slash-and-burn agriculture. First they cleared the land by cutting and burning plants and trees. Then they planted their crops. Unfortunately, this kind of farming wears out the soil. Lowland soil was not very rich to begin with, so land that was planted for 2 to 4 years had to be left to rest for 2 to 10 years. Slash-and-burn farmers had to have a lot of land, since each year some areas were planted while others were recovering.
The Mayan agricultural system worked as long as settlements were spread out and not too large. As populations increased, the Maya had trouble raising enough food to feed everyone. In the constant quest for land, they drained swamps and cleared hillsides. They also used household gardens in the cities to increase the amount of land available for growing food. (Caption)
Cutting and burning plants and trees is an easy way to clear land for farming, and the ash from the fire helps fertilize crops. However, this slash-and-burn technique uses up the soil quickly and can be dangerous, as fires sometimes get out of control. (Vocabulary)
The End of the Classic Period Creative agricultural techniques were not enough to save the Classic Mayan civilization. For about 600 years, the great cities of the southern lowlands thrived. Then, in the space of 50 to 100 years, the civilization that supported these centers fell apart. By 900 C.E., the Maya had abandoned their cities to the jungle.
The collapse of the Classic Mayan civilization is one of the great mysteries of Mesoamerican history. Many theories have been proposed to explain what happened. Some historians believe that the populations of the cities grew faster than the Mayan farming systems could sustain them. Scholars have also proposed that long periods of drought, or dry weather, caused massive crop failure.
Another possible cause of the Maya’s downfall was uncontrolled warfare. In the centuries after 300 C.E., the skirmishes that were common among city-states escalated into full-fledged wars. A final possibility is that invaders from central Mexico helped to destroy the Mayan city-states.
Perhaps a combination of factors brought an end to the Classic period. What we do know is that the great cities disappeared. The Maya migrated away from the old Mayan heartland and returned to village life. Stone by stone, the jungle reclaimed the great pyramids and plazas.
Although the great Mayan cities are ruins today, Mayan culture lives on. About 2 million Maya still live in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Millions more are spread throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and the cities and rural farm communities of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. 23.7 Chapter Summary
In this chapter, you read about the rise of the Mayan civilization. This great civilization was developed in three main periods: Pre-Classic, Classic, and Post-Classic.
The Maya’s greatest cultural achievements came during the Classic period. In studying this period, you explored the Maya’s complex social structure and their family life, religion, and farming techniques. In the next chapter, you will learn about the next great civilization that arose in Mesoamerica: the Aztec Empire. (Caption)
The walls of Mayan tombs were painted with scenes of important events and daily life. This tomb painting is of warriors in battle. Page 271
The Aztecs (Caption)
These drawings were created in Mexico around 1540 to show details of Aztec life. 24.1 Introduction
In Chapter 23, you read about the Mayan civilization of southern Mexico and Central America. In this chapter, you will learn about the Aztecs, a Mesoamerican people who built a vast empire in central Mexico. The Aztec Empire flourished from 1428 to 1519 C.E., when it was destroyed by invaders from Spain.
The Aztecs had a colorful legend about the beginnings of their empire. Originally a wandering group of hunter-gatherers, the Aztecs had a belief that one day they would receive a sign from the gods. They would see an eagle perched on a great cactus with “his wings stretched toward the rays of the sun.” In its beak, the eagle would hold a long snake. When they saw this eagle, the Aztecs would know they had found the place where they would build a great city.
In the mid 1200s C.E., the Aztecs entered the high Valley of Mexico, a fertile basin in central Mexico. Several times other groups in the valley pushed the Aztecs away from their lands. In 1325, the Aztecs took refuge on an island in Lake Texcoco. There Aztec priests saw the eagle, just as the gods had promised. And so the Aztecs set about building a city they called Tenochtitlan, which means “the place of the fruit of the prickly pear cactus.” In time, the island city became the center of the Aztec Empire.
In this chapter, you will learn more about where the Aztecs came from and how they built their magnificent capital city. You’ll also discover how this humble band of nomads rose to become the masters of a great empire. (Caption)
Use this drawing of the Mexican flag as a graphic organizer to help you understand the three stages in the development of the Aztec civilization. Page 272
24.2 The Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico
The Aztec Empire arose in the Valley of Mexico, a fertile area nearly 8,000 feet above sea level. By the time the Aztecs arrived in the mid 1200s C.E., the valley had been a center of civilization for more than a thousand years. Two groups in particular had built civilizations there that strongly influenced the Aztecs. Let’s take a brief look at these civilizations. Then we’ll see how the Aztecs came to the valley and gradually rose to power.
Civilization in the Valley of Mexico From about 100 to 650 C.E., the Valley of
Mexico was dominated by the Teotihuacans. These people built an enormous
capital city, Teotihuacan. One of the city’s buildings, the Pyramid of the Sun, was
more than 200 feet high.
After Teotihuacan’s collapse around the 700s, a group from the north, the Toltecs, migrated into the valley. Toltec civilization reached its height in the 10th and 11th centuries. The Toltecs built a number of cities. Their capital, Tollan, boasted large pyramids topped with temples.
During the 1100s, new groups invaded the valley. They took over Toltec cities and established new city-states. But the influence of the Toltecs and the Teotihuacans continued to be felt in the culture that was developing in the valley.
The Arrival of the Aztecs Sometime around 1250 C.E., a new group arrived in the Valley of Mexico. A nomadic band of hunter-gatherers, they called themselves the Mexica. We know them today as the Aztecs.
The name Aztec comes from Aztlan, the Mexicas’ legendary homeland. According to Aztec tradition, Aztlan was an island in a lake to the northwest of the Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs had left the island around 1100 C.E. They wandered through the deserts of northern Mexico for many years before coming to the Valley of Mexico.
When the Aztecs came to the heart of the valley, they found lakes dotted with marshy islands. Thriving city-states controlled the land around the lakes.
The Aztecs had a difficult time establishing themselves in the valley. The people living in the city-states thought the Aztecs were crude barbarians. But the Aztecs were fierce warriors, and the city-states were willing to employ them as mercenaries. (Caption)
Teotihuacan, the “City of the Gods,” was an expansive city of plazas, pyramids, and avenues. The Pyramid of the Sun, shown above, was constructed of volcanic rock and limestone. (Vocabulary)
mercenary a soldier who is paid to fight for another country or group Page 273
After settling in the valley, the Aztecs began to be influenced by the legacy of the Teotihuacans and the Toltecs. They made pilgrimages to the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan. They adopted Quetzalcoatl, the Teotihuacans’ feathered serpent god, as one of their own gods.
The Aztecs viewed the Toltecs even more highly, as rulers of a Golden Age. Aztec rulers married into the surviving Toltec royal line. The Aztecs even began to claim the Toltecs as their own ancestors.
In 1319, stronger groups forced the Aztecs to move away from Chapultepec, a rocky hill where they had made their home. The Aztecs fled to the south, where they became mercenaries for the city-state of Colhuacan. But trouble came again when the Aztecs sacrificed the daughter of the Colhua chief. This led to a war with the Colhuas, who drove the Aztecs onto an island in the shallow waters of Lake Texcoco.
It was here, the Aztecs said, that they spotted an eagle perched atop a cactus with a long snake in its beak. Grateful for the sign they had been waiting for, the Aztecs set to work building the city they called Tenochtitlan.
The island turned out to be a good site for the Aztecs’ city. The lake provided fish and water birds for food, and the island was easy to defend. Over time, the Aztecs’ new home would grow into one of the great cities of the world.
From Mercenaries to Empire Builders The Aztecs started building Tenochtitlan in 1325 C.E. For the next 100 years, they served as mercenaries for a powerful group called the Tepanecs. Through this alliance the Aztecs gained land, trading connections, and wealth.
Eventually, however, the Aztecs rebelled against the heavy-handed rule of the Tepanecs. Under the Aztec leader Itzcoatl, Tenochtitlan joined with two other city-states in the Triple Alliance. In 1428, the alliance fought and defeated the Tepanecs. Together the allies began a series of conquests that laid the foundation for the Aztec Empire.
As Tenochtitlan became a great power, Itzcoatl set out to reshape Aztec history. He burned records that referred to his people’s humble origins. Instead, he connected the Aztecs to the distinguished Toltecs.
