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Aztec Empire

Around 1300 CE, a wandering tribe of Indians wandered into the Valley of Mexico. These people were called the Aztecs. When the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico, other tribes were already in residence. They had already taken the best land. The Aztecs had to make due with the swampy shores of Lake Texcoco. But this did not bother the Aztecs. Not only were they very clever people, but they had every faith that their main god had sent them to the swampy shores of Lake Texcoco, so obviously this place was perfect for them. They adapted to their environment. They built canoes, so they could fish and hunt birds that lived near the water. They created floating gardens for growing food. They created more land for agriculture by filling in the marshes. They built dikes to hold back the water. After they settled in, they began to conquer the neighboring tribes. They conquered first one tribe, and then another, and then another. Each conquered tribe had to pay tribute to the Aztecs in the form of food, clothing, jewels, and of course, captives to feed the hungry gods. That made the Aztecs very happy and very rich. The Aztecs expanded and expanded until they had built an empire. One day, around 1500 CE, Spanish soldiers arrived in the Valley of Mexico. They were amazed at what they saw. One soldier said, There were soldiers among us who had been in many parts of the world, in Constantinople and Rome and all over Italy, who said that they had never before seen a market place so large and so filled with people. The Spanish conquered the Aztecs. The arrival of the Spanish brought guns, horses, huge fighting dogs, and disease. Because the Aztecs were such fierce warriors, they might have had a slim chance of survival against guns and horses and huge fighting dogs. But they had no defense against disease. They had never been exposed to childhood diseases like measles. Many became ill once the Spanish arrived; many died.

The Spanish also received help from the other tribes in the area. These tribes saw a chance to get even, and perhaps even to rid themselves of the feared and hated Aztecs. These tribes did not expect to be conquered themselves, which they were. Nor did they know how harshly the Spanish would rule their people. By the mid-1500s, the Aztec Empire had collapsed, and the Spanish had taken over the entire region. Today, there are around 1,000,000 (one million) descendants of the ancient Aztecs living and working in Mexico. Human sacrifice is no longer part of their festivals. But the beautiful art and clever games the Aztecs created are still enjoyed today.

Every child had to attend school


Aztec schools offered a formal system of education. Every child had to attend, including girls and slaves. School was mandatory and free. Teachers were highly respected. School was tough. There was no recess or time to relax in school. But all schools included instruction in song and in dance, not because it was a beautiful art, but because songs and dances were important to religious festivals. There were three different schools. One school was for girls. Two schools were for boys. Girls: Girls learned about religion. They learned how to cook, sew, weave, and how to care for their children. Sons of the Upper Class: One school was for the nobles, and sons of wealthy traders and merchants. This school taught law, writing (hieroglyphics), medicine, engineering and building, interpretations of dreams and omens, and selfexpression. Students were taught how to speak well. They also learned details of their history and of their religious beliefs. This was a tough school. The boys were humiliated and despised to toughen them up. Sons of Commoners: One school was for the commoners. Its main goal was to train warriors and farmers.

Unlike the school for nobles sons, this school was pretty peaceful. Boys had to sleep under skimpy blankets. They were given hard bread to eat. But that was about it. Like the school for nobles' sons, this school taught history, religion, manners, correct behavior, and important rituals, along with singing and dancing.

Aztec Government
Emperor, City-States, Laws, Punishment, Expansion, Tribute Expansion: Around 1400 CE, the Aztec government began conquering neighboring tribes. The Aztec population had grown. They needed many things to manage their growing population. They needed new cities to house their population. They needed new lands to feed their population. They needed new captives to feed their hungry gods. Schools needed to be run. Storehouses needed to be filled. Temples needed to be built. The government had its hands full trying to satisfy all these needs. Tribute: War was the answer. When the Aztecs conquered a tribe, they demanded tribute in the form of food, clothing, precious stones, building supplies, and captives. The first four the Aztecs kept for themselves. The last they gave to their gods. Other tribes hated and feared the Aztecs. Sometimes, they simply ran away in fear rather than fight. The Emperor & Palace: The Aztecs had an emperor, a king who ruled over all the people. The emperor lived in the imperial palace in the capital city of Tenochtitlan. The palace was huge. It even had its own zoo. The ground floor of the palace housed government offices and the shops of the most talented craftsman in the Aztec empire. City-States: As the Aztec empire grew, under the direction of government officials, Aztec engineers built many fine cities. A noble family controlled each city. Although the noble family was supposed to assist the emperor, the truth is that each noble family pretty much ran things in their own city the way they wanted. Thus, the Aztecs, like the Mayas, were governed by city-states. Home Rule / Crime and Punishment: With their own people, the Aztec rulers

