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The ancestors of the Aztecs settled on a marshy island in Lake Texcoco in either 1325 or
1345. According to legend the Aztecs settled at a place where they saw an eagle
perched on a cactus with a snake in its mouth. They took this as a sign from their god
that they should settle there. The Aztecs called the place Tenochtitlan, which means
place of the cactus. At first they were an unimportant people but in the 15th century the
Aztecs gradually built up a large empire.
The Aztec empire was not an 'empire' like the Roman Empire, which was ruled from one
city. The Aztecs conquered the surrounding peoples. However the Aztecs did not usually
rule other nations. Instead they forced them to pay tribute (goods like gold, feathers,
weapons and precious stones). The Aztec 'empire', was more like a collection of states
dominated by the Aztecs. The conquered people had to send soldiers to serve the Aztec
emperor when they were needed.
Meanwhile the Aztecs built up the island in the lake by driving wooden stakes into the
bed of the lake then laying earth and rocks. They turned Tenochtitlan into a great city,
with a population of over 100,000. The city was laid out in a grid pattern with
marketplaces. In the center were the emperor's palace and the great temple, which was
a step pyramid.
Tenochtitlan was intersected with canals for moving goods. The streets of Tenochtitlan
were regularly cleaned and there were public lavatories. The sewage was used for
fertilizer. The great city on an island was joined to the mainland by four causeways. Two
aqueducts brought water into the city.
Aztec Society
Aztec society was divided into classes. At the very top was the emperor. Below him were
the nobles and priests. Below them were merchants, craftsmen, peasants and then
Merchants formed a class of their own. They lived in their own areas of cities and their
children usually married the children of other merchants. Merchants who carried out
long distance trade were called pochteca.
There were also many craftsmen in Aztec society. Although the Aztecs did not use iron
and bronze some craftsmen made jewelry from gold, silver and copper. Other craftsmen
made objects of obsidian, jade and semi-precious stones. There were also feather
workers who made things like headdresses from feathers.
Most of the slaves were people who had committed a crime and been sentenced to
slavery or very poor people who sold themselves into slavery. However Aztec slaves did
have some rights. They could own property and marry. Any children they had were born
free. A master had to punish his slave 3 times, in front of witnesses before he could sell
him. However if a slave was sold 3 times by 3 different masters he could then be sold for
Aztec Religion
Aztecs were polytheists. That is they worshipped many gods. The Aztecs believed that
the gods needed to be 'fed' with human hearts and blood. So prisoners were sacrificed
by having their hearts cut out.
Among the most important gods were Huitzilopochtli, god of war and the sun, Tlaloc the
god of rain (if there was a drought the Aztecs sacrificed babies to the rain god, believing
their babies tears would bring rain) and Quetzalcoatl (whose name means feathered
snake), the god of learning and wind.
The Aztecs believed that warriors who died in battle, people who were sacrificed and
women who died in childbirth went to join the sun god in paradise. For everyone else
there were 13 Heavens and 9 Hells. After your death you went to the one most suitable
for you.
Aztec Warfare
War was very important to the Aztecs - partly because they needed prisoners to
sacrifice. Aztecs fought with bows and arrows. They also used wooden spears. The
wooden head of the spear was lined with sharp stones. Aztec warriors also used
wooden clubs lined with sharp blades of obsidian (a form of hard volcanic glass).
Warriors wore costumes made of quilted cotton soaked in salt water to make it stiff.
They carried wicker shields for protection.
All Aztec boys were expected to serve in the army when they were old enough. However
the aim of war was not to kill the enemy but to take as many captives as possible.
Elite warriors were the jaguar warriors who wore fur costumes and eagle warriors who
wore costumes and helmets with feathers.
Aztec Food
Maize was the staple crop of the Aztecs. Aztec women ground the maize into flour on a
stone slab with a stone roller. It was then made into flour and baked into a kind of
pancake called a tortilla. Aztec women cooked on a clay disc called a comal, which stood
on stones above.
Maize was made into a kind of porridge called atole. The Aztecs ate 'envelopes' of
steamed maize called tamales stuffed with vegetables, meat or eggs.
The Aztecs also ate tomatoes, avocados, beans and peppers, as well as pumpkins,
squashes, peanuts and amaranth seeds. They also ate fruit such as limes and cactus
The Aztecs diet also included rabbits, turkeys and armadillos. They also ate dogs.
However meat was a luxury for the Aztecs and ordinary people only ate it infrequently.
