Aztec culture (/ˈæztɛk/), was a Mesoamerican culture that
flourished in central
Mexico in the post-classic period from 1300 to
1521, during the time in which a triple alliance of the Mexica,
Texcoca and Tepaneca tribes established the
Aztec empire. The Aztec
people were certain ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly
those groups who spoke the
Nahuatl language and who dominated large
Mesoamerica from the 14th to the 16th centuries.
Aztec culture is the culture of the people referred to as Aztecs, but
since most ethnic groups of central
Mexico in the postclassic period
shared basic cultural traits, many of the traits that characterize
Aztec culture cannot be said to be exclusive to the Aztecs. For the
same reason, the notion of "
Aztec civilization" is best understood as
a particular horizon of a general Mesoamerican civilization. The
culture of central
Mexico includes maize cultivation, the social
division between pipiltin nobility and macehualtin commoners, a
pantheon (featuring Tezcatlipoca,
Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl), and the
calendric system of a xiuhpohualli of 365 days intercalated with a
tonalpohualli of 260 days. Particular to the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan
Mexica patron God Huitzilopochtli, twin pyramids, and the
ceramic ware known as
Aztec I to III.
From the 13th century, the Valley of
Mexico was the heart of Aztec
civilization: there the city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec
Triple Alliance, was built upon raised islets in Lake Texcoco. The
Triple Alliance formed the
Aztec Empire, a tributary empire that
expanded its political hegemony far beyond the Valley of Mexico,
conquering other city states throughout
Mesoamerica in the late
postclassic period. It originated in 1427 as an alliance between the
city-states Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan; these allied to
Tepanec state of Azcapotzalco, which had previously
dominated the Basin of Mexico. Soon Texcoco and
Tlacopan became junior
partners in the alliance, of which the
Tenochtitlan were the
de facto leaders. The empire extended its power by a combination of
trade and military conquest. It was never a true territorial empire
controlling a territory by large military garrisons in conquered
provinces, but rather controlled its client states primarily by
installing friendly rulers in conquered cities, by constructing
marriage alliances between the ruling dynasties, and by extending an
imperial ideology to its client states. Client states paid tribute
Aztec emperor, the Huey Tlatoani, in an economic strategy
limiting communication and trade between outlying polities, making
them dependent on the imperial center for the acquisition of luxury
goods. The political clout of the empire reached far south into
Mesoamerica conquering cities as far south as
Chiapas and Guatemala
and spanning from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans. The empire
reached its maximal extent in 1519, just prior to the arrival of the
Spanish conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés, who managed to topple
Aztec empire by allying with some of the traditional enemies of
the Aztecs, the Nahuatl-speaking Tlaxcalteca. Subsequently, the
Spanish founded the new settlement of
Mexico City on the site of the
Aztec capital, from where they proceeded with the process of
colonizing Central America.
Aztec culture and history is primarily known through archaeological
evidence found in excavations such as that of the renowned Templo
Mexico City; from indigenous bark paper codices; from
eyewitness accounts by Spanish conquistadors such as Cortés and
Bernal Díaz del Castillo; and especially from 16th- and 17th-century
Aztec culture and history written by Spanish clergymen
and literate Aztecs in the Spanish or
Nahuatl language, such as the
Florentine Codex compiled by the
Franciscan monk Bernardino de
Sahagún with the help of indigenous
Aztec informants. At its height,
Aztec culture had rich and complex mythological and religious
traditions, as well as achieving remarkable architectural and artistic
Mexico in the classic and post-classic
2.2 Migrational period and foundation of Tenochtitlan
2.3 Early rulers
2.4 Imperial Expansion
2.4.1 Motecuzoma I Ilhuicamina
Axayacatl and Tizoc
2.4.4 Motecuzoma II Xocoyotzin
2.5 Spanish conquest
2.6 Colonial period population decline
3 Political and social organization
3.1 Nobles and commoners
3.2 Family and gender
Altepetl and calpolli
4.1 Agriculture and subsistence
4.2 Crafts and trades
4.3 Trade and distribution
5.2 The Great Temple
5.3 Other cities
6.2 Mythology and Cosmovision
6.4 Human sacrifice
7 Art and cultural production
7.1 Writing and iconography
7.2 Music, song and poetry
7.4 Painted art
9.2 The conquistadors
9.3 Priests and scholars
9.4 Native authors
10 See also
14 External links
Nahuatl words aztecatl [asˈtekat͡ɬ] (singular) and aztecah
[asˈtekaʔ] (plural) mean "people from Aztlan", a mythological
place for the Nahuatl-speaking culture of the time, and later adopted
as the word to define the
Mexica people. Often the term "Aztec" refers
exclusively to the
Mexica people of
Tenochtitlan (now the location of
Mexico City), situated on an island in Lake Texcoco, who referred to
themselves as Mēxihcah Tenochcah [meːˈʃiʔkaʔ teˈnot͡ʃkaʔ] or
Cōlhuah Mexihcah [ˈkoːlwaʔ meːˈʃiʔkaʔ].
Sometimes the term also includes the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan's two
principal allied city-states, the Acolhuas of Texcoco and the Tepanecs
of Tlacopan, who together with the
Mexica formed the
Alliance that controlled what is often known as the "
Aztec Empire". In
Aztec may refer to all the various city states and
their peoples, who shared large parts of their ethnic history and
cultural traits with the Mexica,
Acolhua and Tepanecs, and who often
also used the
Nahuatl language as a lingua franca. In this meaning, it
is possible to talk about an
Aztec civilization including all the
particular cultural patterns common for most of the peoples inhabiting
Mexico in the late postclassic period.
When used to describe ethnic groups, the term "Aztec" refers to
several Nahuatl-speaking peoples of central
Mexico in the postclassic
period of Mesoamerican chronology, especially the Mexica, the ethnic
group that had a leading role in establishing the hegemonic empire
based at Tenochtitlan. The term extends to further ethnic groups
associated with the
Aztec empire, such as the Acolhua, the
others that were incorporated into the empire. In older usage the term
was commonly used about modern Nahuatl-speaking ethnic groups, as
Nahuatl was previously referred to as the "
Aztec language". In recent
usage, these ethnic groups are referred to as the Nahua peoples.
Linguistically, the term "Aztecan" is still used about the branch of
Uto-Aztecan languages (also sometimes called the yuto-nahuan
languages) that includes the
Nahuatl language and its closest
relatives Pochutec and Pipil.
To the Aztecs themselves the word "aztec" was not an endonym for any
particular ethnic group. Rather, it was an umbrella term used to refer
to several ethnic groups, not all of them Nahuatl-speaking, that
claimed heritage from the mythic place of origin, Aztlan. In the
Nahuatl language "aztecatl" means "person from Aztlan". Alexander von
Humboldt originated the modern usage of "Aztec" in 1810, as a
collective term applied to all the people linked by trade, custom,
religion, and language to the
Mexica state and the Triple Alliance. In
1843, with the publication of the work of William H. Prescott, the
term was adopted by most of the world, including 19th-century Mexican
scholars who saw it as a way to distinguish present-day Mexicans from
pre-conquest Mexicans. This usage has been the subject of debate in
more recent years, but the term "Aztec" is still more common.
Main article: History of the Aztecs
Mexico in the classic and post-classic
The Valley of
Mexico with the locations of the main city states in
It is a matter of debate whether the enormous city of
inhabited by speakers of Nahuatl, or whether Nahuas had not yet
arrived in central
Mexico in the classic period. It is generally
agreed that the
Nahua peoples were not indigenous to the highlands of
central Mexico, but that they gradually migrated into the region from
somewhere in northwestern Mexico. At the fall of
Teotihuacan in the
6th century CE, a number of city states rose to power in central
Mexico, some of them, including Cholula and Xochicalco, probably
Nahuatl speakers. One study has suggested that Nahuas
originally inhabited the Bajío area around Guanajuato which reached a
population peak in the 6th century, after which the population quickly
diminished during a subsequent dry period. This depopulation of the
Bajío coincided with an incursion of new populations into the Valley
of Mexico, which suggests that this marks the influx of Nahuatl
speakers into the region. These populated central Mexico,
dislocating speakers of
Oto-Manguean languages as they spread their
political influence south. As the former nomadic hunter-gatherer
peoples mixed with the complex civilizations of Mesoamerica, adopting
religious and cultural practices, the foundation for later Aztec
culture was laid. After 900 CE, during the Postclassic period, a
number of sites almost certainly inhabited by
Nahuatl speakers became
powerful. Among them the site of Tula, Hidalgo, and also city states
such as Tenayuca, and Colhuacan in the valley of
Cuauhnahuac in Morelos.
