Who Were the Aztecs and How Did They Disappear?
An Aztec was an Indian who lived on the plains of Mexico from the 11th Century to the beginning of the 16th Century. The exact origins of the Aztec people are uncertain, but they are believed to have begun as a northern tribe of hunter-gatherers whose name came from that of their homeland, Aztlan (or “White Land”). The Aztecs were also known as the Tenochca (from which the name for their capital city, Tenochtitlán, was derived) or the Mexica (the origin of the name of the city that would replace Tenochtitlán, as well as the name for the entire country).
The Aztecs appeared in Mesoamerica–as the south-central region of pre-Columbian Mexico is known–in the early 13th century. Their arrival came just after, or perhaps helped bring about, the fall of the previously dominant Mesoamerican civilization, the Toltecs.
The Aztec civilization was one of the most magnificent in the whole of Central American history, although it was not created by the Aztecs themselves. They simply took over and organized what others had already created. They spoke a language called Nahuatl, which is still used by over a million Mexicans today, although Spanish is their official tongue. The Aztecs, emerged as the dominant force in central Mexico, developing an intricate social, political, religious and commercial organization that brought many of the region’s city-states under their control by the 15th century.
In 1324 the Aztecs settled in an island village called Tenochtitlán, which later grew up into a large town. Mexico City is built on the same spot. The Aztecs constructed many beautiful palaces and pyramid shaped temples for the worship of their numerous gods, to whom they offered human sacrifice. They also developed a surprising knowledge of mathematics and astronomy.
The days of their greatest glory were also their last. In 1519 Hernan Cortes (Hernando Cortez), a Spanish explorer landed in Mexico, marched to Tenochtitlan and took the Aztec King Montezuma prisoner. Two years later he finally defeated the Aztecs and destroyed their city. After his victory, Cortes razed Tenochtitla and built Mexico City on its ruins; it quickly became the premier European center in the New World. Fortunately, not everything belonging to the Aztec civilization has disappeared. It is still possible to find many examples of their culture in Mexico today. Apart from ornaments and trinklets, there are many well preserved architectural remains—sacrificial platforms, temples, and a remarkable calendar stone.
Did You Know?
The Aztec language, Nahuatl, was the dominant language in central Mexico by the mid-1350s. Numerous Nahuatl words borrowed by the Spanish were later absorbed into English as well, including chile or chili, avocado, chocolate, coyote, peyote, guacamole, ocelot and mescal.
When the Aztecs saw an eagle perched on a cactus on the marshy land near the southwest border of Lake Texcoco, they took it as a sign to build their settlement there. They drained the swampy land, constructed artificial islands on which they could plant gardens and established the foundations of their capital city, Tenochtitlán, in 1325 A.D.
Typical Aztec crops included maize (corn), along with beans, squashes, potatoes, tomatoes and avocadoes; they also supported themselves through fishing and hunting local animals such as rabbits, armadillos, snakes, coyotes and wild turkey. Their relatively sophisticated system of agriculture (including intensive cultivation of land and irrigation methods) and a powerful military tradition would enable the Aztecs to build a successful state, and later an empire.