Juliana Nikolich and Keaton Goodman

The Aztecs

Four significant characteristics of the Aztecs were their fascinating geography, powerful military, vivid culture, and noteworthy economics. The Aztec geography was very unique. They had a considerably strong, dominant military that only lost one battle ever in all the years of the civilization. Their culture is probably the most important aspect of the entire civilization and is very interesting. Economics were also a very important aspect and involved trading, farming, selling, and playing games!

Geography


The geography of the Aztecs is constantly varying because they live in such a strange spot. The Aztecs lived in the central Mexican valley. Almost everything they did or built was because of the way their environment was. The area they lived in was swampy in some areas but they were surrounded by jagged mountains. At the start of their civilization they moved to many, many different places. Their geography had a great impact on their culture because they had to adapt to their surroundings.

The place they lived in was the mostly dry Mexican valley. The Aztec wandered around the valley for a long time when they finally settled in their capital Tenochtitlan. It was a swampy but dry island in the southwestern part of Lake Texcoco. (Defrates, 8/9) Throughout Mexico the climate varies, but around the Aztec civilization it’s either swampy or dry. Tenochtitlan is located in the tropical climate zone so it’s usually fairly warm. There is a relatively low pressure in their part of the valley. The average temperature there is around 77 ° F. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 7) Now you know that they lived in the constantly differing environment of the central Mexican valley.

Aztec people built many things to interact with the environment. A couple of those things were dams, barriers and aqueducts to keep the lakes salt water away from their fresh water. Since Tenochtitlan was an island they built three bridges to the main land so they could get there more easily. They also dug out a vast system of canals throughout their island for transportation. The reason for moving to the island was to avoid battles because they started out very weak. (History of the World Civilizations of the Americas, 3/7) They also dug up mud out of the bottom of the canals, built small islands, and used them as gardens for each family. These were called chinampas or swamp gardens.(below
ancientaztecsseed.com, chinampas
ancientaztecsseed.com, chinampas
They were very helpful because most of the land was dry, but these stayed wet because they were surrounded by water. (Dineen, 26/27) These are just a couple of ways that the Aztecs interacted with their surrounding environment.

Their region was unique because where they lived was swampy and dry land, but they were surrounded by jagged mountain ranges. This region was central Mexico. Most of the surrounding area is classified as dry semi dessert land. Although it was dry the area right around Tenochtitlan since it was and island was wet and swampy. Nearby terrain consisted of very jagged mountains and a couple of volcanoes. (Macdonald, 6/7) As you can see the region of the Aztec civilization is very distinctive.

Throughout their growth, the Aztecs moved to a legion of places. Their original homeland was called Aztlan, this is where the name Aztec came from, but nobody knows where Aztlan is. Years of no rainfall turned Aztlan into a sterile wilderness so they had to find some m
ore fertile soil. They were the last group to move south to Mexico so all of the good sites were taken. At first they traveled from place to place because their god Huitzilopochtli said they should. People were afraid of them so when they saw them they drove them away. The Aztec people eventually ended up begging the leader of the Culhua people for a place to stay. They accepted but gave them a barren area full of snakes and lizards. Without any food this is what they ate. Even under the awful circumstances the Aztecs prospered and earned the respect of the Culhua people. The people of both groups began marrying the people of the other group, but the god Huitzilopochtli disagreed with this and wanted them to be independent. He created a plan to get the Culhua people to hate the Aztecs. He said he wanted to marry the daughter of their king. What the Culhua people didn’t know was the Aztecs way of marrying a mortal to a god was to sacrifice them. When the king walked into the ceremonial building and saw a young man wearing his daughter’s skin he was infuriated and immediately kicked them all out. They fled from Culhua and kept trying to find land to live on. Eventually they came to an island where they found an eagle sitting on a cactus eating a serpent. This was the official sign from Huitzilopochtli that this was where they were to settle. That island became the famous Aztec city Tenochtitlan. As you can see the Aztecs were a very mobile group and had many troubles but ended up finding a perfect place to settle. (Sonneborn, 6/7)

The geography’s impact on culture was immense because they adapted to almost every feature. Their geography also greatly impacted their diet. Because of the shortage of animals meat was a delicacy so beans were their source of protein. The merchants sometimes had to pass through many climates to find the materials they needed. Because of the many different climates and situations only merchants and soldiers traveled long distances. (Dineen, 30) Now you know a little bit about how the Aztec geography affected their culture.

Obviously, the Aztec geography was very unique because of their location. They were located south of the U.S. in the central Mexican valley. Because of their situation almost everything they built had to flow with the environment. The strange part about their area was it was swampy and dry. They started as a very mutable group but when they settled they never moved again. Their geography is a very defining part of the culture because they needed to adapt. As you can now see The Aztec civilization has a very confusing, but interesting geography.



Culture



A very large part of the Aztec lifestyle was the structured and unique culture. There were unique rituals and sacrifices in the religion of this amazing civilization. The arts that some Aztecs made reflected or pictured these events in which the gods would be represented. Another form of art was their outstanding architecture and unique style of buildings. The Aztec science came up with different ways of studying different things. During the time of birth, the Aztec newborns went through important ceremonies that were believed to define who they were.


The religion of the Aztec focused on pleasing their many gods with daily sacrifices. They sacrificed people because they thought that their world would end if they didn’t. They lived in the fifth world, with four previous worlds being destroyed by jaguars, water, wind, and fire. (Defrates, 28/29) The earth was a flat disk with thirteen layers of heaven and nine layers of hell. The gods lived in the layers. Thirteen was a lucky number because of this. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 65) They sacrificed captured enemies, including women and men, and non-fighting men taken as slaves. (Hall, 82) Priests performed these rituals along with their practices of managing the temples, doing administrative duties, educating children, and making blood sacrifices. (80) Priestesses also taught in schools like the priests, acted in festivals as goddesses and performed their deities associated with childbirth and fertility. (81)


Aztec arts were very detailed and reflected their many beliefs. Many Aztecs couldn’t read or write so they expressed themselves through art. Artists got their skills from the gods and were admired by everyone. They painted, sculpted, and made symbols. Since the glory was the god’s, the artists did not sign their work. (Defrates, 34/35) Amantecas were feather workers that made headdresses (below right), costumes, ornaments, banners, shields, cloaks, and clothing. (Hall, 49) Lapirades made jewelry and ornaments out of jade, turquoise, rock crystal, obsidian, amethyst, amber, bloodstone, and carnelian. Potters varied from making cheap pieces to fine ceramics. (52) Women wove, as this was a job for “all class lines”. They would make colorful
headdress.jpg
An Aztec headdress, flickr.com
embroidery and intricate patterns. (53/54) There were also basket, bag, mat, and seat makers in the Aztec Civilization that made objects from reeds, cane, palm leaves, or cacti. (54) On the other hand, there were poets and musicians that enthralled the Aztecs. Musicians played in religious services with drums, flutes, and rattles. (Carrasco)


The many elements of the Aztec education included going to priest/priestess schools and becoming powerful warriors. At a young age, boys shooed birds, built fires, canoed, farmed, caught fish (Jordan, 19), carried firewood and water, and took goods to the market (Defrates, 20/21). Girls spun thread, wove cloth, sewed, cooked meat, ground corn for corn cakes (Jordan, 19), and were taught at home. (Defrates, 20/21) Peasant boys could also go to the Telpochalli, meaning house of youth, where you would learn about religion, humility, obedience, and weapons. Noble boys went to a Calmecac (Jordan, 21) or Cuicacalli school which were run by priests.(Defrates, 20/21) They learned math, astronomy, law, and writing. These young males were expected to be heroes in battle. Some girls also went to Calmecac schools, which were taught by priestesses, and learned how to become wives of important officials in the future. At other schools for girls, they learned how to put on makeup, like making their skin yellow, hair black and indigo, teeth red, and draw symbols of the gods on their bodies. These styles were considered very beautiful in the Aztec civilization. (22) During priesthood, boys gave offerings, had purifying baths, sacrificed, and had their blood drawn. Girls would honor earth goddesses, teach for young girls, and could marry, with their parents’ agreement. (Hall, 39) There were many different opportunities for young Aztec people with unusual studies compared to what we learn at modern day schools.


