The Aztecs civilization and the Mayan civilization where the most important civilizations from the new world that amazed many of the Europeans that came to conquer this wonderful rich land. The Europeans where amazed with the Aztec and Mayan culture, their ways of life, their geographical surroundings and their technology. The Europeans and historians today find that the Aztecs and the Mayans where similar in some ways of life like their culture, their technology, their religious events and at the same time they had their differences in their cultures.
The Aztec civilization dominated the valley of Mexico during the fifteen and the sixteen centuries. Their culture was seen as unethical to the Europeans that were in Aztec territory and were observing the Aztec’s way of life. The Europeans where specially stunned by the Aztecs’ religious ceremonies and religious sacrifices. Today we know how Aztecs lived and their ways of life because of the records that have been well preserved by their descendants and by the stories passed on from generations to generations. Their geographic surroundings are amazing to visitors that visit the ruins of Teotihuacan, the pyramids that were built to honor their gods like Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli and many others gods that ruled ancient Aztec civilization. This great civilization was not made in a few years, it took many indians to build up this empire. The Aztec empire was slowly build up by Tenochca Indians that came from the north of the Mexican valley about 1168.
According to historians the Aztecs came from the north of the valley of Mexico around the twelfth century AD. We know these indians and their civilizations as the Aztec civilization but their original Nahua name is the Mexicas. The Mexicas migrated into the south of the valley of Mexico around 1248 and were guided there by their god Huitzilopochtli. They settled deep in the valley of Mexico and were peaceful people but their practice of human sacrifices revolted other people living around the valley of Mexico and forced the Mexicas to end such controversial ways of sacrifice. The group separated because of this and settled on an island in the middle of a lake and were then called Tenochcas. They founded their small town and named it Tenochtitlan or “place of the Tenochcas.”
As time passed the Tenochcas obtained war skill and power, grew rapidly in size and acquired great military skills. Soon enough the Tenochcas revolted against those that once overthrew them from their lands and started dominating what was becoming to be the Aztec empire. The Tenochcas, or Aztecs, started to build temples to honor their Gods, pyramids, sacrificial monuments, roads that connected the cast city to small sections in the valley. Although the valley of Mexico was not a very nice place to live geographically speaking, they managed to build these great temples, roads, and even build aqueduct systems to bring water from the mainland. As the Aztec empire was growing, their cultural ways of life were growing with them.
The Aztecs had two different kind of social classes. They had the macehualles which were the common people and the pilli which were the top class or nobilities. These class types were not determined at birth, one could rise into the pilli class by their own skills or bravery in war. All male children went to school and at age 15 they went to telpuchcalli, which meant “home of the youth”, where they learned history and religion of the Aztecs, the art of war and fighting, and religious and their civic duties as an Aztec.
In the Aztec society women were subordinate of me. They were required to behave with high moral standards. Woman were segregated from government and religious offices. Aztecs’ laws were simple and at the same time they were hard. Almost every crime committed by an Aztec resulted in either death or severe corporal punishment like mutilation. Although these were cruel punishments they were well accepted by the Aztecs and supported by the community.
Slavery was common among the Aztecs. However they were not slaves because of their difference of the color of their skin or their social status, they became a slave by being captured in war, committing a crime, by entering voluntarily to be a slave, or by being sold by one’s parents.
At the very top of Aztec society was the Tlacatecuhtli or “chief men” that dominated all religious ceremonies and was the military leader of the Aztecs. Below him were religious offices that served as military generals.
The religion of the Aztecs was made up of mainly three gods: Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl. Below these three main gods were four creating gods. Below these four gods were many other gods, however the most important were Tlaloc, the rain god, Chalchihuitlicue, the god of growth and Xipe, the god of spring. The main thing that captures the attention of Aztec religion is their human sacrifice made to the different gods. Although human sacrifice was practiced around Mesoamerica, the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice in a large scale never seen before to date. The idea of human sacrifice was that Gods gave things to humans like food, rain, wealth, and other goods only if they were given human beings in return. The Aztecs believed that the goods liked best the living hearths of sacrificed captives. If the captive was a well skilled soldier and very brave then the Gods would return better goods to his people. This idea lead to wars were the Aztecs fought with other indians and capture their bravest men for sacrifice.
As we can imagine, sacrifices had their levels of importance. Slaves for example were sacrificed to honor minor gods and some spectacular sacrifices were done to honor the main gods of their land. The sacrifice was always performed the same way every time. The victim was held down by four priests on an altar at the top of a pyramid while anther priest made an incision below the rib cage and pulled out the living heart. The heart was then burned and the corpse was pushed down the steps; a very brave or noble Aztec was carried down the steps. There was one kind of sacrifice that was brutally performed to the god Huehueteotl. The victims were drugged with herbs and then thrown into a fire, and then they were dragged out of the fire with hooks before they died and their hearts were pulled out and thrown back into the fire. There were other forms of sacrifice to, like blood letting which was very common. The higher one were in social rank the more blood one had to sacrifice.
All these sacrifices were made to honor the Gods but they were mainly done because the Aztecs believed that the world was controlled by their gods and that their gods were in constant conflict. These conflicts affected earth by destroying it, however the Aztecs believed that they could influence, in part, in these conflicts through human sacrifices. Aztecs are famous today not only because of their human sacrifices but also because of their
technology and their great calculations of time.
