Americas On The Eve Of Invasion
Author: Michael Schwartz
Date: 1992

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Post classical Mesoamerica, A.D. 1000-1500

The collapse of Teotihuacan in central Mexico and the abandonment of the
classical Maya cities in the 8th century A.D. signaled a significant political
and cultural change in Mesoamerica. The civilizations that followed built on
the achievements of their classic predecessors but rarely surpassed them,
except in the area of political and military organization.

In central Mexico, nomadic peoples from beyond the northern frontier of
the sedentary agricultural area took advantage of the political vacuum to move
into the richer lands. Among these peoples were the Toltecs who established a
capital at Tula in about 968. They adopted many cultural features from the
sedentary peoples, to which they added a strongly militaristic ethic. This
included the cult of sacrifice and war that is often portrayed in Toltec art.
Later Mesoamerican peoples, such as the Aztecs, had some historical memory of
the Toltecs and thought of them as culture heroes, the givers of civilization.
Thus, being able to trace one's lineage back to the Toltecs later became a
highly prized pedigree. The archeological record, however, indicates that
Toltec accomplishments were often fused or confused with those of Teotihuacan
in the memory of the Toltec's successors.

The Toltec Heritage

Among the legends that survived about the Toltecs were those of
Topiltzin, a Toltec leader and apparently a priest dedicated to the god
Quetzalcoatl (the Feathered Serpent) who later became confused with the god
himself in the legends. Apparently, Topiltzin, a religious reformer, was
involved in a struggle for priestly or political power with another faction.
When he lost, Topiltzin and his followers went into exile, promising to return
in the future to claim his throne on the same date according to the cyclical
calendar system. Supposedly, Topiltzin and his followers sailed for Yucatan;
there is considerable evidence of Toltec influence in that region. The legend
of Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl was well known to the Aztecs and may have influenced
their response when the Europeans later arrived.

The Toltecs created an empire that extended over much of central Mexico,
and their influence spread far beyond the region. Although the Maya had
abandoned many cities and no longer kept long-count dates, large cities,
especially in Yucatan, were still occupied. Around A.D. 1000, Chichen Itza was
conquered by Toltec warriors, and it and a number of other cities were then
ruled for a long time by central Mexican dynasties or by Maya rulers under
Toltec influence. The architecture at Chichen Itza - with its pyramid of the
god Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent) and artistic motifs of warriors,
feathered serpents, and the symbols of death - reflects the Toltec influence.
Some Maya states in Guatemala, such as the Quiche kingdom, also had Toltecized
ruling families.

Toltec influence spread northward as well. Obsidian mines were exploited
in northern Mexico, and the Toltecs may have traded for turquoise in the
American Southwest. There is evidence of contact between Mesoamerica and the
cliff-dwellers of Colorado and New Mexico, who are the ancestors of the modern
Pueblo Indians of the Southwest. It has been suggested that the great Anasazi
adobe town at Chaco canyon in New Mexico was abandoned when the Toltec Empire
fell and the trade for local turquoise ended.

How far eastward that influence spread is a matter of dispute. Was there
contact between Mesoamerica and the elaborate culture and concentrated towns
of the Hopewell peoples of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys discussed in
Chapter 9? Scholars disagree. Eventually, in the lower Mississippi valley from
about 700, elements of Hopewell culture seem to have been enriched by external
contact perhaps with Mexico. This Mississippian culture, which flourished
between 1200 and 1500, was based on maize and bean agriculture. Towns, usually
located along rivers, had stepped temples made of earth and sometimes large
burial mounds. Some of the burials include well-produced pottery and other
goods and seem to be accompanied by ritual executions or sacrifices of
servants or wives. This indicates social stratification in the society.
Cahokia, near East St. Louis, Illinois, covered five square miles and may have
had over 30,000 people in and around its center. Its largest earthen pyramid,
called Monk's Mound, covers 15 acres and is comparable in size to the largest
classic period pyramids in Mexico. Many of these cultural features seem to
suggest contact with Mesoamerica, although no definitely Mexican object has
been found in a Mississippian site. Still, certain artistic traits and
subjects, including the feathered serpent, strongly suggest contact.

The Aztec Rise To Power

The Toltec Empire lasted until about 1150, at which time it was
apparently destroyed by nomadic invaders from the north who also seem to have
sacked Tula around that date. In the period after the fall of Tula, the center
of population and political power in central Mexico shifted to the valley of
Mexico and especially to the shores of the large chain of lakes in that basin.
The three largest lakes were connected by marshes; together they provided a
rich aquatic environment. While the eastern lakes tended to be brackish from
the minerals that emptied in them from surrounding rivers, the southern and
western portions contained fresh water. The shores of the lakes were dotted
with settlements and towns. A dense population lived around the lakes to take
advantage of their life-giving water for agriculture, the fish and aquatic
plants and animals, and the advantages of transportation. Of the approximately
3000 square miles in the basin of the valley, about 400 square miles were

The lakes became the cultural heartland and population center of Mexico
in the postclassic period. In the unstable world of post-Toltec Mesoamerica,
various peoples and cities jockeyed for supremacy of the lakes and the
advantages they offered. The winners of this struggle, the Aztecs, eventually
built a great empire, but when they emerged on the historical scene they were
the most unlikely candidates for power.

From their obscure origins, the Aztec (or as they called themselves, the
Mexica) rise to power and formation of an imperial state was as spectacular as
it was rapid. According to some of their legends, the Mexica had once
inhabited the central valley and had known agriculture and the "civilized"
life but had lived in exile to the north in a place called Aztlan (from whence
we get the name Aztec). This may be an exaggeration by people who wished to
lay claim to a distinguished heritage. Other sources indicate that the Aztecs
were simply one of the nomadic tribes that used the political anarchy,
following the fall of the Toltecs, to penetrate into the area of sedentary
agricultural peoples. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Aztecs rewrote history
to suit their purposes. Their ruler Itzcoatl (1427-1440) ordered all the old
books destroyed and had history rewritten in a manner more favorable to the
Aztec "official" version. Later observers, both Spaniards and Indians, wrote
with their own biases. Thus, it is difficult to piece the story together and
to eliminate intentional bias, political manipulation, and later rewriting,
but with the help of archeology and ethnohistory, or the use of
anthropological techniques by historians, it is possible to outline the major
features of Aztec life and history.

What seems clear is that the Aztecs were a group of about 10,000 people
who migrated to the shores of Lake Texcoco in the central valley of Mexico
around the year 1325. After the fall of the Toltec Empire, the central valley
was inhabited by a mixture of peoples - Chichimec migrants from the northwest
and various groups of sedentary agriculturalists. These peoples were divided
into small political units that claimed greater or lesser authority on the
basis of their military power and their connections to Toltec culture or
Toltec descendants. Many of these peoples spoke Nahuatl, the language the
Toltecs had spoken. The Aztecs too spoke this language, a fact that made their
rise to power and their eventual claims to legitimacy more acceptable.

In this period the area around the lake was dominated by a number of
tribes organized into city-states. The city of Azcapotzalco was the real power
but was challenged by an alliance centered in the city of Texcoco. Another
city, Culhuacan, which had been part of the Toltec Empire, used its heritage
as legitimate heir to the Toltecs as a means of creating alliances by marrying
its princes and princesses to more powerful but less distinguished states.
This was a world of political manuever and state marriages, competing powers
and shifting alliances.

An intrusive and militant group, such as the Aztecs, were distrusted and
disliked by the dominant powers of the area, but their fighting skills could
be put to use, and this made them attractive as mercenaries or allies. For
about a century the Aztecs wandered around the shores of the lake, being
allowed to settle for a while and then driven out by more powerful neighbors.
An alliance with Culhuacan failed when instead of arranging a royal marriage
of a princess sent from that city, the Aztecs executed her as an offering to
their gods.

In a period of militarism and warfare, the Aztecs had a reputation as
tough warriors and fanatical followers of their gods, to whom they offered
continual human sacrifices. This reputation made them both valued and feared.
Their own legends foretold that their wanderings would end when they saw an
eagle perched on a cactus with a serpent in its beak. Supposedly, this sign
was seen on a marshy island in Lake Texcoco and there, on that island and one
nearby, the Aztecs settled. The city of Tenochtitlan was founded about 1325
and on the neighboring island the city of Tlatelolco was established shortly
thereafter. The two cities eventually grew together, although they maintained
separate administrations.

From this secure base the Aztecs began to take a more active role in
regional politics. Azcapotzalco and Texcoco were locked in a struggle, and the
Aztecs now began to serve Azcapotzalco as mercenaries. This alliance brought
prosperity to the Aztecs, especially to their ruler and the warrior nobility,
which was now acquiring lands and tribute from conquered towns. By 1428,
however, the Aztecs had rebelled against Azcapotzalco and had joined with
Texcoco in destroying it. From that victory the Aztecs emerged as an
independent power. In 1434, Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and a smaller city,
Tlacopan, joined together in a triple alliance that exercised control over
much of the central plateau. Nezhualcoyotl, the philosopher king in Texcoco
(1434-1472), used his personal prestige and political wisdom to keep some
balance in the alliance, but in reality, Tenochtitlan and the Aztecs dominated
their allies and controlled the major share of the tribute and lands taken.

The Aztec Social Contract

According to the Aztec accounts of this history, a social and political
transformation had also taken place. Acampichtli, the first ruler, had created
a nobility, or pipiltin, from the leading families by marriage with some
Culhuacan nobles who could trace their roots to the Toltecs. When the war with
Azcapotzalco broke out, the commoners were reluctant to fight; but the
nobility urged them on and promised victory. According to the Aztec official
version, the pipiltin promised to obey the commoners forever if they lost, and
the commoners made a similar promise if the nobles could bring victory. The
conquest of Azcapotzalco assured the position of the nobility. Moreover, the
ruler of Tenochtitlan emerged from this process no longer as a spokesman for a
general council, but as a supreme ruler with wide powers. Succeeding rulers
expanded that power and the boundaries of Aztec control. Moctezuma I
(1440-1469) conquered areas around the central plateau. Under his brother
Ahuitzotl (1486-1502), the empire reached its greatest extent - from coast to
coast and with some subject areas far to the south, although the Tarascan
kingdom to the northwest remained independent. Moctezuma II (1502-1520)
consolidated the conquest of central Mexico, and although a few independent
states remained within central Mexico, Aztec domination extended from the
Tarascan frontier southward to the Maya area. Subject peoples were forced to
pay tribute, surrender lands, and sometimes do military service for the
growing Aztec Empire.

Whatever the official explanation of events, it seems clear that Aztec
society had been transformed in the process of expansion and conquest. From a
loose association of clans, the Mexica had become a stratified society under
the authority of a supreme ruler of great power. A central figure in these
changes was Tlacaelel, a man who served as a sort of prime minister and
advisor under three rulers from 1427 to his death around 1480. Under his
direction, the histories were rewritten and the Mexica were given a self-image
as a people chosen to serve the gods. Human sacrifice, long a part of
Mesoamerican religion, was greatly expanded under his direction into a cult of
enormous proportions in which the military class played a central role as
suppliers of war captives to be used as sacrificial victims. Supposedly, at
the dedication of the great temple during the reign of Ahuitzotl, over 10,000
victims were put to death. It was also a policy of Tlacaelel to leave a few
territories unconquered so that periodic "flower wars" could be staged in
which both sides could obtain captives for sacrifice. Whatever the religious
motivations of this cult, Tlacaelel and the Aztec rulers manipulated it as an
effective means of political terror. By the time of Moctezuma II, the Aztec
state was dominated by a king who represented civil power and served as a
representative of the gods on earth. The cult of human sacrifice and conquest
was united with the political power of the ruler and the nobility.