were quite severe. Aztec courts decided on the punishment those who broke the law would receive. Drunkenness was the worse crime. The punishment for being drunk was death. Thieves were put to death. Laws were tough, and they were written down. Codices warned of the punishment you would receive for breaking the law. The One Time Forgiveness Law: The Aztecs had an interesting law. Once, and only once, you could confess your crime to the priests of Tlazolteotl and you would be forgiven. No punishment could be given to you. Timing was everything. You could only do this once. And you had to do it before you were caught. If evidence came to light after you confessed, you were safe. You had already been excused from punishment for that crime. However, if you ever committed other crime, you would be punished to the full extend of the law. Aztec laws were very harsh.

Specialized Professions

Fishermen, Hunters, Farmers: Most people in the Aztec world were farmers. Farmers were taught how to be good farmers in the Aztec schools. Farmers were in charge of building the floating gardens. Fisherman fished. Hunters hunted. Soldiers: Aztec soldiers were very fierce. Aztecs fought nearly constant wars, once they started to expand their empire. Soldiers also protected the empires trade routes. Soldiers were highly respected. If they lived long enough, they were able to retire in style. School Teachers: The job of teacher was highly respected. All Aztec children, including slaves, had to attend school. Click here to learn more about kids in school. Priests: Priests were religious leaders. They were also important in government. They conduced the many ceremonies and sacrifices needed to feed the hungry Aztec gods. The priests created the

calendars, and kept records written on codices in hieroglyphics. Some priests taught in the schools. Traders: Because the Aztecs were feared and powerful, traders could travel in safely along the waterways and shoreline. Many traders became very rich. They bartered for luxury goods, jewelry, cocoa beans, jaguar skins, gold, silver and art. The traders brought their goods back to the Aztec marketplace where they were sold to merchants. Merchants: Merchants typically specialized. One merchant might sell only woven baskets. Another might sell only jewelry. There were many markets in the bustling capital city of Tenochtitlan. There were very few robberies or incidents of theft. Aztec laws were very severe as was their punishment for breaking a law. Doctors: Aztec medicine was quite advanced. Doctors were trained in Aztec schools. They made about 1000 different medicines. They healed wounds, set broken bones, and provided medicine to cure a stomach ache. They also offered dental care. Engineers and Builders: Trained in the Aztec schools, both engineers and builders were highly respected. It was their job to design and manage the construction of temples, pyramids, plazas, and palaces. Craftsmen: Aztec craftsmen created works of art. Their art was colorful and typically religious in nature. They used gold, silver, clay, paints, and textiles to create beautiful things. Matchmakers: Matchmakers were soothsayers. They studied omens and signs to make sure two people would be happy together. The matchmaker stayed involved in the marriage until the couple tied the knot.

Ballplayer: One of the most highly respected professions in the Aztec world was that of ballplayer.

Spanish Arrival, Cortez & Conquest of the Aztecs

The Spanish had no idea how lucky they were that the Aztecs misunderstood who they were and why they were there. The Spanish conquistadors were looking for lands to conquer, gold to capture, and people to convert to the Catholic religion. The Spanish were amazed at what they found in the capital city of Tenochtitlan. Everything was clean. There were eating houses and hairdressers. You could buy medicines and herbs and all kinds of food. You could buy meat and game. There were streets that sold only pottery and mats. Painters could buy the paints they needed for their art. In 1519, the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, sailed from Europe to land in what is now Mexico. After a difficult journey inland, Cortes and his men entered the Aztec capital city and met , the Aztec leader. Normally, the Spanish adventurers would have been captured and sacrificed immediately, because that is what the Aztecs did to invaders. But the Spanish were lucky. They were allowed to enter the city, and welcomed as valued guests, all because of an old legend. This legend told of the god Quetzalcoatl. The Aztecs believed that the god of night had defeated Quetzalcoatl in a game of tlachtli. As the winner, the god of night could decide what to do with Quetzalcoatl. The god of night

decided to banish Quetzalcoatl to the East. Quetzalcoatl had no choice but to leave. He vowed that some day he would return, when the end of the world was near, to save his people. The Aztecs were always worried that the end of the world was always near. That's why they sacrificed so many people. They wanted to keep their gods very happy, so they could save their people. When the Spanish arrived from the East, the Aztecs believed that Quetzalcoatl had kept his promise and had returned. They treated the Spanish as if they were gods. Cortes mentioned in one of letters home that he believed there were more than 60,000 people in the marketplace buying and selling wares. No one used money. Goods were bartered and small differences in value were evened up using cocoa beans. Cortes wrote to the Spanish Emperor, back in the Spain, the following: We lodged in the chiefs house, situated in the most refreshing gardens ever seen. In their midst flows a beautiful stream, beset with gay flower beds, an infinite number of different fruit trees, many herbs and fragrant flowers. Three hundred men had charge of these birds for their sole employment. Over each pool there were beautifully decorated galleries and corridors, where Moctezuma came to amuse himself by watching them. I do not mention the other diverting things Moctezuma had in the city, because they were so many and so various. The Spanish made themselves very comfortable in the Aztec capital city. As time went on, the Spanish became concerned that they might never leave, not alive anyway. And, as time went on, the Aztecs began to grow suspicious. The Spanish did not act like gods. They did not do the things that gods did. They even avoided the sacrifice ceremonies, which

after all, were conducted in their honor. The Aztecs decided it was time to move the Spanish along. Carefully, so as not to upset the gods (just in case), the Spanish were expelled from the city. But they were allowed to leave. By the time they left, the Spanish had learned how lucky they were to be leaving alive. The Spanish did return, but they were much better prepared to fight the fierce Aztec warriors. It was not the Spanish guns that won the day. It was the Spanish horses and dogs. The Spanish brought huge fierce mastiffs with them into battle. Their best weapon was disease. The Aztecs had never been exposed to childhood diseases like measles. As well, the Spanish had help from the other tribes in the area. These tribes saw a chance to get even, and perhaps even to rid themselves of the feared and hated Aztecs. By the mid-1500s, the Aztec Empire had collapsed.

Human-Environment Interaction

When the Aztecs first arrived in the Valley of Mexico, other tribes were already living on the best land in the area. According to Aztec legend, when the Aztecs spotted an eagle, perched on a cactus, holding a snake, they were to settle down, peacefully, until they had gained strength. They were not to make war with their neighbors. Instead, they were to build a glorious Aztec city, a city of their own. Normally, when the Aztecs entered an area, they immediately began to fight with their neighbors.

But, around 1100 BCE, because of the legend, rather than fight the other tribes for the best land, the Aztecs quietly settled along the swampy shores of Lake Texcoco. The Aztecs built canoes so they could fish, hunt waterfowl, and trade with other tribes for the building materials they needed. If you had never met the Aztecs before, you would have thought of them as very good neighbors - at least while they were behaving peacefully. Free School for Everyone: To build the city they wanted, they knew that they would need many engineers, builders, and traders. To solve this problem, the Aztecs created schools for their children. Attendance at school was mandatory. All Aztec children had to attend school, even girls and slaves. The Aztecs were the only people in the world at this time in history to have free schools that every child had to attend. Specialized Professions: Girls learned about religion. They also learned the crafts that the Aztecs believed were womans work, which included weaving, cooking, sewing, embroidering, and childcare. The girls were trained to be good wives and mothers. Boys went to one of two schools. One school was for the sons of nobles, wealthy traders, and successful merchants. The other school was for the common people and slaves. But, whichever school an Aztec boy attended, he was trained to be a specialist. Boys studied how to be farmers, traders, engineers, builders, astronomers, and doctors. Those students who became builders and engineers

were the people who designed and built the amazing Aztec cities. That included the capital city of Tenochtitlan, which was located on the swampy shores of Lake Texcoco. Floating Gardens: As the Aztec population grew more food was needed. To solve this problem, Aztec engineers created floating gardens. First, they built a series of rafts and anchored each to the lakebed. Vegetation and reeds were piled on top of a raft. Then, they piled on enough dirt to be able to grow crops. The Capital City of Tenochtitlan: With the help of trained engineers, builders, and traders, Tenochtitlan became a great city. It had huge temples, beautiful open plazas, and a huge bustling central marketplace.By the mid-1400s, Tenochtitlan had a population of about 300,000 people, which made it the largest city in the world at that time! Through successful human-environment interaction, in a very short amount of time, the Aztecs went from being a wandering tribe to being a very visible presence in ancient Mexico