Inca, Aztec, and Maya Activity
The Inca daily life was hard and difficult; but we can’t deny that it was a relief to belong to the Inca
Empire. It's because the Inca government take and redistribute everything in the community, from Inca
Food to all materials need to have a long and healthy life. It is important to remind you that broken an
Inca law will cost your life; then better you decide whether it was good culture or not.
The Inca Music melodies had only 5 tones (do, re, fa, sol, la) and it was enough to create four types of
The Incas use wood, ceramic, textiles, stone and copper, to make all kinds of Inca Artifacts. For example
the Inca daily life artifacts like plates, glasses or spoons prime material was wood.
The greatest achievement of the Inca Agriculture was to guarantee a sustainable and permanent food
supply to all parts of the kingdom. They did it because they successfully master three advance
The Inca daily life was a constant Inca Farming work; it's because the Incas develop an extraordinary
variety of procedures to preserve food. The procedures were drying, salting or dehydrating precooked
food; some of the procedures are complicate.
All production of Inca Clothing was responsibility of the Inca government. The Incas create houses call
Acllahuasi, where the Tanticamayoc was the responsible of dyeing the wool with natural dyes.
All Inca Homes had a small altar with their favorite divinities images and other important family
treasures. The Incas had a strong tradition of family ties, so honor their ancestors was part of the daily
The boys end their childhood Inca Education at 14 years old. The girls end it when they had their first
menstruation. In both cases, the community celebrates the moment with family ceremonies.
The Inca Women were the engine that moves the Incas development. The history is not giving the right
place to the multiple achievements of women during the Inca empire.
The Inca daily life duties were attach to what the Inca Calendar say. By the way the Incas did not invent
the technology use in the Inca calendar. It was copy from older civilizations. There is archaeological
evidence; that proves the towers of Chankillo ruins at 400 kilometers north from Lima, is a 2300 years
old sun observatory and calendar.
The most important item in the Inca daily life was the coca leaves. The dry coca leaves were use for tea
infusion (Inca Tea); it's the best known digestive, great fat burner and antidepressant.
The Inca Empire (called Tawantinsuyu in modern spelling, Aymara and Quechua, or
Tahuantinsuyu in old spelling Quechua), was an empire located in South America from 1438
C.E. to 1533 C.E. Over that period, the Inca used conquest and peaceful assimilation to
incorporate in their empire a large portion of western South America, centered on the Andean
mountain ranges. The Inca empire proved short-lived: by 1533 C.E., Atahualpa, the last Sapa
Inca, was killed on the orders of the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro (1476–1541), marking the
beginning of Spanish rule.
The official language of Tahuantinsuyu was Quechua, although over seven hundred local
languages were spoken. The Inca leadership encouraged the worship of their gods, the foremost
of which was Inti, the sun god.
The empire was divided into four provinces (suyu), whose corners met at the empire's capital,
Cusco (Qosqo). Tawantin means "a group of four," so the Quechua name for the empire,
Tawantinsuyu, means "the four provinces."
The English term Inca Empire is derived from the word Inca, which was the title of the
emperor. Today the word Inca still refers to the emperor, but can also refer to the people or the
civilization, and is used as an adjective when referring to the beliefs of the people or the artifacts
they left behind. The Inca Civilization was wealthy and well-organized, with generally humane
treatment of its people, including the vanquished. The empire was really a federal system. It took
the Spanish just eight years to all but destroy the richest culture in the Americas, replacing it with
a much less just system. Indeed, it has been argued that the Inca's government allowed neither
misery nor unemployment, as production, consumption, and demographic distribution reached
almost mathematical equilibrium. The main legacy of the civilization lies in its power to inspire,
including that of later resistance groups in the area against Spanish rule.
The Inca had two origin beliefs. In one, Tici Viracocha of Colina de las Ventanas in Pacaritambo
sent forth his four sons and four daughters to establish a village. Along the way, Sinchi Roca was
born to Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, and Sinchi Roca is the person who finally led them to
the valley of Cuzco where they founded their new village. There, Manco became their leader and
became known as Manco Capac.
In the other origin myth, the sun god Inti ordered Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo to emerge from
the depths of Lake Titicaca and found the city of Cuzco. They traveled by means of underground
caves until reaching Cuzco where they established Sapa Inca, Hurin Cuzco, or the first dynasty
of the Kingdom of Cuzco.
We know of these myths mostly by means of oral tradition. It is usually claimed that the Incas
did not have writing although this has been challenged. It would be unusual for a as advanced a
civilization not to have developed some form of writing. Many now suggest that there was a
writing system but that it has not been discovered.
There probably did exist a Manco Capac who became the leader of his tribe. The archeological
evidence seems to indicate that the Inca were a relatively unimportant tribe until the time of
Sinchi Roca, also called Cinchi Roca, who is the first figure in Inca mythology whose existence
can be supported historically.
Emergence and Expansion
Inca expansion (1438–1527 C.E.)
The Inca people began as a tribe in the Cuzco area around the twelfth century C.E. Under the
leadership of Manco Capac, they formed the small city-state of Qosqo, or Cuzco in Spanish. In
1438 C.E., under the command of Sapa Inca (paramount leader) Pachacuti (1438–1471), they
began their conquest of the Andean regions of South America and adjacent lands. At its height,
Tahuantinsuyu included what are now Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and also extended into portions of
what are now Chile, Argentina, and Colombia.
Pachacutin (which means transformer of the world), described by some as the most enlightened
ruler in pre-Columbus America, reorganized Cuzco into the Tahuantinsuyu. The Tahuantinsuyu
was a federalist system which consisted of a central government with the Inca at its head and
four provincial governments with powerful leaders: Chinchasuyu (NW), Antisuyu (NE),
Contisuyu (SW), and Collasuyu (SE). The four corners of these provinces met at the center,
Cuzco. The land Pachacuti conquered was about the size of the thirteen colonies of the United
States in 1776 C.E., and consisted of nearly the entire Andes mountain range. Tahuantinsuyu as
of 1463 C.E. is shown in red on the map. Pachacuti is also thought to have built Machu Picchu,
either as a family home or as a Camp David-like retreat.
Pachacuti would send spies to regions he wanted in his empire who would report back on their
political organization, military might, and wealth. He would then send messages to the leaders of
these lands extolling the benefits of joining his empire, offering them presents of luxury goods
such as high quality textiles, and promising that they would be materially richer as subject rulers
of the Inca. Most accepted the rule of the Inca as a fait accompli and acquiesced peacefully. The
ruler's children would then be brought to Cuzco to be taught about Inca administration systems,
then return to rule their native lands. This allowed the Inca to indoctrinate the former ruler's
children into the Inca nobility, and, with luck, marry their daughters into families at various
corners of the empire.
Pachacuti's son, Túpac Inca, conquered even more land, most importantly the Kingdom of
Chimor, the Inca's only serious rival for the coast of Peru. Túpac Inca's empire stretched north
into modern-day Ecuador and Colombia.
Huayna Cápac added some land area though less than his father and grandfather.
Tahuantinsuyu was a patchwork of languages, cultures, and peoples. The components of the
empire were not all uniformly loyal, nor were the local cultures all fully integrated. For instance,
the Chimú used money in their commerce, while the Inca empire as a whole had an economy
based on exchange and taxation of luxury goods and labor (it is said that Inca tax collectors
would take the head lice of the lame and old as a symbolic tribute). The portions of the
Chachapoya that had been conquered were almost openly hostile to the Inca, and the Inca nobles
rejected an offer of refuge in their kingdom after their troubles with the Spanish.
Political organization of the empire
Representation of an Incan quipu
The most powerful figure in the empire was the Sapa Inca (emperor), or simply Inca. When a
new ruler was chosen, his subjects would build his family a new royal dwelling. The former
royal dwelling would remain the dwelling of the former Inca's family. Only descendants of the
original Inca tribe ever ascended to the level of Inca. Most young members of the Inca's family
attended Yachayhuasis (houses of knowledge) to obtain their education.
The Tahuantinsuyu was a federation which consisted of a central government with the Inca at its
head and four provinces: Chinchaysuyu (NW), Antisuyu (NE), Qontisuyu (SW), and Qollasuyu
(SE). The four corners of these provinces met at the center, Cuzco. Each province had a governor
who oversaw local officials, who in turn supervised agriculturally productive river valleys, cities,
and mines. There were separate chains of command for both the military and religious
institutions, which created a system of partial checks and balances on power. The local officials
were responsible for settling disputes and keeping track of each family's contribution to the Mita
(mandatory public service). The Inca's system of leaving conquered rulers in post as proxy
rulers, and of treating their subject people well, was very different from what was practiced
elsewhere in South America.
The four provincial governors were called apos. The next rank down, the t'oqrikoq (local
leaders), numbered about 90 in total and typically managed a city and its hinterlands. Below
them were four levels of administration:
Level name Mita payers
Hunu kuraqa 10,000
Waranqa kuraqa 1,000
Pachaka kuraqa 100
Chunka kamayuq 10
Every five waranqa curaca, pachaka curaca, and chunka kamayuq, had a intermediary to the
next level called, respectively, picqa waranqa curaca, picqa pacaka curaca, and picqa conka
kamayoq. This means that the middle managers managed either two or five people, while the
conka kamayoq (at the worker manager level) and the apos and t'oqrikoq (in upper management)
each had about 20 people reporting to them.
The descendants of the original Inca tribe were not numerous enough to administer their empire
without help. To cope with the need for leadership at all levels the Inca established a civil service
system. Boys at the age of 13 and girls at the age of first menstruation had their intelligence
tested by the local Inca officials. If they failed, their ayllu (extended family group) would teach
them one of many trades, such as farming, gold working, weaving, or military skills. If they
passed the test, they were sent to Cuzco to attend school to become administrators. There they
learned to read the quipu (knotted cord records) and were taught Inca iconography, leadership
skills, religion, and, most importantly, mathematics. The graduates of this school constituted the
nobility and were expected to marry within that nobility.