The fascinating Aztec architecture had different styles of buildings for each aspect. Most of the buildings in the Aztec architecture were spacious and crowded with other buildings. (Hall, 45) The common people had flat-topped, one roomed (Defrates,18/19) apartments around a courtyard in the countryside. Extended families or artisans would share these apartments while single families lived in houses made of mud and branches on the countryside. (Hall, 48) Nobles lived in houses with two stories, and the courtyards they had had pools and flowers which they loved. (Defrates, 18/19) Pyramids had two temples on the top instead of the standard one temple. These temples were made of stone and adobe bricks, either white-washed or colored, and filled with rubble. Occasionally, small rooms were set back into terrace walls. These temples were decorated with statues of gods and accents. (Hall, 45) Palaces were near the temples and had doorways supported by the post and lintel construction or “corbelled” arches. Post and lintel (below) construction consisted of two vertical columns and a horizontal beam made of wood or stone. They extended each row of building blocks inward on both sides of the opening until they met at the top, making a triangular doorway. Palaces were never more than two stories high because they could not support an abundant amount of weight, but they were horizontally spacious to make up for their smallness. (47) All of the materials they used were local. Stone was the sturdiest but most expensive, but it was only used for temples, palaces, or tombs. Otherwise they used sun dried mud bricks or adobe. Large stone buildings were often covered in plaster or stucca and then they could be painted. (Macdonald, 20/21) Obviously, the Aztec architecture was very well planned and built. Their buildings must have been absolutely stunning.
post_and_lintel.jpg
Post and lintel construction, englishbutlerartgallery.com


The scientific philosophies of the Aztecs affected the everyday lives of the people. They developed a solar calendar from observations of movements of celestial bodies. This calendar had 360 days with five “hollow” or “idle” days added at the end of the cycle. These five days were unlucky and nobody fought or worked those days. Along with the additional five days, one day was added at intervals, like a leap year. (Hall, 60/61) Each day in this calendar system had its own symbol. There were twenty symbols that went in a specific order. It took 260 days to complete a full cycle (to come back to the first symbol on day one). Each day in this cycle had its own meaning also. The Aztecs also learned about botany, the study of plants. Horticulturists and herbalists were the kinds of scientists you would find in this area of study. Horticulturists knew about soil, crop rotation, trees, herbs, medicinal plants, flowers, and seeds. (61) Herbalists studied the medicinal properties of plants. Another type of scientific knowledge that the Aztecs achieved was engineering and math. They helped to align temples and buildings with the path of the sun and celestial bodies and make buildings with precision. People of this group of scientists also made dikes, locks, and aqueducts. Chemistry was another science that the Aztecs had. Chemistry helped in the construction of pottery, paints, alloys, fabric dyes, and concrete. (63) Another area the Aztecs are known for is medicine. The Spaniards themselves noted Aztec medicine is more advanced than European medicine. The main thing they used to make medicines were herbs. (Cray, 12) A sick citizen went to a diviner to find out what was wrong with them, they did this by throwing corn seeds on a matt and by the pattern they landed in the diviner could tell what was wrong. Then the sick person went to a healer or a ticitl. The healer would prescribe one of the 130 herbs used to heal people. (Dineen, 51) Even though the Aztecs might not seem like the people to have a lot of interest in science, they did and it is amazing that so early in time, a civilization could make these types of systems.



