The Aztecs: Civilization & Culture

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  • 0:01 Mythical Entrance into Mexico
  • 1:26 The Aztecs Build an Empire
  • 5:33 Aztec Accomplishments
  • 6:47 Clash of Two Cultures
  • 9:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lucia Reyes
A mythical origin, an intricate political and social system, impressive accomplishments, bloodthirsty gods, and a violent clash of two cultures - watch this video to learn more about the interesting history of the Aztecs!

Mythical Entrance into Mexico

This lesson will describe the Aztecs' origins and impressive empire, their social and religious structures, their accomplishments and, finally, their downfall at the hands of Spanish conquistadors. So, how did it all start? The exact origin of the Aztecs isn't clear, but historians believe that they were nomadic hunter-gatherers who migrated southward into central Mexico in the late 1200s CE. The mythical origin of the Aztecs is a more popular story.

According to legend, the Aztecs, also known as the Mexica or Tenochca, originated from a mythical land called Aztlan. Guided by Huitzilopochtli, their war and sun god, the Aztecs wandered into the Valley of Mexico in search of a new homeland. Huitzilopochtli, whose name means 'hummingbird on the left' in Nauhuatl, told the Aztecs that they would find their new home on the spot where the cactus grows and the eagle sits happily. When they came across a large lake spotted with marshy islands, there, on one of the islands, they viewed an eagle perched on a cactus devouring a snake. The Aztecs had found their new home.

The Aztecs Build an Empire

The Aztecs named their new city Tenochtitlan. Building on the middle of a lake was no simple task, but the Aztecs adapted. They drained the swamps and built waterways so that they could use canoes to link the city together. They engineered bridges to connect to the surrounding lakeshores. Floating gardens on raised beds of soil, called chinampas, provided crops such as corn, beans, squash and chili peppers.

Numerous marketplaces were filled with these crops, as well as textiles, bird feathers, building materials and other goods acquired through trade with the nearby city-states that already occupied Mexico. In addition to using the bartering system, cacao beans were also used as a type of currency. The highly sought-after chocolate drink made from these beans, however, was reserved for the nobility.

With successful agriculture, the population of Tenochtitlan surged and extended communities popped up on the shores of the lake, later named Lake Texcoco. Between 200,000 and 400,000 people are estimated to have lived in Tenochtitlan's urban area by around 1500 CE. As the Aztec population grew, so did their influence over their neighbors. When they had first arrived in Mexico, the Aztecs hired themselves out as warriors for local rulers. Warfare was an important part of the Aztec lifestyle, with boys beginning their warrior training at a young age.

Over time, these superior fighting skills were used to conquer others. By 1500 CE, 6-12 million people lived under the rule of the Aztec Empire, which stretched east to the Gulf of Mexico, west to the Pacific Ocean and all the way south to Guatemala. Conquered peoples were forced to pay tribute to the Aztec emperor in the form of goods such as jade, obsidian, gold and corn.

The Aztecs developed a very structured social hierarchy, consisting of the nobles, the intermediate class and the commoners. The emperor was the head of the nobility. The emperor lived a life of grand luxury. According to some accounts, the emperor Montezuma II had a palace with walls of gold, a swimming pool, and a zoo with exotic animals.

Government officials, military leaders and priests were also part of the noble class. They lived closer to the city center on large estates. The intermediate class was composed of merchants and skilled artisans. Commoners included fishermen, farmers, soldiers and other craftspeople. Non-landowning serfs tied to the land of nobles made up the next tier of this group. Below this group were slaves, many of whom were captured in battles against other city-states.

The Aztecs were polytheistic, or worshiped multiple deities. They believed in approximately 1,000 gods, some of whom were adopted from pre-existing civilizations like the Toltec. Gods represented different aspects of agriculture or natural phenomenon, such as the rain god, Tlaloc, or Xipe Totec, the god of spring. Temples and step pyramids filled the city center and small altars filled family homes.

Various ceremonies held to appease the gods often involved human sacrifices. Most sacrificial victims were prisoners of war. One form of human sacrifice was cutting out the heart of a victim and offering it to the sun god, Huitzilopochtli. In another ceremony, Aztec priests danced around wearing the flayed skin of sacrificial victims in order to please Xipe Totec and mark a new growing season.

Aztec Accomplishments

Religious ceremonies were organized throughout the year using a sophisticated calendar system. A farming calendar was also used in planning a successful harvest. The Aztec calendar sun stone offers insight into the Aztec's in-depth understanding of astronomy, including the movement of the sun, stars and planets.

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