While some workers were held in great esteem, such as royal goldsmiths and weavers, they
could never themselves enter the ruling classes. The best they could hope for was that their
children might pass the exam as adolescents to enter the civil service. Although workers were
considered the lowest social class, they were entitled to a modicum of what today we call due
process, and all classes were equally subject to the rule of law. For example, if a worker was
accused of stealing and the charges were proven false, the local official could be punished for not
doing his job properly. Work was obligatory and there was a strong preference for collective
work. One of the commandments was: "Do not be lazy"—beggars did not exist.
The Inca were a conquering society, and their expansionist assimilation of other cultures is
evident in their artistic style. The artistic style of the Inca utilized the vocabulary of many
regions and cultures, but incorporated these themes into a standardized imperial style that could
easily be replicated and spread throughout the empire. The simple abstract geometric forms and
highly stylized animal representation in ceramics, wood carvings, textiles, and metalwork were
all part of the Inca culture. The motifs were not as revivalist as previous empires. No motifs of
other societies were directly used with the exception of Huari and Tiwanaku arts.
Architecture was by far the most important of the Inca arts, with pottery and textiles reflecting
motifs that were at their height in architecture. The stone temples constructed by the Inca used a
mortarless construction process first used on a large scale by the Tiwanaku. The Inca imported
the stoneworkers of the Tiwanaku region to Cuzco when they conquered the lands south of Lake
Titicaca. The rocks used in construction were sculpted to fit together exactly by repeatedly
lowering a rock onto another and carving away any sections on the lower rock where the dust
was compressed. The tight fit and the concavity on the lower rocks made them extraordinarily
stable in the frequent earthquakes that strike the area. The Inca used straight walls except on
important religious sites and constructed whole towns at once.
The Inca also sculpted the natural surroundings themselves. One could easily think that a rock
along an Inca road or trail is completely natural, except if one sees it at the right time of year
when the sun casts a stunning shadow, betraying its synthetic form. The Inca rope bridges were
also used to transport messages and materials by Chasqui, or running messengers, who operated
a type of postal service, essential in a mountain society. They lived in pairs and while one slept,
the other waited for any message that needed to be sent. They ran 200 meters per minute and
never a distance greater than 2 kilometers, relaying the message to the next team.
The Inca also adopted the terraced agriculture that the previous Huari civilization had
popularized. But they did not use the terraces solely for food production. At the Inca tambo, or
inn, at Ollantaytambo the terraces were planted with flowers, extraordinary in this parched land.
The terraces of Moray were left unirrigated in a desert area and seem to have been solely
decorative. The Inca provincial thrones were often carved into natural outcroppings, and there
were over 360 natural springs in the areas surrounding Cuzco, such as the one at Tambo Machay.
At Tambo Machay the natural rock was sculpted and stonework was added, creating alcoves and
directing the water into fountains. These pseudo-natural carvings functioned to show both the
Inca's respect for nature and their command over it.
Inca tunic. It has been suggested that, if deciphered, such a tunic may contain an Incan writing system
Inca officials wore stylized tunics that indicated their status. The tunic displayed here is the
highest status tunic known to exist today. It contains an amalgamation of motifs used in the
tunics of particular officeholders. For instance, the black and white checkerboard pattern topped
with a red triangle is believed to have been worn by soldiers of the Inca army. Some of the
motifs make reference to earlier cultures, such as the stepped diamonds of the Huari and the
three-step stairstep motif of the Moche. In this royal tunic, no two squares are exactly the same.
Cloth was divided into three classes. Awaska was used for household use and had a threadcount
of about 120 threads per inch. Finer cloth was called qunpi and was divided into two classes. The
first, woven by male qunpikamayuq (keepers of fine cloth), was collected as tribute from
throughout the country and was used for trade, to adorn rulers, and to be given as gifts to
political allies and subjects to cement loyalty. The other class of qunpi ranked highest. It was
woven by aqlla (female virgins of the sun god temple) and used solely for royal and religious
use. These had threadcounts of 600 or more per inch, unexcelled anywhere in the world until the
Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century.
Aside from the tunic, a person of importance wore a llawt'u, a series of cords wrapped around
the head. To establish his importance, the Inca Atahualpa commissioned a llawt'u woven from
vampire bat hair. The leader of each ayllu, or extended family, had its own headdress.
In conquered regions, traditional clothing continued to be worn, but the finest weavers, such as
those of Chan Chan, were transferred to Cusco and kept there to weave qunpi. (The Chimú had
previously transferred these same weavers to Chan Chan from Sican.)
The wearing of jewelry was not uniform throughout the empire. Chimú artisans, for example,
continued to wear earrings after their integration into the empire, but in many other regions, only
local leaders wore them.
Ceramics and metalwork
Ceramics were for the most part utilitarian in nature, but also incorporated the imperialist style
that was prevalent in the Inca textiles and metalwork. In addition, the Inca played drums and
woodwind instruments including flutes, pan-pipes, and trumpets made of shell and ceramics.
The Inca made beautiful objects of gold. But precious metals were in much shorter supply than
in earlier Peruvian cultures. The Inca metalworking style draws much of its inspiration from
Chimú art and in fact the best metal workers of Chan Chan were transferred to Cusco when the
Kingdom of Chimor was incorporated into the empire. Unlike the Chimú, the Inca do not seem
to have regarded metals to be as precious as fine cloth. When the Spanish first encountered the
Inca they were offered gifts of qompi cloth.
The Inca did not possess a written or recorded language as far as is known, but scholars point out
that because we do not fully understand the quipu (knotted cords) we cannot rule out that they
had recorded language. Like the Aztecs, they also depended largely on oral transmission as a
means of maintaining the preservation of their culture. Inca education was divided into two
distinct categories: vocational education for common Inca and highly formalized training for the
nobility. Haravicus, or poets, enjoyed prestige.
Inca childhood was harsh by modern standards. When a baby was born, the Inca would wash the
child in cold water and wrap it in a blanket. Soon after, the baby was put in a pit dug in the
ground like a playpen. By about age one, they expected the baby to crawl and walk
independently. At age two, the child was ceremonially named and was considered to have left
infancy. From then on, boys and girls were expected to help around the house. Misbehaving
during this time could result in very severe punishment. At age fourteen, boys received a
loincloth in a ceremony to mark their manhood. Boys from noble families were subjected to
many different tests of endurance and knowledge. After the test, they received earplugs and a
weapon, whose color represented rank in society.
The Tahuantinsuyu, or Incan religion was pantheist (sun god, earth goddess, corn god, etc.).
Subjects of the empire were allowed to worship their ancestral gods as long as they accepted the
supremacy of Inti, the sun god, which was the most important god worshipped by the Inca
leadership. Consequently, ayllus (extended families) and city-states integrated into the empire
were able to continue to worship their ancestral gods, though with reduced status. Much of the
contact between the upper and lower classes was religious in nature and consisted of intricate
ceremonies that sometimes lasted from sunrise to sunset. The main festival was the annual sun-
celebration, when thanksgiving for the crop was given and prayers for an even better harvest next
year. Before the festival, the people fasted and abstained from sex. Mummies of distinguished
dead were brought to observe the ceremonies. Solemn hymns were sung and ritual kisses blown
towards the sun-god. The king, as son of the sun god, drank from a ceremonial goblet, then the
elders also drank. A llama was also sacrificed by the Willaq Uma, or High Priest, who pulled out
the lungs and other parts with which to predict the future. A sacred fire was lit by using the sun's
heat. Sanqhu, a type of ―holy bread‖ was also offered.
Following the conquest by Spain, the religion of the Incas was systematically destroyed:
During the last third of the sixteenth century and the start of the seventeenth, the Church
launched an aggressive campaign to eradicate any spiritual opposition. A synod in Quito in 1570
instructed curates to attack “any ministers of the devil who obstruct the spread of our Christian
religion”… Any leaders of the native religion were rooted out and flogged, placed in stocks or
imprisoned ...priests ... went about the task with apostolic fervor… (Hemingway, 2003: 397–
Hemingway comments that this campaign was not wholly successful, since to this day every
village market ―has a few weird objects with magical significance‖ for sale and Peruvian
Catholicism is said to contain many pre-Christian beliefs and customs.
The Inca made many discoveries in medicine. They performed successful skull surgery. Coca
leaves were used to lessen hunger and pain. The Chasqui (messengers) ate coca leaves for extra
energy to carry on their tasks as runners delivering messages throughout the empire. Recent
research by Erasmus University and Medical Center workers Sewbalak and Van Der Wijk
showed that, contrary to popular belief, the Inca people were not addicted to the coca substance.
Another remedy was to cover boiled bark from a pepper tree and place it over a wound while still
warm. The Inca also used guinea pigs for not only food but for a so-called well-working
The Inca believed in reincarnation. Those who obeyed the Incan moral code—ama suwa, ama
llulla, ama quella (do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy)—went to live in the sun's warmth.
Others spent their eternal days in the cold earth.
The Inca also believed in mummifying prominent personages. The mummies would be provided
with an assortment of objects which were to be taken into the pacarina. Upon reaching the
pacarina, the mummies or mallqui would be able to converse with the area's other ancient
ancestors, the huacas. The mallquis were also used in various rituals or celebrations. The
deceased were generally buried in a sitting position. One such example was the 500-year-old
mummy ―Juanita the Ice Maiden,‖ a girl very well-preserved in ice that was discovered at
20,000 feet, near the summit of Mt. Ampato in southern Peru. Her burial included many items
left as offerings to the Inca gods. Similarity with Egyptian funeral and after-death practices has
led some to speculate that if the ancient Phoenicians did travel to the Americas, there may have
been some cross-fertilization between the two cultures. The role of the Sapa Inca has been
compared to that of the Pharoahs; both were political and religious figures.
The Inca practiced cranial deformation. They achieved this by wrapping tight cloth straps
around the heads of newborns in order to alter the shape of their still-soft skulls. These
deformations did not result in brain damage. Researchers from The Field Museum believe that
the practice was used to mark different ethnicities across the Inca Empire .
Food and farming
It is estimated that the Inca cultivated around 70 crop species. The main crops were potatoes
(about 200 varieties), sweet potatoes, maize, chili peppers, cotton, tomatoes, peanuts, an edible
root called oca, and a grain known as quinoa. The many important crops developed by the Inca
and preceding cultures makes South America one of the historic centers of crop diversity (along
with the Middle East, India, Mesoamerica, Ethiopia, and the Far East). Many of these crops were
widely distributed by the Spanish and are now important crops worldwide.
The Inca cultivated food crops on dry Pacific coastlines, high on the slopes of the Andes, and in
the lowland Amazon rainforest. In mountainous Andean environments, they made extensive use
of terraced fields which not only allowed them to put to use the mineral-rich mountain soil that
other peoples left fallow, but also took advantage of micro-climates conducive to a variety of
crops being cultivated throughout the year. Agricultural tools consisted mostly of simple digging
The Inca also raised llamas and alpacas for their wool and meat and to use them as pack animals,
and captured wild vicuñas for their fine hair.
The Inca road system was key to farming success as it allowed distribution of foodstuffs over
long distances. The Inca also constructed vast storehouses, which allowed them to live through
El Niño (less abundant) years in style while neighboring civilizations suffered.
Inca leaders kept records of what each ayllu in the empire produced, but did not tax them on their
production. They instead used the mita for the support of the empire.
The Inca diet consisted primarily of fish and vegetables, supplemented less frequently with the
meat of guinea pigs and camelids. In addition, they hunted various animals for meat, skins, and
feathers. Maize was used to make chicha, a fermented beverage.
Inca society was based on a barter system. Workers got labor credit, which was work paid for in
goods or food. It was well used in their day. It was a very good system for their needs
The Spanish saw little or no reason to preserve anything they encountered in Inca civilization.
They plundered its wealth and left the civilization in ruin. The civilization's sophisticated road
and communication system and governance were no mean accomplishments. Diverse tribes,
many occupying isolated territories in the most obscure of mountain hideaways, were simply
remarkable. They were greedy for the wealth, which existed in fabulous proportion, not the
culture. Yet, through the survival of the language and of a few residual traces of the culture, the
civilization was not wholly, although almost wholly, destroyed. The great and relatively humane
civilization of the Incas' main legacy is inspirational, residing in the human ability to imagine
that such a fabulously rich, well-ordered, and generally humane society once existed, high up in
the Andean hills.
Writers comment it was for ―God, gold, and glory‖ that the conquest of the New World took
place. The Indians "were enslaved, tortured, and worked to death to provide the Europeans with
gold. They were infected by the newcomers with tuberculosis, measles, and smallpox" (Hyams
and Ordish, 262). Edward Hyams said it best with his use of an analogy. He compared the Inca
civilization to that of a dance where all of the patterns are the same and it continues day to day
without faltering or interruption. He says, "The great dance had been their reality; they awoke
into the nightmare of chaos" (263). In the contemporary world, where Europeans and North
Americans often depict themselves as the bringers of peace, order, humaneness, and good
governance, it is germane to compare the governance of the Peruvians before and after the
The Maya civilization is a Mesoamerican culture, noted for having the only known fully
developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its spectacular art,
monumental architecture, and sophisticated mathematical and astronomical systems.
Unfortunately, a public fascination with the morbid has meant that for many people in Europe
and the Americas the ancient Mayans are perhaps best known for their use of their pyramids in
public bloodletting rituals.
Initially established during the Preclassic period, many of the Mayan's cultural features reached
their apogee of development during the following Classic period (c. 250 to 900), and continued
throughout the Postclassic period until the arrival of the Spanish in the 1520s. At its peak, the
Mayan Civilization was one of the most densely populated and culturally dynamic societies in
The Maya civilization shares many features with other Mesoamerican civilizations due to the
high degree of interaction and cultural diffusion that characterized the region. Advances such as
writing, epigraphy, and the calendar did not originate with the Maya; however, their civilization
fully developed them. Maya influence can be detected as far as central Mexico, more than 1000
km (625 miles) from the Maya area comprising southern Mexico and northern Central America
(Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and El Salvador). Many outside influences also are found
in Maya art and architecture, which are thought to result from trade and cultural exchange rather
than direct external conquest.
The Maya peoples disappeared neither at the time of the Classic period decline nor with the
arrival of the Spanish conquistadores and the subsequent Spanish colonization of the Americas.
Rather the people have tended to remain in their home areas. Today, the Maya and their
descendants form sizable populations throughout the Maya region and maintain a distinctive set
of traditions and beliefs that are the result of the merger of pre-Columbian and post-Conquest
ideologies (and are structured by the almost total adoption of Roman Catholicism). Many
different Mayan languages continue to be spoken as primary languages today; the "Rabinal
Achí," a play written in the Q'eqchi' language, was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and
Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005.
The Maya started to build ceremonial architecture around 1000 B.C.E. Among archaeologists
there is some disagreement regarding the borders at that time period and the difference between
the early Maya and their neighboring Pre-Classic Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmec culture.
Eventually, the Olmec culture faded after spreading its influence into the Yucatan peninsula,
present-day Guatemala, and other regions.
The earliest Mayan monuments, simple burial mounds, are precursors to the pyramids erected in
The Maya developed the famed cities of Tikal, Palenque, Copán, and Kalakmul, as well as Dos
Pilas, Uaxactun, Altun Ha, Bonampak, and many other sites in the area. They developed an
agriculturally intensive, city-centered empire comprising numerous independent city-states. The
most notable monuments of the city-states are the pyramids they built in their religious centers
and the accompanying palaces of their rulers. Other important archaeological remains include the
carved stone slabs usually called stelae (the Maya called them Tetun, or "Tree-stones"), which
depict rulers along with hieroglyphic texts describing their genealogy, war victories, and other
The Maya participated in long-distance trade in Mesoamerica and possibly to lands even further
afield. Important trade goods included cacao, salt, and obsidian.
Mayan jadeite "pectoral."
Many consider Mayan art of their Classic Era (200 to 900 C.E.) to be the most sophisticated and
beautiful of the ancient New World.
The carvings and stucco reliefs at Palenque and the statuary of Copán are especially fine,
showing a grace and accurate observation of the human form that reminded early archaeologists
of Classical civilization of the Old World, hence the name bestowed on this era.
We have only hints of the advanced painting of the classic Maya; mostly from examples
surviving on funerary pottery and other Mayan ceramics. Also, a building at Bonampak holds
ancient murals that have miraculously survived. With the decipherment of the Maya script it was
discovered that the Maya were one of the few civilizations whose artists attached their name to
Example of Maya stepped pyramid.
As unique and spectacular as any Greek or Roman architecture, Maya architecture spans a few
thousand years. Among the various forms, the most dramatic and easily recognizable as Maya
are the fantastic stepped pyramids from the Terminal Pre-classic period and beyond. These
pyramids relied on intricate carved stone in order to create a stair-step design.
Each pyramid was dedicated to a deity whose shrine sat at its peak. During this time in Mayan
culture, the centers of their religious, commercial, and bureaucratic power grew into incredible
cities, including Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Uxmal. Through observing numerous consistent
elements and stylistic distinctions among the remnants of Mayan architecture, archaeologists
have been able to use them as important keys to understanding the evolution of that ancient
Large and often highly decorated, the palaces usually sat close to the center of a city and housed
the population's elite. Any exceedingly large royal palace, or one comprising many chambers on
different levels, might be referred to as an acropolis. However, often these were one-story and
consisted of many small chambers and typically at least one interior courtyard; these structures
appear to take into account the needed functionality required of a residence, as well as the
decoration required for the inhabitants' stature. Archaeologists seem to agree that many palaces
are home to various tombs. At Copán, beneath over four hundred years of later remodeling, a
tomb for one of the ancient rulers has been discovered, and the North Acropolis at Tikal appears
to have been the site of numerous burials during the Terminal Pre-classic and Early Classic
This common feature of Mayan cities remains somewhat a mystery. Appearing consistently on
the western side of a plaza is a pyramid temple, facing three smaller temples across the plaza; the
buildings are called "E-groups" because their layout resembles the letter "E." It has been
theorized that these E-groups were observatories, due to the precise positioning of the sun
through the small temples when viewed from the pyramid during the solstices and equinoxes.
Other theories involve the E-groups manifesting a theme from the Maya creation story told by
the relief and artwork that adorns these structures.
Maya temple with intricate roof comb.
Often the most important religious temples sat atop the towering Maya pyramids, presumably as
the closest place to the heavens. While recent discoveries point toward the extensive use of
pyramids as tombs, the temples themselves rarely, if ever, contain burials. The lack of a burial
chamber in the temples permitted them to offer Mayan priests up to small three rooms, which
were used for various ritual purposes.
Residing atop the pyramids, some over two hundred feet tall, the temples were impressive and
decorated structures themselves. Commonly topped with a roof comb, or superficial grandiose
wall, these temples might also have served a propaganda purpose to uplift the Mayan rulers. As
occasionally the only structure to exceed the height of the jungle, the roof combs atop the
temples were often carved with representations of rulers, which could be seen from vast
distances. Beneath the proud temples and lifting them up, the pyramids were, essentially, a series
of successively smaller platforms split by steep stairs that would allow access to the temple.
The Maya were keen astronomers and had mapped out the phases of celestial objects, especially
the Moon and Venus. Many temples have doorways and other features aligning to celestial
events. Round temples, often dedicated to Kukulcan, are perhaps those most often described as
"observatories" by modern ruin tour-guides, but there is no evidence that they were so used
exclusively, and temple pyramids of other shapes may well have been used for observation as
As an integral aspect of the Mesoamerican lifestyle, the courts for ritual ball games were
constructed throughout the Maya realm and often on a grand scale. Enclosed on two sides by
stepped ramps that led to ceremonial platforms or small temples, the ball court itself was of a
capital "I" shape and could be found in all but the smallest of Mayan cities. Losers of the ball
game sometimes became sacrificial victims.
Palenque is a Mayan archeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas, built during the seventh century
As Maya cities spread throughout the varied geography of Mesoamerica, the extent of site
planning appears to have been minimal; their cities having been built somewhat haphazardly as
dictated by the topography of each independent location. Mayan architecture tends to integrate a
great degree of natural features. For instance, some cities sited on the flat limestone plains of the
northern Yucatan grew into great sprawling municipalities, while others built in the hills of
Usumacinta utilized the natural loft of the topography to raise their towers and temples to
impressive heights. However, some semblance of order, as required by any large city, still
At the onset of large-scale construction, a predetermined axis was typically established in
congruence with the cardinal directions. Depending upon the location and availability of natural
resources such as fresh-water wells, or cenotes, the city grew by connecting great plazas with the
numerous platforms that created the sub-structure for nearly all Mayan buildings, by means of
sacbeob causeways. As more structures were added and existing structures re-built or remodeled,
the great Mayan cities seemed to take on an almost random identity that contrasts sharply with
other great Mesoamerican cities, such as Teotihuacan with its rigid grid-like construction.
The heart of the Mayan city featured large plazas surrounded by the most valued governmental
and religious buildings, such as the royal acropolis, great pyramid temples, and occasionally, ball
courts. Though city layouts evolved as nature dictated, careful attention was placed on the
directional orientation of temples and observatories so that they were constructed in accordance
with Mayan interpretation of the orbits of the stars. Immediately outside this ritual center were
the structures of lesser nobles, smaller temples, and individual shrines; the less sacred and less
important structures had a greater degree of privacy. Outside of the constantly evolving urban
core were the less permanent and more modest homes of the common people.
Classic Era Mayan urban design could easily be described as the division of space by great
monuments and causeways. In this case, the open public plazas were the gathering places for the
people and the focus of the urban design, while interior space was entirely secondary. Only in the
Late Post-Classic era did the great Mayan cities develop into more fortress-like defensive
structures that lacked, for the most part, the large and numerous plazas of the Classic.
A Middle Preclassic palace structure at Nakbé, the Mirador Basin.
A surprising aspect of the great Mayan structures is that they appear to have been made without
the use of many of the advanced technologies that would seem to be necessary for such
constructions. Lacking metal tools, pulleys, and perhaps even the wheel, Mayan architects were
usually assured of one thing in abundance: manpower. Beyond this enormous requirement, the
remaining materials seem to have been readily available.
All stone for Maya structures appears to have been taken from local quarries. Most often this was
limestone, which, while being quarried, remained pliable enough to be worked with stone
tools—only hardening once removed from its bed. In addition to the structural use of limestone,
much of the mortar used was crushed, burned, and mixed limestone that mimicked the properties
of cement and was used just as widely for stucco finishing as it was for mortar. However, later
improvements in quarrying techniques reduced the necessity for this limestone-stucco as the
stones began to fit quite perfectly, yet it remained a crucial element in some post and lintel roofs.
In the case of the common homes, wooden poles, adobe, and thatch were the primary materials.
However, instances of what appear to be common houses of limestone have been discovered as
well. It should be noted that in one instance from the city of Comalcalco fired clay bricks have
been found as a substitute for a lack of any substantial stone deposits.
All evidence seems to suggest that most stone buildings were built on top of a platform sub-
structure that varied in height from less than three feet in the case of terraces and smaller
structures to 135 feet in the case of great temples and pyramids. A flight of often steep stone
steps split the large stepped platforms on at least one side, contributing to the common bi-
symmetrical appearance of Mayan architecture.
King Chan Bahlum II as depicted in the Temple of the Cross at Palenque.
Depending on the prevalent stylistic tendencies of an area, these platforms most often were built
of a cut and stucco stone exterior filled with densely packed gravel. As is the case with many
other Mayan reliefs, those on the platforms were often related to the intended purpose of the
residing structure. Thus, as the sub-structural platforms were completed, the grand residences
and temples of the Maya were constructed on the solid foundations of the platforms.
As all structures were built, little attention seems to have been given to their utilitarian
functionality and much to their external aesthetics; however, a certain repeated aspect, the
corbeled arch, was often utilized to mimic the appearance and feel of the simple Mayan hut.
Though not an effective tool for increasing increase interior space, as it required thick stone
walls to support the high ceiling, some temples utilized repeated arches, or a corbeled vault, to
construct what the Maya referred to as pibnal, or ―sweatbath,‖ such as those in the Temple of the
Cross at Palenque. As structures were completed, typically extensive relief work was added,
often simply to the covering of stucco used to smooth any imperfections. However, many lintel
carvings have been discovered, as well as actual stone carvings used as a facade. Commonly,
these would continue uninterrupted around an entire structure and contain a variety of artwork
pertaining to the inhabitants or purpose of a building. Though not the case at all Mayan locations,
broad use of painted stucco has been discovered as well.
It has been suggested that, in conjunction with the Maya Long Count Calendar, every 52 years,
or cycle, temples and pyramids were remodeled and rebuilt. It appears now that the rebuilding
process was often instigated by a new ruler or for political matters, as opposed to matching the
calendar cycle. In any case, the process of rebuilding on top of old structures is a common one:
most notably, the North Acropolis at Tikal seems to be the sum total of 1,500 years of recurring
Like the Aztec and Inca who came to power later, the Maya believed in a cyclical nature of time.
The rituals and ceremonies were very closely associated with hundreds of celestial and terrestrial
cycles, which they observed and inscribed as separate calendars, all of infinite duration. The
Maya shaman had the job of interpreting these cycles and giving a prophetic outlook on the
future or past based on the number relations of all their calendars. If the interpretations of the
shaman spelled bad times to come, sacrifices would be performed to appease the gods.
Chaac, the god of rain and thunder
The Maya, like most pre-modern societies, believed that the cosmos has three major planes: the
underworld, the sky, and the earth. The Mayan Underworld was reached through caves and ball
courts. It was thought to be dominated by the aged Mayan gods of death and putrefaction. The
Sun and Itzamna, both aged gods, dominated the Mayan idea of the sky. The night sky was
considered a window showing all supernatural doings. The Maya configured constellations of
gods and places, saw the unfolding of narratives in their seasonal movements, and believed that
the intersection of all possible worlds was in the night sky.
Mayan gods were not discrete, separate entities like Greek gods. The gods had affinities and
aspects that caused them to merge with one another in ways that seem unbounded. There is a
massive array of supernatural characters in the Mayan religious tradition, only some of which
recur with regularity. Good and evil traits are not permanent characteristics of Mayan gods, nor
are only "good" traits admirable. What is inappropriate during one season might be acceptable in
another since much of the Mayan religious tradition is based on cycles and not permanence.
The life-cycle of maize (corn) lies at the heart of Maya belief. This philosophy is demonstrated
in the Mayan belief in the Maize God as a central religious figure. The Mayan bodily ideal is
also based on the form of the young Maize God, which is demonstrated in their artwork. The
Maize God was also a model of courtly life for the Classical Maya.
It is sometimes believed that the multiple gods represented nothing more than a mathematical
explanation of what they observed. Each god was simply a number or an explanation of the
effects observed by a combination of numbers from multiple calendars. Among the many types
of Mayan calendars which were maintained, the most important included a 260 day cycle that
approximated the solar year, a cycle that recorded the periods of the moon, and also one that
tracked the synodic period of Venus.
As late as the nineteenth century, Maya influence was evident in the local branch of Christianity
followed in some parts of Mexico. Among the Ki’che's in the western highlands of Guatemala,
the Mayan calendar is still replicated to this day in the training of the ajk'ij, the keepers of the
260 day calendar called ch'olk'ij.
Interestingly, the Maya did not seem to strongly distinguish between past, present, and future.
Instead they used one word to describe all instances of time, which can be translated as "it came
to pass." Philosophically, the Maya believed that knowing the past meant knowing the cyclical
influences that create the present, and by knowing the influences of the present one can see the
cyclical influences of the future.
Men, day 15 of the Tzolki'n cycle.
Lamat, day 8 the Tzolki'n cycle.
The multiple gods of Maya religion also represented a mathematical explanation of what they
observed. The Maya knew long before Johannes Kepler that the planets have elliptical orbits and
used their findings to support their view of the cyclical nature of time.
The Maya believed that the universe was flat and square, but infinite in area. They also
worshiped the circle, which symbolized perfection or the balancing of forces. Among other
religious symbols were the swastika and the perfect cross.
Mayan rulers figured prominently in many religious rituals and were often required to practice
bloodletting, a medical practice that used sculpted bone or jade instruments to perforate the
patient's penis, or drawing thorn-studded ropes through their tongues.
Uniquely, there is some evidence to suggest that the Maya may have been the only pre-telescopic
civilization to demonstrate knowledge of the Orion Nebula as being fuzzy (not a stellar
pinpoint). The information supporting this theory comes from a folk tale that deals with the
Orion constellation's area of the sky. Traditional Mayan hearths include a smudge of glowing fire
in the middle that corresponds with the Orion Nebula. This is a significant clue to support the
idea that before the telescope was invented the Maya detected a diffuse area of the sky contrary
to the pinpoints of stars.
The Maya were very interested in zenial passages, the time when the sun passes directly
overhead. The latitude of most of their cities being below the Tropic of Cancer, these zenial
passages would occur twice a year equidistant from the solstice.
Writing and literacy
Maya stucco glyphs displayed in the museum at Palenque, Mexico.