Aztec newborns went through birth rituals and ceremonies that were a very important part of their life. Each baby was brought into the world by a midwife. She would tell boys that they would become great warriors and tell girls that they would have to stay home and look after their family. Family members would come to see the baby and give their relatives advice and also tell the baby about the world. (Jordan, 17) The parents would consult with a priest to find if their child’s birth date was lucky. If it was, the baby would be named four days later, if not, the priest would find a day with a better fortune. This was important because a person’s character was set by their birthday. A baby boy would be given his father’s tools by four boys after the naming day was set. A girl would be given a workbasket and a spindle and was shown how to use a broom. (18) The birth of a baby was important to his or her family and to their future, which is why they had important rituals set with this in the Aztec Civilization.

A few very important elements of the Aztec culture were their religion, arts, education, architecture, science, and birth rituals. These played major roles in the daily lives of the Aztec people. Without these parts, the Aztecs wouldn’t be the amazing Civilization we know them as today.




Military


The Aztec military had many strong and daunting warriors who fought and trained very hard. The army was very difficult and took many years to be a complete warrior. They used many powerful weapons to fight in their frays. They were in many battles, the most important one probably being the battle with Hernan Cortés and the Spaniards. The decline of the Aztecs was caused by this encounter, which the strong soldiers persevered through.


To get into the massive, dominant, Aztec army you had to go through a tough training school to learn military conduct. The training started at age eight, where the boys were sent to the telpochalli and did chores around the school. Later, when they were twelve, they were taught to fight and assisted older warriors in their wars. (Shirley, 45) When they became 17, they fought in the king’s army until they were twenty-two years old. The goal of battle was to capture three prisoners and then they could wear their hair in a special style and wear different clothes than others. They also had special weapons that they could use in battle. (46) The Jaguar and Eagle Knights were the most honored and bravest soldiers in the army and headed out to battle first. The Jaguar Knights wore the fur of a jaguar and the Eagle Knights wore a helmet shaped like an eagles head. The army wore clothes soaked in salt water to make them stiffer and carried their clubs. Priests had idols strapped to their backs. (47) Each “basic large unit” had about 8,000 men with roughly 25 units in a major battle. (Somervill, 78)


