The Aztec Civilization: Culture, Technology, and Society

The European conquerors who arrived in the New World were captivated by the Aztec and Mayan civilizations, which impressed them with their culture, way of life, geography, and technology. Europeans and contemporary historians acknowledged that both the Aztecs and Mayans shared cultural, technological, and religious similarities but also recognized their distinct differences.

European observers considered the religious ceremonies and sacrifices of the Aztec civilization, which governed the valley of Mexico from the 15th to 16th centuries, as unethical. However, thanks to preserved records and oral traditions passed down through generations, we now possess a comprehensive understanding of Aztec life.

When visitors explore Teotihuacan's ruins and pyramids dedicated to deities such as Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli, they are filled with awe. It is crucial to acknowledge that the empire's construction was a gradual process executed by the Tenochca Indians who migrated from northern regions of the Mexican valley around 1168.

The Aztecs, also known as the Mexicas, originated from the northern region of the valley of Mexico in the twelfth century AD.

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Guided by their god Huitzilopochtli, they migrated southward into the valley around 1248 and settled deep within it. Initially a peaceful people, their practice of human sacrifices caused unrest among neighboring communities. In response, they stopped this controversial practice, which led to a division within their group. One faction settled on an island in a lake and became known as the Tenochcas. They founded a small town called Tenochtitlan, meaning "place of the Tenochcas."

The Tenochcas, also known as the Aztecs, acquired warfare expertise and power over time.

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They rapidly expanded and developed strong military abilities. Eventually, they revolted against their oppressors, establishing dominance and forming the Aztec empire. The Aztecs constructed temples, pyramids, sacrificial monuments, and roads to honor their deities and connect the main city to surrounding areas in the valley. Despite the unfavorable geography of the valley of Mexico, they successfully built impressive structures and devised aqueduct systems to bring water from the mainland. The growth of the Aztec empire coincided with their cultural practices.

The Aztecs had two distinct social classes: the macehualles, who were the common people, and the pilli, who were the top class or nobilities. It was possible for individuals to elevate themselves into the pilli class based on their own abilities or bravery in battle. All male children attended school and at 15 years old, they transitioned to telpuchcalli, also known as the "home of the youth". In this institution, they received education on various aspects such as Aztec history and religion, warfare tactics and combat skills, as well as their religious and civic duties as Aztecs.

Women in Aztec society were expected to display high moral standards and held a subordinate position to men. They were not allowed to hold government or religious positions. The laws of the Aztecs were strict and severe, with most crimes resulting in death or brutal physical punishment like mutilation. Despite the harshness of these penalties, they were widely accepted by the Aztecs and supported by the community.

In Aztec society, slavery was widespread but not based solely on skin color or social status. Instead, people could become slaves through different means such as being captured during war, punished for a crime, choosing to be enslaved voluntarily, or being sold by their parents.

At the highest level of Aztec society, there was the Tlacatecuhtli, also known as the "chief men," who held authority over religious ceremonies and served as the military leader of the Aztecs. Below this position, there were religious offices that also functioned as military generals.

The Aztecs worshiped three main gods, namely Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca, and Quetzalcoatl. Additionally, there were four creating gods below them and numerous other deities. Among these divine figures were Tlaloc, the god of rain; Chalchihuitlicue, the god of growth; and Xipe, the god of spring. Notably, Aztec religion involved an extensive practice of human sacrifice. While Mesoamerica commonly practiced human sacrifice, the Aztecs took it to an unprecedented level. They believed that in order for the gods to grant them necessities such as food, rain, wealth, and other goods they desired in return for sacrifices. The Aztecs held the belief that sacrificing captives who possessed strong skills and bravery would result in greater benefits for their people. Consequently, this belief led to conflicts with other indigenous groups as the Aztecs sought out their bravest men for sacrificial purposes.

Sacrifices held varying levels of importance, with slaves being sacrificed to honor minor gods and grand sacrifices being carried out to pay homage to the main deities of the Aztecs. Regardless of the occasion, the sacrificial ritual remained consistent throughout. A victim would be restrained by four priests on an altar situated atop a pyramid. Meanwhile, another priest would make an incision below the rib cage, extracting the still-beating heart. Subsequently, the heart would be set ablaze while the lifeless body was disposed of down the steps; an exceptionally courageous or esteemed Aztec would be carried down instead. Amongst these rituals, there existed one particularly brutal form dedicated to the god Huehueteotl. Victims were drugged with herbs, cast into a fire, then retrieved with hooks before their deaths, and their hearts were violently pulled out and tossed back into the flames. Additionally, bloodletting was a common method of sacrifice, with those of higher social standing expected to offer more blood.

The Aztecs made all these sacrifices to pay tribute to the Gods. However, their primary motive was rooted in their belief that the world was governed by their gods, who engaged in ongoing conflicts. These conflicts had detrimental effects on earth, and the Aztecs believed that they had some influence over them through human sacrifices. In addition to their reputation for human sacrifices, the Aztecs are renowned for their technological advancements and remarkable time-keeping abilities.

The Aztecs had multiple calendars, each governed by two gods. Similar to the Mayans, they held the belief that there were five creations and four destructions in the universe. According to their beliefs, every time the universe was created, it would eventually be destroyed by the gods. The current era for the Aztecs was considered as the Fifth era. The Aztecs made impressive technological advancements, particularly in timekeeping. They utilized two calendars: one with 260 days known as the ritual year and another with 365 days called the solar year. These calendars would align every fifty-two years. In Aztec religion, when a fifty-two year cycle ended, it signified an era's destruction. Therefore, elaborate religious ceremonies took place on these final days to prevent annihilation of the universe from occurring. The continuous occurrence of fifty-two year cycles over many centuries served as evidence of their strong belief in these rituals' effectiveness.