Religion And The Ideology Of Conquest

Aztec religion incorporated many features that had long been part of the
Mesoamerican system of beliefs. Religion was a vast, uniting, and sometimes
oppressive force in which little distinction was made between the world of the
gods and the natural world. The traditional deities of Mesoamerica - the gods
of rain, fire, water, corn, the sky, and the sun, many of whom were worshiped
as far back as the time of Teotihuacan - were known and venerated among the
Aztecs. There were at least 128 major deities, but the number of gods, in
fact, seemed innumerable for often each deity had a female consort or feminine
form. This was because a basic duality was recognized in all things. Moreover,
gods might have different forms or manifestations somewhat like the avatars of
the Hindu deities. Often each god had at least five aspects, each associated
with one of the cardinal directions and the center. Certain gods were thought
to be the patrons of specific cities, ethnic groups, or occupations. It was an
extensive pantheon supported by a round of yearly festivals and a highly
complex ceremonialism that involved various forms of feasting and dancing
along with penance and sacrifice.

This bewildering array of gods can be organized into three major themes
or cults. The first were the gods of fertility and the agricultural cycle,
such as Tlaloc, or the god of rain (called Chac by the Maya), and the gods and
goddesses of water, maize, and fertility. Xipe Totec, for example, represented
agricultural rebirth. His cult was horrible. Victims sacrificed to him were
flayed, and a priest then donned the skin to represent the new growth of the
maize. A second theme centered on the creator deities, the great gods and
goddesses who had brought the universe into being. The story of their actions
played a central role in Aztec cosmography. Tonatiuh, the warrior god of the
sun, and Tezcatlipoca, the god of the night sky, were among the most powerful
and respected gods among the peoples of central Mexico. Much of Aztec abstract
and philosophical thought was devoted to the theme of creation. Finally, the
cult of warfare and sacrifice built on the preexisting Mesoamerican traditions
that had been expanding since Toltec times but which, under the militaristic
Aztec state, became the cult of the state. Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec tribal
patron, became the central figure of this cult, but it included Tezcatlipoca,
Tonatiuh, and other gods as well.

The Aztecs revered the great traditional deities - such as Tlaloc and
Quetzalcoatl, the ancient god of civilization - so holy to the Toltecs, but
their own tribal deity Huitzilopochtli became paramount. The Aztecs identified
him with the old sun god, and they saw him as a warrior in the daytime sky
fighting to give life and warmth to the world against the forces of the night.
In order to carry out that struggle, the sun needed strength - and just as the
gods had sacrificed themselves for humankind, the nourishment the gods needed
most was that which was most precious, human life in the form of hearts and
blood. The great temple of Tenochtitlan was dedicated to both Huitzilopochtli
and Tlaloc. The tribal deity of the Aztecs and the ancient agricultural god of
the sedentary peoples of Mesoamerica were thus united.

In fact, while human sacrifice had long been a part of Mesoamerican
religion, it had expanded considerably in the postclassic period of
militarism. Warrior cults and the militaristic images of jaguars and eagles
devouring human hearts were characteristic of Toltec art. The Aztecs simply
took an existing tendency and carried it to an unprecedented scale. Both the
types and frequency of sacrifice increased, and a whole symbolism and ritual,
which included ritual cannibalism, developed as part of the cult. How much of
Aztec sacrifice was the result of religious conviction and how much was
imposed as a tactic of terror and political control by the rulers and the
priest class is a question still open to debate (see "Analysis" in this

Beneath the surface of this polytheism, there was, however, also a sense
of spiritual unity. Nezhualcoyotl, the king of Texcoco, composed hymns to the
"lord of the close vicinity," an invisible creative force that supported all
the gods. Yet, his conception of a kind of monotheism, much like that of
Pharaoh Akhnaten in Egypt, was too abstract and never gained great popularity.

While the bloody aspects of Aztec religion have gained much attention, we
must also realize that the Aztecs concerned themselves with many of the great
religious and spiritual questions that have preoccupied other civilizations:
Is there life after death? What is the meaning of life? What does it mean to
live a good life? Do the gods really exist?

Nezhualcoyotl, whose poetry survived in oral form and was written down in
the 16th century, wondered about life after death:

Do flowers go to the land of the dead?
In the Beyond, are we dead or do we still live?
Where is the source of light, since that which gives life hides itself?

