American Indian People – Aztecs

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The Aztecs were an American Indian civilization that ruled over a powerful empire in Mexico from the 1400’s to the 1500’s. They had a highly advanced society in the Americas and constructed cities on a massive scale comparable to those found in Europe during that era. Additionally, their religion encompassed the remarkable custom of human sacrifice, which influenced every facet of their existence.

The Aztecs built towering temples, created huge sculptures, and held lavish ceremonies to honor their gods. Even though the Spanish destroyed their empire in 1521, the Aztecs continue to have a significant impact on Mexican life and culture. Most of the Aztec people lived in an area now called the Valley of Mexico. This expansive valley, located at over 7,000 feet above sea level, had many impressive cities.

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The Valley of Mexico has been a significant location for various civilizations, from the ancient pyramids of Tenochtitlan to the present-day metropolis of Mexico City. Throughout its history, different indigenous groups have inhabited this region, with the Aztecs being the last one.

They distinguished themselves by establishing their own political structures, religion, social hierarchy, agricultural techniques, lifestyle, and worldview. Originally engaging in semi-nomadic hunting and farming activities, the Aztecs embarked on a renowned migration from their mythical island homeland of Aztlan in northern Mexico to settle in the Valley of Mexico circa 1000 AD.

Led by their powerful patron god, Huiziloposhtli, the Aztecs migrated southward and engaged in various activities along the way. They planted crops, built temples for their gods, and performed human sacrifices to honor them. The Aztecs also adopted new customs and traditions from the groups they encountered during their journey, which further contributed to their religious nature. However, upon reaching the Valley of Mexico around 1193, they found limited available land due to the heavy population in the area. The older city-states surrounding the basin viewed the Aztecs as uncivilized and ill-mannered. In their search for a permanent home, the Aztecs continued exploring for approximately another century.

While searching, the Aztecs also acted as hired soldiers and helpers for their influential neighbors. They continued to learn from and adopt the practices, etiquette, and habits of the more developed and entrenched societies that surrounded them. As their population increased, they set up more advanced military and administrative systems. As per the well-known myth, the Aztecs eventually chose a location where an eagle was perched on a cactus devouring a snake.

The sign foretold by their patron god was finally found on a small island in Lake Texcoco, leading the priests to build a temple to Huitziposhtli and construct the city of Tenochtitlan. By 1325, Tenochtitlan became one of the largest and most powerful cities in the world, the “Place of Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit,” and the heart of the Aztec Empire. The Aztec society had a hierarchical structure with nobles occupying the top positions.

Social status in Aztec society was primarily determined at birth, as all members of the nobility could trace their lineage back to the first Aztec ruler, Acamapichtli. The only means of ascending to a higher class within the system was by accomplishing a remarkable military feat. The four main classes in Aztec society were nobles, commoners, serfs, and slaves.

The nobles in Aztec society typically held prestigious positions in the military and government. Moreover, they fulfilled roles as educators, priests, and bureaucratic officials. As a result, they wielded significant control over the wealth within the society. Consequently, their lifestyles were considerably more opulent compared to those of the commoners and slaves. Additionally, many nobles owned personal land or obtained additional government land for their personal use during their tenure in public office.

The majority of the Aztec population consisted of commoners who earned a living by cultivating government-owned land. These commoners played a crucial role in Aztec society as they served as the main labor and military forces responsible for maintaining and controlling the empire. Serfs worked on the land owned by nobles and remained there even when a new noble took over. Slaves, on the other hand, were considered as property, although their children were born free.

The majority of the slaves in Aztec society were individuals who had been captured during warfare, convicted criminals, or people unable to settle their debts. Additionally, the Aztecs would often purchase slaves from other factions. The social structure held significant significance in the daily existence of every Aztec individual, while religion played an exceptionally vital role in their lives.

The Aztec people dedicated a significant amount of time to religious practices, which involved engaging in warfare primarily for the purpose of acquiring prisoners to sacrifice to their numerous gods. While much of the Aztec religion was rooted in ancient Meso-American traditions, they continuously incorporated new deities into their pantheon while building upon the revered gods of previous civilizations. The Aztecs conducted ceremonies to honor their gods by offering incense, flowers, birds, and animals as gifts. These offerings were typically made to joyful deities, particularly Quetzalcoatl. Unfortunately, human sacrifice also played a role in their rituals, with the hearts and blood of those sacrificed being seen as the ultimate offering.

