The Aztec Culture Stamp on Mesoamerica

The origins of the Aztec culture are a little vague. A group of wandering hunter–gatherer tribes from the north of Mexico and the southwest United States left those environs in search of new lands because of drought, and eventually settled in the Valley of Mexico.

Aztec History - Codex Image

According to codices, or hand-painted cloth leaflets pre–dating the European invasion, the Aztecs originated from a land called Aztlan, which some translate as "The Place of the Herons" and others say means, "White Land. "

We're going with the heron translation, just because birds seem to play important roles in Aztec culture. So do serpents.

The Aztecs — A "Flighty" People?

Don't rush to judgment here, but according to Aztec history, the tribes migrated south for two centuries before they settled in the Valley of Mexico. And they chose the site because they saw an eagle resting on a cactus on the border of Lake Texococo.

The Aztecs carried an important idol with them through their migratory period — the deity is called Huitzilopochtli — a left handed hummingbird, sun and war god. You'll know him as the god who supposedly required human sacrifice to be appeased when things got tough for the Aztec people.

Aztec History in Mesoamerica — Three Ts Against One

Aztec Culture - Huitzilopochtli - Hummingbird, Sun and War God

The Aztecs drained Lake Texococo, farmed the land, raised artificial islands amid the marshes and founded a city in the early 14th century: Tenochtitlán. (We know it as Mexico City.) Over the next 100 years they built an empire.

In 1428 the settlers formed a triumvirate of sorts.

The new residents of New Tenochitlán joined with the Texcocans and the Tacubans to defeat the Tepanecs, a sister people to the Aztecs, who controlled most of the Valley of Mexico. Needless to say, the Tenochitlán, Texcocos and Tacubans managed to vote the Tepanecs off the island, so to speak.

In 1440, Montezuma I took the throne and became the "father" of the Aztecs, as we know him today.

Aztec Culture a Culture of Class

Aztec civilization basically consisted of rulers, commoners, and slaves — and though there was a common language, Nahuatl, it was still a city of ethnic diversity. Commoners made up the bulk of the military while a few professional soldiers came from the nobility. Every male born to Aztec society underwent basic military training.

The Mexican basin had about one million residents, with 100,000 living in the capital, and the Aztecs had an extensive market system with nearly 40 provinces stretching across the empire.

Nearly six million people paid tribute to the rulers at the peak of Aztec civilization. On market days, about 50,000 traders came to Tenochitlán.

Fall of the Aztecs

The Aztecs - Temple Ruins

Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba arrived from Cuba in 1517. On his return and subsequent debriefings, the Spanish governor of Cuba formed an expedition headed by Hernan Cortes to colonize Mexico.

Cortes arrived with 11 ships, several canons and a force of 500 men in 1519. But the Conquistador's arrival may not be the only reason for the demise of Aztec culture, though the event was most definitely the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back.

Additionally, there are other factors to consider:

» Human Sacrifice - Some historians say 10 – 20 thousand human killings were made each 18 month year. That doesn't account for the disappearance of the entire Aztec culture, but that kind of sacrifice still can't be great for morale.

Blood played a large role in religious ritual, whether human or animal. Many Aztecs practiced autosacrifice in private, in which they cut their own earlobes, lips or tongues to commune with the gods.

» Disease - Many of us blame the Conquistadors for bringing European diseases to the Aztecs. But there's an epidemiologist who has a different theory regarding the downfall of Aztec culture. He blames a hemorrhagic fever, brought on by long periods of drought, which stresses the immune system. This type of virus is not passed from human to human. Read Megadeath in Mexico for more on this theory.

» General Apathy - Montezuma II, ruler of the Aztecs in 1519 (and coincidentally, great grandson of Montezuma I, though rule was not passed down through family lines in Aztec culture), reported seeing a comet before Cortes' arrival.

According to some theorists, Montezuma II believed the sighting signified the end of his reign, and his people may have viewed the Conquistadors as gods. (Cortes was seen as the human form of the god Quetzalcoatl, god of the morning star. Coincidentally, Quetzalcoatl, like many of the Aztecs' gods, has feathers too.)

Click here to leave Aztec Culture and return to the World Culture page.

Or, continue your cultural explorations by visiting our Indian Culture page.

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