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History of the First Nations, the Aztecs

Updated on November 17, 2014

The Sunstone is identified as the centerpiece of Aztec culture

The sun stone is a calendar system that worked on a couple of systems, some of it interchangeable with the Maya, but not all. It calculates the year as 365 days.
The sun stone is a calendar system that worked on a couple of systems, some of it interchangeable with the Maya, but not all. It calculates the year as 365 days.

Location of the Historic Aztec Capital

Mexico City:
Mexico City, Distrito Federal, Mexico

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Mexico City occupies the location where the Aztec capital existed in Lake Texcoco. There are still remnants of Tenochtitlan.

the Aztecs formed one of the mightiest Mesoamerican civilzations

The Aztecs were originally a small band of hunter-gatherers. They came from north of where they settled and could not find peace where they lived previously. A medicine man-prophet in their midst told the people that they would find peace when they saw an eagle with a snake in its talons perched atop a cactus. The place that they would see this would be their new home and that they would grow to be a mighty people. The vision was fulfilled on the shores of Lake Texcoco that had a reed stand near the center. They found their home and settled in the lake where the reeds grew and eventually, this region surrounded by a vast natural moat, with water year round and fertile ground for crop growing. Most of all, it offered sanctuary and peace. Thus began the life of Tenochtitlan commencing from the 13th century that was to evolve into one of the greatest city-states in the world at that time. Two adjoining formed an alliance that became the Aztec triple alliance and together they eventually formed a mighty empire. By the time Cortez arrived, Tenochtitlan and the surrounding regions of vast agricultural production around it had a population of about 500,000 people. They built a fabulous architecture and made intricate and great art. They are not responsible for the Teotihuacan complex of pyramids that rival Egypt's pyramid complexes as this great city was built far earlier and then abandoned long before the Aztecs arrived.

Since all ethnic groups of central Mexico in the post classic period shared most basic cultural traits, many of the basic traits of Aztec culture cannot be said to be exclusive to the Aztecs. For the same reason the notion of "Aztec civilization" is best understood as a particular sub-group of a general Mesoamerican civilization which included the Maya and other surrounding smaller groups.

Among the cultural traits that the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan shared with many other cultures of central Mexico are the agricultural basis of maize (corn) cultivation, the basic social organization dividing society into two main classes of noble (pipiltin) and macehualli (commoners). The complex of religious beliefs and practices included a pantheon of gods such as Tezcatlipoca, Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl. The calender system of a xiuhpohualli of 365 days interlocked with a tonalpohualli of 260 days was shared with the Maya constructs of exactly the same periods. There were differences with the Maya calendar which was the superior one containing more cycles and greater accuracy. Cultural traits particular to the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan was the veneration of the Mexica patron God Huitzilopochtli. The Aztecs also constructed twin pyramids, one for the sun and another for the sun.

During their existence, they developed a regular system of sacrifices. The process had two forms. In one case, a person was chosen and treated like royalty having all their whims indulged for a year. The agreement was that the chosen one knew they were to be an emissary of the people to the gods and so they complied without resistance. On the appointed day, this god in flesh was to be sacrificed so that the spirit could take the prayers of the people and priests to the heavenly beings like the sun and moon. The more common variant was the daily sacrifice of prisoners of war and people captured for that specific purpose. In a great fanfare, conducted by the priests of Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl, the prisoners and captives would be led or dragged up the steps of the sun pyramid. Once at the top, they were prostrated over a curved stone and held in place with a strong man holding each limb. One of the high priests would then take an obsidian knife and make an incision in the upper abdomen just below the rib cage near the Xyphoid process. The priest would then thrust his hand into the incision, forcing it up to the heart, then grasping it and then ripped out of the chest still beating. This would then be elevated like a Catholic priest elevating the host. After this, the still beating heart would be thrown into a flaming brazier. The body would then be thrown down the steps of the pyramid toward the ecstatic gathering below. The next prisoner would be taken and the process repeated, over and over. We wonder today how a large number of victims would allow this to go on without open revolt. It is thought that they were either drugged with some herbal concoction and/or forced to comply at the point of weapons.

The Aztec people were certain united ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly those groups who spoke the Nahuatl language and who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica from the 14th to 16th centuries, a period referred to as the late post-classic period in Mesoamerica.