Huiziloposhtli, the deity of both the sun and war, was the god who required the greatest number of offerings. Within Aztec religion, sacrifices of both humans and animals held significant importance. For warriors, the highest distinction was to be killed in battle or to willingly offer themselves as a sacrifice during a significant ceremony. Captives were frequently utilized for less significant rituals.

In the ritualistic practice of human sacrifice, priests would escort the victim to the apex of the pyramids and position them on a curved stone. Using a sharp knife, an Aztec priest would then incise the victim’s chest and extract their heart as an offering to appease the gods. The Aztecs firmly believed that human hearts and blood were indispensable for sustaining divine power, thus making sacrifices imperative. Subsequent to extracting the heart, the priests would proceed to boil the body while members of the community engaged in ceremonial cannibalism by consuming it. It is plausible that they perceived ingesting flesh as a means of inheriting strength and bravery from the deceased individual. Although men were typically selected as victims, women and children occasionally became subjects of sacrifice.

In a fall festival, women were offered as sacrifices to honor the mother goddess of abundant corn harvest. The ritual involved decapitating the women and consuming their bodies. Likewise, children were sacrificed to two gods: Tlaloc, the god of rain, and Xiuhtecuhutli, the god of fire. Children dedicated to Tlaloc were commonly strangled or drowned, while those offered to Xiuhtecuhutli were typically thrown into fire, roasted on hot coals, or boiled until death.

The victims experienced different methods of death, but their hearts were all removed. The Aztecs organized various religious ceremonies that both nobles and commoners took part in. These ceremonies included colorful performances held outside on the pyramids’ steps and in the great plazas, and they aimed to please the gods.

These rituals encompassed a diverse range of activities, such as musicians playing various instruments and dancers parading around the pyramids and through the city streets. The majority of other religious practices occurred within enclosed ceremonial temples situated atop the colossal pyramids. Priests would ascend the expansive staircases to the temples to present offerings to the deities. Additionally, there were ceremonial centers where priests resided and people visited to pray and offer gifts to the gods. These centers featured gardens, living quarters for the priests, and racks to display the skulls of sacrificial victims. Furthermore, numerous centers included a playing court for a popular game called lachtli, akin to basketball.

The players, typically nobles, attempted to use their hips and knees to strike a rubber ball through a ring without using their hands or feet. A highly anticipated ritual in Aztec religion was the dedicated to honoring Tezcatlipoca, the god who protected Aztec rulers. Each year, a young and attractive male warrior was selected to portray the god in a ceremony. The chosen impersonator would then live in opulence for an entire year.

During this period, the young warrior acquired various skills such as playing the flute, handling a smoking tube, carrying flowers, and speaking eloquently. He enjoyed unrestricted movement within the city and was esteemed by all he encountered, who treated him as a deity. Additionally, he had the privilege of being presented to Montezuma, who bestowed upon him valuable presents including gold and turquoise, exquisite garments, and numerous luxurious items.

Twenty days before the ceremony, the impersonator had his splendid attire taken away and was re-clothed as a warrior. He received four wives who would provide him pleasure until his death. On the day of the grand ceremony, he was transported to a small temple located south of the city and was sacrificed immediately. On that same day, a new young man was designated to mimic Tezcatlipoca and the cycle began anew. Undoubtedly, this narrative showcases the captivating tales of Aztec religion.

The traditional Aztec household was composed of a husband, wife, their unmarried children, and several of the husband’s relatives. Every member of the family contributed to the household chores. The husband was primarily responsible for providing for the family through farming or craftsmanship, while the wife’s tasks involved weaving clothing and preparing meals for the family. The household activities were frequently carried out in the patio, where meals were cooked, children played, and neighbors visited to converse and share local updates. The fathers took charge of educating their sons until they reached around 10 years old.

They then attended a neighborhood school that offered both general education and military training. In addition to these schools, there were also temple schools that focused on preparing boys for priesthood or leadership roles. Although some girls attended the temple schools, most girls acquired all their skills through home-based learning.

The Aztecs typically married at a young age, around 16, and placed significant importance on the family structure. Agriculture served as the foundation for the Aztec economy, with many farmers residing in small plots of land known as chinampas located outside the bustling city. The chinampas were a remarkably efficient agricultural system, but ensuring an ample food supply for the flourishing capital was no easy feat.

With the expansion of the empire and the increase in population, there was an increased need for food. In Tenochtitlan, the main crops grown were corn, beans, and squash. The cultivation of corn held great significance as it came in various forms with different sizes and colors. The Aztecs had a unique and mysterious connection to corn.

