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The Aztecs
The Chichimec Period
Cultural Innovations
Social/Political Structure
The Chichimec Period
The Aztec originated from somewhere in north
or northwest Mexico.
At that time the Aztecs (who referred to
themselves as the Mexica or Tenochca) were a
small, nomadic, Nahuatl-speaking aggregation
of tribal peoples living on the margins of
civilized Mesoamerica.
Sometime in the 12th century they embarked
on a period of wandering and in the 13th
century settled in the central basin of México.
The Chichimec Period
The Aztecs finally found refuge on small
islands in Lake Texcoco where, in 1325,
they founded the town of TENOCHTITLAN
(modern-day Mexico City).
Other Chichimecs followed who were
more civilized but stole women and
practiced sacrifice.
– brought knowledge of the Maya calender
system, cultivated crops with irrigation,
constructed with stone.
Aztec Origin Myth
Little is known of the earliest Aztecs, they did not keep
a written record. Their history was passed on by word
of mouth from one generation to the next. Legend has
it that they came from an Island called Aztlan, meaning
White Place - Place of Herons.
There is one codex, the Tira de la Peregrinacion,
commonly called the Migration Scrolls. The scrolls
have the Aztecs leaving Aztlan, which was described
as an island in a lake with Chicomoztoc depicted as
seven temples in the center of the island.
Aztec Origin Myth
The Aztecs believed Huitzilopochtli their war god was their protector,
now had them search for their promised land.
The Aztecs straggled into the Valley of Mexico, led by their chieftain
Tenoch. They were a poor, ragged people who survived on vermin,
snakes, and stolen food. They were hated and rejected by all the
surrounding inhabitants of the valley, for their barbarous and
uncultured habits.
Huitzilopochtli told Tenoch to lead his people to a place of refuge on
a swampy island in Lake Texcoco. When they reached their
destination, they were to look for an eagle perched on a cactus,
growing from a rock or cave surrounded by water. At that location,
they were to build their city and honor Huitzilopochtli with human
sacrifices. The city they built was called Tenochtitlán, the city of
What is the meaning of the word
Aztlan is the mythical place of origin of the Aztec peoples.
In their language (Nahuatl), the roots of Aztlan are the two words:
aztatl tlan(tli) meaning "heron" and "place of," respectively. 'Tlantli'
proper means tooth, and as a characteristic of a good tooth is that it
is firmly rooted in place, and does not move, the prefix of this word
is commonly used in Nahuatl to denote settlements, or place
names, e.g. Mazatlan (place of deer), Papalotlan (place of
butterflies) or Tepoztlan (place of metal).
The Nahuatl language is often said to include three levels of
meaning for its words or expressions: literal, syncretic and
connotative. The connotative meaning of Aztlan, due to the
plumage of herons, is "Place of Whiteness." The mythical
descriptions of Aztlan would have it to be an island. You would
replace -tlan with -tecatl to identify a resident or person from the
given place. So, for the examples above, we have that people from
Mazatlan would be Mazatecatl, someone from Tepoztlan a
Tepoztecatl, and someone from Aztlan an Aztecatl.
Technically squatted in the area of Tenochtitlan and
were known as the Mixeca but today Aztecs is more
The Aztecs remain the most extensively documented
of all Amerindian civilizations at the time of European
contact in the 16th century.
Spanish friars, soldiers, and historians and scholars
of Indian or mixed descent left invaluable records of
all aspects of life. These ethnohistoric sources, linked
to modern archaeological inquiries and studies of
ethnologists, linguists, historians, and art historians,
portray the formation and flourishing of a complex
imperial state.
Basin of Mexico
Chain of interconnected lakes, 3-6, but
the Aztecs talked about three-Chalco,
Texcoco, and Xaltocan.
– Lake Texcoco
deepest and water flowed from it to other lakes
the Basin is about 3,000 sq miles and about
15% of that is covered by water.
Population estimates at around
A.D.1519 are between 1 to 1.2 million.
Aztec Empire
How were they all fed?
Used the Chinampas (floating gardens) for
– 25,000 acres of chinampas at the time of contact.
– gardens never actually floated, but were created
by making use of the vegetaion in the swamps.
– Floating water plants were used to build up
gardens and then were dragged onto shore for
– They became anchored to the native cypress.
– Lake mud was piled on and canals were built.
However, although chinampas were very
productive, the number of people living in
the area at the time of contact could not
keep up with subsistence and surplus food
These marsh plots also brought in birds
and fish that could be gathered while they
were working.
Ancient Aztecs tending to chinampas
Cultural Innovations:
Trade, Economics, Market System
Part of inter-related regions which
consisted of Morelos to the south, Puebla
to the east, Mezquital to the north, and
Toluca to the west.
– although many crops the same, some areas
had their specialty crops.
– tropical fruits, cotton, cacao from Morelos,
beans from Puebla.
