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What Are Chinampas? - Definition & System

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Aztec Empire was a massive military state, but there was much more to it than human sacrifices and warfare. In this lesson, we'll talk about city planning and agriculture in the capital city of the Aztec Empire.

Aztec Agriculture

Across human history, one of the few things all people have held in common is that they like (and need) to eat. However, the more complex a society was, the more food it had to produce, and that led to some amazing innovations. For example, consider the Aztec Empire, which dominated what today is Mexico during the 15th and early 16th centuries. This was one of the largest and most complex political states in the Western Hemisphere.

We often hear about the warfare of the Aztecs, as well as their religion and human sacrifices. But have you ever stopped to wonder how they fed all those people? It turns out that the Mexica, the actual society of people who lived in the heart of the empire, were incredible engineers. They used the lakes found throughout the Valley of Mexico to create 'floating gardens' called chinampas.

Map of Tenochtitlan, by Hernan Cortes
Tenochtitlan

Chinampas

The center of Aztec life was the city of Tenochtitlán. Tenochtitlán was built in the middle of a lake, and the shores of the lake were occupied by other cities, so the Mexica people didn't have a lot of options when it came to farmland. What they did have, however, was a lot of water area on which to develop their system of floating gardens. Early versions of these gardens involved massive rafts, upon which soil was piled and then crops were planted. These rafts were anchored in the middle of the lake and the crops upon them were irrigated by the lake's water.

Those rafts were a start, but the true chinampas were a bit more complex. Plots were staked out in shallow, marshy lake bed areas using a series of tall poles. A fence made of branches and mud was woven between the poles, creating a rectangular plot which was then filled with mud and vegetation. On average, each chinampa plot was only about 10-13 feet wide, but would range from 1,300 to 3,000 feet in length. These long, skinny, rectangular islands were built parallel to each other, with canals of water running between them. This allowed the water to continually flow through the chinampas, providing constantly irrigated soil. Crops and even non-edible plants like trees were planted on top to hold the soil together.

For fertilizer, the Mexica sometimes used the fertile soil of the lake bottom, but also used human waste from the city. This sounds disgusting to us today, but was actually very practical. Before indoor plumbing, few cities in the world had any real system of waste disposal. This system used the crops to treat wastewater, making Tenochtitlán one of the more hygienic cities of the ancient world.

Model of a chinampa without the water
Chinampa

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