The Aztecs won all of their battles, except the one against Hernan Cortés and the Spaniards. Two notable battles besides the one against Cortés were the false battle and the battle of the Chalcas. The false battle was against an ally and the two civilizations never even fought. It was all a hoax to get other tribes to be afraid of the Aztecs. The battle of the Chalcas was against, obviously, the Chalcas. The Aztecs asked for tributes but never got them the gave the Chalcas sixty days but they still refused so war was declared. The Aztecs fought them and just when it seemed to be going in the Aztecs favor the Chalcas said they needed 5 days to celebrate a religious holiday. The Aztecs granted it but afterward the Aztecs dominated the Chalcas and took over their land. These are just two of many battles but now onto Cortés.(Aquilar-Moreno, 42) In 1519, Hernan Cortés sailed to the land of the Aztecs because he had heard of gold and jewels there. He took eleven ships, five-hundred eight soldiers, one-hundred seamen, and sixteen horses. They established a settlement called Villa Rica de Vera Cruz which means Rich Town of the True Cross. (Jordan, 55) At this time, Montezuma II was the ruler of the Aztecs and he knew nothing of Cortés and the Spaniards until his spies told him of them. They described the foreigners as having mountains, which were actually their ships. (56) Montezuma II was very alarmed because he knew that Quetzalcóatl, the god of wind, was supposed to return to the Aztecs that year. He was especially worried when the messengers came talking about a man with white skin and a beard because that is exactly what Quetzalcóatl was told to look like. While Montezuma II was panicking, Hernan Cortés requested to meet with him “in friendship”. As Cortés and his troops were waiting for a reply, Cortés decided to send one ship back to their land to tell King Charles of their safe arrival. (57) Since all of his men were anxious, Hernan decided to strip the fleet of their iron, sails, cord, equipment, and ships so no one could escape. Cortés finally marched inland with his troops, leaving the old and ill to govern Vera Cruz. After meeting with the Spaniards, Montezuma II declined
hernan_cortes.jpg
Hernan Cortes, lilalions.com
their invitation. But to make it even, he gave them gifts of gold and precious stones. Now that Hernan Cortés knew that the stories about the gold and jewels were true, he had more incentive to reach Tenochtitlán. (58) Along the way, the Spaniards ran into tribes that tried to stop them because they were loyal to Montezuma II. Other cities hated the “king’s domination”, so 4,000 citizens joined the Spaniards on their march. (59) Although the Spaniards and their other troops didn’t have as big of an army as Montezuma II’s empire did, they had better weapons and mastiffs to help them. They finally reached Tenochtitlán on November 8th, 1519. When they arrived, Montezuma II was waiting at the city gates with the Aztecs. Montezuma II wondered if Cortés was the fighting god, Quetzalcóatl, when he saw the massive army. (60) Montezuma II gave the Spaniards a place to stay in, and a little while after, Cortés took him hostage so that his warriors couldn’t attack the Spaniards. Because Montezuma II didn’t know Cortés’ identity, he left without resisting. Hernan Cortés left to Vera Cruz and the Aztec people rose up against the Spaniards. (61) Montezuma II tried to calm them, but in return, they threw stones at him and he later died. So, Montezuma II’s nephew took the throne, but died from smallpox. Cortés and his army were forced to flee. (62) Fortunately, they escaped safely. Hernan and his troops defeated another Spanish leader looking for gold, so the troops joined the Spaniards along with Indians that also gathered together with the Spaniards. Now Cortés had 1,000 soldiers, eighty horses, and 75,000 Indian allies. (63) The Spaniards were ready to fight. A three month battle started. They had no food or water and farmers couldn’t reach their fields. (64) The Spaniards tore down cities and filled the Aztec canoes with rubble, which their ships sank very easily. The Aztecs ended up sick, dead, or starving, so they couldn’t fight so the Spaniards won. (65) Now you know about just three of the important battles of the Aztecs.


The weapons the Aztecs used were simple but effective. The main weapons that the Aztecs used were the spear and spear thrower, also called an atlatl. The obsidian bladed club, the macahuitl, was the deadliest weapon they used. They also used bows, arrows, slings and rocks (Wood, 71), darts, swords, and spears to fight. Another skill they used was making sounds to break their enemies concentration like shouting, using noisemakers, whistles, drums, and conch shells.(Hall, 70) To defend themselves they used circular shields with fringes to keep them safe from darts (Defrates, 40/41) and protective clothing. (Hall, 70) As you can see the weapons they used were very deadly.
atlatl.png
An atlatl, wikipedia.org

The decline of the Aztec Civilization was caused by Hernan Cortés and his troops conquering the empire. Cortés and the Spaniards sank the Aztecs’ ships, starved them, and ruined their city so the farmers had no more fields. Because of their sickness, the Aztecs couldn’t fight. On August 13th, 1521 the Aztec capital fell. The alive and defeated Aztecs were forced to work in mines or be slaves of the conquerors. (Jordan, 65)

The Aztec military was completed with its army, weapons, battles, and decline. What I mean by this is that because of these, the Aztec military is noteworthy and what they were known for. The Aztecs were belligerent people and their military is what made them who they are today.

Economics



The Aztec’s economics were mainly based on trade and bartering. There were many opportunities available for occupations, but each one required hard work. The Aztecs used their resources as food, which was very satisfying because of the abundant crops they had. They traded with other tribes who gave them goods to use. After they were done with work, the Aztecs would occasionally relax and watch or participate in a fun game.

