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Exploring the Softer Side of the Aztecs, Part One

Updated on August 22, 2017
"Fundacion Tenochtitlan" by Roberto Cueva Del Río
"Fundacion Tenochtitlan" by Roberto Cueva Del Río | Source

They were defeated by the Spanish and foreign diseases. We remember them most vividly for brutal and bloody religious practices. It is easy to overlook that the Aztec empire was also complex, knowledgeable, and technologically advanced compared to most of the rest of the world.

The purpose of this hub is not to downplay the role of sacrifice in Aztec culture, nor to ignore the murders of the thousands ritually slain on Aztec alters. It merely seeks to paint a more complete picture of this pre-Columbian society by examining other facts of daily life often considered beneath mention by both text books and hype-driven popular media.

Getting to Know the Aztecs

The proto-Aztecs, a nomadic hunter-gather people who called themselves the Mexica, probably wandered into Mesoamerica from what is now northern Mexico or the southwestern United States. They found the fertile valley surrounding Lake Texcoco already successfully settled.

According to their own history, their gods foretold that they should settle at a place where an eagle with a snake in its beak stands on a cactus. They found their sign on an uninhabited island in Lake Texcoco and made it their new home. It also is possible that they "chose" the unlikely location because it was the only land that the their powerful new neighbors were willing to spare for them.

The proto-Aztecs considered themselves ignorant children compared to these other powers in the region. They eagerly adopted agriculture and technology from these helpful neighbors. They kept their language, called Nahuatl. They also retained many of their former beliefs and social customs while easily integrating new ones.

From these humble beginnings, they created a unique, highly ordered empire, built on the existing foundations of other advanced societies such as the Teotihuacanos and the Maya. Two centuries later, the power and wealth of the Aztecs reigned supreme in Mesoamerica. Aztec culture remained interwoven with other cultures in the area through intermarriage, trade, and annual tribute they received from other conquered peoples. The empire thrived from 1345 to 1521 AD.

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Architecture and City Planning

The Aztecs built the capital city of their empire, called Tenochtitlan, then arguably the most advanced city in the world, at the site of what we now call Mexico City. The Aztecs constructed part of the foundation on a series of artificial islands that they created in Lake Texcoco. Their plan divided the city into symmetric quadrants called campans. A system of canals interlaced the city facilitating transportation and trade.

Centered in the religious precinct, the Great Pyramid rose 164 feet above ground level. The Aztecs built the Great Pyramid, the smaller pyramids, the many temples and palaces, and very important public buildings out of stone. They constructed most of the rest of their buildings and houses of wood or loam which typically had reed roofs.

Tenochtitlan was larger and more populous than any European capital at the time. Anthropologists estimate a population of 200,000 within the city center alone while the surrounding islets and shores added at least another 300,000 inhabitants.

A model of Tenochtitlan as it was prior to Spanish renovations.
A model of Tenochtitlan as it was prior to Spanish renovations. | Source

In an age when Londoners still drew drinking water directly from the heavily polluted Thames, the Aztecs brought clean drinking water from pristine springs on the mainland by means of an aqueduct built by the great engineer Nezahualcoyotl between 1466 and 1478. When the needs of the city grew, Ahuizotl added a second aqueduct in 1500.

Aztecs liked to bathe. Nobles typically bathed more than once a day. Schools expected children to take a cold bath before it was light out as the start of their grueling day of learning. At home, children were taught to wash themselves after eating each meal. The Aztecs built steam baths. Healers made a vast array of hygiene products. Markets sold everything from topical tooth powders and deodorants to internal remedies designed to treat unsightly blemishes and smelly feet. The high standards for public hygiene and personal grooming helped to minimize body parasites and halt the spread of many diseases.

Picture depicts someone enjoying an Aztec steam bath.
Picture depicts someone enjoying an Aztec steam bath. | Source

The Aztecs developed an efficient system to handle human waste by means of latrines in all public places and inside many private dwellings. From these, an army of sanitation workers daily collected what little garbage the city produced and all the human waste and transported it away from the city by canoes via the canals to be processed.

Urine collected in pottery receptacles was used as a mordant for cloth dyeing. Most excrement was composted into fertilizer for the crops grown on the chinampas, the Aztecs artificially created "floating island" farms. They converted some excrement into a product that was sold at market used for the tanning of animal hides. As a result, the local environment remained shockingly clean and healthy, especially compared to most European cities of the time.

Aztec Agriculture

Agriculture thrived under the pre-Columbian Aztecs. They understood crop rotation and the use of fertilizer, and learned four methods of farming to suit their geography. The first, basic rainfall cultivation, frankly left a lot to be desired especially if the weather did not cooperate.