Migrational period and foundation of Tenochtitlan
In the ethnohistorical sources from the colonial colonial period,
Aztecs themselves describe their arrival in the Valley of Mexico. The
Nahuatl ‘‘Aztecah’’) means “people from
Aztlan being a mythical place of origin toward the north.
Hence the term applied to all those peoples who claimed to carry the
heritage from this mythical place. The migration stories of the Mexica
tribe tell how they traveled with other tribes, including the
Tlaxcalteca, Tepaneca and Acolhua, but that eventually their tribal
Huitzilopochtli told them to split from the other
and take on the name “Mexica”. At the time of their arrival,
there were many
Aztec city-states in the region. The most powerful
were Colhuacan to the south and
Azcapotzalco to the west. The Tepanecs
Azcapotzalco soon expelled the Mexicas from Chapultepec. In 1299,
Colhuacan ruler Cocoxtli gave them permission to settle in the empty
barrens of Tizapan, where they were eventually assimilated into
Culhuacan culture. The noble lineage of Colhuacan traced its roots
back to the legendary city state of Tula, and by marrying into Colhua
Mexica now also adopted this heritage. After living in
Mexica were again expelled and moved on. According to
Aztec legend, in 1323 the Mexicas were shown a vision of an eagle
perched on a prickly pear cactus, eating a snake. The vision indicated
the location where they were to build their home. The
the town of
Tenochtitlan on a small swampy island in Lake Texcoco. The
year of foundation is usually given as 1325. In 1376 the
dynasty was founded when Acamapichtli, son of a
Mexica father and a
Colhua mother, was elected as the first ‘’Huey Tlatoani’’ of
Rulers (Tlahtoqueh) of Tenochtitlan
Rulers subject to Azcapotzalco
Motecuzoma I Ilhuicamina (1440-1469)
Motecuzoma II Xocoyotzin (1502-1520)
Colonial Indigenous Governors
Juan Velázquez Tlacotzin (1525)
Andrés de Tapia Motelchiuh (1525-1530)
Pablo Xochiquentzin (1532-1536)
Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin
Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin (1539-1541)
Diego de San Francisco Tehuetzquititzin
Diego de San Francisco Tehuetzquititzin (1541-1554)
Esteban de Guzmán (1554-1557)
Cristóbal de Guzmán Cecetzin (1557-1562)
Luis de Santa María Nanacacipactzin (1563-1565)
In the first 50 years after the founding of the
Mexica dynasty, the
Mexica were a tributary of Azcapotzalco, which had become a major
regional power under the ruler Tezozomoc. The
Mexica supplied the
Tepaneca with warriors for their successful conquest campaigns in the
region and received part of the tribute from the conquered city
states. In this way, the prestige and economy of Tenochtitlan
In 1396, at Acamapichtli’s death, his son
"Hummingbird feather") became ruler; married to Tezozomoc’s
daughter, the relation with
Azcapotzalco remained close. Chimalpopoca
(Nahuatl: "She smokes like a shield"), son of Huitzilihhuitl, became
Tenochtitlan in 1417. In 1418,
Azcapotzalco initiated a war
Acolhua of Texcoco and killed their ruler Ixtlilxochitl.
Even though Ixtlilxochitl was married to Chimalpopoca’s daughter,
Mexica ruler continued to support Tezozomoc. Tezozomoc died in
1426, and his sons began a struggle for rulership of Azcapotzalco.
During this struggle for power,
Chimalpopoca died, probably killed by
Tezozomoc’s son Maxtla who saw him as a competitor.
Itzcoatl, brother of
Huitzilihhuitl and uncle of Chimalpopoca, was
elected the next
Mexica tlatoani. The
Mexica were now in open war with
Itzcoatl petitioned for an alliance with
Nezahualcoyotl, son of the slain Texcocan ruler Ixtlilxochitl against
Itzcoatl also allied with Maxtla’s brother Totoquihuaztli
ruler of the
Tepanec city of Tlacopan. The Triple Alliance of
Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and
Tlacopan besieged Azcapotzalco, and in 1428
they destroyed the city and sacrificed Maxtla. Through this victory
Tenochtitlan became the dominant city state in the Valley of Mexico,
and the alliance between the three cities provided the basis on which
Aztec Empire was built.
Itzcoatl proceeded by securing a power basis for Tenochtitlan, by
conquering the city-states on the southern lake – including
Cuitlahuac and Mizquic. These states had an
economy based on highly productive chinampa agriculture, cultivating
floating gardens in the shallow lake Xochimilco.
undertook further conquests in the valley of Morelos, subjecting the
city state of
Cuauhnahuac (today Cuernavaca).
Motecuzoma I Ilhuicamina
In 1440, Motecuzoma I Ilhuicamina (Nahuatl: "he frowns like a lord, he
shoots the sky" was elected tlatoani; he was son of
Huitzilihhuitl, brother of
Chimalpopoca and had served as the war
leader of his uncle
Itzcoatl in the war against the Tepanecs. The
accession of a new ruler in the dominant city state was often an
occasion for subjected cities to rebel by refusing to pay tribute.
This meant that new rulers began their rule with a coronation
campaign, often against rebellious tributaries, but also sometimes
demonstrating their military might by making new conquests. Motecuzoma
tested the attitudes of the cities around the valley by requesting
laborers for the enlargement of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. Only
the city of Chalco refused to provide laborers, and hostilities
between Chalco and
Tenochtitlan would persist until the 1450s.
Motecuzoma then reconquered the cities in the valley of Morelos and
Guerrero, and then later undertook new conquests in the Huaxtec region
of northern Veracruz, and the
Mixtec region of Coixtlahuaca and large
parts of Oaxaca, and later again in central and southern Veracruz with
conquests at Cosamalopan, Ahuilizapan and Cuetlaxtlan. During this
period the city states of Tlaxcallan, Cholula and Huexotzinco emerged
as major competitors to the imperial expansion, and they supplied
warriors to several of the cities conquered. Motecuzoma therefore
initiated a state of low-intensity warfare against these three cities,
staging minor skirmishes called “Flower Wars” (Nahuatl
‘’xochiyaoyotl’’) against them, perhaps as a strategy of
Motecuzoma also consolidated the political structure of the Triple
Alliance, and the internal political organization of Tenochtitlan. His
brother Tlacaelel served as his main advisor (Nahuatl
‘’Cihuacoatl’’) and he is considered the architect of major
political reforms in this period, consolidating the power of the noble
Nahuatl ‘’pipiltin’’) and instituting a set of legal
codes, and the practice of reinstating conquered rulers in their
cities bound by fealty to the
Axayacatl and Tizoc
In 1469, the next ruler became
Axayacatl (Nahuatl: "Water mask"), son
of Itzcoatl’s son Tezozomoc and Motecuzoma I’s daughter
Atotoztli. He undertook a successful coronation campaign far south
Tenochtitlan against the Zapotecs in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
Axayacatl also conquered the independent
Mexica city of Tlatelolco,
located on the northern part of the island where
Tenochtitlan was also
located. The Tlatelolca ruler Moquihuix was married to Axayacatl’s
sister, and his alleged mistreatment of her was used as an excuse to
incorporate Tlatelolco and its important market directly under the
control of the tlatoani of Tenochtitlan.
Axayacatl then conquered areas in Central Guerrero, the Puebla Valley,
on the gulf coast and against the Otomi and Matlatzinca in the Toluca
valley. The Toluca valley was a buffer zone against the powerful
Tarascan state in Michoacan, against which
Axayacatl turned next. In
the major campaign against the Tarascans (Nahua
‘’Michhuahqueh’’) in 1478–79 the
Aztec forces were repelled
by a well organized defense.
Axayacatl was soundly defeated in a
battle at Tlaximaloyan (today Tajimaroa), losing most of his 32,000
men and only barely escaping back to
Tenochtitlan with the remnants of
In 1481 at Axayacatls death, his older brother
Tizoc was elected
ruler. Tizoc’s coronation campaign against the Otomi of Metztitlan
failed as he lost the major battle and only managed to secure 40
prisoners to be sacrificed for his coronation ceremony. Having shown
weakness, many of the tributary towns rebelled and consequently most
of Tizoc’s short reign was spent attempting to quell rebellions and
maintain control of areas conquered by his predecessors.
suddenly in 1485, and it has been suggested that he was poisoned by
his brother and war leader
Ahuitzotl who became the next tlatoani.
Tizoc is mostly known as the namesake of the Stone of
monumental sculpture (
Nahuatl ‘’temalacatl’’), decorated with
representation of Tizoc’s conquests.