The many occupations of the Aztecs included trading and making art and goods. The artisans lived in their own separate part of the city. These types of people could be sculptors and goldsmiths. The artisans would train their sons their job so that one day, their children could have their job.(Jordan, 32) On the other hand, merchants would travel often so they could be away from their family and not see them for months! The merchants would migrate in large groups when they went to trade. (34)

On the other hand, a completely different lifestyle was becoming a priest or priestess. For this occupation, you started training at a very young age. After you became a priest, you would give offerings, perform sacrifices, and have your blood drawn to give to the gods. Priestesses would honor the earth goddesses and teach young girls. They could also marry, with their parent’s permission. (Hall, 39) All of their occupations required hard work, but in the end, it paid off.


The Aztecs ate from the resources that they had. Farmers grew tomatoes, beans, chili peppers, prickly pears, maguey cactus, and cacao. (Dineen, 27) The main crop was corn, or maize, which was used for making tortillas, atolli, and other types of food. (30) Some of the Aztecs would go to the lake to catch turtles, salamanders, frogs, and shellfish. Others would gather figs and nuts or find quail, pigeons, geese, pelicans, or cranes to eat. (31) The Aztecs also hunted for meat, except dogs and turkeys which they kept in stock. Turkeys gave them meat and eggs to eat, so it was a two for one deal. They ate hairless, small dogs that looked like what we know as Chihuahuas. (30) Another resource that the Aztecs used as food was beehives. They would take the honey out of them and eat it. (28) Although the Aztecs didn’t have a lot of resources to use for construction or writing, they used what they were given wisely and used their natural supplies as food.

Merchants traveled to different areas to trade goods usually for commonly used supplies. Aztec merchants could head to the north for blue turquoise from the Pueblos, to the east for more cacao beans from the Mayans, to the south for parrot feathers, or to the west for silver and gold. (Jordan, 34) They would trade for feathers, gems, animal hides, and even slaves! After the merchants were finished trading, they would bring their goods to the markets to sell them. (Somervill, 79) Craftspeople depended on the traders to supply gold, silver, copper, lead, and tin for them. (Dineen, 40) Food was also traded at the town markets. (84) The farmers would sometimes trade their extra crops for ropes and axes. (85) Trading had a huge impact on the Aztec peoples’ lives, because
turquoise.jpg
Turquoise, wikipedia.org
it was one of the major ways to get your goods.

While they weren’t working, the Aztecs watched or played recreational games. There were three games that were played. These were tlachtli, volador, and patolli. In tlachtli, two teams or opponents tried to get a rubber ball to pass through a ring on the wall. Seems simple enough, right? The trick is that the ball could only be hit with your elbows, knees, or hips. (Jordan, 41) The player that got the ball through the hoop could take the spectators’ possessions (Hall, 22), but the losing team or player could become human sacrifices. (Jordan, 41) Another game, named volador by the Spaniards consisted of four men circling around a pole. These men were dressed as birds and attached to the pole which they dived headfirst off of. Each man tried to circle around the pole twelve times, which equaled fifty-two times when adding all of the men’s revolutions together. (Jordan, 42) The third game, called patolli, was a gambling game. The players would throw beans on to a mat with a diagram. The winners and losers of this game were decided by where there bean landed. If your bean stood upright, you could confiscate the other players’ things. (Hall, 22) The Aztec’s games were very interesting with harsh outcomes, but a good activity to enjoy after a hard day of work.

The Aztec economics focused on their occupations, resources, trade, and games. There were many different opportunities to experience each of these parts of the civilization. The Aztecs wouldn’t have been as interesting to learn about if they didn’t have these elements.


Some important subjects of the Aztecs were their flagrant geography, pungent military, striking culture, and decisive economics. Their geography was always changing and very exceptional. Over all of the years of the civilization their great military only lost one battle. One of the most important topics of the Aztecs was their amazing culture. Another important part, as you can see, was Economics which included playing games, selling, trading , and farming. As you can now see the Aztecs were a very interesting civilization and also very productive. They discovered many things but also seemed dumb at times. This is obviously a civilization that still affects us in daily life today.




Works Cited



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