The Aztecs had several calendars, and each day was controlled by two gods. The Aztecs, like the Mayans, believed that the universe had been created five times and destroyed four times. Each time the universe was created it was later destroyed by the gods, and they believed the era they were living in was the Fifth era. The Aztecs’ technology was very impressive, especially with their notion of time. They had two calendars; the ritual year and the solar year. The ritual year had 260 days and the solar year had 365 days. These two calendars would resynchronize every fifty-two years. In Aztec religion, the destruction of an era occurred on the last day of the fifty-two year cycle. So on the last days of the fifty-two year cycles the Aztecs had religious ceremonies where sacrifices increased in order to prevent the universe from being destroyed, and they believed it worked because the fifty-two year cycles kept going on and on for hundreds of years.
The Aztecs developed a true writing system just like the Mayans. However the Mayans’ writing system was complicated to understand. The Aztecs’ writing is not phonetic but rather a loose system of rebus writing. Aztec writing was used for many purposes. They developed a system of math and used writing for calculations. They also made diaries and history with their writing method. Their calendars have helped us today understand time and use their calendar to guide us with the actual calendar we use today. Although the Aztecs’ calendar where very impressive with time, the Mayans’ calendar was even more precise.
The ancient Mayan civilization occupied the eastern third of Mesoamerica, primarily the Yucatan peninsula. Their surroundings consisted of volcanic mountains in the south to porous limestone shelf, known as lowlands, in the central and northern regions. The southern portion of the lowlands were covered with tall rain forest of about 150 feet high. There were swamps and savannas that appeared throughout the forest. Many dangerous animals roamed around these regions, especially jaguars, caimans which look like crocodiles, and many species of poisonous snakes and insects. There were also a great variety of monkeys and quetzal roaming around, however they were harmless. Crops where mainly grown in the lowlands of the region like maize, squash, beans, chili, peppers, manioc, cacao, and cotton for clothing and rope. The volcanic highlands were a place where Mayans found precious metals and stones like cinnabar and hematite. The rainfall in the Mayan region was as high as 160 inches per year in the lowlands. The rivers that were made from all the rain was used as a method of transportation through the Mayan valley.
Unlike the Aztecs, the Mayans lasted only a few centuries. Their strongest years were from 300 to 900 AD. The Maya culture developed in three regions in Mesoamerica. The most complete urban development occurred in the lowlands in the central regions of southern Guatemala. This region is covered by tropical rain forest; the Mayans where only one of two peoples to develop an urban culture in a tropical rainforest. The principal city was Tikal. Almost all urban centers were built in tropical rain forest. One of the main reasons why the Mayans did not develop a fully urban culture is because the rainforest where they built their cities could only support a small population and because the land they lived on was very poor for agriculture.
The cities the Mayas built were ceremonial centers. A priestly class lived in the cities but for the most part the Maya population lived in small farming villages. The priestly class would carry out daily religious duties like sacrifices and the peasants would gather occasionally for religious ceremonies and festivals. It is unknown why the Mayas abandoned their cities around 900 AD, however historians believe it was because the priestly class disappeared and led to the Mayas not working for the cities. It then led to decline in population and then it all came to a stop. The Maya population was very small unlike that of the Aztecs. The main reason for this is because it was hard for a big population to harvest and grow food in an small area where agriculture was very hard due to the atmosphere and the climate.
The Mayas had to practice the Slash and Burn method of agriculture where the Mayas would cut down a piece of the forest, burn the felled trees and plants, and used them as fertilizer to cultivate the plot. However, the Mayas were not well educated about the Slash and Burn method so they exhaust the land in two to four years. In other words it took a huge amount of land to support a family. Thus the population of the Mayas was very small. The principal food of the Mayas consisted of maize and products made of maize.
Little is known about Mayan society. We know it had several positions: rulers, priests, commoners, and slaves. At the top of the Mayas was the halachuinic, or true man. The halachuinic ruled both domestic and foreign affairs and this position was hereditary. In the religious positions, the Ah Kin Mai ruled over all the priests below him. Unlike Aztecs sacrifices, in Mayan culture elderly men where the ones who held down the victims for sacrifice, however they still had to be priests to do this. Mayas saw beauty differently from other people in Mesoamerica. They saw long backward sloping forehead as beautiful as well as crossed eyes.
Mayan religion is obsessed with time, therefore they developed a number of calendar systems that helped control religious ceremonies according to their calendars. These calendars made the Mayans the most accurate time keepers reaching an accuracy of being one day off every 6000 years, that is more accurate than our calendar. All the days in their calendars served as astronomical almanacs that controlled behavior and religious ceremonies. Religious ceremonies involved several aspects similar to Aztecs ceremonies. There was dancing, competition, dramatic performances, prayer, and sacrifices.
Just like the Aztecs, the Mayans used sacrifice to honor and give thanks to the gods, and they also used blood letting as a form of sacrifice. Again like the Aztecs, the higher one was socially the more blood one had to sacrifice. Aztecs and Mayans had a very similar way of sacrificing a victim, by opening the rib cage and pulling out the heart while four priests held the victim down in a platform. The Aztecs and the Mayans believed that the universe had been created five times and destroyed four times and that they could help the universe not to be destroyed by sacrificing humans and giving blood as a sacrifice, this contented the Gods and delayed the destruction of the fifth era.
The Maya developed a writing system was a combination of phoenic symbols and ideograms. It is the only system of the pre-Columbian New World that can completely represent spoken language to the same degree as the written language of the old world. In reference to the Mayan writings, Michael Coe, an archeologist at Yale University stated the following: “Our knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and rituals was recorded, only four have survived to modern times.” (Michael D. Coe, The Maya, London: Thames and Hudson, 4th ed., 1987 p. 161)
One of the mayor contributions of the Mayan to the numbers we use today is the number zero. The Mayas were great with mathematics and with numbers. Early inscription tell us that they would sum up to the hundreds of millions. They also produced extremely accurate astronomical observations like the movements of the sun and planets.