They later implemented terraces, their second method, over hills and in mountainous areas that could not be used for farming otherwise. Terracing allowed for an increased soil depth while impeding soil erosion in the rainy season.

Terraces were built by erecting a short wall of stones following the contour of a hillside. The space between the wall and the hill was filled with soil, the process was repeated creating flat farmland in steps up the hill.

In irrigation farming, their third method, they used dams to divert a large portion of the Cuauhtitlan River to provide irrigation to their inland fields on the shores. This allowed for large successful harvests independent of rainfall levels in the area.

In the marshy regions near Lake Xochimilco, the Aztecs implemented their fourth and most famous method of crop cultivation. They built chinampas, the so-called "floating islands," that were really more like large raised beds. These were typically rectangular, 5 to 15 feet wide, 60 to 120 feet long. They rose about three feet above the surface of the water and were separated by a series of narrow canals, allowing farmers to move between them by canoe.

The chinampas produced extremely fertile farms, yielding an average of seven crops annually. The Aztec farmers made a new Chinampa by staking out the area that the chinampa would occupy. They wove a reed fence between the posts. They then filled this fenced area with alternating layers of plant matter and nutrient rich mud from the bottom of the lake. Willow trees planted along the edges rooted the chinampa to the shallow lake bottom.

A single acre of chinampa could feed about eight adults per year. Upon the arrival of the Spanish, 22,500 acres of chinampa farms stood capable of feeding 180,000 people. Just before a harvest, farmers created reed rafts, on which they planted seeds and allowed them to germinate. Once sprouted and the old crop harvested, they would re-plant the sprouts in the chinampa. This cut down on growing time, allowing for more harvests.

The Aztecs kept bees for honey. They planted chillies, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and lots different varieties of flowers. Some were edible and others medicinal or used in rubber production or religious rites. One of these, the vanilla orchid later introduced the world to the sweet, fragrant, flavorful delights of the vanilla bean.

The War on Amaranth

Amaranth was a vital food source to the Aztecs. Annually, 20,000 tons in tribute alone arrived at the capital. Amaranth also was used in a number of religious rites.

In one, which Cortés later witnessed, amaranth was mixed with blood, sculpted to represent a god, then fed to the faithful. Cortés decided this was a mockery of Christian communion. He condemned to death anyone growing or possessing amaranth.

Much starvation ensued. The plant was nearly lost to extinction. Now it is being studied as a super-crop that may help to end world hunger.

The Aztecs domesticated wild turkeys and ducks for eggs and meat. They also raised and ate dogs.

They fished the lakes, rivers, and canals for fish and shrimp. They hunted deer, rabbit, iguana, and even tasty insects like grasshoppers and worms. However their many sources of animal protein made up only a small part of the average Aztec's diet.

They also collected large amounts of algae from the surface of Lake Texcoco. High in protein, this algae, then known as tecuitlatl, was used to enrich breads, cheeses, and many other foods. Today, we know this blue-green super-food better by the name spirulina.

The main food crops and main components of a typical Aztec meal were corn, beans, squash, and amaranth, a high protein grain. Quinoa, another important high-protein grain, came to the Aztecs through trade and tribute.

Today, Aztec agriculture is best remembered for giving the rest of the world the cocoa bean. It was so highly prized in the Aztec Empire that it became the main form of currency. Its other main use was a state secret known only to the elite few. Cocoa beans were ground into cocoa powder to make a thick unsweetened drink, flavored with chilies and other spices, and thickened with cornmeal. This Aztec version of hot cocoa was considered a sacred beverage which only the fabulously wealthy and politically powerful ever tasted.

Beyond Cortés and Human Sacrifice, What Else Did You Know About the Aztecs?

See results

In Retrospect

The Aztecs were impressive problem solvers, uncommonly
open-minded when it came to accepting foreign ideas and the differences which separated them from others. They excelled at applying new
concepts in practical ways to benefit their civilization without losing their own
traditions, unique language, or cultural identity.

While they borrowed extensively from others, the Aztecs were
inventive in their own right, innovating new
technological solutions to the problems of an expanding empire,
faced with limited land and resources and an ever-growing population.

If you want to know more about this amazing culture, Part Two in this series exploring the social structure, laws, education, and arts of the Aztecs is here:


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    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 

      22 months ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      This is a nice introduction and I leaned a lot. Whenever I think of Aztecs, I think of the Mel Gibson movie that was so brutal!