The next ruler was
Ahuitzotl (Nahuatl: "Water monster"), brother of
Tizoc and war leader under Tizoc. His successful
coronation campaign suppressed rebellions in the Toluca valley and
conquered Jilotepec and several communities in the northern Valley of
Mexico. A second campaign to the gulf coast was also highly
successful. He began an enlargement of the Great Temple of
Tenochtitlan, inaugurating the new temple in 1487. For the
inauguration ceremony the
Mexica invited the rulers of all their
subject cities, who participated as spectators in the ceremony in
which an unprecedented number of war captives were sacrificed – some
sources giving a figure of 84,000 prisoners sacrificed over four days.
Probably the actual figure of sacrifices was much smaller, but still
numbering several thousands.
Ahuitzotl also constructed monumental
architecture in sites such as Calixtlahuaca, Malinalco and Tepoztlan.
After a rebellion in the towns of Alahuiztlan and Oztoticpac in
Northern Guerrero he ordered the entire population executed, and
repopulated with people from the valley of Mexico. He also constructed
a fortified garrison at Oztuma defending the border against the
Motecuzoma II Xocoyotzin
At the death of
Ahuitzotl the reign passed to his war leader
Motecuzoma Xocoyotzin (
Nahuatl "He frowns like a lord, the youngest
child"), a son of Axayacatl. His successful coronation campaign
attacked the fortified city of Nopallan in Oaxaca and subjected the
adjacent region to the empire. An effective warrior, Motecuzoma II
maintained the pace of conquest set by his predecessor and subjected
large areas in Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla and even far south along the
Pacific and Gulf coasts, conquering the province of Xoconochco in
Chiapas. he also intensified the flower wars waged against Tlaxcallan
and Huexotzinco, and secured an alliance with Cholula. He also
consolidated the class structure of
Aztec society, by making it harder
for commoners (
Nahuatl macehualtin) to accede to the privileged class
of the pipiltin through merit in combat, and instituted a strict
sumptuary code limiting the types of luxury goods that could be
consumed by commoners.
In 1517, Motecuzoma received the first news of ships with strange
warriors having landed on the Gulf Coast near Cempoallan and he
dispatched messengers to greet them and find out what was happening,
and he ordered his subjects in the area to keep him informed of any
new arrivals. In 1519, he was informed of the arrival of the Spanish
fleet of Hernán Cortés, who soon marched towards Tlaxcallan where he
formed an alliance with the traditional enemies of the Aztecs. On
November 8, 1519, Motecuzoma II received Cortés and his troops and
Tlaxcalan allies on the causeway south of Tenochtitlan, and he invited
the Spaniards to stay as his guests in Tenochtitlan. When
destroyed a Spanish camp on the gulf coast, Cortés ordered Motecuzoma
to execute the commanders responsible for the attack, and Motecuzoma
complied. At this point the power balance had shifted towards the
Spaniards who now held Motecuzoma as a prisoner in his own palace. As
this shift in power became clear to Motecuzoma's subjects the
Spaniards became increasingly unwelcome guests in the capital city,
and in June 1520, hostilities broke out, culminating in the massacre
in the Great Temple, and a major uprising of the
Mexica against the
Spanish. During the fighting Motecuzoma was killed, either by the
Spaniards who killed him as they fled the city or by the Mexica
themselves who considered him a traitor.
Main article: Spanish conquest of the
Cristóbal de Olid
Cristóbal de Olid leads Spanish soldiers with Tlaxcalan allies in the
conquest of Jalisco, 1522
The Spaniards fled the town on July 1, an episode later characterized
La Noche Triste
La Noche Triste (the Sad Night), which was a major victory for the
Aztecs. The Spaniards nevertheless reached Tlaxcallan where they
regrouped and received reinforcements, and began to prepare a campaign
of conquest in collaboration with the Tlaxcalteca. In
new tlatoani was chosen, Motecuzoma's brother Cuitlahuac, but as an
epidemic of smallpox swept through the city he died having ruled less
than a year. At his death Cuauhtemoc, son of
Ahuitzotl was elected
tlahtoani. The Spaniards and thousands of Tlaxcalteca allies returned
in the spring of 1521 to lay siege to Tenochtitlan, beginning by
conquering the altepetl on the lake bank, cutting off communications
and provisions to the island. They then besieged the island of
Tenochtitlan from the land side, also attacking from the lakeside with
ships built for the purpose. The battle ended on August 13 with the
destruction of the city, and the imprisonment of Cuauhtemoc, who was
later executed along with the rulers of
Tlacopan and Texcoco.
After the fall of Tenochtitlan,
Aztec warriors were enlisted as
auxiliary troops alongside the Spanish Tlaxcalteca allies, and Aztec
forces participated in all of the subsequent campaigns of conquest in
northern and southern Mesoamerica. This meant that aspects of Aztec
culture and the
Nahuatl language continued to expand during the early
colonial period as
Aztec auxiliary forces made permanent settlements
in many of the areas that were put under the Spanish crown.
During the colonial period the
Aztec ruling dynasty continued to
govern the "indian republic" of Tenochtitlan, but the subsequent
rulers were mostly puppets installed by the Spanish, such as Andrés
de Tapia Motelchiuh, installed by the Spanish. Other
Aztec city states
likewise came to be governed as "Indian republics" with a local
indigenous gobernador in charge of the political organization of the
Indians, and of providing the Spanish landowners with tribute and
corvee labor. Some indigenous governors became quite rich and
influential and were able to maintain positions of power comparable to
that of Spanish encomenderos.
Colonial period population decline
Main article: Population history of American indigenous peoples
After the arrival of the Europeans in
Mexico and the conquest,
indigenous populations declined significantly. This was largely the
result of the epidemics of viruses brought to the continent against
which the natives had no immunity. In 1520–1521, an outbreak of
smallpox swept through the population of
Tenochtitlan and was decisive
in the fall of the city, further significant epidemics struch in 1545
There has been no general consensus about the population size of
Mexico at the time of European arrival. Early estimates gave very
small population figures for the Valley of Mexico, in 1942 Kubler
estimated a figure 200,000. In 1963 Borah and Cook used
pre-Conquest tribute lists to calculate the number of tributaries in
central Mexico, estimating over 18-30 million. Their very high figure
has been highly criticized for relying un unwarranted assumptions.
Archeologist William Sanders based an estimate on archeological
evidence of dwellings, arriving at an estimate of 1-1.2 million
inhabitants in the Valley of Mexico. Whitmore used a computer
simulation model based on colonial censuses to arrive at an estimate
of 1.5 million for the Basin in 1519, and an estimate of 16 million
for all of Mexico. Depending on the estimations of the population
in 1519 the scale of the decline in the 16th century, range from
around 50% to around 90% - with Sanders' and Whitmore's estimates
being around 90%.
Political and social organization
Nobles and commoners
Main articles: Class in
Aztec society, and Aztec
Folio from the
Codex Mendoza showing a commoner advancing through the
ranks by taking captives in war. Each attire can be achieved by taking
a certain number of captives.
The highest class were the pīpiltin or nobility.[nb 1] The pilli
status was hereditary and ascribed certain privileges to its holder,
such as the right to wear particularly fine garments and consume
luxury goods, as well as to own land and direct corvée labor by
commoners. The most powerful nobles were called lords (Nahuatl
teuctin) and they owned and controlled noble estates or houses, and
could serve in the highest government positions or as military
leaders. Nobles made up about 5% of the population.
The second class were the mācehualtin, originally peasants, but later
extended to the lower working classes in general. Eduardo Noguera
estimates that in later stages only 20% of the population was
dedicated to agriculture and food production. The other 80% of society
were warriors, artisans and traders. Eventually, most of the
mācehuallis were dedicated to arts and crafts. Their works were an
important source of income for the city.
Macehualtin could become
Nahuatl tlacotin) for example if they had to sell
themselves into the service of a noble due to debt or poverty, but
enslavement was not an inherited status among the Aztecs. Some
macehualtin were landless and worked directly for a lord (Nahuatl
mayehqueh), whereas the majority of commoners were organized into
calpollis which gave them access to land and property.
Commoners were able to obtain privileges similar to those of the
nobles by demonstrating prowess in warfare. When a warrior took a
captive he accrued the right to use certain emblems, weapons or
garments, and as he took more captives his rank and prestige
Family and gender
Main article: Women in
Folio from the
Codex Mendoza showing the rearing and education of
Aztec boys and girls, shpowing how they were instructed in different
types of labor and how they were punished for misbehavior
Aztec family pattern was bilateral, counting relatives on the
fathers and mothers side of the family equally, and inheritance was
also passed both to sons and daughters. This meant that women could
own property just as men, and that women therefore had a good deal of
economic freedom from their spouses. Nevertheless,
Aztec society was
highly gendered with separate gender roles for men and women. Men were
expected to work outside of the house, as farmers, traders, craftsmen
and warriors, whereas women were expected to take the responsibility
of the domestic sphere. Women could however also work outside of the
home as small-scale merchants, doctors, priests and midwives. Warfare
was highly valued and a source of high prestige, but women's work was
metaphorically conceived of as equivalent to warfare, and as equally
important in maintaining the equilibrium of the world and pleasing the
gods. This situation has led some scholars to describe
ideology as an ideology not of a gender hierarchy, but of gender
complementarity, with gender roles being separate but equal.
Among the nobles, marriage alliances were often used as a political
strategy with lesser nobles marrying daughters from more prestigious
lineages whose status was then inherited by their children. Nobles
were also often polygamous, with lords having many wives. Polygamy was
not very common among the commoners and some sources describe it as
Altepetl and calpolli
The main unit of
Aztec political organization was the city state, in
Nahuatl called the altepetl, meaning "water-mountain". Each altepetl
was led by a ruler, a tlatoani, with authority over a group of nobles
and a population of commoners. The altepetl included a capital which
served as a religious center, the hub of distribution and organization
of a local population which often lived spread out in minor
settlements surrounding the capital.
Altepetl were also the main
source of ethnic identity for the inhabitants, even though Altepetl
were frequently composed of groups speaking different languages. Each
altepetl would see itself as standing in a political contrast to other
altepetl states, and war was waged between altepetl states. In this
Nahuatl speaking Aztecs of one
Altepetl would be solidary with
speakers of other languages belonging to the same altepetl, but
Nahuatl speakers belonging to other competing altepetl
states. In the valley of
Mexico altepetl was composed of subdivisions
called calpolli, which served as the main organizational unit for
commoners. In Tlaxcala and the Puebla valley, the altepetl was
organized into teccalli units headed by a lord (
Nahuatl tecuhtli), who
would hold sway over a territory and distribute rights to land among
the commoners. A calpolli was at once a territorial unit where
commoners organized labor and land use, since land was not in private
property, and also often a kinship unit as a network of families that
were related through intermarriage. Calpolli leaders might be or
become members of the nobility, in which case they could represent
their calpollis interests in the altepetl government.
In the valley of Morelos,
Michael E. Smith estimates that a typical
altepetl had from 10,000 to 15,000 inhabitants, and covered an area
between 70 and 100 square kilometers. In the Morelos valley altepetl
sizes were somewhat smaller. Smith argues that the altepetl was
primarily a political unit, made up of the population with allegiance
to a lord, rather than as a territorial unit. He makes this
distinction because in some areas minor settlements with different
altepetl allegiances were interspersed.
The maximal extent of the
Aztec Empire: Government
Aztec Empire was ruled by indirect means. Like most European
empires, it was ethnically very diverse, but unlike most European
empires, it was more of a system of tribute than a single system of
government. In the theoretical framework of imperial systems posited
by Alexander J. Motyl, the
Aztec empire was an informal or
hegemonic empire because it did not exert supreme authority over the
conquered lands; it merely expected tributes to be paid. It was also a
discontinuous empire because not all dominated territories were
connected; for example, the southern peripheral zones of Xoconochco
were not in direct contact with the center. The hegemonic nature of
Aztec empire can be seen in the fact that generally local rulers
were restored to their positions once their city-state was conquered,
and the Aztecs did not interfere in local affairs as long as the
tribute payments were made.
Although the form of government is often referred to as an empire, in
fact most areas within the empire were organized as city-states, known
as altepetl in Nahuatl. These were small polities ruled by a king
(tlatoani) from a legitimate dynasty. The Early
Aztec period was a
time of growth and competition among altepetl. Even after the empire
was formed in 1428 and began its program of expansion through
conquest, the altepetl remained the dominant form of organization at
the local level. The efficient role of the altepetl as a regional
political unit was largely responsible for the success of the empire's
hegemonic form of control.
Agriculture and subsistence
Contemporary chinampa agriculture in Xochimilco
As all Mesoamerican peoples
Aztec society was organized around maize
agriculture. The humid environment in the Valley of
Mexico with its
many lakes and swamps permitted intensive agriculture. The main crops
in addition to maize were beans, squashes, chilies and amaranth.
Particularly important for agricultural production in the valley was
the construction of chinampas on the lake, artificial islands that
allowed the conversion of the shallow waters into highly fertile
gardens that could be cultivated year round. Chinampas are areas of
raised land, created from alternating layers of mud from the bottom of
the lake, and plant matter/other vegetation. These “raised beds”
were separated by narrow canals, which allowed farmers to move between
them by canoe. The chinampas were extremely fertile pieces of land,
and yielded, on average, seven crops annually. On the basis of current
chinampa yields, it has been estimated that 1 hectare of chinampa
would feed 20 individuals and 9,000 hectares of chinampas could feed
The Aztecs further intensified agricultural production by constructing
systems of artificial irrigation. While most of the farming occurred
outside the densely populated areas, within the cities there was
another method of (small scale) farming. Each family had their own
garden plot where they grew maize, fruits, herbs, medicines and other
important plants. When the city of
Tenochtitlan became a major urban
center, water was supplied to the city through aqueducts from springs
on the banks of the lake, and they organized a system that collected
human waste for use as fertilizer. Through intensive agriculture the
Aztecs were able to sustain a large urbanized population. The lake was
also a rich source of proteins in the form of aquatic animals such as
fish, amphibians, shrimp, insects and insect eggs, and water fowl. The
presence of such varied sources of protein meant that there was little
use for domestic animals for meat (only turkeys and dogs were kept),
and scholars have calculated that there was no shortage of protein
among the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico.
Crafts and trades
Aztec black on orange ceramic ware
The excess supply of food products allowed a significant portion of
Aztec population to dedicate themselves to trades other than food
production. Apart from taking care of domestic food production women
weaved textiles from agave fibers and cotton. Men also engaged in
craft specializations such as the production of ceramics and of
obsidian and flint tools, and of luxury goods such as beadwork,
featherwork and the elaboration of tools and musical instruments.
Sometimes entire calpollis specialized in a single craft, and in some
archeological sites large neighborhoods have been found where
apparently only a single craft speciality was practiced.
The Aztecs did not produce much metal work, but did have knowledge of
basic smelting technology for gold, and they combined gold with
precious stones such as jade and turquoise. Copper products were
generally imported from the Tarascans of Michoacan.
Trade and distribution
Diorama model of the
Aztec market at Tlatelolco
Products were distributed through a network of markets; some markets
specialized in a single commodity (for example the dog market of
Acolman) and other general markets with presence of many different
goods. Markets were highly organized with a system of supervisors
taking care that only authorized merchants were permitted to sell
their goods, and punishing those who cheated their customers or sold
substandard or counterfeit goods. A typical town would have a weekly
market (every 5 days), while larger cities held markets every day.
Cortés reported that the central market of Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan's
sister city, was visited by 60,000 people daily. Some sellers in the
markets were petty vendors; farmers might sell some of their produce,
potters sold their vessels, and so on. Other vendors were professional
merchants who traveled from market to market seeking profits.
The pochteca were specialized long distance merchants organized into
exclusive guilds. They made long expeditions to all parts of
Mesoamerica bringing back exotic luxury goods, and they served as the
judges and supervisors of the Tlatelolco market. Although the economy
Mexico was commercialized (in its use of money, markets, and
merchants) land and labor were not commodities for sale. In the
commercial sector of the economy several types of money were in
regular use. Small purchases were made with cacao beans, which had to
be imported from lowland areas. In
Aztec marketplaces, a small rabbit
was worth 30 beans, a turkey egg cost 3 beans, and a tamal cost a
single bean. For larger purchases, standardized lengths of cotton
cloth called quachtli were used. There were different grades of
quachtli, ranging in value from 65 to 300 cacao beans. One source
stated that 20 quachtli could support a commoner for one year in
Tenochtitlan. A small gold statue approximately 0.62 kg
(1.37 lb) cost 250 beans.
A folio from the
Codex Mendoza showing the tribute paid to
Tenochtitlan in exotic trade goods by the altepetl of Xoconochco on
the pacific coast
Another form of distribution of goods was through the payment of
tribute. When an altepetl was conquered the victor imposed a yearly
tribute, usually paid in the form of whichever local product was most
valuable or treasured. Several pages from the
Codex Mendoza list
tributary towns along with the goods they supplied, which included not
only luxuries such as feathers, adorned suits, and greenstone beads,
but more practical goods such as cloth, firewood, and food. Tribute
was usually paid twice or four times a year at differing times.
