Wikijunior:Ancient Civilizations/Aztecs

What country did they live in?

Map of Mexico

The Aztecs lived in what is now Mexico. The name Mexico comes from the Aztec word Mexica, a name they used to describe themselves. Their capital city, Tenochtitlan, was located where Mexico City currently stands today

What did their buildings look like?


The Aztec's city, Tenochtitlan, was built on a self-made island. When they first arrived in the area, there was nothing but a swampy island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. They developed a system, called the chinampa system to dry the land by setting up small plots in which they produced all the food they needed. When enough land was dry they would begin to build there. Over time, they added to the size of the island using this system.



Tenochtitlan was divided into four zones (called campan). Each campan was divided into 20 districts (calpullis), and each calpulli was crossed by streets, or tlaxilcalli. There were three main streets that crossed the city and extended to firm land; the calpullis were divided by channels used for transportation, with wood bridges that were removed at night. Each calpulli had its own tianquiztli (marketplace), but there was also a main marketplace in Tlatelolco.

Tenochtitlan was created symmetrical, that is, a mirror image on both sides. At the heart of the city lay public buildings, temples and schools. Inside a walled square, 300 meters to the side, was the ceremonial center. There were public buildings, the main temple, the temple of Quetzalcoatl, the ball game, the tzompantli, or rack of skulls, the temple of the sun, the platforms for the sacrifice of gladiators, and some minor temples. Outside was the palace of Moctezuma. Nearby was the cuicalli or house of the songs, and the calmecac, or school. All construction had to be approved by the calmimilocatl, a person in charge of city planning.

Moctezuma's palace had 100 rooms and bathrooms for the lords and ambassadors of allies and conquered people. It also had two zoos, one for birds of prey and another for other birds, reptiles, and mammals. There was also a botanical garden and an aquarium. The aquarium had ten salt water ponds and ten fresh water ponds, containing fish and aquatic birds.

What did they wear?


Aztec men wore the cloth around their waists and cloaks around their shoulders. Aztec women wore sleeveless blouses and wraparound skirts. Nobles dressed in brightly colored cotton clothes decorated in gold and feathers. This was done to attract attention to themselves. The poor wore clothes made of maguey fibers, and slaves did not wear much at all

The Aztec army dressed differently from everyday people. Warriors wore vests made of quilted cotton, feathered plumes that are dusted with stones and precious metals. They also wore collars, bracelets, and earrings made of the same materials. Depending on how many enemies they captured, warriors could earn the right to wear animal costumes. Chiefs wore layers of gold or silver with feathers underneath. Both chiefs and warriors wore wooden helmets shaped like animals and carried shields made of woven reeds and feathers. Common soldiers did not have these items. They painted themselves in the colors of their chief's banner and wore a simple girdle.

When sacrificing humans to the gods, priests wear black blood-stained robes, while the victim was painted with chalk. Often, masks were worn during the ceremony.

The name glyph for Ahuitzotl, an Aztec emperor.

What did their writing look like?


Like the Mayans, the Aztecs wrote using a series of glyphs, or pictures. For example, a snake (coatl) was represented by a drawing of a snake's head. Numbers below 20 were represented by a series of dots. Numbers larger than 20 were represented by glyphs. For example, the number 500 would be represented by a feather and four flags (400 + 5*20 = 500). To show that glyphs belonged to a single group, a line was drawn to connect them. Next, a line was drawn to the object being counted.

What did they believe?


According to Aztec legend, the ancestors of the Aztecs came from a place in the north called Aztlán. They were guided by a god named Huitzilopochtli, meaning "Left-handed Hummingbird." There was a prophecy that said that they should build their home where they saw an eagle eating a snake while perched on a nopal cactus. When they arrived on the island in Lake Texcoco, they saw this, and settled there.

The Aztecs also believed that their ancestors were considered by other groups to be uncivilized. However, they decided to learn, and took knowledge from other peoples, especially the Toltec. They believed all culture came from them.

The Aztecs had several creation myths. One said that there were four ages before our time, each of which ended in a catastrophe. Our age – Nahui-Ollin, the fifth age, or fifth creation – escaped destruction because of the sacrifice of Nanahuatl ("full of sores", the smallest and humblest of the gods), who was transformed into the Sun. Another says that Earth was created by the twin gods Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl. Tezcatlipoca lost his foot in the process of creating the world and all representations of these gods show him without a foot and with a bone exposed.

Are some of them famous even today?


At the time of the arrival of the Spanish, Emperor Moctezuma ruled over Tenochtitlan. His name in Nahuatl, pronounced Mo–tekw–so–ma, meant "he who makes himself ruler by his rage."

Legend has it that ten years before the Spanish arrived, eight things happened that signaled the fall of the Aztec empire. They were:

  1. A comet appeared in the sky during the day.
  2. A pillar of fire (possibly the comet) appeared in the night sky.
  3. The temple of Huitzilopochtli was destroyed by fire.
  4. A bolt of lightning struck the Tzonmolco temple.
  5. Tenochtitlan was flooded.
  6. Strange people with many heads but one body were seen walking through that city.
  7. A woman was heard weeping a dirge for the Aztecs.
  8. A strange bird (quetzal) was caught. When Moctezuma looked into its mirror-like eyes, he saw unfamiliar men landing on the coast.

In the spring of 1519, Moctezuma received reports of strange men off the coast of his empire. At first, the emperor sent an ambassador with a costume of Tlaloc, and another of Quetzalcoatl. When the ambassador met conquistador Hernán Cortés, he thought he looked like Quetzalcoatl. He told Moctezuma, who tried to stop him from coming to Tenochtitlan. He sent gold, wizards, priests, and even one of his ambassadors, Tzihuacpopoca, who pretended to be the emperor.

Eventually, Moctezuma met Hernán Cortés. He believed he was the god Quetzalcoatl. He took him to his garden and gave him flowers, the greatest honour he could give. When Cortés ordered a halt to the human sacrifices, he agreed. He even offered to be baptized a Christian and become a subject of King Charles I of Spain.

When Cortés went to meet other Spaniards on the coast, deputy governor Pedro de Alvarado took over. He stopped the Aztecs from celebrating Toxcatl, and killed most of the important upper class Aztecs in what is known as "The Massacre in the Main Temple." Between 350 and 1000 people died. This enraged the Aztecs, who revolted. Moctezuma was then taken by the Spanish. On July 1, 1520, Moctezuma appeared on the balcony of his palace, pleading with his people to retreat. Instead, they threw rocks at him, and he died shortly after the attack.

After the death of Moctezuma, there were only two other emperors. One died of smallpox, the last Aztec emperor was named Cuahutemoc, and to make him confess where the Aztec wealth was kept, they burned his feet until finally his death came very possibly from shock, or so Mexican scholars say. One year later, the Aztec empire had crumbled. Techichpotzin, Moctezuma's daughter, inherited his wealth. She was baptized a Christian and given the name Isabel Moctezuma. She married a total of five times before she died.

What is left of them today?


Although the Aztecs no longer exist, their influence is still felt in Mexico. More than 60% of the population are mestizo or mixed. This means that some of their ancestors were Aztec. There are also over 1.5 million people in Mexico who speak Nahuatl, which comes from the Classical Nahuatl spoken by the Aztecs.

The Nahuatl language has given many words to English, usually through Spanish. Here is a list of some English words of Nahuatl origin:

  • avocado: from ahuacatl (fruit)
  • chilli: from chilli (vegetable)
  • chocolate: from xocolatl (drink)
  • cocoa: from cacahuatl (fruit/nut)
  • coyote: from coyotl (mammal)
  • ocelot: from ocelotl (mammal)
  • shack: from xacalli (structure)
  • tomato: from (xi)tomatl (fruit/berry)