The Maya writing system (often called hieroglyphics because of its superficial resemblance to
the Ancient Egyptian writing) was a combination of phonetic symbols and logograms. It is most
often classified as a logographic or, more properly, a logosyllabic writing system, in which
syllabic signs play a significant role. It is the only writing system of the Pre-Columbian New
World that is known to completely represent the spoken language of its community. In total, the
script has more than one thousand different glyphs, although a few are variations of the same
sign or meaning, and many appear only rarely or are confined to particular localities. At any one
time, no more than around five hundred glyphs were in use, some two hundred of which,
including variations, and had a phonetic or syllabic interpretation.
The earliest inscriptions in an identifiably Mayan script date back to the first century B.C.E.
However, this is preceded by several other writing systems that had developed in Mesoamerica,
most notably that of the Olmec culture, which originated around 700–500 B.C.E. The Mayan
system is believed by Mayanist scholars to have derived from this earlier script; however, in the
succeeding centuries, the Maya developed their script into a form that was far more complete and
complex than that of its predecessors.
Since its inception, the Mayan script was in use up to the arrival of Europeans, peaking during
the Maya Classical Period (200–900 C.E.).
At a rough estimate, around ten thousand individual texts have so far been recovered, mostly
inscribed on stone monuments, lintels, stelae, and ceramic pottery. Mayan civilization also
produced numerous texts using the bark of certain trees in a book-format called a codex. Shortly
after the conquest, all of these texts that could be found were ordered to be burned and destroyed
by zealous Spanish priests, notably Bishop Diego de Landa. Out of these Mayan codices, only
three reasonably intact examples are known to have survived to the present day. These are now
known as the Madrid, Dresden, and Paris codices.
Pages from Codex Tro-Cortesianus (Madrid) Mayan Codex.
Although the archaeological record does not provide examples, Mayan art itself carries evidence
that writing was done with brushes made with animal hair and quills. Codex-style writing was
usually done in black ink with red highlights, giving rise to the Aztec name for the Mayan
territory as the "land of red and black."
Scribes held a prominent position in Mayan courts. Mayan art often depicts rulers with trappings
indicating they were scribes, or at least able to write, such as having pen bundles in their
headdresses. Additionally, many rulers have been found in conjunction with writing tools such as
shell or clay inkpots.
Although the number of logograms and syllabic symbols required to fully write the language
numbered in the hundreds, literacy was not necessarily widespread beyond the elite classes.
Graffiti uncovered in various contexts, including on fired bricks, shows nonsensical attempts to
imitate the writing system.
Mayan numerals with Arabic equivalents.
The Maya (or their Olmec predecessors) independently developed the concept of zero, and used
a base 20 numbering system. Inscriptions show them on occasion working with sums up to the
hundreds of millions and dates so large it would take several lines just to represent it. They
produced extremely accurate astronomical observations; their charts of the movements of the
moon and planets are equal or superior to those of any other civilization working from naked-eye
Mayan priests and astronomers produced a highly accurate measure of the length of the solar
year, far more accurate than that used in Europe as the basis of the Gregorian Calendar.
The ancient Maya had diverse and sophisticated methods of food production. It was formerly
believed that slash and burn agriculture provided most of their food. However, it is now thought
that permanent raised fields, terraces, forest gardens, managed fallows, and wild harvesting were
also crucial to supporting the large populations of the Classic period in some areas.
Contemporary Mayan people still practice many of these traditional forms of agriculture,
although they are dynamic systems and evolve with changing population pressures, cultures,
economic systems, climate changes, and the availability of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican people of central Mexico in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and
sixteenth centuries. They were a civilization with a rich cultural heritage whose capital,
Tenochtitlan, rivaled the greatest cities of Europe in size and grandeur.
The nucleus of the Aztec Empire was the Valley of Mexico, where the capital of the Aztec Triple
Alliance was built upon raised islets in Lake Texcoco. After the 1521 conquest of Tenochtitlan
by Spanish forces and their allies which brought about the effective end of Aztec dominion, the
Spanish founded the new settlement of Mexico City on the site of the now-ruined Aztec capital.
The greater metropolitan area of Mexico City now covers much of the Valley of Mexico and the
now-drained Lake of Texcoco.
Aztec culture had complex mythological and religious traditions. The most alarming aspect of
the Aztec culture was the practice of human sacrifice, which was known throughout
Mesoamerica prior to the Spanish conquest. A hegemonic power, the Aztecs sacrificed human
beings on a massive scale in bloody religious rituals, enslaved subject peoples, and, by Spanish
accounts, practiced cannibalism. Spanish invaders, led by Hernán Cortés, sought both to claim
the new lands and resources for the Spanish Crown and to promulgate Christianity, and
demanded that local Indian allies forswear human sacrifice and cannibalism. Some Aztecs also
anticipated the return of the white-skinned god Quetzalcoatl from the east, an expectation which
may have contributed to the success of the militarily overmatched Spanish forces.
Aztec civilization sustained millions of people and developed from a history of thousands of
years in complete isolation from European and Asian cultures. Aztec agriculture, transportation,
economy, architecture, arts, and political institutions bear extraordinary witness to the creative
and collaborative capability of humankind, and of the universal inclination to find transcendent
meaning to human life. Spanish conquerors and later occupiers largely ignored Aztec cultural
achievements, and through a policy of subjugation by Spanish colonial authorities, and the
inadvertent introduction of diseases for which Indians had no immunity, the Aztec civilization of
Mesoamerica was almost completely eradicated.
In Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztec, "Azteca" means "someone who comes from
Aztlán," thought to be a mythical place in northern Mexico. However, the Aztec referred to
themselves as Mexica (meˈ ʃ ihkah) or Tenochca and Tlatelolca according to their city of
origin. Their use of the word Azteca was like the modern use of Latin American, or Anglo-Saxon:
a broad term that does not refer to a specific culture.
The modern usage of the name Aztec as a collective term applies to all the peoples linked by
trade, custom, religion, and language to the Mexica state, the Triple Alliance, and was suggested
by Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the German naturalist and explorer, and was later
adopted by Mexican scholars of the nineteenth century as a way to distance "modern" Mexicans
from pre-conquest Mexicans.
"Mexica," the origin of the word Mexico, is a term of uncertain origin. Very different
etymologies are proposed: the old Nahuatl word for the sun, the name of their leader Mexitli, a
type of weed that grows in Lake Texcoco. The most renowned Nahuatl translator, Miguel León-
Portilla (born 1926) suggests that it means "navel of the moon" from Nahuatl metztli (moon) and
xictli (navel) or, alternatively, it could mean navel of the maguey (Nahuatl metl).
The Aztecs spoke classical Nahuatl. Although some contemporary Nahuatl speakers identify
themselves as Aztecs, the word is normally only used as a historical term referring to the empire
of the Mexicas.
Legends and traditions
Aztec culture is generally grouped with the cultural complex known as the nahuas, because of
the common language they shared. According to legend, the various groups who were to become
the Aztecs arrived from the north into the Anahuac Valley around Lake Texcoco. The location of
this valley and lake of destination is clear—it is the heart of modern Mexico City—but little can
be known with certainty about the origin of the Aztec.
Tenochtitlan—Aztec capital on an artificial island, which today is Mexico City
In the legend, the ancestors of the Aztec came from a place in the north called Aztlán, the last of
seven nahuatlacas (Nahuatl-speaking tribes, from tlaca meaning "man") to make the journey
southward. The Aztec were said to be guided by their god Huitzilopochtli, meaning "left-handed
hummingbird." When they arrived at an island in the lake, they saw an eagle eating a snake while
perched on a nopal cactus, a vision that fulfilled a prophecy telling them that they should found
their new home on that spot. The Aztec built their city of Tenochtitlan on that site, building a
great artificial island, which today is in the center of Mexico City. This legendary vision is
pictured on the Mexican flag.
According to legend, when the Aztec arrived in the Anahuac valley around Lake Texcoco, they
were considered by the other groups as the least civilized of all, but the Aztec decided to learn,
and they took all they could from other peoples, especially from the ancient Toltec (whom they
seem to have partially confused with the more ancient civilization of Teotihuacan). To the Aztec,
the Toltecs were the originators of all culture; "Toltecayotl" was a synonym for culture. Aztec
legends identify the Toltecs and the cult of Quetzalcoatl (the feathered snake) with the mythical
city of Tollan, which they also seem to have identified with the more ancient Teotihuacan.
Because the Aztec adopted and combined several traditions with their own earlier traditions, they
had several creation myths; one of these describes four great ages preceding the present world,
each of which ended in a catastrophe. Our age—Nahui-Ollin, the fifth age, or fifth creation—
escaped destruction due to the sacrifice of a god Nanahuatl ("full of sores," the smallest and
humblest of the gods), who was transformed into the Sun. This myth is associated with the
ancient city of Teotihuacan, which was already abandoned and destroyed when the Aztec
arrived. Another myth describes the earth as a creation of the twin gods Tezcatlipoca (the
Smoking Mirror) and Quetzalcoatl. Tezcatlipoca lost his foot in the process of creating the world
and all representations of these gods show him without a foot and with a bone exposed.
Quetzalcoatl is also called "White Tezcatlipoca." Quetzalcoatl represented conscious
intelligence, and Tezcatlipoca the subconscious opposite. The former was the lighter, the latter
the darker, side of human nature (although no real distinction was made between good and evil).
Tezcatlipoca ruled the night, the earth's surface and was god of war. Quetzalcoatl, representing
dawn and the rising sun, and healing, wisdom, art, poetry, skills, and crafts had been banished by
the Smoking Mirror and war came to dominate human affairs. Aztec scholars had predicted that
the year 1519 (500 years after his departure) would herald the Feathered Snake's return from
exile, and with it the creation of a new, more harmonious era, under the guidance of
Quetzalcoatl. Some said he would return with ―white Gods‖ accompanying him.