Archaeological excavations in the Aztec-ruled provinces show that
incorporation into the empire had both costs and benefits for
provincial peoples. On the positive side, the empire promoted commerce
and trade, and exotic goods from obsidian to bronze managed to reach
the houses of both commoners and nobles. Trade partners also included
Purépecha (also known as Tarascans), a source of bronze
tools and jewelry. On the negative side, imperial tribute imposed a
burden on commoner households, who had to increase their work to pay
their share of tribute. Nobles, on the other hand, often made out well
under imperial rule because of the indirect nature of imperial
organization. The empire had to rely on local kings and nobles and
offered them privileges for their help in maintaining order and
keeping the tribute flowing.
Aztec society combined a relatively simple agrarian rural tradition
with the development of truly urbanized society with a complex system
of institutions, specializations and hierarchies. The urban tradition
Mesoamerica was developed during the classic period with major
urban centers such as
Teotihuacan with a population well above
100,000, and at the rise of the
Aztec the urban tradition was
ingrained in Mesoamerican society, with urban centers serving major
religious, political and economic functions for the entire
Map of the Island city of Tenochtitlan
The capital city of the
Aztec empire was Tenochtitlan, now the site of
Mexico City. Built on a series of islets in Lake Texcoco,
the city plan was based on a symmetrical layout that was divided into
four city sections called campan (directions).
Tenochtitlan was built
according to a fixed plan and centered on the ritual precinct, where
the Great Pyramid of
Tenochtitlan rose 50 m (164.04 ft)
above the city. Houses were made of wood and loam, roofs were made of
reed, although pyramids, temples and palaces were generally made
of stone. The city was interlaced with canals, which were useful for
transportation. Anthropologist Eduardo Noguera estimates the
population at 200,000 based in the house count and merging the
population of Tlatelolco (once an independent city, but later became a
suburb of Tenochtitlan). If one includes the surrounding islets and
shores surrounding Lake Texcoco, estimates range from 300,000 to
Michael E. Smith gives a somewhat smaller
figure of 212,500 inhabitants of
Tenochtitlan based on an area of
1,350 hectares and a population density of 157. The second largest
city in the valley of
Mexico in the
Aztec period was texcoco with some
25,000 inhabitants dispersed over 450 hectares.
The center of
Tenochtitlan was the sacred precinct, a walled-off
square area which housed the Great Temple, temples for other deities,
the ballcourt, the calmecac (a school for nobles), a skull rack
‘’tzompantli’’, displaying the skulls of sacrificial victims,
houses of the warrior orders, a penitential palace of the tlatoani and
a merchants palace. Around the sacred precinct were the royal palaces
of the rulers.
The Great Temple
Scale model of the Great Temple at the Museo
Templo Mayor in Mexico
The centerpiece of
Tenochtitlan was the Templo Mayor, the Great
Temple, a large stepped pyramid with a double stair case leading up to
two twin shrines – one dedicated to Tlaloc, the other to
Huitzilopochtli. This was where most of the human sacrifices were
carried out during the ritual festivals and the bodies of sacrificial
victims were thrown down the stairs. The temple was enlarged in
several stages, and most of the
Aztec rulers made a point of adding a
further stage, each with a new dedication and inauguration. The temple
has been excavated in the center of
Mexico City and the rich
dedicatory offerings are displayed in the Museum of the Templo
Archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, in his essay "Symbolism of the
Templo Mayor," posits that the orientation of the temple is indicative
of the totality of the vision the
Mexica had of the universe
(cosmovision). He states that the "principal center, or navel, where
the horizontal and vertical planes intersect, that is, the point from
which the heavenly or upper plane and the plane of the Underworld
begin and the four directions of the universe originate, is the Templo
Mayor of Tenochtitlan." Matos Moctezuma supports his supposition by
claiming that the temple acts as an embodiment of a living myth where
"all sacred power is concentrated and where all the levels
Aztec cities were some of the previous city state centers
around the lake including Tenayuca, Azcapotzalco, Texcoco, Colhuacan,
Tlacopan, Chapultepec, Coyoacan, Xochimilco, and Chalco. In the Puebla
valley Cholula was the largest city with the largest pyramid temple in
Mesoamerica, while the confederacy of Tlaxcala consisted of four
smaller cities. In Morelos, Cuahnahuac was a major city of the Nahuatl
speaking Tlahuica tribe, and Tollocan in the Toluca valley was the
capital of the Matlatzinca tribe which included
Nahuatl speakers as
well as speakers of Otomi and the language today called Matlatzinca.
Aztec cities had a similar layout with a central plaza with a
major pyramid with two staircases and a double temple oriented towards
Aztec religion was organized around the practice of calendar rituals
dedicated to a pantheon of different deities. Similar to other
Mesoamerican religious systems it has generally been understood as a
polytheist agriculturalist religion with elements of animism. Central
in the religious practice was the offering of sacrifices to the
deities, as a way of thanking or paying for the continuation of the
cycle of life.
Main article: List of
Aztec gods and supernatural beings
Tezcatlipoca depicted in the Codex Borgia, one of the few
extant pre-Hispanic codices
The main deities worshipped by the Aztecs were Tlaloc, a rain and
Huitzilopochtli a solar and martial deity and the
tutelary deity of the
Mexica tribe, Quetzalcoatl, a wind, sky and star
deity and cultural hero, Tezcatlipoca, a deity of the night, magic,
prophecy and fate. The Great Temple in
Tenochtitlan had two shrines on
its top, one dedicated to Tlaloc, the other to Huitzilopochtli.
Tezcatlipoca each had separate temples within the
religious precinct close to the Great Temple, and the high priests of
the Great Temple were named “’’Quetzalcoatl
Tlamacazqueh’’”. Other major deities were
Coatlicue a female earth deity, the deity couple
Tonacacihuatl were associated with life and sustenance, Mictlantecutli
and Mictlancihuatl, a male/female couple of deities of the underworld
and death, Chalchiutlicue, a female deity of lakes and springs, Xipe
Totec, a deity of fertility and the natural cycle,
Xiuhtecuhtli a fire god,
Tlazolteotl a femal deity tied to childbirth
and sexuality, and a
Xochiquetzal gods of song, dance
and games. In some regions, particularly Tlaxcala,
Camaxtli was the main tribal deity. A few sources mention a deity
Ometeotl who may have been a god of the duality between life and
death, male and female and who may have incorporated Tonacatecuhtli
and Tonacacihuatl. Apart from the major deities there were dozens of
minor deities each associated with an element or concept, and as the
Aztec empire grew so did their pantheon because they adopted and
incorporated the local deities of conquered people into their own.
Additionally the major gods had many alternative manifestations or
aspects, creating small families of gods with related aspects.
Mythology and Cosmovision
Aztec cosmological drawing with the god Xiuhtecuhtli, the lord of fire
and of the Calendar in the center and the other important gods
occupying the four cosmic directions around him each in front of a
sacred tree. From the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer.
Aztec mythology is known from a number of sources written down in the
colonial period. One set of myths, called Legend of the Suns, describe
the creation of four successive suns, or periods, each ruled by a
different deity and inhabited by a different group of beings. Each
period ends in a cataclysmic destruction that sets the stage for the
next period to begin. In this process, the deities
Quetzalcoatl appear as adversaries, each destroying the creations of
the other. The current Sun, the fifth, was created when a minor deity
sacrificed himself on a bonfire and turned into the sun, but the sun
only begins to move once the other deities sacrifice themselves and
offers it their life force.
In another myth of how the earth was created
Quetzalcoatl appear as allies, defeating a giant crocodile Cipactli
and requiring her to become the earth, allowing humans to carve into
her flesh and plant their seeds, on the condition that in return they
will offer blood to her. And in the story of the creation of humanity
Quetzalcoatl travels with his twin Xolotl to the underworld and brings
back bones which are then ground like corn on a metate by the goddess
Cihuacoatl, the resulting dough is given human form and comes to life
Quetzalcoatl imbues it with his own blood.
Huitzilopochtli is the deity tied to the
Mexica tribe and he figures
in the story of the origin and migrations of the tribe. On their
journey, Huitzilopochtli, in the form of a deity bundle carried by the
Mexica priest, continuously spurs the tribe on by pushing them into
conflict with their neighbors whenever they are settled in a place. In
Huitzilopochtli defeats and dismembers his sister the
lunar deity Coyolxauhqui and her four hundred brothers at the hill of
Coatepetl. The southern side of the Great Temple, also called
Coatepetl, was a representation of this myth and at the food of the
stairs lay a large stone monolith carved with a representation of the
The so-called "
Aztec calendar stone" or "Sun Stone", a large stone
monolith unearthed in
Mexico City depicting the five eras of Aztec
mythical history, with the calendric images adoring the edges.
Aztec religious life was organized around the calendars. As most
Mesoamerican people, the Aztecs used two calendars simultaneously: a
ritual calendar of 260 days called the tonalpohualli and a solar
calendar of 365 days called the xiuhpohualli. Each day had a name and
number in both calendars, and the combination of two dates were unique
within a period of 52 years. The tonalpohualli was mostly used for
divinatory purposes and it consisted of 20 day signs and number
coefficients of 1–13 that cycled in a fixed order. The xiuhpohualli
was made up of 18 “months” of 20 days, and with a remainder of 5
“void” days at the end of a cycle before the new xiuhpohualli
cycle began. Each 20-day month was named after the specific ritual
festival that began the month, many of which contained a relation to
the agricultural cycle. Whether, and how, the
Aztec calendar corrected
for leap year is a matter of discussion among specialists. The monthly
rituals involved the entire population as rituals were performed in
each household, in the calpolli temples and in the main sacred
precinct. Many festivals involved different forms of dancing, as well
as the reenactment of mythical narratives by deity impersonators and
the offering of sacrifice, in the form of food, animals and human
Every 52 years the two calendars reached their shared starting point
and a new calendar cycle began. This calendar event was celebrated
with a ritual known as Xiuhmolpilli or the New Fire Ceremony. In this
ceremony old pottery was broken in all homes and all fires in the
Aztec realm were put out. Then a new fire was drilled over the breast
of a sacrificial victim and runners brought the new fire to the
different ‘’calpolli’’ communities where fire was
redistributed to each home. The night without fire was associated with
the fear that star demons, ‘’tzitzimime’’, might descend and
devour the earth ending the fifth period of the sun.
Main article: Human sacrifice in
Human sacrifice as shown in the Codex Magliabechiano
To the Aztecs, death was instrumental in the perpetuation of creation,
and gods and humans alike had the responsibility of sacrificing
themselves in order to allow life to continue. As described in the
myth of creation above, humans were understood as responsible for the
sun's continued revival, as well as for the paying the earth for its
continued fertility. Blood sacrifice in various forms were conducted.
Both humans and animals were sacrificed, depending on the god to be
placated and the ceremony being conducted, and priests of some gods
were sometimes required to provide their own blood through
self-mutilation. It is known that some rituals included acts of
cannibalism, with the captor and his family consuming part of the
flesh of their sacrificed captives, but it is not known how widespread
this practice was.
While human sacrifice was practiced throughout Mesoamerica, the
Aztecs, if their own accounts are to be believed, brought this
practice to an unprecedented level. For example, for the
reconsecration of the Great Pyramid of
Tenochtitlan in 1487, the
Aztecs reported that they sacrificed 80,400 prisoners over the course
of four days, reportedly by Ahuitzotl, the Great Speaker himself. This
number, however, is not universally accepted.
The scale of
Aztec human sacrifice has provoked many scholars to
consider what may have been the driving factor behind this aspect of
Aztec religion. In the 1970s, Michael Harner and
Marvin Harris argued
that the motivation behind human sacrifice among the Aztecs was
actually the cannibalization of the sacrificial victims. Harner
claimed that very high population pressure and an emphasis on maize
agriculture, without domesticated herbivores, led to a deficiency of
essential amino acids amongst the Aztecs. While there is universal
agreement that the Aztecs practiced sacrifice, there is a lack of
scholarly consensus as to whether cannibalism was widespread. Harris,
Cannibals and Kings
Cannibals and Kings (1977), has propagated the claim,
originally proposed by Harner, that the flesh of the victims was a
part of an aristocratic diet as a reward, since the
Aztec diet was
lacking in proteins. These claims have been refuted by Bernard Ortíz
Montellano who, in his studies of
Aztec health, diet, and medicine,
demonstrates that while the
Aztec diet was low in animal proteins, it
was rich in vegetable proteins. Ortiz also points to the preponderance
of human sacrifice during periods of food abundance following harvests
compared to periods of food scarcity, the insignificant quantity of
human protein available from sacrifices and the fact that aristocrats
already had easy access to animal protein. Today many scholars
point to ideological explanations of the practice, noting how the
public spectacle of sacrificing warriors from conquered states was a
major display of political power, supporting the claim of the ruling
classes to divine authority. It also served as an important
deterrent against rebellion by subjugated polities against the Aztec
state, and such deterrents were crucial in order for the loosely
organized empire to cohere.
Art and cultural production
Writing and iconography
An example of
Nahuatl writing of three place names.
The Aztecs did not have a fully developed writing system like the Maya
did, but like the Maya and Zapotec they did use a writing system that
combined logographic signs with phonetic syllable signs. Logograms
would for example be the use of an image of a mountain to signify the
word tepetl "mountain", whereas a phonetic syllable sign would be the
use of an image of a tooth tlantli to signify the syllable tla in
words unrelated to teeth. The combination of these principles allowed
the Aztecs to represent the sounds of names of persons and places.
Narratives tended to be represented through sequences of images, using
different iconographic conventions such as footprints to show paths,
temples on fire to show conquest events etc.
Epigrapher Alfonso Lacadena has demonstrated that the different
syllable signs used by the Aztecs almost enabled the representation of
all the most frequent syllables of the
Nahuatl language (with some
notable exceptions), but some scholars have argued that such a
high degree of phoneticity was only achieved after the conquest when
the Aztecs had been introduced to the principles of phonetic writing
by the Spanish. Other scholars, notably Gordon Whittaker, have
argued that the syllabic and phonetic aspects of
Aztec writing were
considerably less systematic and more creative than Lacadena's
proposal suggests, arguing that
Aztec writing never coalesced into a
strictly syllabic system such as the Maya writing, but rather used a
wide range of different types of phonetic signs.
The image to right demonstrates the use of phonetic signs for writing
place names in the colonial
Aztec Codex Mendoza. The uppermost place
is "Mapachtepec", meaning literally "On the Hill of the Raccoon ", but
the glyph includes the phonetic signs "MA" (hand) and "PACH" (moss)
over a mountain "TEPETL" spelling the word "mapach" ("raccoon")
phonetically instead of logographically. The other two placenames
Mazatlan ("Place of Many Deer") and Huitztlan ("Place of many thorns")
use the phonetic element "TLAN" represented by a tooth (tlantli)
combined with a deer head to spell "MAZA" (mazatl = deer) and a thorn
(huitztli) to spell "HUITZ".
Music, song and poetry
Aztec slit-drums (
Song and poetry were highly regarded; there were presentations and
poetry contests at most of the
Aztec festivals. There were also
dramatic presentations that included players, musicians and acrobats.
There were several different genres of cuicatl (song): Yaocuicatl was
devoted to war and the god(s) of war, Teocuicatl to the gods and
creation myths and to adoration of said figures, xochicuicatl to
flowers (a symbol of poetry itself and indicative of the highly
metaphorical nature of a poetry that often utilized duality to convey
multiple layers of meaning). "Prose" was tlahtolli, also with its
different categories and divisions.
A key aspect of
Aztec poetics was the use of parallelism, using a
structure of embedded couplets to express different perspectives on
the same element. Some such couplets were diphrasisms,
conventional metaphors whereby an abstract concept was expressed
metaphorically by using two more concrete concepts. For example, the
Nahuatl expression for "poetry" was in xochitl in cuicatl a dual term
meaning "the flower, the song", and the term for painted books and the
knowledge associated with them was in tlilli in tlapalli – "the
black ink, the red paint.
A remarkable amount of this poetry survives, having been collected
during the era of the conquest. In some cases poetry is attributed to
individual authors, such as Nezahualcoyotl, tlatoani of Texcoco, and
Cuacuauhtzin, Lord of Tepechpan, but whether these attributions
reflect actual authorship is a matter of opinion. Important collection
of such poems are Romances de los señores de la Nueva España,
collected (Tezcoco 1582), probably by Juan Bautista de Pomar,[nb 2]
and the Cantares Mexicanos.
Aztec bowl for everyday use. Black on orange ware, a simple Aztec
IV style flower design.
Aztec polychrome vessel typical of the Cholula region.
A life-size ceramic sculpture of an
Aztec eagle warrior
The Aztecs produced ceramics of different types. Common are orange
wares, which are orange or buff burnished ceramics with no slip. Red
wares are ceramics with a reddish slip. And polychrome ware are
ceramics with a white or orange slip, with painted designs in orange,
red, brown, and/or black. Very common is "black on orange" ware which
is orange ware decorated with painted designs in black.
Aztec black on orange ceramics are chronologically classified into
Aztec I and II corresponding to ca, 1100-1350 (early
Aztec II ca. (1350-1520), and the last phase
was the early colonial period.
Aztec I is characterized by floral
designs and day- name glyphs;
Aztec II is characterized by a stylized
grass design above calligraphic designs such as s-curves or scrolls;
Aztec III is characterized by very simple line designs;
continues some pre-columbian designs but adds European influenced
floral designs. There were local variations on each of these styles,
and archeologists continue to refine the ceramic sequence.