– flowers were also a big part of the economy
because one of the great pleasures was of
the smelling of flowers.
Aztec Market (Tlateloco)
Market days were held once each five days, four
times each month. Sometimes daily in larger
– reflected community craft specializations as well as
imported goods.
– also slaves were traded, and dogs for food (400 on a
slow day).
Bernal Diaz de Castillo says that he didn’t even
have time to list how many things were offered
one day at the market of Tlateloco.
– commodities and goods exchanged by barter.
Cultural Innovations
– Nahuatl language spoken at conquest, living
language today.
– Many codices and glyphs to describe lifeways of
Aztecs, as well as Spanish accounts.
Several Significant Codices:
– Codex Borbonicus
– Florentine Codex
– Codex Mendoza
Codex Borbonicus
A scene from the Codex Borbonicus, which shows the
gods Tlachitonátiuh and Xolotl, while on the right are the
8 to 13 days of the sixteenth series of the ritual series.
Florentine Codex
Human sacrifice
Codex Mendoza
Cultural Innovations
– Stone carving to communicate ideas.
– Free-standing figures of Aztec deities.
– Aztec Calender stone.
– Atlantean figures and chocmools
– acquired from Maya.
– Mostly gold, silver.
Obsidian vessel carved
in the shape of a
Polychrome terracota
plaque with molded and
apliquéd sculpture of a
human face
Stone box with representations
of corn cobs
Necklaces found in the
Great Temple at Tenochtitlan
Social Structure
Basic unit of social organization
– calpulli (clan)
– not all lineages within the clan were equal.
Membership by birth.
– families traced their descent through fathers,
which is a lineage, and these lineages make
up a calpulli.
– marry within the calpulli.
– one lineage provides leader of that calpule.
Four principle social categories:
Pipiltin– ruler of the city state and his relatives.
– only ones to own their own land
Macehualtin-commoner clan.
– serfs who worked others land.
Pochtea-merchant clan.
– owned communal land.
– no land, no rights.
– reversible status.
Political Organization
Divine King or ruler of Aztec
Each city (other than Tenochtitlan) ruled by a pettyking selected from the pipiltin.
Dual leadership-military and religious
– supreme leader chosen from special lineage, with brother
succeeding brother.
– court which ruled over military, justice, treasury, and
Moctezuma II
Judicial branch
Both pipitlin and commoners chosen.
higher and lower courts.
– commoners went to lower court (tecalli).
– higher court for upper class (tlacxitlan).
Prisoners kept in wooden cages, sentencing
could be death, mutilation or slavery.
* Even elite tried-the sister of Motecuhzoma II
was tried by her husband for extramarital affairs
and she and her lovers were put to death.
Rulers: Post 14th C
1Acamapichtli A.D.1376-1391
-married Ilancueil (“Toltec Princess”)
2Huitzilihuitl 1391-1415
3Chimalpopocoa 1415-1426
4Itzcoatl 1426-1440
5Moctezuma I 1440-1469
Atotozli = Tezozomoc
6Axayacatl 1469-1481 7Tizoc 1481-1486 8Ahuizotl 1486-1502
9Moctezuma II 1502-1520
11Cuauhtemoc 1520-1525
Acamapichtli 1372-1391
Aztec dynasty emerges ca. 1371
name means "handful of reeds"
was son of Mexica noble and Culhua woman
dynasty from which he came had links to
Acolhua provided link to Toltec past: wife was of
Culhua nobility
conquests of Xochimilco and Cuernavaca
beginning of conflict with Chalco
building up city and constructing houses,
chinampas, and canals
died ca. 1391, after reign of ca. 19 years
Huitzilihuitl 1391-1415
"Humming Bird's Feather"
– first wife was from Tacuba
– second wife was a Tepanec princess, granddaughter
of Tezozomoc from Azcapotzalco
resulted in favorable treatment from Tezozomoc
after birth of son Chimalpopoca, delegation came from
– third wife a: mother of Tlacaelel
– fourth wife was from Cuernavaca
mother of Moctezuma Ilhuicamina
– died ca. 1415
Chimalpopoca 1415-1426
"Smoking Shield"
– half Tepanec
– oversaw war with Texcoco
– in Texcoco, authority was challenged by
– asserted right to be called "Lord of the
Itzcoatl 1426-1440
Chimalpopoca succeeded by uncle Itzcoatl (Obsidian
Itzcoatl acceded in 1426 at the age of 46
may have had Chimalpopoca killed
chief advisor was nephew Tlacaelel, son of Huitzilihuitl
younger brother of Moctezuma I
assumed title of Cihuacoatl (Woman Snake)
chief reformer of Aztec state
destroyed pre-Aztec books and records
promoted view of Aztecs as heirs to Toltec tradition
reign characterized by troubles with Tepanecs
latter demanded signs of submission
war broke out between Mexica and Tepanecs upon death of Itzcoatl
Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina
"Heaven Shooter“
began construction of Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan
first conquest was with region of Chalca
Empire expansion
– campaign towards Oaxaca begun in 1458
– pretense was killing of merchants
– conquered kingdom of Atonal
A catastrophic famine of 1450-1451 occurred and the practice of
human sacrifice was propelled into a high gear in ever increasing
numbers. People sold themselves for a few ears of corn to keep
from starving.
