Tizapan, which was rocky and abandoned. In 1325, they were forced to leave their rocky home and moved to Lake Texcoco and built their capital called Tenochtitlán.
From 1140-1350 A.D., leaders of the Mexican tribes and migrants began to establish city-states across Mexico. Each city-state (called altepetl) had a ruling king (called a tlatoani), a ruling class, and commoners.
These pockets of city-states began to spread to form small empires. Alongside Tenochtitlán were Acholhua and Azcapotzalco. The two empires faced a war with each other in 1428 AD. Acholhua allied with Tenochtitlán to win the war.
Afterward, The Aztecs began expanding their reaches and increasing their population. The Aztecs soon controlled the majority of northern Mexico. Between 1481 and 1519 AD, the Aztec Empire was at its peak. Therefore, the Spanish arrived during the peak of the Aztec Empire.
What Was It Like Living in the Aztec Empire?
There were two primary classes of people in the Aztec Empire—the commoners and the nobility. The nobility came to power through their family’s blood or by marriage. They retained the majority of the power and determined how resources were spent.
The Aztec empire was primarily built upon tributes and political marriages. The upper class would pay or give tributes to the king.
The majority of the citizens were commoners. While the commoners grouped geographically to work together, the lands were owned by the nobility. Socially, slaves were considered at the bottom of the social class. Commoners could improve their social status by winning in great battles
Money and Market
The Aztecs were great farmers. They grew corn, squash, and beans. They managed to create systems of irrigation through man-made canals and stone channels. However, they still did not have enough crop to feed the empire, so they turned to fishing.
Aztecs were also great artisans. They were known in Mesoamerica for their ability to craft cotton fabric, textiles, and clothing. It was mostly women that created these textiles, and women in all classes practiced the art and practice of making textiles.
These textiles were sold or traded in the marketplace. All cities and towns had a marketplace. Textiles could serve as a form of cash in the marketplace, as well as cacao beans.
Aztec Art & Culture
The Aztecs were known for their intricate artwork that primarily related to their religion. In terms of art and technique, the Aztec borrowed skills and art from the cultures that existed in Mexico before them, especially the Teotihuacan, Toltec, and Olmec peoples.
Art historians believe that the Aztecs gathered artists from different parts of Mexico and Central American to help craft Tenochtitlan. Each type of art usually formed its guild, where arts of the same skill honed their craft or performed tasks for other artists.
Aztecs were skilled in carving gems and making jewelry. They gilded objects in gold or silver. Their jewelry and statues contained precious and semi-precious stones, like jade, obsidian, coral, turquoise, and ruby. During the Spanish invasion, the conquistadors stole the gold and silver jewelry and melted it down for money.
The Aztecs were fantastic carvers and carved gigantic, and sometimes small, statues. These statues most often depicted a god or they symbolized something religious. They could carve tiny insects out of pearl, coral, or onyx. They also carved masks used for ceremonies or to cover the face of a mummified body.
What was the Aztec Religion?
The Aztecs combined their own beliefs with the belief of the cultures already existing in Mesoamerica. The Aztecs had several gods that they worshipped, and they paid tribute to these gods while retaining their own mythological stories.
The Aztecs had a firm belief that Huitzilopochtli, the supreme god of sun and war, showed the Aztec people where they should settle by sending an eagle to sit on a cactus when the land was found. This god gave the Aztecs their name and their language.
The Aztecs celebrated their gods and underwent ceremonies to worship them. They danced and held banquets to honor these gods. They also buried precious metals and burned incense.
The Aztecs believed that the gods could be happy or sad, depending on what was happening among them in nature. If there was famine or drought, the Aztecs thought the gods were angry. Sometimes, they would sacrifice humans or animals to feed the gods blood to make them happy or less angry.
What Was the Aztec Calendar?
The Aztec calendar was primarily constructed to help Aztecs perform religious ceremonies and celebrate the gods. The Aztecs had a few different calendars.
The Aztec calendar was a day-focused calendar and consisted of 260 days that was separated into groups of 20 days. Each 20-day group was also given a number out of 13. The result was a day that had both a number label and name.
The calendar was built from observation of the heavenly bodies. It specifically worked with the rise of Venus and the length of the farming season.
The Aztecs also had a yearly calendar which served as the Solar calendar. It consisted of 365 days for a single cycle. The calendar was separated into 18 groups (months) that consisted of 20 days. This calendar helped to plan religious ceremonies.
In the 52nd year of the cycle, the Aztecs would hold the New Fire Ceremony. During the ceremony, they would make a human sacrifice to gods. The Aztecs believed that if the gods were happy, the sun would return the next day. If the gods were unhappy, the world would meet its end.
Every other cycle, the two calendars would align. The calendars would reset.
What Happened to the Aztecs?
In 1517, the Spanish sent expeditions to America. Montezuma sent an Aztec convey to meet them. The Spanish expeditions returned to Spain with mention of immense amounts of gold. Therefore, the Spanish decided to send a fleet to conquer this land of gold.
In 1519, Hernan Cortés landed with his army in the New World. The Europeans easily defeated the native Aztecs. The Aztec emperor sent gifts as peace offerings.
Cortés traveled to Tenochtitlan in peace, but the peace ended nearly two weeks later. Cortés took the Aztec ruler captive, and the Aztecs became subjects of Charles V, who was the ruler of the Roman Empire and Spanish Empire at the time.
Many of the Aztecs died from smallpox brought by the Europeans. Many more Aztecs were killed in the fighting between the natives and the European invaders. The Spanish destroyed the Aztec capital in the invasion and built a new city atop it.
Other Interesting Facts & Information About Aztecs:
- Aztec writing consisted of pictures
- Aztecs were good at medicine and could effectively treat wounds, broken bones, or illnesses.
- Religious ceremonies could last several days
- Sacrifices to gods were made on top of pyramids
- Many of the sacrifices were villagers taken from enemies during battle
- Aztec subjects paid tribute by offering food, textiles, or artwork
- Aztec children went to school based on their gender
- Emperors were put in power by a council of nobles
- Aztecs recycled waste to help fertilize crops
- Aztecs had “floating gardens,” which were small areas of land in lake beds
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