Typical vessels for everyday use were clay griddles for cooking
(comalli), bowls and plates for eating (caxitl), pots for cooking
(comitl) molcajetes or mortar-type vesses with slashed bases for
grinding chile(molcaxitl), and different kinds of braziers, tripod
dishes and biconical goblets. Vessels were fired in simple updraft
kilns or even in open firing in pit kilns at low temperatures.
Page from the pre-columbian
Codex Borgia a folding codex painted on
deer skin prepared with gesso.
Aztec painted art was produced on animal skin (mostly deer), on cotton
lienzos and on amate paper made from bark (e.g. from Trema micrantha
or Ficus aurea), it was also produced on ceramics and carved in wood
and stone. The surface of the material was often first treated with
gesso to make the images stand out more clearly.
In the Nahua treatise on art in The Florentine Codex, the venerated
painters (the toltecaye) describe the colors, how they were obtained
from nature, how they were produced, and how people painted with them.
According to Magaloni Kerpel in The Colors of the New World, the
treatise organizes colors according to a system of “complementary
polarities.” The colors are divided into the organic (those
obtained from plants and insects) and mineral (those obtained from the
earth). Furthermore, saturated and vibrant colors contrasted opaque
and dark colors. There was also a distinction between primary
(red, blue, yellow, black, and white) and secondary colors (green,
purple, brown, and ochre). Each color had a specific significance
based on their raw material and their natural state. Black ink was
largely used to outline colored images. Rather than mixing colors,
artists would often layer them in order to make them more intense.
Lastly, most of the colorants and pigments used in the Florentine
Codex were of Mesoamerican origin; however, the only European paint
pigment found in the codex is minium (red lead). Minium was so
often used in European medieval illuminated manuscripts that those
paintings "were called miniatures from miniare in Latin, which means
'to color with red.'" In the Florentine Codex, minium's use was
specific: it was used on images that describe or indicate the
colonial, Spanish present as a new era of
Aztec history. Minimum
(the European pigment) represented the present as it was dominated by
Spaniards who had one the colonial war, while nocheztli (the
Mesoamerican red pigment) represented the primitive, indigenous past
of New Spain. Thus, the contrast between the saturated and diluted
colors were utilized to indicate two temporalities in Mesoamerican
Large basalt stone sculpture representing the deity xochipilli, at the
Mexican Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia.
Sculptures were carved in stone and wood, but few wood carvings have
Aztec stone sculptures exist in many sizes from small
figurines to large monuments, and are characterized by a high quality
Most modern-day Mexicans (and people of Mexican descent in other
countries) are mestizos, of mixed indigenous and European ancestry.
During the 16th century the racial composition of
Mexico began to
change from one that featured distinct indigenous (Mexicas and members
of the many other Mexican indigenous groups) and colonizer (mostly
Spanish) populations, to the population composed primarily of mestizos
that is found in modern-day Mexico.
Nahuatl language is today spoken by 1.5 million people, mostly in
mountainous areas in the states of central Mexico. Local dialects of
Spanish, Mexican Spanish generally, and the Spanish language worldwide
have all been influenced, in varying degrees, by Nahuatl. Some Nahuatl
words (most notably chocolate and tomato) have been borrowed through
Spanish into other languages around the world.
Mexico City was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, making it one of
the oldest living cities of the Americas. Many of its districts and
natural landmarks retain their original
Nahuatl names. Many other
cities and towns in
Mexico and Central America have also retained
Nahuatl names (whether or not they were originally
even Nahuatl-speaking towns). A number of town names are hybrids of
Nahuatl and Spanish.
Mexican cuisine continues to be based on and flavored by agricultural
products contributed by the Mexicas/Aztecs and Mesoamerica, most of
which retain some form of their original
Nahuatl names. The cuisine
has also become a popular part of the cuisine of the United States and
other countries around the world, typically altered to suit various
national tastes.
The modern Mexican flag bears the emblem of the
Before the development of archaeology in
Mexico in the 19th century,
historians mainly interpreted the records of the Spanish conquerors
and the accounts of early European travellers and antiquaries who
investigated the enigmatic monuments the Indians left to posterity. It
was not until the nineteenth century that the work of men such as John
Lloyd Stephens, Eduard Seler and Alfred P. Maudslay, and of
institutions such as the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, led to
a better appreciation of the evidence available. Subsequently, there
emerged indigenous Mexican archaeologists of international caliber.
Archaeology allowed the reconsideration and criticism of some of those
interpretations and contradictions between the primary sources. Now,
the scholarly study of
Aztec civilization is most often based on
scientific and multidisciplinary methodologies.
A painting of Tlaloc, as shown on page 20R of Codex Rios
There are few extant
Aztec codices created before the conquest and
these are largely ritual texts. Post-conquest codices, like Codex
Mendoza or Codex Ríos, were painted by
Aztec tlacuilos (codex
creators), but under the control of Spanish authorities. The
possibility of Spanish influence poses potential problems for those
studying the post-conquest codices.
Itzcoatl had the oldest
hieroglyphics destroyed for political-religious reasons and Bishop
Mexico (1528–48) had all available texts burned for
The accounts of the conquistadors are those of men confronted with a
new civilization, which they tried to interpret according to their own
culture. Cortés was the most educated, and his letters to Charles V
are a valuable firsthand account. Unfortunately, one of his letters is
lost and replaced by a posterior text and the others were censored
prior to their publication. In any case, Cortés was not writing a
dispassionate account, but letters justifying his actions and to some
extent exaggerating his successes and downplaying his failures.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo
Bernal Díaz del Castillo accompanied Cortes, and he later wrote a
book named: The Discovery and Conquest of
Mexico (1632).[nb 3] In his
Bernal Díaz del Castillo
Bernal Díaz del Castillo provides his account of the
Conquest of Mexico, in which he describes the events leading up to the
conquest of Mexico, including accounts of the human sacrifices and
cannibalism that he witnessed first hand. However, Bernal Díaz wrote
several decades after the fact, never learned the native languages,
and did not take notes. His account is colorful, but his work is
considered by historians to be erratic and exaggerated.[citation
Francisco López de Gómara
Francisco López de Gómara was Cortes' chaplain, friend, and
confidant, he never visited the New World so his account is based on
Priests and scholars
The accounts of the first priests and scholars, while reflecting their
faith and their culture, are important sources. Fathers Diego Durán,
Motolinia, and Mendieta wrote with their own religion in mind, Father
Duran wrote trying to prove that the
Aztec were one of the lost tribes
Bartolomé de las Casas
Bartolomé de las Casas wrote apologetically about the
Indians, accusing the Spanish conquistadors of committing unspeakable
atrocities in their subjugation of the Aztecs and other indigenous
groups. Some authors tried to make a synthesis of the pre-Hispanic
cultures, like "Oviedo y Herrera", Jose de Acosta, and Pedro Mártir
de Anghiera.[clarification needed]
The most significant source about the
Aztec are doubtless the
manuscripts of Bernardino de Sahagún, who worked with Christian Aztec
youths from Texcoco,
Azcapotzalco and Tlatelolco who studying at the
Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco. With his assistants he
Aztec elders who had knowledge of the prehispanic customs
and recorded it in a bilingual 12 volume codex written in parallel
Nahuatl and Såpanish columns. The work is now known as the Florentine
Other important sources are the work of native and mestizo authors,
descendants of the upper classes. These authors include Don Fernando
Chimalpahin Cuauhtlehuanitzin, Juan Bautista de
Pomar, and Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxochitl. Ixtlixochitl, for
example, wrote a history of Texcoco from a Christian point of view.
His account of Netzahualcoyotl, an ancestor of Ixtlilxochitl's, has a
strong resemblance to the story of King Solomon and portrays
Netzahualcoyotl as a monotheist and a critic of human
Diego Muñoz Camargo (1521 – c. 1612), a Tlaxcalan mestizo,
History of Tlaxcala
History of Tlaxcala six decades after the Spanish conquest.
Some parts of his work have a strong Tlaxcala bias.
Indigenous peoples of the Americas
Indigenous peoples of the Americas portal
History of Mexico
List of Mexico-
^ singular form pilli
^ This volume was later translated into Spanish by Ángel María
Garibay K., teacher of León-Portilla, and it exists in English
translation by John Bierhorst
^ Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España, Escrita por
el Capitan Bernal Diaz del Castillo, uno de sus
conquistadores – Published in the Spanish language by
Fernandez, Editores S.A.
Mexico City, (Published in the English
language by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy in 1956 LCCN 56-5758)
^ a b Smith 1997, pp. 4–7
^ Smith 1997, pp. 174–75
^ Smith 1997, pp. 176–82
^ a b Náhuatl: AR-Z. (n.d.). Vocabulario.com.mx. Retrieved August 30,
2012, form "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-10-17.
