The great Aztec Empire flourished in the central area of Mexico. They are considered the last great Pre-
Columbian civilization before the arrival of the Spanish in 1519. We are fortunate to have been left an
abundance of historical records and works written by the early priest, Conquistadors, and the Aztecs
themselves. Their accounts tell us of their languages, way of life, religious beliefs and practices, as well
as their foods and cultural traditions. These things are still influential in modern Mexico today and their
descendants still incorporate their indigenous heritage and ancient beliefs in their every day lives.
Most believe the Aztec civilization originated in the area of present day Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada,
and Colorado. Historic accounts commonly begin in the late 12th century as they migrated to what is
now central Mexico. Modern day Mexicans are of mixed Spanish and indigenous (native) ancestry,
descendants of the Mexicas (Aztecs) or of other peoples of the Aztec Empire and Middle America.
Mexico City now stands on the site of the Aztec’s most elaborate and capitol city, Tenochititlan. The
Spanish described this city as the most beautiful city they had ever seen. Tenochtitlan was divided into
four quarters and consisted of more than 75 clans. These clans were the center of the Aztec empire and
were highly advanced politically, militarily, religiously, and agriculturally. The free-born Aztecs were
born into a clan (or calpullis). They were given religious teachings and secular training in warfare,
priestly training, and were awarded lands to farm. The Aztec culture required that its people were bound
life-long into the class they were born.
Their capitol city was the most sacred center of their vast empire. It was a beautiful city with large
pyramids and lavish buildings built along the edges of a lake.
The Aztecs were an advanced and prosperous civilization who built beautiful and sophisticated cities. At
their peak, the Aztec civilization had about 15 million people who lived in nearly 500 communities. The
Aztecs were culturally developed in music, arts, and crafts. Annual festivals included acrobats, poetry,
and song. Music played an important role in Aztec religious rituals for worshiping their many gods.
Designing clothes, mainly in the upper class, was one form of art in the Aztec culture. Women usually
made the clothing, and they richly decorated them with beads, flowers, and precious metals. Gold was
often used and was abundant in the Aztec empire. In fact, the pursuit of gold was the main reason Cortez
traveled to Mexico in 1519 (eventually leading to the Aztec demise). The Aztec Culture operated with a
language called N’ahuatl. Being such an advanced society, they also developed an extensive sort of
alphabet of pictures containing several hundred symbols depicting their vocabulary.
About 300,000 people lived in Tenochtitlan, their capitol. In this famous city, the government controlled
and was responsible for punishment, agriculture, and all aspects of the civilization’s economy. The
highly developed empire had an elaborate leadership and society that consisted of four classes.
Nobles (highest in power)
Commoners (the majority of population, were mostly farmers)
Serfs (worked land for the nobles)
Slaves (consisted of those captured and indebted who couldn’t pay)
Governmental office positions were usually inherited, but one could be awarded an office through
exemplary service to the emperor. Slavery was quite common.
The Aztec Economy
The early Aztec economy consisted of a type of barter system as this was a pre-capitalist society. Minor
purchases were made with cacao beans imported from lowlands. In the marketplaces, a small rabbit
might have been worth 30 beans, an egg cost 3 beans while larger purchases of cloth could range from
65 to 300 cacao beans.
Aztec communities were heavily dependant upon agriculture with corn being the central crop; though
they also relied somewhat on hunting and gathering. Crop surpluses were stored and used during hard
times. The Aztec also had sophisticated irrigation systems, allowing them to farm otherwise dry lands.
They farmed shallow lakes by scooping up mud and forming islands called chinampas. These islands
provided very fertile land that was profitable for growing crops. Although most Aztecs were farmers,
there were some who were skilled craftsmen, making pottery, tools, and other vital goods. They did
trade over long distances. Archaelologist have found Aztec goods at Mayan Civilization sites and as far
away as Africa and Europe.
Science and Religion
The Aztec religion included human sacrifices in rich ceremonies to the gods. The Aztecs worshiped
hundreds of gods and goddesses; each represented a different aspect of life.
Ceremonies were very important during the agricultural seasons to ensure good crops as well as for
Coronations. During these ceremonies human sacrifices were given to the gods. Many of the sacrifices
were war prisoners or children. They felt that human hearts and blood gave the gods strength and
appeased them when they were angry. Large temples were built to celebrate the offering of sacrifices.
The famous Sunstone Calendar, which was twelve feet in diameter, represented the Aztec universe. It is
thought that the hearts of human sacrifices were placed on this stone and presented to the gods. The
Aztecs believed in many gods, to whom they paid tribute daily. It is estimated that over a quarter of a
million people were sacrificed each year by the Aztecs.
The Aztec calendar was a remarkable demonstration of the advances made by the Aztecs in the science
of astronomy. It had 18 months, with each month containing 20 days. Thus, 360 days would constitute
one year. The Aztecs, however, had determined that the year contained 365 days. Therefore, they added
5 days called the "Nemontemi", or sacrificial days. Astronomy was not the only science in which the
Aztecs had made great advances. They also had made significant strides in medicine. While many
Europeans derided the herbal medicine of the Aztecs as a "heathen" practice, or even worse things, such
as witchcraft, the medicinal arts of the Aztecs surpassed those of the best doctors of Europe at the time.
The Mayan society originated in the Yucatan around 2600 B.C., they rose to prominence around A.D.
250 in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, western Honduras, El Salvador, and northern Belize.
Building on the inherited inventions and ideas of earlier civilizations such as the Olmec, the Mayans
developed astronomy, calendrical systems and hieroglyphic writing. The Mayans were noted as well for
elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and
observatories, all built without metal tools. They were also skilled farmers, clearing large sections of
tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizeable underground reservoirs for the
storage of rainwater. The Mayans were equally skilled as weavers and potters, and cleared routes
through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples.