The Aztec Culture

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The Aztecs

     Some historians portray the Aztecs as a bloodthirsty, ruthless savage. Images of human sacrifices and fierce warriors permeate the textbooks and cause us to associate these ideals with the Aztec people. This is not a complete and accurate representation of the Aztec people.

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    True, the Aztecs were fearless warriors, but this was not the peak of their accomplishments. They were also great architects, traders and agriculturalists. During the 15th century, at the height of their prosperity, they were surpassed in size only by the Incas of Peru.

     The Aztec culture dominated the Valley of Mexico during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They were divided into two separate groups, the Tenochcas, or craftsman, and the Chichimec, or wild people.

     The two groups became bitter rivals after the Tenochcas sacrificed the daughter of a Chichimec king. The Chichimecs, in turn, drove the Tenochcas from the mainland to the island. The Tenochcas taught the islanders urban culture and architecture and began to build the city of Tenochtitlan.

    The Aztecs had two social classes: At the bottom were the macehualles, or “commoners,” and at the top the pilli, or nobility. These were not clearly differentiated by birth, for one could rise into the pilli by virtue of great skill and bravery in war. (Hooker)

     It was also a male dominated society with women as inferior to men. Women were expected to behave with high moral standards and chastity. They could not hold government or religious offices and were not usually educated. “Within commoner families women contributed to services and tribute payments by grinding maize, preparing tortillas, spinning, and weaving.” (Prem 36)

     The males, on the other hand, were sent to school from the age of 15 and taught the history and religion of the Aztecs, the art of war and fighting, the trade or craft specific to his calpulli , and the religious and civic duties of everyday citizenship. The children of nobility also attended another school, a school of nobility or calmecac , if he was a member of one of the top six calpulli . There the child learned the religious duties of priests and its secret knowledge; for the distinction between government and religious duties was practically non-existent. (Hooker)

     One of the major achievements of the Aztecs was their waterway system. Although the lakes of Mexico had five names, they were actually a continuous body of water.[1] Since there was no outlet, the water was mostly saline except in the southern parts (lakes Chako and Xochimilco) which received fresh streams of water from the snow-topped volcanoes. The system of dikes and causeways was later developed by the Aztec so as to control the salinity of the lakes.   (Von Hagen 39)

     Aztecs had a homogeneous culture. Aztec tribe was developed from family; animal diet was supplemented by crude agriculture–plots of ground were burned and seeds inserted in holes made by a fire-hardened stick. Agriculture revolved around corn as the staple, and society was then, as it has remained ever since, machineless. There were no draft animals; the denominator of speed was the foot. Dress was the breechclout; men walked on sandaled feet and women wore a short-petticoated cincture of woven cotton cloth; bare breasts matched bare feet. (Von Hagen 46)

     Slavery to the Aztecs was not the life long sentence of bondage that is normally associated with the word. Instead people were slaves either of their own free will against payment (because of gambling debts, waste, bad harvests, and such), or because they had been sentenced to this condition as a penalty and reparation after a crime they had committed. After the determined period was over or the debt was paid, the person once again was his own master. Children born in the meantime were always free. Only repeatedly relapsing criminals stayed slaves all their lives; they could be sentenced to be sold in the marketplace. Such slaves could be sacrificed. (Prem 36) The exceptions to this rule were prisoners of war, who were sacrificed unless they had a specific skill the Aztecs found useful. If this was the case, they could earn their freedom through their trade.
The Aztecs did not have a permanent army, rather all the men were considered farmer-warriors. They were farmers first and then warriors but every male was trained in combat and warfare. The Aztecs were fierce and fearless.  “Their aggressive expansion politics made them feared adversaries, for they used every pretext (or even created one) to attack all areas not willing to submit to them” (Prem 54)

    The Aztec empire was a tribute empire because its structure depended on the delivery of tribute. The subjugated areas were organized in tribute provinces (thirty-eight for Tenochtitlán), which had to deliver at regularly determined times specific tribute, consisting of food, raw materials, luxury items, and consumer goods. Such tribute shipments consisted of goods specific for each region, or were determined by the region’s closeness to the Valley of Mexico, because corn and other foodstuffs could be brought in only from a limited distance. (Prem 54) The people within the city were unable to provide enough food and goods made or grown locally. This made the Aztecs dependent on the tributes as their empire grew.

     Some of the basic facts of the Aztec civilization are:
·         Currency-gold jewelry, textiles, cacao beans and beaten copper axes.

·         Cultivated Crops-maize, beans, salvia, squash, tomatoes, cactus, cotton, chile, manioc, goosefoot, amaranth, cacao, avocado and agave.

·         Domesticated animals-turkey, ducks and dogs

·         Weapons-bow and arrow, spears, atlatl (throwing sticks), broadsword with obsidian blade, shields, quilted cotton armor, shielded and armed canoes. (Hirst)
The Aztecs view of humanities was mostly religion based. Religion was the basis for all the aspects of their daily lives. Human sacrifices played a large part of their religious ceremonies. The Aztecs believed that to prosper, they must fortify the gods with human flesh. The hierarchy of the Aztec culture was religion based as well. There was no separation of religion and government, they were one.

     In conclusion, the Aztecs made amazing progress in building a culture that lasted for centuries. This culture had more to do with community and religion than with war and cruelty.By 1519, there were more than one million inhabitants in Central Mexico and 100,00 to 200,000 were in the capitol city. It was not until the invasion of the Spanish in 1521 that the city of Tonochtitlan fell and the Aztec empire crumbled. (Hirst)

Works Cited

Hirst, K. “Archeology”.  Aztec Civilization.  2007.


Hooker, R. “Civilizations in America”. The Mexica/Aztecs. 1996.


Prem, Hanns J. The Ancient Americas: A Brief History and Guide to Research. Trans. Kornelia Kurbjuhn. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1997.

Von Hagen, Victor Wolfgang. The Ancient Sun Kingdoms of the Americas. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing, 1961.

[1] Contiguous but with five names: Chalco and Xochimilco were fresh-water; Texcoco, brackish; the most northern, Xaltocan and Zumpango, very salty.


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