He also wondered about the existence of the gods:

Are you real, are you fixed?
Only You dominate all things
The Giver of Life.
Is this true?
Perhaps, as they say, it is not true.

Aztec religious art and poetry is filled with images of flowers, birds,
and song - all of which the Aztecs greatly admired - as well as human hearts
and blood - the "precious water" needed to sustain the gods. It is this
mixture of images that makes the symbolism of Aztec religion so difficult for
modern observers to understand.

Aztec religion depended on a complex mythology that explained the birth
and history of the gods and their relation to peoples and on a religious
symbolism that infused all aspects of life. As we have seen, the Mesoamerican
calendar system was religious in nature, and many ceremonies coincided with
particular points in the calendar cycle. Moreover, the Aztecs also believed in
a cyclical view of history and believed that the world had been destroyed four
times before and would be destroyed again. Thus there was a certain fatalism
in Aztec thought and a premonition that, eventually, the sacrifices would be
insufficient and the gods would again bring catastrophe. Characteristically,
at the end of each 52-year cycle, all the fires in the kingdom were
extinguished, and while the people waited apprehensively, the priests
attempted to kindle a new fire in the chest cavity of a sacrificial victim. If
the gods approved and the sparks caught, the world would continue; the new
fire was then taken by runners with torches to relight all the fires in the

The Foundation Of Heaven: Tenochtitlan, The Great City

The city-state with its ruler-spokesman was a key central Mexican concept
and it applied to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. The Mexica thought of
themselves as inheritors of Toltec traditions and of their city as the new
Tula. From its modest beginnings, Tenochtitlan became a great metropolis, with
a central zone of palaces and whitewashed temples surrounded by adobe brick
residential districts, smaller palaces, and markets. The temple precinct was
dominated by the great pyramid and twin temple of Huizilopochtli and Tlaloc.
(This has recentdy been excavated by archeologists.) The round temple of
Quetzalcoatl, the school for the priesthood, and some seventy other buildings
stood in or near the precinct. The craftsmanship and architecture was
outstanding. Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conqueror who viewed the city,
personally reported, "The stone masonry and the woodwork are equally good,
they could not be bettered anywhere." There were gardens and a zoo kept for
the ruler. The nobility had houses two stories high, sometimes with gardens on
the roofs.

Tlatelolco, at first a separate island city, was eventually incorporated
as part of Tenochtitlan. It too had impressive temples and palaces, and its
large market remained the most important place of trade and exchange. Building
projects by various Mexican rulers increased the size and beauty of the city.
By 1519, the city covered about five square miles. It had a population of
150,000, larger than contemporary European cities such as Seville or Paris.

Its island location gave Tenochtitlan a peculiar character. Set in the
midst of a lake, the city was connected to the shores by four broad causeways.
Since the city was built on an island and reclaimed land, it was crisscrossed
by canals that allowed the constant canoe traffic on the lake access to the
city. Away from the center of the city, households practiced floating garden,
or chinampa, cultivation within the city. Each of the more than 60 city wards
was controlled by a calpulli, or kin group, and each maintained its
neighborhood temples and civic buildings. The city was supplied primarily by
canoe transportation, although there were aqueducts that brought in fresh
water. A dike had been constructed to keep the brackish waters of the eastern
portion of the lake away from the agriculture in and around the city. There
were smaller island communities and along the shores of the lake were other
densely populated towns and cities. The structural achievement was impressive.
A Spanish foot-soldier who saw it in 1519 wrote:

Gazing on such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether
what appeared before us was real, for on one side, on the land, there
were great cities, and in the lake ever many more, and the lake was
crowded with canoes, and in the causeway were many bridges at intervals,
and in front of us stood the great city of Mexico. . . .

Such vivid descriptions by Western observers tell only a portion of the
story. Tenochtitlan had an internal organization that reproduced the Aztec
religious and social universe. Its four causeways were associated with the
four cardinal directions and the gods of each. Within the city, neighborhoods
were organized in pairs of 20 communal corporate groups and in a number of
temple upkeep groupings, each with its neighborhood temple and school to
maintain. The round of festivals, the calendar system, and the cosmology of
Aztec religion was represented physically by the city's organization and the
place and hierarchy of the corporate groups within it. Such groupings were
based on occupations, residence, or ethnicity. This last grouping was
important because Tenochtitlan and the Aztecs themselves had included large
non-Aztec ethnic populations even in their origins. In fact, much of Aztec
myth and official history was designed to create a unified people out of an
agglomeration of groups.

Tenochtitlan was the heart of an empire and drew tribute and support from
its allies and dependents, but in theory it was still just a city-state ruled
by a headman, just like the other 50 or more city-states that dotted the
central plateau. Even so, the Aztecs called it the "foundation of heaven," the
basis of their might. It was a great world city, but unlike Rome or Athens, it
was later so completely obliterated that even in the lifetime of its
conquerors, one of them could lament that "all is overthrown and lost, nothing
left standing." Present-day Mexico City rises on the site of the former Aztec

[See Aztec Sacrifice: Human sacrifice existed among many Mesoamerican peoples,
but the Aztecs apparently expanded its practice for political reasons and
religious belief.]

Feeding The People: The Economy Of The Empire

Feeding the great population of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec confederation
in general depended on traditional forms of agriculture and on innovations
developed by the Aztecs. Lands of conquered peoples were often appropriated,
and food was sometimes demanded as tribute. In fact, the quantities of maize,
beans, and other foods brought into Tenochtitlan annually were staggering. In
and around the lake, however, the Aztecs adopted an ingenious system of
irrigated agriculture by constructing chinampas for agriculture. These were
beds of aquatic weeds, mud, and earth that had been placed in frames made of
cane and rooted to the lake floor. They formed artificial floating islands
about five meters long and 30 to 100 meters wide. This narrow, striplike
construction allowed the water to reach all the plants, and willow trees were
also planted at intervals to give shade and help fix the roots. Much of the
land of Tenochtitlan itself was chinampa in origin, and in the southern end of
the lake over 20,000 acres of chinampas were constructed.

The yield from chinampa agriculture was high and four corn crops a year
were possible. Apparently, this system of irrigated agriculture had been used
in preclassic days, but a rise in the level of the lakes had made it
impossible to continue. After 1200, however, lowering of the lake levels once
again stimulated chinampa construction, which the Aztecs carried out on a
grand scale. They also constructed dikes to close off the fresh waters in the
southern and western parts of the lake from the brackish waters elsewhere.
Today, the floating gardens of Xochimilco represent the remnants of the lake

Production by the Aztec peasantry and tribute provided the basic foods.
In each Aztec community the local clan apportioned the lands, some of which
were also set aside for support of the temples and the state. In addition,
individual nobles might also have private estates that were worked by servants
or slaves from conquered peoples. Each community had periodic markets -
according to various cycles in the calendar system such as every five and 13
days - in which a wide variety of goods were exchanged. Cacao beans and gold
dust were sometimes used as currency, but much trade was done as barter. The
great market at Tlatelolco operated daily and was controlled by the special
merchant class, or pochteca, which specialized in long-distance trade in
luxury items such as plumes of tropical birds and cacao. The markets were
highly regulated and under the control of inspectors and special judges.
Despite the existence and importance of markets, this was not a market economy
as we usually understand it.

The state controlled the use and distribution of many commodities and
served to redistribute the vast levies of tribute received from subordinate
peoples. Tribute levels were assigned according to whether the subject peoples
had accepted Aztec rule or had fought against it. Those who surrendered paid
less. Tribute payments, such as food, slaves, and sacrificial victims, served
political and economic ends and a wide variety of commodities. Over 120,000
mantles of cotton cloth alone were collected as tribute each year and sent to
Tenochtitlan. The Aztec state redistributed these goods. After the original
conquests, it rewarded its nobility richly, but the commoners received far
less. Still, the redistribution of many goods by the state interfered with the
normal functioning of the market and created a peculiar state-controlled mixed

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