• Environment and Geography

    The Aztec or Mexica civilization inhabited the central high plateau of what is now Mexico, founding their capital Tenochtiltlán on the shores of Lake Texcoco, the location that was best suited to a large settlement owing to the availability of water, flora, and fauna. During this civilization’s imperial period it extended throughout much of the central Mexican region from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts.

  • Economy and technology

    The Aztec economy was based on the cultivation of maize, but they also grew beans, squash, chili peppers, tomatoes, and other products. Much of their agriculture took place on chinampas, artificial islands that floated on the waters of the lake, but they also carried out large scale slash-and-burn agriculture. The concepts of private property, wages, and tribute were familiar to them: each calpulli made a payment twice per year, generating revenue that the state used for architectural works in distant lands. Trade also played a central role in the formation and consolidation of the empire, and was conducted on two levels: foreign trade was used to obtain exotic goods and luxuries for the nobility (feathers, fruit, wood, vegetables, tools, clothing, fish, maize cakes, etc), while small-scale trade in local markets supplied local economies. In these exchanges, cacao beans were used as currency.

  • Art

    The Aztecs had a clearly defined style based on religious symbolism. Their renowned stonework includes temple sculptures, mainly representing gods, and relief works, which often depicted leaders and were commissioned to commemorate important events. Another notable example of Aztec art was the Aztec Calendar, with a 365-day year and 52-year cycle. Little remains of the civilization’s wall murals, but extant historical accounts describe the culture’s history, imperial times, and myths. These accounts are given in ideographic script, with each symbol representing an idea. On a smaller-scale, the Aztec produced wooden funeral masks encrusted with turquoise, obsidian, or mother-of-pearl, as well as skulls carved from rock crystal. The Aztecs worked gold and silver to make necklaces, bracelets, and other personal jewelry, as well as statues of their gods. They also produced featherwork for such items as ceremonial vestments, capes, and shields displaying emblems of rank and power.

  • Social Organization

    Aztec civilization moved rapidly from an egalitarian society to a highly stratified one. Their social organization was based on the calpulli, a kind of clan that grouped together descendents of a shared ancestor, who lived in one district and jointly owned shared land. Each had a hereditary local chief, the calpolec. Class differences existed but a certain degree of mobility was possible based on merit, mainly religious or military. Aztec society was structured like a pyramid, with the base made up of slaves (tlatlacotin), many of whom were captured in war; then came the common people (macehualtin), agricultural peasants or workers who built the state’s monumental structures. After came common citizens, who were required to pay tribute in accordance with their economic activity and were conscripted to the army. The middle classes consisted of traders, then small-scale merchants and craftsmen. The upper echelons were composed of the nobility, who controlled political, economic, religious, and military power, and their leaders, the tlatoani, individuals elected by a council composed of relatives of the previous tlatoani. The nobility was divided into members of the military, the priesthood, and the civil service, each with a career path and with established duties and rights. As this class was connected by bloodline, intermarriage with close relatives was common to maintain the lineage. Social differences were also manifested in institutions, as each social stratum had its own schools and judicial system.

  • Beliefs and Funerary Practices

    Religion was the foundation of the Aztec Empire. The culture had a fairly large pantheon of gods, headed by Uitzilopochtli, God of the Sun and the Earth; Tlaloc, God of Rain; and many others. In Aztec mythology Quetzalcoatl, the God of Wind, brought people back to life using bones and his own blood. The Aztecs therefore felt obliged to repay him with blood, to ensure that the Sun would triumph over darkness. Human sacrifice thus became the Aztec’s most important ritual. Sacrificial victims came from many different backgrounds; some were volunteers, while some were raised to be sacrificed, which was considered an honor; other victims were players of the Aztec ball game, but most were slaves or prisoners from the so-called “Flower Wars”, which were conducted expressly for this purpose.

    The ritual was performed on sacrificial stones, with the finely attired victim held down by four priests while a fifth priest carved opened his or her chest with a stone knife and removed the heart, which was cast into a fire or consumed by the officiant. The Aztecs also practiced ritual decapitations and drowning. Other rituals were held at festivals honoring specific gods and involved the participation of select groups of musicians, poet-singers, dancers, and acrobats.

    Music was taught in special schools and was performed with a variety of instruments, including stone staffs, rattles, drums, seashells, wooden gongs, etc. The Aztecs believed in life after death, when the soul would journey to the World of the Dead, the Heaven of the Sun, the place of Tláloc, or the Nurse Tree, depending on the cause and circumstances of death.

  • Settlement pattern

    Imperial architecture was most evident in religious and public buildings. Although temples varied in design, most were essentially pyramids with access stairways and a sanctuary at the top. One of the most significant of these is the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlán. The palaces of the nobility varied in size and architectural style. According to the earliest accounts, these boasted several rooms, vast columned hallways, interior courtyards, terraces, and gardens. The dwellings of the common people were built from cane and mud, and with stone in cities. These residences were generally small and only a single story high, but had gardens and steam baths. Other noteworthy public Aztec constructions include military outposts on the borders of the empire and the aqueducts and dykes of Tenochtitlán.

  • History

    According to its own history, the Aztec culture, which developed during the Post Classical period of Mesoamerican history, originated in a barbarian hunter-gatherer group called the Chichimecas (which means breed of dogs) that emigrated from Aztlán and took up residence on an island in Lake Texcoco. The group expelled the Tepenecas in the year 1370 CE and founded the city of Tenochtitlán on the site where an eagle had devoured a serpent. They formed a triple alliance with other groups that lasted until the Aztecs grew independent and began their expansion. In 1519, when the empire was under the rule of Moctezuma II, the Spanish conquistadors arrived under the leadership of Hernán Cortés. Taking advantage of the enmity between the Aztecs and neighboring cultures, the Spanish defeated the Aztecs in a short time. Tolteca and Teotihuacana influences are believed to have made their mark on Aztec art and architecture.