Both the Aztecs and the Mayans had their own writing systems, but the Mayans' system was more intricate. Unlike the Aztecs, who used a loose rebus writing method, the Mayans had a more complex phonetic-based writing system. The Aztecs used writing for multiple purposes such as mathematics, calculations, diaries, and historical records. Their calendars have played a significant role in our understanding of time and are still used alongside modern calendars. However, although impressive, the Aztec calendar did not possess the same level of precision as the Mayan calendar.

The Mayan civilization resided in the eastern third of Mesoamerica, specifically the Yucatan peninsula. The environment consisted of volcanic mountains in the south and porous limestone shelf, known as lowlands, in the central and northern regions.

In the southern part of the lowlands, there were tall rainforests with trees that grew to approximately 150 feet in height. These areas were home to various dangerous animals such as jaguars, caimans (similar to crocodiles), poisonous snakes, and insects. However, harmless creatures like monkeys and quetzal birds also inhabited this region.

The Mayans primarily cultivated crops such as maize, squash, beans, chili peppers, manioc, cacao, and cotton for clothing and ropes in the lowlands. The volcanic highlands contained abundant precious metals and stones like cinnabar and hematite.

The region received heavy rainfall with an annual average of up to 160 inches in the lowlands. The rivers formed by this rainfall served as a means of transportation throughout the Mayan valley.

Unlike the Aztecs, the Mayans had a much shorter lifespan, existing only for a few centuries. They experienced their peak from 300 to 900 AD. The Maya culture emerged in three different regions in Mesoamerica. The most significant urban development took place in the lowlands of southern Guatemala, which is encompassed by a tropical rainforest. The Mayans were one of two peoples who managed to establish an urban civilization in such a jungle environment. Tikal was the primary city within this region. Virtually all urban centers were constructed within the tropical rainforest. The limited carrying capacity of the rainforest and the infertile agricultural conditions impeded the Mayans from fully developing an urban culture.

The cities built by the Mayas were ceremonial centers, with a priestly class residing in them. However, most Maya people lived in small farming villages. The priestly class performed daily religious duties, such as sacrifices, while the peasants came together occasionally for religious ceremonies and festivals. The reason for the Maya cities being abandoned around 900 AD remains unknown, though historians speculate that the disappearance of the priestly class led to the Maya people no longer working for the cities. This resulted in a decline in population and ultimately the end of the cities. Unlike the Aztecs, the Maya population was relatively small. This can be attributed mainly to the difficulty of farming and growing food in a limited area where agriculture was challenging due to the local atmosphere and climate.

The Mayas depended on the Slash and Burn method of agriculture, wherein they would cut down a portion of the forest, burn the trees and plants, and utilize them as fertilizer to grow crops. Nonetheless, due to their limited understanding of this technique, the Mayas would exhaust the land within a short span of two to four years. Consequently, sustaining a family necessitated a significant amount of land, resulting in a small Maya population. The primary food source for the Mayas comprised of maize and maize-derived products.

Mayan society remains mysterious, but it is known to have comprised various social positions such as rulers, priests, commoners, and slaves. At the pinnacle of the Mayan hierarchy stood the halachuinic, also known as the true man, who governed both domestic and foreign affairs in a hereditary role. Within the religious domain, the Ah Kin Mai held authority over all subordinate priests. Unlike the Aztecs, the Mayans assigned the task of restraining sacrificial victims to elderly men, who had to be priests to perform this duty. The Mayans had a unique perception of beauty compared to other civilizations in Mesoamerica, considering a long forehead with a backward slope and crossed eyes as attractive.

The Mayan religion shows a strong focus on time and as a result, they created multiple calendar systems. These calendars were utilized to regulate religious ceremonies based on their specific calendars. The Mayans excelled at accurately measuring time, with their calendars only being off by one day every 6000 years, which surpasses the accuracy of our own calendar. Each day in their calendars served as an astronomical almanac, dictating behavior and guiding religious ceremonies. Similar to Aztec ceremonies, Mayan religious rituals featured various elements such as dancing, competitions, dramatic performances, prayer, and sacrifices.

Both the Aztecs and Mayans incorporated sacrifice into their religious practices to honor and show gratitude to their gods. Bloodletting was a common form of sacrifice for both civilizations. Social status played a role in the amount of blood one had to offer, mirroring the Aztec belief system. Ritualistically, a victim would have their rib cage exposed and their heart pulled out by four priests while being held down on a platform. Both civilizations believed that the universe had gone through five cycles of creation and destruction, with the sacrifice of humans and offering of blood serving as a way to prevent its destruction in the fifth era and appeasing the gods.

The Maya developed a writing system that combined phonetic symbols and ideograms. This system is unique among pre-Columbian civilizations in the New World because it has the ability to fully represent spoken language, similar to the written language of the old world. According to Michael Coe, an archaeologist at Yale University, our understanding of ancient Maya thought is only a small fraction of their overall knowledge. Out of the thousands of books that recorded their learning and rituals, only four have survived to present times (Michael D. Coe, The Maya, London: Thames and Hudson, 4th ed., 1987 p. 161).

The Mayans made a significant contribution to our current numerical system with the concept of zero. They possessed advanced mathematical skills and a deep comprehension of numbers. Historical documents suggest that they could perform calculations up to hundreds of millions. Moreover, they conducted accurate astronomical observations, such as monitoring the sun and planets.

Updated: Feb 16, 2024
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The Aztec Civilization: Culture, Technology, and Society. (2016, Jul 04). Retrieved from

The Aztec Civilization: Culture, Technology, and Society essay
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