When people think of the pre-Conquest history of Mexico,
the predominant images that come to mind are those of the Aztec Empire. Stone
carvings, ritual human sacrifice, the magnificent city of Tenochtitlan (now
Mexico City), and the stories associated with their downfall at the hands of
Hernando Cortez in 1521 represent the Aztecs to most people. While theres
truth in those images, there is also a large amount of untold history behind
The origins of the Aztec nation and indeed, the
very nature of who should be called Aztec are somewhat mysterious.
Most people think of the Aztec as the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico in
central Mexico, while others use the term to refer to all speakers of Nahuatl.
The Aztec themselves speak of their origins as being in a semi-mythical place
called Aztlan, meaning the place of origin; most anthropologists
identify this as being a plain about 120 miles northwest of Mexico City, although
a minority think the Aztecs actually originated in the Four Corners region of
the Southwest US, and some believe that Aztlan is a mythological place. Whatever
their origin, the Aztecs southward migration to the central Valley of
Mexico was settled around 1323.
According to Aztec legend, the people settled on their
new home when they received a vision of, and subsequently found, an eagle sitting
on a cactus with a snake in its talons. This gave them the sign that they had
reached the place they should be. This image is found on the national flag of
Mexico to this day.
The place where the Aztecs settled was a marshy wasteland
which the soon turned into one of the most magnificent cities of pre-Conquest
America: Tenochtitlan, which at its height had over 200,000 inhabitants. It
was built on the filled in marshes and featured stone pyramids, sumptuous palaces,
and broad avenues. Many of the main streets of modern Mexico City follow the
routes of these old avenues. The remains of Tenochtitlan are buried under the
modern city, and artifacts and structures are routinely unearthed during construction
to this day.
Aztec society was highly structured, with an upper class,
priests, warriors, artisans, merchants, farmers, and peasants. The Aztecs also
kept slaves, many of whom were captured in the frequent wars the Aztecs waged
with their neighbors.
Many people think of human sacrifice when they think of
the Aztecs. It is true that they practiced human sacrifice, and that the victims
were often those captured in the wars. Aztec accounts speak of amazing numbers
of sacrifices; one story tells of 84,000 killed in a single day! However, many
contemporary historians believe that such large numbers were more boast than
Much of Aztec religion and symbolism were borrowed from
the Toltecs who occupied the area before they arrived. Aztec religion (including
the practice of human sacrifice) was centered in an elaborate mythology that
gave a high position to Huitzilopochtli, the Sun God who was also the God of
War, and who gave them the vision that led them to Tenochtitlan. Aztecs believed
in both a powerful force that permeated the world and the separate existence
of their various gods and demons.
In 1519, Hernando Cortez arrived from Spain and, with his
army and the help of two smallpox epidemics, was able to lay siege to the city
and defeat the mighty Aztec Empire. By 1521, the Spanish had killed the emperor
Moctezuma (sometimes spelled Montezuma), ravaged the treasures of
the empire, and leveled Tenochtitlan to the ground, building Mexico City on
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