Aztec (Aztecatl) is the Nahuatl word for "people from Aztlan". Aztlan is a mythological place for the Nahuatl-speaking culture of the time, and later adopted as the word to define the Mexica people. Often the term "Aztec" refers exclusively to the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan, which is now the location of Mexico City, situated on an island in Lake Texcoco. They referred to themselves as Mexica Tenochca or Colhua-Mexica. Sometimes the term also includes the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan's two principal allied city-states, the Acolhuas of Texcoco and the Tepanecs of Tlacopan, who together with the Mexica formed the Aztec Triple Alliance which has also become known as the "Aztec Empire". In other contexts, Aztec may refer to all the city states and their peoples, who shared large parts of their ethnic history as well as many important cultural traits with the Mexica, Acolhua and Tepanecs. Like them, they spoke the Nahuatl language. In this meaning it is possible to talk about an Aztec civilization as including all the particular cultural patterns common for the Nahuatl speaking peoples of the late post classic period in Mesoamerica.

Aztecs: Making of an Empire

The Aztec predictive calender system indicated that Quetzalcoatl would return in November of 1519 (as calculated into the Gregorian). When Cortez, his soldiers and his accompanying priest saw this display, they were appalled; offended by the massive amounts of human sacrifice that they witnessed, some in his honour as the mistaken god Quetzalcoatl. It was well established by Aztec custom at this time, that human hearts were needed to appease the sun god and promote a fertile and abundant corn crop. From that moment, the Spanish sought to convert what they saw as an empire of demonology. This would have profound consequences shortly after they arrived in Tenochtitlan on November 9th, 1519. To the Aztec priests and royals, they could not fathom why the one they saw as Quetzalcoatl would be offended by sacrifices to his honour. This was to end up having near fatal consequences in the end for the Spanish once the Aztecs reasoned that they were no gods. It was then that Cortez and his men seized the king for ransom and a bid to get out alive. Moctezuma was forced to give allegiance to King Charles V of Spain. The ruler of the entire Aztec triple alliance, Hueyi Tlatoani Moctezuma, was in power at the time. By then it was already too late and the jig was up for the Aztecs. Incalculable suffering emerged in the Spanish's own version of human sacrifice during the subsequent route of Aztec civilization. By 1521, it was essentially done. The Spanish started building Mexico City on the spot of Tenochtitlan.

Cotez's own Aztec story began in the spring of 1519 locally and even earlier under Spanish power brokering on the Islands off the east coat of what is now called Mexico. The arrival of Cortez in 1519 coincided with the Aztec calendar with the arrival of their bearded white god Quetzalcoatl. The year 1519 by our calendar was a transitional year for the Aztecs, long predicted by the priests who saw that the arrival of Quetzalcoatl was to presage their destruction. This time was looked upon with dread and when rumour of a white bearded person coming from the east who matched the prophecy of the return of Quetzalcoatl was announced, there was great fear and concern.

Cortez with only a tiny band of 15 mounted soldiers with muskets and 15 cannon was able to muster a support army of disaffected Aztecs and Maya to the point of 3,000 persons in addition to his own forces, arrived at Tenochtitlan in November of 1519 and almost immediately took the king and courtiers captive for reasons given above. The captives were held until a huge quantity of gold was amassed. This was a ransom to free the king and to buy time in the hope that things would go the way of the Spaniards due to the confusion.

The real conquest of the Americas began in earnest in November of 1519 with the contact between Hernando Cortez and the Aztec civilization. Too late the Aztecs realized that Cortez was a man like themselves despite his strange appearance on horse back and his military armour. Cortez started off by taking Moctezuma and his courtiers hostage for all the gold the Aztec people could collect and hand over. This was done peacefully because of the view that Cortez was Quetzalcoatl and the fact that the king was held in ransom. To drive the seriousness of the point home, some of the courtiers were murdered in front of the masses and this got compliance for the time being. Cortez and company were given free access to whatever they needed and wanted. Only when Cortez attempted to leave the city did trouble break out. But he and most of his soldiers managed to get out and then lay siege to the island city, cutting off supplies from the outside. Surrounding regions were subdued and kept back. The following battle was decidedly one sided with the Aztec nation in confusion, Cortez's men on horseback using the primitive fire-arms of the day was superior to the bow and arrow and spears of the Aztec who also fraught on foot. The accounts of attrition is a description of a siege, which starved the Aztecs into ultimate submission and then into destruction at the "point of the sword". This is clearly a planned and manufactured Armageddon and such an idea was held from the beginning of the campaign. Despite the rivalry between Spanish factions for personal glory or whatever, the ultimate goal was territory and wealth at the expense and lives of the original inhabitants. Gold was the medium that drove them on. In the ransom, such a vast amount of gold was gathered, it was impossible for the Spanish to carry away in total. They almost single handed routed an entire nation of millions in two years. By 1521, the Aztec nation was in ruins and the survivors scattered into the surrounding jungle and desert. The remnants would be absorbed in later Mexico, breeding with the Spanish and becoming the modern day Mexicans.

Thus, as a result of the destruction, Aztec culture and history is primarily known through archaeological evidence found in excavations such as that of the renowned Templo Mayor in Mexico City. Much of the rest comes from indigenous bark paper codices, few of which survived, made from eyewitness accounts by Spanish conquistadors such as Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo. 16th and 17th century descriptions of Aztec culture and history as described by Spanish clergymen and literate Aztecs in the Spanish or Nahuatl language were written after the fact. There exists the famous Florentine Codex compiled by the Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sahagún with the help of indigenous Aztec accounts. This comprises much of what we know directly of their culture, which is sadly, far less than what we know of the Maya. Aside from the famous sun stone, there is little by the way of inscribed stellae such is common with the Maya.


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    • syzygyastro profile imageAUTHOR

      William J. Prest 

      6 years ago from Vancouver, Canada

      As you say, crowd control through fear mongering and we are doing this in the drone wars now underway. All else is propaganda and theater.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      The religious rationale for human sacrifice makes for good stories, but more sophisticated interpretations hold that there were political causes.

      The Aztecs presided over an empire composed of city-states and relied on subjugation and tribute. Human sacrifices intimidated Aztec rivals and intimidated the Aztec population - core/periphery theory holds that imperialism and exploitation without mirror imperialism and exploitation within. A class-based interpreation goes a long way toward explaining the "Flower Wars" between allies.

      To say that the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice to make the sun rise is probably about as correct as saying the cause of the Civil War was slavery. It's fourth grade work and not terribly accurate. The Aztec empire was comprised of millions of people who were highly organized. The leaders weren't yokels. The Aztec rulers probably practiced human sacrifice for the same reason that the President of the United States goes to church on Sunday. It's political theater.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      What would they DO with a wheel?

      There were no beasts of burden in Pre-Colombian Mexico.

    • syzygyastro profile imageAUTHOR

      William J. Prest 

      8 years ago from Vancouver, Canada

      Among those who study the Maya and Aztec, this is the general consensus. There was active trading in the region, so the Maya, Aztec and Olmec had intimate contact. Things rubbed off both ways. The Aztec word Olmec means "rubber people" so we get an idea of what they traded and for the Olmec, there were things like tobacco and coca leaves, which interestingly enough, the chemicals turn up in Egyptian mummies of the period.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      This all may have some truth, they got it from some where, I feel the Olmec were their teacher.

    • syzygyastro profile imageAUTHOR

      William J. Prest 

      8 years ago from Vancouver, Canada

      To christopheranton: Unfortunately, the Aztecs did not leave behind much of a written account, unlike the Maya upon which we could build. We get, as you say, a filtered account through Spanish priests. The reason, by way of speculation, for the sacrifices is primarily for the control of the masses through a kind of shack and awe. This was disguised as required sacrifices to a deity that was as equivocal as a typical human being. With the May, even though there culture was also destroyed, the left behind inscriptions carved on stone that were later used to reconstruct their history from their point of view. This of course is the most desirable approach for reasons of being objective.

      To Robwrite: As this series develops, we will learn what role disease played in the conquest of the "new world". Many tribes were brought low by this one fact alone. As for the wheel, recent archeological evidence states that they were not unaware of the wheel. Unfortunately, the find was on a wooden llama carving pull toy found in the Inca territories. Nothing like this or anything more advanced was found anywhere in the "new world". Thus, another idea that the Europeans had was exploited in the conquest. We will also see how the First Nations preferred the horse over any wheeled transport.

    • Robwrite profile image


      8 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Excellent hub. I love ancient history. The Aztecs are a fascinating study, considering how little we know about them. There is probably much more to their culture than we suspect.

      We can't ignore the effect that epidemic diseases brought by the Spanish had on the native Americans. Germs had a lot to do with the conquest.

      An interesting bit of trivia: the Aztecs were one of the most advanced civilization of their day but they never developed the wheel.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      8 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Is there anything at all known about The Aztecs from their own sources? It might give a more balanced view of the human sacrifice issue than just having to rely on the spanish accounts, after all it is often in the victor's interests to really castigate the vanquished.

      Thank you for a very well written and informative hub.


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