Rise of the Aztecs
There were 12 rulers or tlatoani of Tenochtitlan:
Legendary Founder: Tenoch
1440: Moctezuma I (or Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina)
1502: Moctezuma II (or Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, the famous "Montezuma," aka
After the fall of Tula in the twelfth century, the valley of Mexico and surroundings contained
several city states of Nahua-speaking people: Cholula, Huexotzingo, Tlaxcala, Atzcapotzalco,
Chalco, Culhuacan, Xochimilco, Tlacopan, etc. None of them was powerful enough to dominate
other cities, all of them were proud of their Toltec heritage. Aztec chronicles describe this time
as a golden age, when music was established, people learned arts and craft from surviving
Toltecs, and rulers held poetry contests in place of wars.
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, around Lake Texcoco in the Anahuac valley, the most
powerful of these city states were Culhuacan to the south and Azcapotzalco to the west. Their
rule extended over all the area around Lake Texcoco.
As a result, when the Mexica arrived to the Anahuac valley as a semi-nomadic tribe, they had
nowhere to go. They established themselves temporarily in Chapultepec, but this was under the
rule of Azcapotzalco, the city of the "Tepaneca," and they were soon expelled. They then went to
the zone dominated by Culhuacan and, in 1299, the ruler Cocoxtli gave them permission to settle
in Tizapan, a rocky place where no one wanted to live. They began to acquire as much culture as
they could from Culhuacan: they took and married Culhuacan women, so that those women
could teach their children. In 1323, they asked the new ruler of Culhuacan, Achicometl, for his
daughter, in order to make her the goddess Yaocihuatl. The Mexica sacrificed her. The people of
Culhuacan were horrified and expelled the Mexica. Forced to flee, in 1325 they went to a small
islet in the center of the lake where they began to build their city "Mexico–Tenochtitlan,"
eventually creating a large artificial island. After a time, they elected their first tlatoani,
Acamapichtli, following customs learned from the Culhuacan. Another Mexica group settled on
the north shore: this would become the city of Tlatelolco. Originally, this was an independent
Mexica kingdom, but eventually it merged with the islet.
During this period, the islet was under the jurisdiction of Azcapotzalco, and the Mexica had to
pay heavy tributes to stay there.
Initially, the Mexica hired themselves out as mercenaries in wars between Nahuas, breaking the
balance of power between city states. Eventually they gained enough glory to receive royal
marriages. Mexica rulers Acamapichtli, Huitzilihuitl and Chimalpopoca were, from 1372 to
1427, vassals of Tezozomoc, a lord of the Tepanec nahua.
When Tezozomoc died, his son Maxtla assassinated Chimalpopoca, whose uncle Itzcoatl allied
with the ex-ruler of Texcoco, Nezahualcoyotl, and besieged Maxtla's capital Azcapotzalco.
Maxtla surrendered after 100 days and went into exile. Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan
formed a "Triple Alliance" that came to dominate the Valley of Mexico, and then extended its
power beyond. Tenochtitlan gradually became the dominant power in the alliance.
Itzcoatl's nephew Motecuhzoma I inherited the throne in 1449 and expanded the realm. His son
Axayacatl (1469) conquered the surrounding kingdom of Tlatelolco. His sister was married to
the tlatoani of Tlatelolco, but, as a pretext for war, he declared that she was mistreated. He went
on to conquer Matlazinca and the cities of Tollocan, Ocuillan, and Mallinalco. He was defeated
by the Tarascans in Tzintzuntzan (the first great defeat the Aztecs had ever suffered), but
recovered and took control of the Huasteca region, conquering the Mixtecs and Zapotecs.
In 1481, Axayacatl's son Tizoc ruled briefly, but he was considered weak, so, possibly he was
poisoned, and he was replaced by his younger brother Ahuitzol who had reorganized the army.
The empire was at its largest during his reign. His successor was Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin
(better known as Moctezuma II), who was tlatoani when the Spaniards arrived in 1519, the
auspicious year predicted as the return of the Quetzalcoatl "Feathered Snake".
The Aztec empire is not completely analogous to the empires of European history. Like most
European empires, it was ethnically very diverse, but unlike most European empires, it was more
a system of tribute than a single system of government. Arnold Toynbee (1889–1975) compared
it to the Assyrian Empire in this respect. However, he also classed it as ―universal,‖ which means
that it was the dominant culture.
Although cities under Aztec rule seem to have paid heavy tributes, excavations in the Aztec-
ruled provinces show a steady increase in the welfare of common people after they were
conquered. This probably was due to an increase of trade, thanks to better roads and
communications, and the tributes were extracted from a broad base. Only the upper classes seem
to have suffered economically, and only at first. There appears to have been trade even in things
that could be produced locally; love of novelty may have been a factor.
The most important official of Tenochtitlan government is often called ―The Aztec Emperor.‖
The Nahuatl title, Huey Tlatoani (plural huey tlatoque), translates roughly as "Great Speaker";
the tlatoque ("speakers") were an upper class. This office gradually took on more power with the
rise of Tenochtitlan. By the time of Auitzotl, "Emperor" was an appropriate analogy, although as
in the Holy Roman Empire, the title was not hereditary.
Most of the Aztec empire was forged by one man, Tlacaelel (Nahuatl for "manly heart"), who
lived from 1397 to 1487. Although he was offered the opportunity to be tlatoani, he preferred to
stay behind the throne. Nephew of Tlatoani Itzcoatl, and brother of Chimalpopoca and
Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, his title was "Cihuacoatl" (in honor of the goddess, roughly
equivalent to "counselor"), but as reported in the Ramírez Codex, "what Tlacaellel ordered, was
as soon done." He gave the Aztec government a new structure; he ordered the burning of most
Aztec manuscripts (his explanation being that they were full of lies) and he rewrote their history.
In addition, Tlacaelel reformed Aztec religion, by putting the tribal god Huitzilopochtli at the
same level as the old Nahua gods Tlaloc, Tezcatlipoca, and Quetzalcoatl. Tlacaelel thus created a
common awareness of history for the Aztecs. He also created the institution of ritual war (the
flowery wars) as a way to have trained warriors, and created the necessity of constant sacrifices
to keep the sun moving.
Some writers believe upper classes were aware of this forgery, which would explain the later
actions of Moctezuma II when he met Hernán Cortés (or Cortez). But eventually this institution
helped to cause the fall of the Aztec empire. The people of Tlaxcala were spared conquest, at the
price of participating in the flower wars. When Cortés came to know this, he approached them
and they became his allies. The Tlaxcaltecas provided thousands of men to support the few
hundred Spaniards. The Aztec strategy of war was based on the capture of prisoners by
individual warriors, not on working as a group to kill the enemy in battle. By the time the Aztecs
came to recognize what warfare meant in European terms, it was too late.
The society traditionally was divided into two social classes; the macehualli (people) or
peasantry and the pilli or nobility. Nobility was not originally hereditary, although the sons of
pillis had access to better resources and education, so it was easier for them to become pillis.
Eventually, this class system took on the aspects of a hereditary system. The Aztec military had
an equivalent to military service with a core of professional warriors. An Aztec became a pilli
through his abilities in war. Only those that had taken prisoners could become full-time warriors,
and eventually the honors and spoils of war would make them pillis. Once an Aztec warrior had
captured 4 or 5 captives, he would be called tequiua and could attain a rank of Eagle or Jaguar
Knight, sometimes translated as "captain," eventually he could reach the rank of tlacateccatl or
tlachochcalli. To be elected as tlatoani, one was required to have taken about 17 captives in war.
When Aztec boys attained adult age, they stopped cutting their hair until they took their first
captive; sometimes two or three youths united to get their first captive; then they would be called
iyac. If after certain time, usually three combats, they could not gain a captive, they became
macehualli; it was shameful to be a warrior with long hair, indicating lack of captives; one would
prefer to be a macehualli.
The abundance of tributes led to the emergence and rise of a third class that was not part of the
traditional Aztec society: pochtecas or traders. Their activities were not only commercial: they
also were an effective intelligence-gathering force. They were scorned by the warriors, who
nonetheless sent to them their spoils of war in exchange for blankets, feathers, slaves, and other
In the later days of the empire, the concept of macehualli also had changed. It has been estimated
that only 20 percent of the population was dedicated to agriculture and food production. Most of
the macehuallis were dedicated to arts and crafts.
Slaves or tlacotin (distinct from war captives) also constituted an important class. This slavery
was very different from what Europeans of the same period were to establish in their colonies,
although it had much in common with the slave system in the classical European world of
ancient Greece and Rome. The appropriateness of the term "slavery" for this Aztec institution
has been questioned. First, slavery was personal, not hereditary: a slave's children were free. A
slave could have possessions and even own other slaves. Slaves could buy their liberty, and
slaves could be set free if they were able to show they had been mistreated or if they had children
with or were married to their masters.
Typically, upon the death of the master, slaves who had performed outstanding services were
freed. The rest of the slaves were passed on as part of an inheritance.
Another rather remarkable method for a slave to recover liberty was described by Manuel
Orozco y Berra in La civilización azteca (1860): if, at the tianquiztli (marketplace; the word has
survived into modern-day Spanish as "tianguis"), a slave could escape the vigilance of his or her
master, run outside the walls of the market and step on a piece of human excrement, he could
then present his case to the judges, who would free him. He or she would then be washed,
provided with new clothes (so that he or she would not be wearing clothes belonging to the
master), and declared free. In stark contrast to the European colonies, a person could be declared
a slave if he or she attempted to ―prevent‖ the escape of a slave (unless that person were a
relative of the master), that is why others would not typically help the master in preventing the
Orozco y Berra also reports that a master could not sell a slave without the slave's consent,
unless the slave had been classified as incorrigible by an authority. (Incorrigibility could be
determined on the basis of repeated laziness, attempts to run away, or general bad conduct.)
