Archaeologists are still uncovering the secrets of an extraordinary civilisation that ruled Central America for 200 years. What do we really know about the Aztecs, and how did they live?
Who were the Aztecs?
The Aztecs lived in Mesoamerica during the 15th and 16th centuries. They ruled over 15 million people, controlling what is now most of Mexico and Central America. Its capital city of Tenochtitlan was one of the biggest in the world at the time. The Aztecs also built thousands of roads covering the whole empire, but mountainous land made wheeled vehicles useless, and travel was all done on foot.
What was their religion?
The Aztecs worshipped more than 200 gods. The most important of these was Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the Sun. Another was Tlaloc. His name meant “he who makes things sprout” and he was the god of rain. The Aztecs built shrines to them both at the top of the Templo Mayor – the largest pyramid in Tenochtitlan.
People paid respect to their gods by making sacrifices. They donated animals, food, and even people to the deities.
Did they go to school?
In Aztec society, every child was educated – girls, boys, nobles, farmers, and slaves. Until they were 14, children were taught by their parents at home. Noble children then went to a school called the “calmecac”, where they learnt history, literacy, and religion. The “telpochcalli” was the school for common boys, who were taught agricultural skills and military fighting techniques. Girls gained household skills at their school, and some were chosen to be midwives or healers.
How did they buy things?
With chocolate! They believed that cocoa beans were a gift from one of their gods and traded them for items. For 100 beans, an Aztec could buy a canoe filled with freshwater or a turkey hen. They also liked eating chocolate. In fact, the word comes from the Aztec word “xocolatl” – a kind of cocoa brew which was a popular drink for special occasions.
What did the Aztecs eat?
Everyday meals included beans, maize, and squash. The Aztecs liked salt and chilli, and added it to most foods. During religious festivals, they feasted on mushrooms, turkey, fish, and chocolate. Vanilla was also a precious ingredient often added to their xocolatl drink.
Did they disappear?
In 1519, Spanish ships led by Hernan Cortez landed in Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs greeted Cortez peacefully, but he wanted their land for himself due to the natural gold mines. The Aztecs were no match for his army, who had guns, crossbows, and canons. They were also weakened by smallpox, which had spread from the European ships. Tenochtitlan finally fell on 13 August 1521 and Cortez became governor of New Spain.
Today, Spanish is still the main language of central America – but the Aztecs left behind a reminder: in central Mexico, more than one million people still speak Nahuatl, a modern version of the old Aztec language.
- The Aztecs made human sacrifices, but made school compulsory for everyone. Were they brutal? Or were they ahead of their time?
- Make your own xocolatl at home and compare it to modern hot chocolate. Which do you prefer?
- A historical cultural region in North America. It extended from Mexico through Central America to Costa Rica.
- A holy or sacred place marked by a building like a temple or altar.
- An object, animal, or person killed and offered to a god.
- The Aztecs ruled land filled with natural gold mines, but they valued chocolate, feathers, and certain animals far more than the precious stone.
- A contagious disease that killed millions of people around the world until it was eradicated in 1979 through vaccination.