    • norlawrence profile image

      Norma Lawrence 

      2 years ago from California

      Fabulous article with great information and pictures. thanks

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Hi Techygran! Thanks for sharing that story about "Doctor H." I'll bet that a cruel streak is no more prevalent in the ancestors of the Aztecs and Spanish conquistadors than it would be anywhere else on the planet. We all descend from tough pragmatic people but psychopaths remain a steady 2 percent or so of the population over time. To me that suggests something like recessive gene combinations. Those 2% probably did get ahead rather easily back then and ended up in leadership roles where as today they are known as serial killers- that's my favorite theory anyway. It rather neatly explains so much of history. Cheers!

    • techygran profile image


      3 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      Hi there Besarien, This was an interesting and educational read for me. I liked the parts about agriculture, since that is my background and gardening is my current passion (as Spring begins). I kept flashing in my memory back to one of my previous workmates who came from this part of the planet (did her University in Mexico City) and how very bright and intuitive she was, and always looking for 'teaching moments' with both her clients and with her fellow workers.

      She told me a story about how, as a young social worker, she had been posted in a small Mexican community and spent time with a dentist because of a lack of colleagial company. She would hang about when the dentist did his work and talk with him. When the dentist prepared to go on holiday he asked her if she would take over the practice while he was gone. She confidently did that, attending to various emergencies, including extractions and the like. When the 'real' dentist returned, apparently many of the patients exclaimed that they would prefer to see "Dr. H." because she was so gentle and her fingers were so much smaller. I delighted in working with her and am pretty sure she is a direct descendant of the innovative people you describe here, minus the cruel streaks.

      Thanks for this great little history lesson. I'm going on now to read the second part. ~Cynthia

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      What was it Mrs. M used to say? Away with you, you soppy girl? I'll just give you a virtual hug. I truly do appreciate the generosity of your spirit.

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Thanks Mel! I am happy you enjoyed it. I think it is entirely possible the frenzy of sacrifice they are known for was a direct response to the Europeans and their diseases. What else could they do but step up efforts to appeal to their gods? Something similar may have occurred in England and Wales amongst the Celts when the Romans invaded.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      3 years ago from England

      I came back for another read because of your part 2. Still amazing, seems we should have learned from them, not destroyed them, but that was typical of the Spanish and the West back then, great read again!

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      Brilliant, succinct review of Aztec life as we know it. I think in light of the mass genocide carried out by Europeans against indigenous tribes, the ritual sacrifices were just a drop in the bucket. Great hub!

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      3 years ago from Shelton

      Had to reread this one again.. but they each could have stood alone.. thanks again for these informative pieces..:)

    • ValKaras profile image

      Vladimir Karas 

      3 years ago from Canada

      Your hub, beside being so well written and illustrated, points at the grotesque gap between man's intellect and his beliefs which tend to be blind, while stemming from his strong animalistic instinct of survival, and heavily painted with superstition.

      You also made an insightful point while comparing the bestial cruelty of those cultures with a string of its equivalents throughout the history, and unfortunately not stopping at ours. Great work, Besarien!

    • sujaya venkatesh profile image

      sujaya venkatesh 

      3 years ago

      an informative hub

    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 

      3 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      Fascinating HUB full of forgotten history lessons! You have Cortez pegged as a pirate and I well imagine you to be correct. It is your great art at the top to the HUB that sold me on reading all of it. Well done and I know you will have a great time here at HUBPAGES.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      This is remarkable material. One wonders why the Aztecs never became a world power. Oh, life could have been so different today, eh?

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Hi grand old lady! Thank you for your kind words. I am happy that my article broadened your perspective on how complex and in many ways advanced they were apart from their practice of human sacrifice. Thanks for commenting!

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Hi Cody! It is a disturbing dichotomy. On the one hand, they appreciated being clean as much as we do. On the other, they walked around wearing bloody suits of people skin from human sacrifices to honor Xipe Totec, the flayed god. Wouldn't really expect those two things to go together. I guess you'd really need a good bath after that.

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Hi lawrence01! Absolutely! So many comparisons can be drawn! Both were heavily militaristic, both had tribute systems, both independently invented aqueducts, both combined foreign gods into their pantheons, both featured gruesome public spectacles. Even the fashion technology was not dissimilar! What does it all say about being human? Thanks for your comment!

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Hi Frank Atanacio! Thank you for stopping by and for your kind words. May you be blessed as well.

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Hi Lee! I know you enjoy history as much as I do, if not more. Thanks for stopping by and for your kind words!

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Hi Akriti Mattu! I hope to have it finished soon. I don't write quickly at all. It trickles out at the rate of cold molasses on a very good day. Thanks for your kind words of encouragement!

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Thanks manatita 44! I am glad you enjoyed it.

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Hi Austinstar! It sounds like everything Gary Jennings wrote is right up my alley. I can't believe it has taken me so long to hear about him. Thanks for the rec and for your comment!

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Thanks Billy! Your good opinion means much to me. I'm happy you like this topic better than fashion. That would be just about any topic for many, I know. Thanks for commenting!

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Hi Nell Rose! Thanks for your comment. Cortes is remembered as a great explorer and conquistador now but then was just an armed independent looking for easy loot, a pirate, really. He later got official backing and support from Spain but didn't have that to start. Ironically the "gold fever" driving Cortes wasn't based on gold. The vast majority of metal he saw was tumbaga, an alloy of mostly copper with silver and a tiny bit of gold in it. It looked just like gold. It wasn't until the seventies that anyone even thought to check. Turns out the Aztecs were very crafty metallurgists. Everyone prior to the seventies had assumed they were only capable of working in pure metals.

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Hello Say Yes To Life! I enjoy historical fiction. I 'll put Aztec Blood on my book list. Thanks for the rec and your comment!

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Hi Larry! I think you have a very enlightened perspective on history. Using advanced technology for barbaric purposes isn't much of a claim on civilization. If the Aztecs hadn't engaged in human sacrifice would we even remember them? They would be one more of many indigenous peoples ground under by European military industry. Thanks for your comment!

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Hi poetryman6969! Thanks for your comment! The eagle, snake, and cactus make for some memorable symbolism, don't they? Plus it is still a feature on the Mexican flag. Glad I could take it a bit beyond that for you.

    • Besarien profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Hi Au fait! Having forgotten enough of my high school and college language classes to sound like I never took any, I deeply commiserate. I agree that having other advantages is no guarantee for tolerance and empathy. Ted Bundy seemed to have everything but. Thanks for your comments!

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 

      4 years ago from Philippines

      I never knew the Aztecs were so advanced in hygiene and sanitation and so many other areas of civilized life. Thank you for this informative article. It has completely transformed my impressions of this amazing and brilliant group of people.

    • Cody Atkinson profile image

      Cody Atkinson 

      4 years ago from Canada

      A very interesting read. I didn't know about the hygiene practices, but was aware of how advanced the Aztecs were. Thanks for a good read.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Fascinating stuff. I knew a little about them but this hub told me a lot i didn't know.

      Its amazing gow closely Aztec culture resembled early Roman and Egyptian culture (not just buildings but materials they used for dying stuff etc).

      Excellent hub


    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      4 years ago from Shelton

      thank you for sharing this educational piece, well researched and iformative.. bless you

    • profile image

      Lee Cloak 

      4 years ago

      A really great hub about a fascinating people, a very interesting read, a lot of details about the Aztec civilization i never knew, thanks for sharing, voted up, Lee

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 

      4 years ago from Shimla, India

      I look forward to read Part-2 of it soon :)

    • manatita44 profile image


      4 years ago from london

      They were a fascinating people, and I like your article very much. Best wishes.

    • Austinstar profile image


      4 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

      Gary Jennings wrote the definitive novels about the Aztecs. He was like the Mexican James Michener! Book one of the Aztec series by him is called simply "Aztec" and it is very thorough regarding the daily life of the pre-Columbian cultures of Central Mexico. I highly recommend them!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Nice, brief history lesson. As a former history teacher I've covered much of this in classes over the years. They were a fascinating race for sure, the good and the bad......very nice read my friend.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      4 years ago from England

      How fascinating! I never knew about most of this, especially about their hygiene and waste, so much more advanced than the west at the time, and so appalling that it came to an end because of invaders, great hub and read, voted up and shared!

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 

      4 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      I've read the book "Aztec Blood" by Gary Jennings. It contains a lot of the information here. Fascinating!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      4 years ago from Oklahoma

      The Aztecs were a developed people, and like any developed group, they did a lot of things wrong and a lot of things right.

      Cortez and his crew were no more civilized than the Aztecs.

    • poetryman6969 profile image


      4 years ago

      It's good to take one's knowledge beyond the eagle, snake, cactus thing. Thank you for that. That they were sticklers for hygiene was a welcome revelation. It is still hard to get past that human hearts sacrifice thing.

      Voted up. Very interesting hub.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 

      4 years ago from North Texas

      It has been my observation that people who are very talented, artistic, and even learned in various philosophies and sciences often do not have the ability for abstract thought. They often still lack tolerance for people who are different from themselves in one or more ways, and are unable to fathom complicated ideas.

      Learned about these people in my various Spanish classes but unfortunately the history of their civilization didn't stick any better than the language instruction. If you don't use it you lose it. A great review and I enjoyed being reminded of how advanced these people were in so many ways. Voted up!


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