Corn was connected to multiple deities who required it as a sacrifice. It was highly respected at every stage of its growth – from seeds to young plants to fully matured ones.

Aztec farmers cultivated an assortment of fruits, including tomatoes, avocados, chili peppers, and various herbs. Among them, chili peppers were particularly favored as they served as the main spice in almost every dish. The chinampas also saw the growth of numerous flowers which were held dear by the Aztecs. These flowers were utilized in religious ceremonies, adorned various decorations, and decorated temples.

They were also transformed into bouquets for carrying and appreciating their beauty and aroma. Aztec farmers resided with their families in huts made of mud walls and thatched roofs on their land plots. These houses were single-roomed with a dirt floor covered in reeds for sleeping. The family commenced work at sunrise and ceased at dusk. The primary meal, consumed at noon, comprised tortillas and beans seasoned with salt and chilies.

Due to a scarcity of meat, the Aztecs seldom consumed it. Nevertheless, they did breed turkeys, ducks, and small dogs specifically for the wealthy. The farmers primarily relied on the lake for their meat intake. On special occasions, they would consume various lake-sourced items like fish, turtles, frogs, mollusks, crustaceans, insects, grubs, and salamanders. The lake served as a fascinating protein source.

Green lake scum, which had a cheese-like flavor, was dehydrated into compact blocks. These bricks, packed with protein, were frequently brought by soldiers to the battlefield. Life was challenging for the farmers, who toiled tirelessly yet reaped meager rewards.

In a well organized and structured society, farmers would have the assurance of a place to live and work for their lifetime. The Aztec cuisine, by our standards, would be regarded as rich and spicy. The majority of their dishes were accompanied by sauces flavored with chili peppers and little else. The primary source of meat in Aztec meals came from hunting, specifically deer, rabbits, and game birds. A typical midday meal comprised of a meat dish, potatoes or beans, tortillas, tomatoes, and the alcoholic beverage octli.

Popular dessert choices included honey and tortillas, accompanied by a decadent chocolate drink. Children were highly valued and considered a divine gift, with the midwife playing a pivotal role in their arrival. It was the midwife’s responsibility to sever the umbilical cord and then bathe the newborn, while offering words of love and caution about the realities of the world. Following this warm welcome, extended family and neighbors would officially embrace the baby into their community, and an astrologer would determine an auspicious day for the naming ceremony. Once a name was given, young boys would excitedly go from door to door in the neighborhood, proudly proclaiming the new baby’s name to all.

After the announcements, there was a banquet where guests received flowers and pipes or tobacco. During the ceremony, friends, neighbors, and relatives would celebrate all night while feasting together. The celebration was more extravagant for noble and wealthy families, featuring abundant food and gifts. In contrast, the celebrations for the poor were more modest. Throughout childhood, boys and girls learned their responsibilities from their parents. Mothers taught their daughters essential skills such as spinning thread on a spindle, weaving cloth on a loom, grinding corn on a stone, and aiding in meal preparation for the family.

All women in Aztec society were required to possess skills in weaving and cooking. Fathers taught their sons at a young age various tasks such as carrying water and firewood, collecting items from the local market, and fishing using a net from a canoe. All children were expected to conform to Aztec societal norms, contribute to household needs, and work. Disobedient children were subjected to severe punishment.

A disobedient child faced punishment by being held over a fire, filled with burning red chili peppers. This act caused great pain to the eyes and had the potential to cause severe burns. Advice on proper conduct was frequently given by parents and grandparents. Warfare held immense significance in Aztec culture as it was considered a religious obligation. The Aztecs engaged in battles not only to expand their empire’s power but also to acquire captives for sacrificial offerings to the gods. For a young man, the ultimate aspiration was to become a triumphant warrior.

All able men were trained to be warriors, but only those belonging to the nobility became prestigious Eagle and Jaguar Warriors. Brave men who captured many enemies in battle were generously rewarded with land, high social status, and significant government positions. Aztec warfare tactics focused on capturing the enemy rather than causing lethal harm. The primary weapon utilized was a wooden club embedded with sharp obsidian fragments, which efficiently disabled opponents without causing death.

The Aztecs employed bows, arrows, and spears in addition to using wooden shields and padded cotton armor for protection. The Aztec Empire was under the rule of Montezuma when Spain’s Hernan Cortes arrived in Mexico. Emperor Montezuma, born around 1480, may have contributed to the downfall of his grand empire in 1521 as he lacked the strength and competence demonstrated by previous Aztec rulers who were both formidable warriors and intellectuals.