^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". etymonline.com. Archived from the
original on 2014-07-07.
^ Smith 1997, p. 4.
^ Lockhart 1992, p. 1.
^ Smith 1997, p. 2.
^ Campbell 1997, p. 134.
^ Miguel Leon Portilla (2000). "Aztecas, disquisiciones sobre un
gentilicio". Estudios de la cultura nahuatl. p. 6.
^ Beekman & Christensen 2003.
^ Smith 1997, p. 41-43.
^ Smith 1984.
^ Smith 1984, p. 173.
^ Townsend 2009, pp. 60–62.
^ Townsend 2009, p. 63.
^ Townsend 2009, pp. 64–74.
^ Townsend 2009, pp. 74–75.
^ Townsend 2009, pp. 78–81.
^ Gillespie 1989 argues that the name "Motecuzoma" was a later
addition added to make for a parallel to the later ruler, and that his
original name was only "Ilhuicamina".
^ Townsend 2009, pp. 91–98.
^ Some sources, including the Relación de Tula and the history of
Motolinia, suggest that Atotoztli functioned as ruler of Tenochtitlan
succeeding her father. Indeed no conquests are recorded for Motecuzoma
in the last years of his reign, suggesting that he may have been
incapable of ruling, or even dead (Diel 2005).
^ Townsend 2009, p. 99.
^ Townsend 2009, pp. 99–100.
^ Townsend 2009, pp. 100–01.
^ Townsend 2009, pp. 101–10.
^ Townsend 2009, p. 110.
^ Townsend 2009, pp. 220–36.
^ Restall 2004.
^ Townsend 2009, pp. 232–37.
^ Matthew & Oudijk 2007.
^ Lockhart 1992.
^ McCaa, Robert 1995 Spanish and
Nahuatl Views on
Demographic Catastrophe in Mexico. Journal of Interdisciplinary
^ Kubler, George. "Population Movements in Mexico, 1520-1600."
Hispanic American Historical Review 22, no. 4 (Nov. 1942) pp. 606-643.
^ Sanders, William T. "The Population of the Central Mexican Symbiotic
Region, the Basin of Mexico, and the
Teotihuacan Valley in the
Sixteenth-century," in William Denevan (ed.), The Native Population of
the Americas in 1492. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976
[rev. ed. 1992], p. 120
^ Whitmore, Thomas M. Disease and Death in Early Colonial Mexico:
Simulating Amerindian Depopulation. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.
^ McCaa, Robert. 1997. The Peopling of
Mexico from Origins to
Revolution (preliminary draft) "Archived copy". Archived from the
original on 2017-07-12. Retrieved 2018-02-17.
^ Morfín, Lourdes Márquez, and Rebecca Storey. "Population History
in Precolumbian and Colonial Times." The Oxford Handbook of the Aztecs
^ Smith 2008, p. 154.
^ Annals of Anthropology, UNAM, Vol. xi, 1974, p. 56
^ Sanders, William T., Settlement Patterns in Central Mexico. Handbook
of Middle American Indians, 1971, vol. 3, p. 3–44.
^ Smith 2008, pp. 153–54.
^ Smith 1997, pp. 152-153.
^ Burkhart 1997.
^ Hassig 2016.
^ Lockhart 1992, pp. 14–47.
^ Townsend 2009, pp. 61–62.
^ Smith 2008, pp. 90–91.
^ Motyl, Alexander J. (2001). Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and
Revival of Empires. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 13,
19–21, 32–36. ISBN 0-231-12110-5.
^ Berdan, et al. (1996),
Aztec Imperial Strategies. Dumbarton Oaks,
Washington, DC[page needed]
^ Smith, Michael E. (2000),
Aztec City-States. In A Comparative Study
of Thirty City-State Cultures, edited by Mogens Herman Hansen, pp.
581–95. The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters,
^ a b Eduardo Noguera (1974). "Sitios de Ocupacion de la periferia de
Tenochtitlan". Anales de Antropologia,UNAM (XI ed.).
^ Townsend 2009, pp. 171–79.
^ Brumfiel 1998.
^ Townsend 2009, pp. 181–96.
^ Townsend 2009, pp. 184, 193.
^ (Smith, The Aztecs, 2nd edition, chapter 5)
^ Hirth 2016.
^ The Codex Mendoza, edited by F. Berdan and P. Anawalt, University of
California Press, 1992
^ Smith, Life in the Provinces of the
Aztec empire, Scientific
American, September 1997
^ a b Smith 2008.
Winkler Prins encyclopedia
Winkler Prins encyclopedia (8th ed.). 1975.
^ Smith 2008, p. 152.
^ Smith 1997, p. 196-200.
^ López Luján 2005.
^ Matos Moctezuma 1987.
^ Matos Moctezuma 1988.
^ Smith 1997, pp. 204, 211-212, 221-222.
^ Taube 1993, pp. 31–33.
^ Taube 1993, pp. 41–44.
^ Taube 1993, pp. 33–37.
^ Taube 1993, pp. 44–50.
^ Hassig 2001, pp. 7–19.
^ Elson & Smith 2001.
^ Isaac 2005.
^ Isaac 2002.
^ Harner 1977.
^ Ortíz de Montellano 1990.
^ Ortíz de Montellano 1983.
^ Carrasco 1999.
^ Keen 2001.
^ Prem 1992.
^ Lacadena 2008.
^ Zender 2008.
^ Whittaker 2009.
^ Berdan & Anawalt 1997, p. 116.
^ Tomlinson 1995.
^ Karttunen & Lockhart 1980.
^ Bright 1990.
^ Montes de Oca 2013, pp. 160.
^ León-Portilla 1992b, pp. 14-15.
^ Hodge et al. 1993.
^ a b c Minc 2017.
^ a b c d e f Magaloni Kerpel, Diana (2014). The Colors of the New
World. Getty Research Institute: Getty Publications. p. 45.
^ Nicholson 1971.
^ Bernal, A History of Mexican Archaeology: The Vanished Civilizations
of Middle America.
^ Holtker, George," Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol 1/5, "The
Mexico and Peru", Catholic Truth Society.
^ León-Portilla 2002.
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(trans., annot., and introd.) (Translation of Historia de las Indias
de Nueva-España y Islas de Tierra Firme, 1st English ed.). Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-2649-3.
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Superstitions and Customs That Today Live Among the Indians Native to
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translated & edited by J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hassig
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supersticiones y costumbres gentílicas que oy viven entre los indios
naturales desta Nueva España, first English ed.). Norman: University
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(in Nahuatl) (in English)
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Arthur J.O. Anderson (eds., trans.,
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Sullivan (English trans. and paleography of
Nahuatl text), with H.B.
Nicholson, Arthur J.O. Anderson, Charles E. Dibble, Eloise Quiñones
Keber, and Wayne Ruwet (completion, revisions, and ed.). Norman:
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Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Aztec.
Aztecs at Mexicolore: constantly updated educational site specifically
on the Aztecs, for serious students of all ages.
Nahuatl / Tenochtitlan: Ancient
Mesoamerica resources at
University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota Duluth
Aztec history, culture and religion B. Diaz del Castillo, The
Discovery and Conquest of
Mexico (tr. by A. P. Maudsley, 1928, repr.
Demographic Disaster in
Mexico 1519-1595 at the Department of History
at the University of Minnesota
Michael E. Smith's student bibliography on the Aztecs.
"Article: "Life in the Provinces of the
(PDF). (538 KiB)
Tlahuica Culture Home Page (an
Aztec group from Morelos, Mexico)
"The Aztecs-looking behind the myths" on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time
featuring Alan Knight, Adrian Locke and Elizabeth Graham
Aztec Collection: photographs of
Aztec tools and weapons
Pre-Columbian civilizations and cultures
Archaeology of the Americas
Indigenous peoples of the Americas
North American pre-Columbian cultures
Mesoamerican pre-Columbian chronology
Shaft tomb tradition
South American Indigenous people
Cultural periods of Peru
Hydraulic culture of mounds (Bolivia)
La Tolita (Tumaco)
Architecture (road system)
K'inich Janaab' Pakal
Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil
Jasaw Chan K'awiil I
Manco Inca Yupanqui
Spanish conquest of Yucatán
(Francisco de Montejo)
Spanish conquest of Guatemala
(Pedro de Alvarado)
(Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada)
(Hernán Pérez de Quesada)
(List of conquistadors)
Portal:Indigenous peoples of North America
Mesoamerican writing systems
Native American cuisine
Native American pottery
Population history of indigenous peoples of the Americas
Painting in the Americas before European colonization
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