– drive to Gulf Coast
fertile Tototac lands sought as protection against famine
Tlaxcalans neglected to come to assistance of Gulf Coast peoples
common people denounced their rulers
Huaxtecs conquered next
AXAYACATL 1469-1481
Water Mask, Face of Water, Son of Moctezuma I.
At 19 years of age this leader was installed as the Great Speaker of
the Aztec faith and army. He proved himself a great warrior and
military strategist and expanded the Aztec empire.
His most famous military campaign was in subduing a rebellion from
close neighbor and sister city next to Tenochtitlan, Tlatelolco in
One of the most colorful stories in Aztec history has Axayacatl in
hand to hand combat atop the great pyramid with the leader of
Tlatelolco, Moquihuix, with the latter being thrown down the steps of
the temple. Conquered Tlatelolco(*38) on trumped up phony
charges and successfully substituted a strong military central control
in the region.
Axayacatl lost a leg in one of his many battles. As a result of
Axayacatl and his concentration of cementing his power base he
was able to extend total dominance over the Valley of Mexico for the
Aztec Empire.
TIZOC 1481-1486
“He Has Bled People, Jewell of the Sun”, was the
brother of Axayacatl.
Tizoc's name glyph depicted a pierced leg with cactus
spines, indicating his great devotion to self sacrifice.
Was proven a bad military leader and was removed from
office by poison.
The empire actually began to shrink under this ruler as
his lack of administration skills allowed almost constant
Was called "Bloodstained Leg". Though his armies were
successful, over one hundred thousand prisoners taken,
he was considered a coward.
AHUITZOTL 1486-1502
“Water Dog, Otter”. Was the third son of Moctezuma I.
Said to be rough and fearless, he lived and slept with his
army, one of the greatest warrior kings.
– Greatly expanded the Aztec tribute empire during his reign.
Conquered the valley of Oaxaca and the Pacific coast to
Imposed strong bureaucratic control over the Aztec
The great temple of Tenochtitlan, dedicated in 1487 with
the sacrifice of 20,000 victims occurred during his reign.
– Construction of an aqueduct to bring fresh water to the capital was
Great uncle to Moctezuma II.
Ahuitzotl is reported to have died after striking his head
while escaping rising waters in his garden area as a result
of a dike breaking. Physicians removed parts of his
smashed skull and the king died probably foam a subdural
MOCTEZUMA II 1502-1520
“Our Angry Looking God, He Who Frowned Like A Lord”
Axayacatl's eldest son was the leading candidate for
ascending to the throne, however, he was considered
too flamboyant and Moctezuma was chosen.
Moctezuma assumed the throne on May 24, 1503.
The Aztec people reached their finest hour under his
reign. Was the son of Axayacatl (Ruler 6).
Originally trained to be a high priest, but proved himself
valiantly on the field of battle.
Very much a philosopher king. During the reign of this
leader the Mexica were able to sustain several major
military campaigns at one time which greatly added to
the power base of the empire.
Killed while a captive of Cortes.
Moctezuma II
Moctezuma II:
Feathered Headress
Moctezuma II and Cortes
His priestly training, particularly in the old Toltec
traditions, was his downfall as he believed the return of
Quetzalcoatl to be incarnated in Cortes, it paralyzed him
and his vast armies until it was too late for the Aztecs.
He believed it was his destiny to preside over the Aztecs
while a total destruction of the Mexica civilization
Moctezuma was considered a skilled statesman and
many references by the Conquistadors to their
admiration for him.
While a captive of Cortes he lost his stature among the
general population of Tenochtitlan and was hit in the
head by a stone thrown by his former subjects and died
while a captive of Cortes
Brief interim ruler between Motecuhzoma
II and Cuauhtemoc.
Was the lord of Ixtapapapa.
Died of the smallpox brought to Mexico by
a soldier with Narvaez.
Was nephew to Moctezuma II.
CUAUHTEMOC 1520-1521
“DESCENDING EAGLE”, also known as "Prince Falling
Defended Tenochtitlan against Cortes to the last man.
Was captured and eventually hung by Colonial troops.
Cuauhtemoc was a skilled military leader.
Another nephew of Motecuhzoma and was 18 years old
at the time he was chosen to be the Aztec leader.
Was immediately wed to one of Moctezuma's daughters,
Tecuichpo, who would later become a Christian and
have four Spanish husbands.
He was a symbol of valor to the Mexica and represented
their spirit of nationalism and pride. Cuauhtemoc's reign,
although short, was eventful and envied much respect
from the Spanish Conquistadors and Cortes in particular.