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.. The land around the lakes was fertile but not large enough to produce food for the population, which expanded steadily as the empire grew. To make more land suitable for farming, the Aztec developed irrigation systems, formed terraces on hillsides, and used fertilizer to enrich the soil. Their most important agricultural technique, however, was to reclaim swampy land around the lakes by creating chinampas, or artificial islands that are known popularly as floating gardens. To make the chinampas, the Aztec dug canals through the marshy shores and islands, then heaped the mud on huge mats made of woven reeds. They anchored the mats by tying them to posts driven into the lake bed and planting trees at their corners that took root and secured the islands permanently.

On these fertile islands they grew corn, squash, vegetables, and flowers. Aztec farmers had no plows or work animals. They planted crops in soft soil using pointed sticks. Corn was their principal crop. Women ground the corn into a coarse meal by rubbing it with a grinding stone called a mano against a flat stone called a metate.

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From the corn meal, the Aztec made flat corn cakes called tortillas, which was their principal food. Other crops included beans, squash, chili peppers, avocados, and tomatoes. The Aztec raised turkeys and dogs, which were eaten by the wealthy; they also raised ducks, geese, and quail. Aztec farmers had many uses for the maguey plant (also known as the ), which grew in the wild to enormous size. The sap was used to make a beerlike drink called pulque, the thorns served as needles, the leaves were used as thatch for the construction of dwellings, and the fibers were twisted into rope or woven into cloth.

In the Aztec empire, some manufactured goods were produced for the ruler or sold in the local markets. These included pottery, tools, jewelry, figurines, baskets, and cloth. Other goods, especially prized luxury items such as lake salt, gold ornaments, and rich garments, were carried by traveling traders to distant peoples in the lowlands along the Gulf coast and south toward what is now Guatemala. There they were exchanged for luxury items native to those regions, such as tropical-bird feathers, jaguar skins, cotton, rubber, and cacao beans for chocolate. The Aztec had no metal coins.

They used cacao beans, cotton cloth, and salt as a form of money. The Aztec had no wheeled vehicles or draft animals, so trading goods were carried by canoe or on the backs of porters, who marched in long caravans led by merchants. In dangerous areas, Aztec warriors would protect the caravans. Merchants would often act as spies for the empire when trading in towns that had not been conquered by the Aztecs. As an agricultural people, the Aztec depended heavily on the forces of nature and worshiped them as gods. Most important was their patron deity, the sun god, Huitzilopochtli, who was also considered to be the god of war.

Other important gods were Tlaloc (the god of rain) and Quetzacoatl, the plumed serpent (the god of wind and learning, also associated with resurrection). The Aztec believed that the compassionate gods must be kept strong to prevent the evil gods from destroying the world. For this purpose they conducted human sacrifices. Victims of sacrifice were usually prisoners of war, although Aztec warriors would sometimes volunteer for the more important sacrificial rituals. The god Tlaloc was believed to prefer children as sacrificial victims. The sacrificial rituals were elaborate in form, calculated according to the stars to please specific gods at specific times. A victim would ascend the steps of the pyramid.

At the top, a priest would stretch the victim across a stone altar and cut out the victim’s heart. The priest would hold the heart aloft to the god being honored and then fling it into a sacred fire while it was still beating. Often many victims were killed at once. In 1487, according to legend, Aztec priests sacrificed more than 80,000 prisoners of war at the dedication of the reconstructed temple of the sun god in Tenochtitln. Aztec priests sought to win favor with the gods by fasts and self-inflicted bloodletting. Some of them ran schools called calmecacs in which they taught religious rituals to boys studying for the priesthood.

One of the most important functions of the priests was to determine which days would be lucky for engaging in activities such as war and baptism. A religious calendar of 260 days provided this information. The dates of ceremonies to honor the gods were determined by a solar calendar of 365 days. Variants of both calendars were developed by earlier Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Olmec, Maya, and Zapotec. The meshing of the two calendars produced a 52-year cycle, at the end of which the Aztec would let their hearth fires go out. To begin the next cycle, they would hold the important new fire ceremony, in which priests lit a sacred fire in the chest cavity of a sacrificial victim, and the people rekindled their hearth fires and began feasting. Most of the art produced by the Aztec expressed aspects of their religion. Brilliantly colored paintings, done mainly on walls and amatl (paper made of pounded bark), depicted religious ceremonies and stiff, angular gods.

The Aztec carved freestanding idols and bas-relief wall sculptures on their temple-pyramids. Stone sculptures were often made to represent gods and sacrificial victims. One of their most famous surviving Aztec sculptures is the so-called calendar stone, which weighs 22 metric tons and measures 3.7 m (12 ft) in diameter. The calendar stone represents the Aztec universe. The face of the Aztec sun god is carved in the center.

Surrounding it are circular bands of designs that symbolize the days and the heavens. The Aztec also carved small, realistic figures of people and animals out of quartz, obsidian (volcanic glass), and jade. The Aztec wrote in pictographs, or small pictures symbolizing objects or the sounds of syllables. They also used pictographs in their counting system, which was based on the number 20. A picture of a flag indicated 20 items; a fir tree represented 20 times 20 items, or 400; and a pouch indicated 400 times 20 items, or 8000. Pictographs could not express abstract ideas but were useful for recording history, conducting business, and maintaining genealogy and landholding records. Although the Aztec had only simple hand tools to work with, they were expert craftspeople.

Women spun cotton and maguey fibers into thread by twisting them onto a stick weighted by a clay spindle whorl. They dyed the thread in vivid colors and wove it into cloth with elaborate geometric designs. From this cloth they made clothing – loincloths and capes for men and long skirts and sleeveless blouses for women. Specially trained craftsmen knotted feathers into webs to make mantles (cloaks), headdresses, and banners. The Aztec layered strips of clay to make storage jars, griddles, goblets, and other kinds of vessels, which were fired in open kilns. These clay vessels were generally red or white, with finely drawn black-and-white geometric designs. Unlike the early civilized peoples of the Middle East, the Aztec had no iron or bronze.

Their cutting tools were made of obsidian and chert, and by the time of the Spanish conquest, they had begun to experiment with tools made of copper. The Aztec fashioned jewelry using gold, silver, copper, emerald, turquoise, and a kind of jade that they prized above all other materials. They cut stone for use in construction using rawhide cord and an abrasive of sand and water. Axes were made of blades of stone or copper, set in wooden handles. Drills were made of bone or reed.

In 1519 Spanish explorer Hernan Cortesand more than 500 Spaniards landed in eastern Mexico in search of land and gold. Advised by Malinche, his Native American mistress, Corts formed an alliance with one of the rivals of the Aztec, the Tlaxcalans, and set out for Tenochtitln. After wavering about how to respond to the Spanish force, Aztec ruler Montezuma II allowed Corts to enter the city in order to learn more about him and his intentions. Finding large amounts of gold and other treasure, and fearful that the Aztec would attack his vastly outnumbered Spanish force, Corts seized Montezuma as a hostage. The Spaniards melted down the intricate gold ornaments of the Aztec for shipment to Spain and forced Montezuma to swear allegiance to the king of Spain. The Spaniards remained in the city without opposition until about six months later, when, in Corts’s absence, Spanish officer Pedro de Alvarado massacred 200 Aztec nobles who had gathered for a religious ceremony.

After Corts returned, the Aztec rebelled, fighting to drive the Spaniards out of Tenochtitln. The Aztec warriors tore up the city’s bridges and chased the Spaniards into the canals, where three-fourths of them, weighted down with stolen gold, quickly drowned. Montezuma was killed during the revolt. Montezuma’s successor, Cuitlahuac, ruled only a few months before dying of disease. Montezuma’s nephew Cuauhtemoc, who had helped lead the revolt against the Spaniards, became the next Aztec ruler. Corts retreated to Tlaxcala and gathered more Native American allies for a siege of Tenochtitln.

The Aztecs’ crude weapons were no match for the iron, steel, and gunpowder of the Spaniards, who also had the advantage of a large number of indigenous allies. After five months of desperate and bloody fighting, Cuauhtmoc surrendered in August 1521. Corts tortured and hanged him while on an expedition to Honduras in 1525. The Spaniards conquered the remaining Aztec peoples and took over their lands, forcing them to work in gold mines and on Spanish estates. The fall of Tenochtitln marked the end of the Native American civilizations that had existed in Mesoamerica since the first human settlement of the region.

On the ruins of Tenochtitln, the Spaniards built Mexico City. The city’s present-day cathedral rises over the ruins of an Aztec temple, and the palace of the Mexican president stands on the site of the palace of Montezuma. History Essays.


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