Matthew T. Meaney
An American or other English speaker might walk into a fast food restaurant and order chili, or maybe guacamole. Perhaps one might encounter a wild coyote, or spot an ocelot. Or maybe in a candy store that person would buy himself a bar of chocolate. But, do English speakers know that these commonplace terms all originate from Nahuatl, the Aztec language. Words in the English language are just one of many examples of elements of Aztec culture that are still embedded in our society today. To explore the effects of a culture it is important to understand the history of this culture.
The Aztec civilization traces its origins back to a series of nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, most notably the Aztecs, sometimes referred to as the “Tenochca” or the “Mexica” The Aztecs arrived in Mesoamerica in the early 13th century, just after the fall of the Toltecs. Whether or not the Aztecs were involved in the demise of the Toltecs is questioned by scholars. As these nomadic Aztecs wandered around the Mesoamerican region, they came upon an eagle perched on a cactus in a marsh near the southwest of Lake Texcoco. The nomads felt this eagle was a sign of the divine, and began to build their settlement there. First, they went about draining the swamp land and built artificial islands called “chinampas” to be used for planting gardens. The Aztecs grew many crops, most notably maize (corn), beans, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, and avocados, and supplemented their farming with hunting of animals like rabbits, armadillos, snakes, coyotes, and wild turkey.
This healthy supply of food through sophisticated and advanced farming and irrigation methods (like the chinampas) allowed the Aztecs to expand their civilization and have robust cultural and religious developments. The Aztec faith shared many elements of other Mesoamerican faith systems, for example, sharing their brutal practice of human sacrifice with the Mayan culture. The Aztecs had many gods that they worshiped. To name a few: Huitzilopochti (god of war and the sun), Quetzalcoatl (“Feathered Serpent”), and Tialoc (god of rain). They constructed many pyramids and even a great temple in dedication to the gods.
In addition to the faith that the Aztecs dedicated time to, they also focused heavily on expanding their influence across the Mesoamerican region. In 1428, Aztec tribe leader Itzcoatl formed a three-way alliance with two other tribes, the Texcocans and the Tacubans in order to defeat a rival tribe in the region, the Tepanec. This three-way alliance conquered the capital city of the Tepanec, Azcapotzalco. Itzcoatl was succeeded by Montezuma I, who went about expanding the empire the Itzcoatl had begun to create. Montezuma I, considered to be the “Father of the Aztec Empire,” stretched the empire’s border to the Gulf of Mexico, conquered the Mixtec people, and solidified Tenochtitlan as the capital city of the Aztec Empire. By the early 16th century, the Aztecs were ruling over 500 smaller states, comprising around five to six million people. At this time, Tenochtitlan had roughly 140,000 inhabitants, and was home to the large and bustling market of Tlateloco, which attracted 50,000 people on busy days. The success and seemingly peaceful times of the Aztec Empire did not last forever, however.
In 1517, Spanish explorer Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba became the first European to find and explore the land that today makes up Mexico. Cordoba reported his findings to the Spanish governor of Cuba, Diego Velasquez, who in turn sent a larger force under the command of Hernan Cortes to further explore the land. In March of 1519, Cortes and his men landed in the Mesoamerican city of Tabasco. Cortes set about founding a city in the southeastern part of Mexico called Veracruz, and spent time there training his men into a capable fighting force, and making connections with the natives. In November of the same year, Cortes, aided by a translator, marched 400 soldiers into Tenochtitlan, and was warmly greeted by current Emperor Montezuma II. Due to Cortes’ light skin, Montezuma believed him to be the god Quetzalcoatl, whose return was prophesied in the Aztec religion. Cortes responded to the Aztecs’ hospitality by taking Montezuma and his advisors captive and killing other nobles during a ritual dance ceremony. At some point during this time, Montezuma died, however the cause of his death remains unknown.
After the death of Montezuma II, his nephew Cuauhtemoc became the emperor, and led the Aztec force against the outnumbered Spanish force, successfully repelling the latter from Tencohtitlan. Cortes raised support of certain conquered people and rival tribes of the Aztecs, including the former Aztec ally, Texcoco. The Spanish, aided by superior weaponry and their native allies, defeated Cuauhtemoc’s resistance on August 13, 1521, effectively ending the brutal reign of the Aztecs over Mesoamerica. Cortes and company destroyed Tenochtitlan, and in its place constructed Mexico City, which became a powerful European city in the New World.
Though the Spanish eliminated the Aztecs as a political power in the world, they did not destroy the Aztecs' influence on culture and even governmental systems. In fact today, many things in government and culture we see as commonplace today were actually begun by the Aztecs over 500 years ago! While thankfully ritual human sacrifice is not part of our culture today, the Aztecs did use a court structure similar to the system that the United States and other western countries use today. If a person was accused of a crime, he would be held on trial by a court who decided his guilt or innocence, and the court would hand down a sentence to the guilty. The Aztecs also had different levels of courts, going all the way up to a “supreme court.” One Aztec law that influenced modern legislature was a temperance law forbidding alcohol, similar to the U.S.’ now repealed Eighteenth Amendment. To keep track of time, the Aztecs employed a 365 day calendar, believed to have been established in the late 15th century, before the modern Gregorian calendar was implemented in 1582. Ahead of their time not just in culture and politics, the Aztecs constructed great pyramids and large aqueducts, in addition to their advanced farming methods and man made islands.
While the Aztecs were a very brutal and violent people, they have left more peaceful influences in the modern world, and continue to have an impact on modern culture and society.