The Aztec nobles drank an alcoholic drink called octli, from fermented maguey juice.
Upper class Aztecs drank chocolate made from cocoa beans. It was flavored with vanilla
and honey.
Poor people drank water or sometimes an alcoholic drink called pulque.
To grow food Aztec farmers did not have ploughs. However they did use tools like a
digging stick, clod breaker and hoe. The Aztecs created small islands on marshy lakes.
These were called chinampas. First plots of land were staked out with canals between
them so they could be reached by canoe. The chinampa was built up in layers made of
plants from the lake and mud from its bottom. The Aztecs planted willows around the
edges of chinampas to make them more secure.
Aztec Houses
Ordinary Aztecs lived in simple huts, often of just one room. The huts were made of
adobe and any furniture was very simple such as reed mats to sleep on or sit on and low
tables. Wooden chests were used to store clothes.
Aztec nobles lived in much grander houses with many rooms. They were usually shaped
like a hollow square with a central courtyard. It often contained gardens and fountains.
By law only upper class Aztecs could build a house with a second storey. If ordinary
Aztecs did they could be executed.
Aztecs were clean people. Many homes had steam baths next to them. They were small
rooms with a furnace outside. The furnace heated the walls of the steam bath. When an
Aztec inside the steam bath threw water on the wall it turned to steam.
Aztec Clothes
Different classes of Aztecs wore different clothes. Upper class Aztecs wore cotton
clothes and feather headdresses. Ordinary people wore clothes made from maguey
plant fiber. Men wore loin cloths and cloaks tied with a knot at one shoulder. Women
wore wrap around skirts and tunics with short sleeves. Married women coiled their hair
on top of their heads.
By law only upper class Aztecs could wear cotton. If commoners wore cotton clothes
they could be put to death.
Aztec women wove clothes in their own homes.
The Aztecs like bright dyes. A red dye was made from the cochineal beetle. It took about
70,000 beetles to make half a kilo of dye.
Aztec Games
Aztec nobles played a ball game called Tlachtli. It was played with a solid rubber ball.
Players were not allowed to use their hands or feet. They could only touch the ball with
their hips, knees and elbows. Players tried to knock the ball through a stone hoop.
Aztec Children
Aztec children were treated very harshly. If they misbehaved they could have cactus
spines pushed into their skin or they were held over a fire containing chilies and were
forced to inhale the smoke.
However the Aztecs believed education was important. Boys learned jobs like farming
and fishing from their fathers and girls learned skills like cooking and weaving from their
mothers. However both boys and girls attended schools. (Although they were taught
separately). The ordinary Aztec children went to a school called a telpochalli. They
learned about history and religion but also about music and dance. When they were
older boys learned to fight.
Noble children went to a school called a calmecac. They learned to read and write. (The
Aztecs made paper from the bark of fig trees. Their writing consisted of pictograms or
pictures that represented sounds). Upper class children also studied religion,
mathematics and astrology.
In 1492 the Spaniards discovered the new world. The end for the Aztec Empire came
when the governor of Cuba sent an army under Hernan Cortes (1485-1547) to conquer
Cortes only had about 600 men yet he managed to conquer the Aztecs.
The Spaniards had several advantages. They had guns. They also had horses (animals
unknown to the Aztecs). The sight of a Spanish cavalry charge was terrifying. Also the
Spanish had steel armor and weapons (steel was unknown to the Aztecs). Furthermore
the Aztecs were handicapped by their unwillingness to kill the Spaniards. They wanted
to capture, their enemies not kill them in battle, so they could be sacrificed later. Worse,
the people the Aztecs ruled hated their masters. They were willing to join the Spaniards
in order to destroy the Aztecs.
The Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma feared Cortes. He dared not attack a god and so took
no action against the Aztecs. By the time the Aztecs realized the truth it was too late.
Motecuhzoma sent Cortes presents including gold and warned him not to approach
Tenochtitlan. However the rich gifts merely whetted the Spaniards appetite. They made
Cortes determined to capture the capital and take its treasures.
Cortes gathered reinforcements then marched on Tenochtitlan again. When he reached
Lake Texcoco Cortes built boats and armed them with cannons. The boats then sailed
across the lake to attack the city (which was built on an island). The Spaniards were also
helped by smallpox, which broke out among the Aztecs. (The Spaniards brought
European diseases to which the Aztecs and had no resistance). Eventually the Spaniards
captured Tenochtitlan and burned it.
Aztec Writing: