The Aztecs were one of the most intriguing and biggest empires of Central America flourishing between 12th and 13th century AD. They were a highly civilized state with their own unique set of social, political and religious customs and rituals in place. Here are some facts about the Aztec world.
They were “Mexicas” and not “Aztecs”
The Aztecs referred to themselves as “Méxica” and not as “Aztecs”; which was actually an umbrella term given to them by the Europeans taken from the place they originally belonged – Atzlan (northern part of Mexico).
The great capital city
Tenochtitlan, modern day Mexico City; was the capital of the Aztec empire built in the middle of the lake Texcoco. It is also said that Aztecs founded Tenochtitlan at the spot where an eagle on a cactus was wrestling a snake in its beak. This city was supposedly bigger than most of the European cities and very well maintained.
A unique form of slavery was followed in the Aztec empire. One could sell themselves and their children, to pay off their debts and be free again once the debt is cleared. The slaves could also get married and own possession of land and other slaves. Children of the slaves were not treated as inheritance. If a slave present oneself in front of a temple or break away from one’s master and step on human excretion, he or she will be freed. And another rule was that, if a slave tried to run away only his master or master’s relatives were allowed to chase after them.
The Arts and sports
Aztecs were highly adept in poetry, pottery, sculpting and different drawings as well. They honoured their Gods through art, making stone sculptures and wall carvings. Headdress, shields and pictures were made using feathers from birds like macaws and parrots. Tattoos were made on warriors, to honour them for their achievements.
Ullamaliztli, a type of sport played by a rubber ball on an I shaped court called tlachtli was very popular amongst the Aztecs. The objective of the game was to pass the ball through a small stone ring, without letting it touch the ground. The players could only use their head, elbow, knees and hips. Skulls are found to be buried around the court, but the historians are not clear as to who were sacrificed, the winners or the losers.
The calendar made out of stone
The calendar stone, measuring 4m in diameter is one of the largest Aztec sculptures to be ever found. It was carved in the sixteenth century and contains various mythological and astrological figures and sign; which was used to keep track of important dates. The calendar is said to represent the belief of the universe passing through four world creations which were all being destroyed and we are in the fifth one; which is doomed to be destructed by earthquakes. According to belief, it is in the fifth world creation that the sun, the moon and human beings were successfully created. One Aztec year was divided into 18 months of 20 days and 52 years formed one century.
Education – an important part of Aztec life
Schooling was a mandatory part of the Aztec civilization and was separated between boys and girls. The noble boys were sent to “Calmecac” where they learned about history, astronomy, art, and how to govern and lead; while the lower caste boys were sent to “cuicacalli” where they were mainly trained to be warriors. Girls were sent to separate schools but most of their education was focused on domestic duties.
The Aztecs had their own language called N’ahuatl, which had pictures like the hieroglyphic alphabet. Priest and scribes were trained to write in this language. Charcoal and coloured vegetables amongst other substances were used to write on paper made of bark or deer skin. The Aztecs kept tax record, historical records and also of the sacrifices made for religious purpose.
Aztec men were allowed to take up more than one wife, but only the first wife was considered to be the primary partner. Adultery was punishable by death.
Approximately twenty thousand men were believed to be sacrificed each year by the Aztecs in order to appease the Gods. Although some historians suggest that the sacrificed people were eaten to compensate for the lack of meat in an Aztec diet. While some says that Aztecs used to wage war on their enemies to gather prisoners to sacrifice and some others suggest that they considered it to be an honour to be sacrificed.
The floating island – Chinampas
An artificial floating island called “chinampas” was created on Lake Texcoco which cultivated up to seven crops per year. It was an efficient system of cultivation, a hectare of chinampas would feed 20 people while nine thousand hectares was enough to feed 180,000 people.
Chocolates, wheel and steel
The Aztecs introduced the world to chocolates but it was quite different from the present version; it was instead a bitter drink mixed with spices. Cacao beans were also used in the form of currency. They did not invent the wheel and had no idea about iron or steel.
Death and downfall
Aztecs buried their dead beneath their house. Sometimes a dog was also killed and buried, which according to belief would guide the dead through the journey of the afterlife.
The Spaniards led by Hernan Cortes brought about the end of the greatest Native American civilization. The Spanish army had the advantage of gun powder and swords and armours which were all alien to the Aztec people. Another reason for their downfall is due to the death caused by diseases like small pox infected by the Spaniards, to which the Aztecs had no immunity. An estimated 20 million Mexicans died within a period of five years.
The Aztecs have been the most well- documented civilisation there is with information from archaeology, books and accounts of the Spanish invaders. They were successful in expanding the empire from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Gulf of Mexico in the west and in the North ; Central Mexico In the north to Modern day Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in the south. If the Spaniards hadn’t showed up the Aztec empire may have continued expanding.