Incorrigible slaves were made to wear a wooden collar, affixed by rings at the back. The collar
was not merely a symbol of bad conduct: it was designed to make it harder to run away through a
crowd or through narrow spaces.
When buying a collared slave, one was informed of how many times that slave had been sold. A
slave who was sold four times as incorrigible could be sold to be sacrificed; those slaves
commanded a premium in price.
However, if a collared slave managed to present him- or herself in the royal palace or in a
temple, he or she would regain liberty.
An Aztec could become a slave as a punishment. A murderer sentenced to death could instead,
upon the request of the wife of his victim, be given to her as a slave. A father could sell his son
into slavery if the son was declared incorrigible by an authority. Those who did not pay their
debts could also be sold as slaves.
People could sell themselves as slaves. They could stay free long enough to enjoy the price of
their liberty, about 20 blankets, usually enough for a year; after that time they went to their new
master. Usually this was the destiny of gamblers and of old ahuini (courtesans or prostitutes).
Toribio Motolinía (1490–1569), author of History of the Indians of New Spain, reports that some
captives, future victims of sacrifice, were treated as slaves with all the rights of an Aztec slave
until the time of their sacrifice, but it is not clear how they were kept from running away.
Although one could drink pulque, a fermented beverage made from the heart of the maguey, with
an alcoholic content equivalent to beer, getting drunk before the age of 60 was forbidden under
penalty of death.
Like in modern Mexico, the Aztecs had strong passions over a ball game, but this in their case it
was tlachtli, the Aztec variant of the ulama game, the ancient ball game of Mesoamerica. The
game was played with a ball of solid rubber, about the size of a human head. The ball was called
"olli," whence derives the Spanish word for rubber, "hule." The city had two special buildings
for the ball games. The players hit the ball with their hips. They had to pass the ball through a
stone ring. The fortunate player who could do this had the right to take the blankets of the public,
so his victory was followed by general running of the public, with screams and laughter. People
used to bet on the results of the game. Poor people could bet their food; pillis could bet their
fortunes; tecutlis (lords) could bet their concubines or even their cities, and those who had
nothing could bet their freedom and risk becoming slaves.
Tenochtitlan covered an area of eight square kilometers. There is no agreement on the estimated
population of the city. Most authorities prefer a conservative 80,000 to 130,000 inhabitants, still
bigger than most European cities of the time, surpassed only by Constantinople with about
200,000 inhabitants; Paris with about 185,000; and Venice with about 130,000 . Spanish
accounts refer to as many as 50,000 houses and from between 300,000 to as many as 700,000
people, if the populations of Tlatelolco and the small satellite cities and islets around
Tenochtitlan are included. Tlatelolco was originally an independent city, but it became a suburb
The city was divided into four zones or campan, each campan was divided into 20 districts
(calpullis), and each calpulli was crossed by streets or tlaxilcalli. There were three main streets
that crossed the city and extended to firm land; Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492–1584), author of
The Conquest of New Spain, reported it was wide enough for ten horses. The calpullis were
divided by channels used for transportation, with wood bridges that were removed at night. It
was in trying to cross these channels that the Spaniards lost most of the gold they had acquired
Each calpulli had some specialty in arts and craft. When each calpulli offered some celebration,
they tried to outdo the other calpullis. Even today, in the south part of Mexico City, the
community organizations in charge of church festivities are called "calpullis."
Each calpulli had its own tianquiztli (marketplace), but there was also a main marketplace in
Tlatelolco. Cortés estimated it was twice the size of the city of Seville with about 60,000 people,
trading daily; Sahagún give us a more conservative amount of 20,000 people trading daily and
40,000 doing so on feast days. Aztecs had no coins, so most trade was made in goods, but cacao
beans (used to make chocolate) were so appreciated, they were used as an equivalent of coins.
Gold had no intrinsic value: it was considered as a raw material for crafts. Gold jewelry had
value, but raw gold had little. For the Aztecs, the destruction of objects to get a few pieces of
gold was incomprehensible.
There were also specialized tianquiztli in the small towns around Tenochtitlan. In Chollolan,
there were jewels, fine stones, and feathers; in Texcoco, there were clothes; in Aculma, was the
dog market. The Aztecs had three special breeds of dogs with no hair, of which only one
survives. They were the tepezcuintli, the itzcuitepotzontli, and the xoloizcuintli. These hairless
dogs were mainly for eating and also were offerings for sacrifice. The Aztecs also had dogs for
In the center of the city were the public buildings, temples, and schools. Inside a walled square,
300 meters to a side, was the ceremonial center. There were about 45 public buildings, the
Templo Mayor (main temple), the temple of Quetzalcoatl, the ball game, the tzompantli or rack
of skulls, the temple of the sun, the platforms for the gladiatorial sacrifice, and some minor
temples. Outside was the palace of Moctezuma, with 100 rooms, each one with its own bath, for
the lords and ambassadors of allies and conquered people. Near also was the cuicalli or house of
the songs, and the calmecac. The city had a great symmetry. All constructions had to be
approved by the calmimilocatl, a functionary in charge of the city planning. No one could invade
the streets and channels.
The palace of Moctezuma also had two houses or zoos, one for birds of prey and another for
other birds, reptiles, and mammals. About three hundred people were dedicated to the care of the
animals. There was also a botanical garden and an aquarium. The aquarium had ten ponds of
saltwater and ten ponds of clear water, containing fishes and aquatic birds. Places like this also
existed in Texcoco, Chapultepec, Huastepec (now called Oaxtepec), and Tezcutzingo.
Bernal was amazed to find latrines in private houses and a public latrine in the tianquiztli and
main streets. Small boats went through the city collecting garbage, and excrement was collected
to be sold as fertilizer. About 1,000 men were dedicated to cleaning the city's streets.
For public purposes, and to be able to set the pace of official business, trumpets were sounded
from the tops of the temples six times a day: at sunrise, later on in the morning, at midday, again
in the mid-afternoon, after sunset, and at midnight.
Although the lake was salty, dams built by the Aztecs kept the city surrounded by clear water
from the rivers that fed the lake. Two double aqueducts provided the city with fresh water; this
was intended mainly for cleaning and washing. For drinking, water from mountain springs was
preferred. Most of the population liked to bathe twice a day; Moctezuma was reported to take
four baths a day. As soap they used the root of a plant called copalxocotl (saponaria americana);
to clean their clothes they used the root of metl. Also, the upper classes and pregnant women
enjoyed the temazcalli, which was similar to a [[sauna] bath and is still used in the south of
Mexico; this was also popular in other Mesoamerican cultures.
Sahagún reports that the city also had beggars (only crippled people were allowed to beg),
thieves, and prostitutes. At night, in the dark alleys one could find scantily clad ladies with heavy
makeup (they also painted their teeth), chewing tzicli (chicle, the original chewing gum) noisily
to attract clients. There seem to have been another kind of women, ahuianis, who had sexual
relations with warriors. The Spaniards were surprised because they did not charge for their work,
so perhaps they had other means of support.
To feed the city of Tenochtitlan required a huge quantity of food, most of which had to be raised
as tribute. One account lists over 225,000 bushels of maize and 123,400 cotton mantles with
equal quantities of beans and herbs and other produce due each year (Overy, 2004: 164).
Representation of Aztec education.
Until the age of 14, the education of children was in the hands of their parents. There was a
collection of sayings, called huehuetlatolli ("The sayings of the old") that represented the Aztecs'
ideals. It included speeches and sayings for every occasion, the words to salute the birth of
children, and to say farewell at death. Fathers admonished their daughters to be very clean, but
not to use makeup, because they would look like ahuianis. Mothers admonished their daughters
to support their husbands, even if they turn out to be humble peasants. Boys were admonished to
be humble, obedient, and hard workers.
Male children went to school at age 15. There were two types of educational institutions. The
telpochcalli taught history, religion, military fighting arts, and a trade or craft (such as
agriculture or handicrafts). The calmecac, attended mostly by the sons of pillis, was focused on
turning out leaders (tlatoques), priests, scholars/teachers (tlatimini), and codex painters
(tlacuilos). They studied rituals, the reading of the codex, the calendar, songs (poetry), and, as at
the telpochcalli, military fighting arts.
Aztec teachers propounded a Spartan regime of education—cold baths in the morning, hard
work, physical punishment, bleeding with maguey thorns and endurance tests—with the purpose
of forming a stoical people.
There is contradictory information about whether calmecac was reserved for the sons and
daughters of the pillis; some accounts said they could choose where to study. It is possible that
the common people preferred the tepochcalli, because a warrior could advance more readily by
his military abilities; becoming a priest or a tlacuilo was not a way to rise rapidly from a low
Girls were educated in the crafts of home and child-raising. They were not taught to read or
There were also two other opportunities for those few who had talent. Some were chosen for the
house of song and dance, and others were chosen for the ball game. Both occupations had high
The Aztec created artificial floating islands or chinampas on Lake Texcoco, on which they
cultivated crops. The Aztec's staple foods included maize, beans, and squash. Chinampas were a
very efficient system and could provide up to seven crops a year. On the basis of current
chinampa yields, it has been estimated that one hectare of chinampa would feed 20 individuals,
with about 9,000 hectares of chinampa, there was food for 180,000 people.
Much has been said about a lack of proteins in the Aztec diet, to support the arguments on the
existence of cannibalism (M. Harner, Am. Ethnol. 4, 117 (1977)), but there is little evidence to
support it: a combination of maize and beans provides the full quota of essential amino acids, so
there is no need for animal proteins. The Aztecs had a great diversity of maize strains, with a
wide range of amino acid content; also, they cultivated amaranth for its seeds, which have a high
protein content. More important is that they had a wider variety of foods. They harvested acocils,
a small and abundant shrimp of Lake Texcoco, also spirulina algae, which was made into a sort
of cake that was rich in flavonoids, and they ate insects, such as crickets or grasshoppers
(chapulines), maguey worms, ants, larvae, etc. Insects have a higher protein content than meat,
and even now they are considered a delicacy in some parts of Mexico. Aztec also had domestic
animals, like turkey and some breeds of dogs, which provided meat, although usually this was
reserved for special occasions. Another source of meet came from the hunting of deer, wild
peccaries, rabbits, geese, ducks, and other animals.