When the Spaniards arrived in 1519, Montezuma was unsure whether these unfamiliar newcomers were men or powerful gods. Instead of fighting them, he tried to deceive and use sorcery against them, while also offering gifts. However, Montezuma’s efforts failed and he ultimately allowed Cortes to enter Tenochtitlan without resistance and welcomed him at his court. Unfortunately, this decision proved to be a grave mistake as Montezuma was captured without a fight. The cruel actions of the invaders angered the people of Tenochtitlan, deeply disgusting the Aztecs with how they were treated by the Spaniards.

The city’s inhabitants successfully expelled the foreigners for a period but when the Spanish regained control, the people rebelled. Cortes appealed to Montezuma to quell the revolt, but the Aztec leader was assaulted while speaking to his subjects. Following the assault, a major battle ensued. The enraged Aztecs ultimately removed the Spaniards from their city supposedly for good; or so they presumed.

Three days later, Montezuma suffered fatal head injuries resulting in his death. Believing that their enemies had permanently left and would not come back, the Aztecs resumed their usual daily life and ceremonial practices. However, this period of normalcy did not last long as a swift outbreak of smallpox quickly spread throughout the city. The indigenous people of the Americas had no resistance to this novel disease introduced by the Spanish.

The disease caused the deaths of numerous individuals, including the newly appointed Aztec leader. On April 18, 1521, to the astonishment of the Aztecs, the Spanish returned to Tenochtitlan accompanied by a substantial number of Indian allies and 900 soldiers. These soldiers built sizable boats capable of carrying men and cannons. On May 31, 1521, Cortes initiated his ultimate assault on the magnificent city.

The boats set out from the mainland and arrived at the island, allowing horsemen and cavalry to enter the city. Once they completed this last objective, the soldiers entered the capital. The city of Tenochtitlan endured a 75-day siege, causing great suffering for its people. The decisive battle for Tenochtitlan occurred in the expansive marketplace, where nobles, warriors, and women alike launched their final desperate effort to conquer the city.

Unfortunately, the outcome was both inadequate and untimely as only around 60,000 out of 300,000 Aztec defenders were able to survive. The city itself was left in ruins with the once grand streets now filled with the corpses of those who perished. Numerous sections of the city lay destroyed, resulting in nothing but piles of stones.

The city was completely destroyed within a span of two years – homes were demolished, temples were incinerated, and almost nothing remained intact. The once mighty Aztec capital had succumbed. Shortly after this devastating event, a multitude of Spanish explorers, clergy, and troops hastily made their way to the unexplored territory in search of glory and riches, as well as to spread the teachings of Catholicism. While some settlers intended to establish permanent residences, others aimed to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism. Nevertheless, the primary motivation for the majority was simply to exploit the abundant resources of this newfound land.

Upon the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztec civilization experienced a decline, resulting in the loss of numerous Aztec artifacts and limited preservation of their architecture. The Christian beliefs held by the Spaniards motivated them to eradicate temples and any remaining evidence of the Aztec Religion. Consequently, our comprehension of the Aztecs remains constrained. Nevertheless, archaeologists have recently discovered the Great Temple site in downtown Mexico City, which corresponds to Tenochtitlan’s original position.

Archaeologists have discovered all sides of the building and found approximately 6,000 items, which include jewelry, pottery, statues, and wall carvings. Alongside these findings are remains associated with human and animal sacrifices. In addition to this, other Aztec structures have been successfully restored by the archaeologists. However, when the Spanish colonizers arrived, Aztec culture suddenly vanished. Artwork, literature, customs, and religious figures – almost every trace of the Aztecs was eliminated. Nevertheless, some remnants of Aztec heritage endure in present-day Mexico. The Aztecs constitute Mexico’s largest indigenous group who still actively preserve their ancient Aztec language.

The religious beliefs in Mexico combine elements of Roman Catholicism and Aztec tribal religion. A considerable number of Mexicans have ancestral ties to the Aztecs, and some speak Nahuatl, a modern version of their ancient language. Nahuatl also has an impact on several place names in Mexico. In terms of culinary heritage, the Aztecs greatly influenced Mexican cuisine by introducing chili, chocolate, and tacos.

Popular in many countries, including the United States where the descendants of the Aztec people live, these artifacts maintain a strong memory of the no longer existing Aztec civilization.

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American Indian People – Aztecs. (2019, Mar 28). Retrieved from

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