A study by Montellano (Medicina, nutrición y salud aztecas, 1997) shows a mean life of 37 (+/-
3) years for the population of Mesoamerica.
Aztec also used maguey extensively; from it they obtained food, sugar (aguamiel), drink
(pulque), and fibers for ropes and clothing. Use of cotton and jewelry was restricted to the elite.
Cocoa grains were used as money. Subjugated cities paid annual tribute in form of luxury goods
like feathers and adorned suits.
After the Spanish conquest, some foods were outlawed, like amaranth, and there was less
diversity of food. This led to a chronic malnutrition in the general population.
For the Europeans, human sacrifice was the most abhorrent feature of Aztec civilization. Human
sacrifice was widespread at this time in Mesoamerica and South America (during the Inca
Empire), but the Aztecs practiced it on a particularly large scale, sacrificing human victims on
each of their 18 festivities. Overy (2004) comments that according to ―European colonial
sources…between 10,000 and 80,000 sacrifices were offered at the dedication of the main
temple in Tenochtitlan in 1487….‖ Most were captured in war or ritually exchanged victims with
other communities (164).
Most cultures of Mesoamerica gave some kind of offerings to the gods, and the sacrifice of
animals was common, a practice for which the Aztecs bred special dogs. Objects also were
sacrificed; they were broken and offered to their gods. The cult of Quetzalcoatl required the
sacrifice of butterflies and hummingbirds. Self-sacrifice was also quite common; people would
offer maguey thorns, tainted with their own blood. Blood held a central place in Mesoamerican
cultures; in one of the creation myths, Quetzalcoatl would offer blood extracted from a wound in
his own penis to give life to humanity, and there are several myths where Nahua gods offer their
blood to help humanity. In the myth of the fifth sun, all the gods sacrifice themselves so
humanity could live.
In the usual procedure of human sacrifice, the victim would be painted with blue chalk (the color
of sacrifice) and taken to the top of the great pyramid. Then the victim would be laid on a stone
slab, his abdomen ripped open with a ceremonial knife (an obsidian knife could hardly cut
through a ribcage) and his heart taken out and raised to the sun. The heart would be put in a bowl
held by a statue, and the body thrown on the stairs, where it would be dragged away. Afterwards,
the body parts would be disposed of various ways: the viscera were used to feed the animals in
the zoo, the head was cleaned and placed on display in the tzompantli, and the rest of the body
was either cremated or cut into very small pieces and offered as a gift to important people.
Recent evidence also points to removal of muscles and skinning (José Luis Salinas Uribe, INAH,
2005) (see cannibalism).
Other kinds of human sacrifice existed, some of them involving torture. In these, the victim
could be shot with arrows, burned, or drowned. For the construction of the Templo Mayor, the
Aztecs reported that they sacrificed about 84,400 prisoners in four days. Some scholars,
however, believe that it is more probable that only 3,000 sacrifices took place and the death toll
was drastically inflated by war propaganda.
Another figure used is from Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who traveled with Cortés, participated in
the conquest of the Aztecs in 1521, wrote his account of the conquest 50 years after the fact. In
the description of the tzompantli, he writes about a rack of skulls of the victims in the main
temple and reports counted about 100,000 skulls. However, to accommodate that many skulls,
the tzompantli would have had a length of several kilometers, instead of the 30 meters reported.
Modern reconstructions account for about 600 to 1,200 skulls. Similarly, Díaz claimed there
were 60,000 skulls in the tzompantli of Tlatelolco, which was as important as that of
Tenochtitlan. According to William Arens (1979), excavations by archeologists found 300
Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), the Franciscan missionary, Juan Bautista de Pomar (circa
1539–1590), and Motolinía reported that the Aztecs had 18 festivities each year. Motolinía and
de Pomar clearly state that only in those festivities were sacrifices made. De Pomar interviewed
very old Aztecs for his ―Relación de Juan Bautista Pomar‖ (1582) and is considered by some to
be the first anthropologist. He was very interested in Aztec culture. Each god required a different
kind of victim: young women were drowned for Xilonen; sick male children were sacrificed to
Tlaloc (Juan Carlos Román: 2004 Museo del templo mayor); Nahuatl-speaking prisoners to
Huitzilopochtli; and an Aztec (or simply nahua, according to some accounts) volunteered for
Not all these sacrifices were made at the main temple; a few were made at Cerro del Peñón, an
islet of the Texcoco lake. According to an Aztec source, in the month of Tlacaxipehualiztli, 34
captives were sacrificed in the gladiatorial sacrifice to Xipe Totec. A bigger figure would be
dedicated to Huitzilopochtli in the month of Panquetzaliztli. This could put a figure as low as
300 to 600 victims a year, but Marvin Harris multiplies it by 20, assuming that the same
sacrifices were made in every one of the sections or calpullis of the city. There is little agreement
on the actual figure.
Aztecs waged "flower wars" to capture prisoners for sacrifices they called nextlaualli ("debt
payment to the gods"), so that the sun could survive each cycle of 52 years. It is not known if the
Aztecs engaged in human sacrifice before they reached the Anahuac valley and acquired and
absorbed other cultures. The first human sacrifice reported by them was dedicated to Xipe Totec,
a deity from the north of Mesoamerica. Aztec chronicles reported human sacrifice began as an
institution in the year "five knives" or 1484, under Tizoc. Under Tlacaelel's guidance, human
sacrifice became an important part of the Aztec culture, not only because of religious reasons,
but also for political reasons.
As Laurette Sejourne (1911–2003) the French ethnologist comments, the human sacrifice would
also put a strain in the Aztec culture. They admired the Toltec culture, and claimed to be
followers of Quetzalcoatl, but the cult of Quetzalcoatl forbids human sacrifice, and as Sejourne
points, there were harsh penalties for those who dare to scream or faint during a human sacrifice.
When Hernan Cortés marched from the coast to Tenochtitlan, he forbade human sacrifice among
his Indian allies, and later Spanish occupiers later eliminated the practice.
While there is universal agreement that the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice, there is a lack of
scholarly consensus as to whether they also practiced cannibalism and, if so, to what extent. At
one extreme, anthropologist and cultural materialist theorist Marvin Harris (1927–2001), who
was interested in cultural evolution, and who wrote about cannibalism in Our Kind (1990) and
Cannibals and Kings (1991), has suggested that the flesh of the victims was a part of an
aristocratic diet as a reward, since the Aztec diet was lacking in proteins. According to him, the
Aztec economy would have been unable to support feeding them as slaves, so the columns of
prisoners were "marching meat." At the other extreme, William Arens doubts whether there was
ever any systematic cannibalism.
While most historians of Mesoamerica believe that there was ritual cannibalism related to human
sacrifices, they do not support Harris's thesis that human flesh was ever a significant portion of
the Aztec diet.
There are a few contemporary accounts of Aztec cannibalism. Cortés issued an edict forbidding
cannibalism to Indian allies, suggesting the practice was known to the Spanish, and recounted the
gruesome scene of babies roasted for breakfast. Francisco Lopez de Gómara (1510–circa 1566)
gives another account in which he has Aztecs eat prisoners with a special sauce. However,
although he wrote a history of the Indies (dedicated to Cortés' son), Gómara had never been
there. It is at least interesting that the one account ―by an Aztec‖ and the account by a "meztizo"
of supposed cannibalism following ritual sacrifice claims that the apparent cannibalism was a
sham. This is congruent with Laurette Séjourné (1911–2003) and Miguel León-Portilla's theory
that the upper classes were aware that the religion created by Tlacalel was something of a
forgery. León-Portilla is considered to be an authority on Nahuatl culture.
Recent archeological evidence (INAH 2005) in some of the bodies found under the "Catedral
Metropolitana," from the basement of Aztec temples, show some cuttings indicating the removal
of muscular masses. Not all the bodies show this treatment.
Poetry was the only occupation worthy of an Aztec warrior in times of peace. A remarkable
amount of this poetry survives, having been collected during the era of the conquest. In some
cases, we know names of individual authors, such as Netzahualcoyotl, Tolatonai of Texcoco, and
Cuacuatzin, Lord of Tepechpan. Miguel León-Portilla, the most renowned translator of Nahuatl,
comments that it is in this poetry where we can find the real thought of the Aztecs, independent
of "official" Aztec ideology.
In the basement of the Templo Mayor there was the "house of the eagles," where in peacetime
Aztec captains could drink foaming chocolate, smoke good cigars, and have poetry contests. The
poetry was accompanied by percussion instruments (teponaztli). Recurring themes in this poetry
are whether life is real or a dream, whether there is an afterlife, and whether we can approach the
giver of life.
The most important collection of these poems is Romances de los señores de la Nueva España,
collected (Tezcoco 1582) probably by Juan Bautista de Pomar. This volume was later translated
into Spanish by Ángel María Garibay K., teacher of León-Portilla. Bautista de Pomar was the
great grandson of Netzahualcoyotl. He spoke Nahuatl, but was raised as Christian and wrote in
The Aztec people also enjoyed a type of dramatic presentation, although it could not be called
theatre. Some were comical with music and acrobats; others were staged dramas of their gods.
After the conquest, the first Christian churches had open chapels reserved for these kinds of
representations. Plays in Nahuatl, written by converted Indians, were an important instrument for
the conversion to Christianity, and are still found today in the form of traditional pastorelas,
which are played during Christmas to show the Adoration of Baby Jesus, and other Biblical