With their growing power and a glorious (though legendary) past, the Aztecs were ready for their new role as empire builders. Let’s look now at the great city that would become the center of their empire. (Vocabulary)
As the Aztecs’ power grew, their capital city of Tenochtitlan developed into one of the largest cities in the world. When Spanish explorers first glimpsed Tenochtitlan in 1519, they were amazed to see a majestic city crisscrossed by canals and boasting impressive temples and palaces. With a population of between 200,000 and 300,000 people, Tenochtitlan was larger than London, Paris, or Venice.
How did the Aztecs turn an unwanted island into such a great city? First they reclaimed land from the lake by sinking timbers into the water to serve as walls and filling in the area between the timbers with mud, boulders, and reeds. In this way they created small islands called chinampas, or “floating gardens.” Eventually the Aztecs expanded the city’s land surface until it covered over five square miles. They even merged Tlatelolco, originally a separate island, with Tenochtitlan.
Gradually, Tenochtitlan grew into the magnificent city that so amazed the Spanish. At the center of the city—both physically and spiritually—lay a large ceremonial plaza. Here the Aztecs gathered for religious rituals, feasts, and festivals. A wall about eight feet tall enclosed this area. The wall, which was called the Coatepantli (“snake wall”), was studded with sculptures of serpents. The palaces and homes of nobles lined the outside of the wall.
Inside the plaza, a stone pyramid called the Great Temple loomed 150 feet into the sky. People could see the pyramid, which was decorated with bright sculptures and murals, from several miles away. It had two steep stairways leading to double shrines. One shrine was dedicated to the chief god, Huitzilopochtli. The other was dedicated to Tlaloc, the rain god. In front of the shrines stood the stone where priests performed human sacrifices. An altar called the tzompantli (“skull rack”) displayed the skulls of thousands of people who had been sacrificed. (You will learn more about the role of human sacrifice in the Aztec religion in the next chapter.) Other structures in the plaza included (Caption)
The Aztecs of Tenochtitlan farmed on chinampas, small floating islands they constructed from mud and plants. (Vocabulary)
plaza a public square or other open area in a city where people can gather Page 275
more shrines and temples, the ritual ball court, military storehouses, and guest rooms for important visitors.
Just outside the plaza stood the royal palace. The two-story palace seemed like a small town. The palace was the home of the Aztec ruler, but it also had government offices, shrines, courts, storerooms, gardens, and courtyards. At the royal aviary, trained staff plucked the valuable feathers of parrots and quetzals. Wild animals captured throughout the empire, like pumas and jaguars, prowled cages in the royal zoo.
The city’s main marketplace was located in the northern section, in Tlatelolco. Each day as many as 60,000 people came from all corners of the Aztec Empire to sell their wares. Goods ranged from luxury items like jade and feathers to necessities like food and rope sandals. Merchants also sold gold, silver, turquoise, animal skins, clothing, pottery, chocolate and vanilla, tools, and slaves.
Although Tenochtitlan spread over five square miles, people had an easy time getting around. Four wide avenues met at the foot of the Great Temple. A thousand workers swept and washed down the streets each day, keeping them cleaner than streets in European cities. At night, pine torches lit the way. People also traveled by foot on smaller walkways or by canoe on the canals that crossed the city. Many of the canals were lined with stone and had bridges.
Three causeways linked the island to the mainland. The longest of them stretched five miles. The causeways were 25 to 30 feet wide. They all had wooden bridges that could be raised to let boats through or to protect the city in an enemy attack.
The city boasted other technological marvels, like the aqueduct that carried fresh water for irrigation. Twin pipes ran from the Chapultepec springs, three miles away. While one pipe was being cleaned or repaired, the other could transport water. A dike 10 miles long ran along the east side of the city to hold back floodwaters.
Thousands of people visited Tenochtitlan each year. Some came to do business. Others came as pilgrims. Still others came simply to gaze in wonder at the capital of the Aztec world. (Caption)
Temples dedicated to various gods rose along the streets and canals of the city of Tenochtitlan. (Vocabulary)
aviary an enclosed space or cage for keeping birds
causeway a raised road built across water or low ground
dike a wall or dam built to hold back water and prevent flooding Page 276
Tenochtitlan began as simply the Aztecs’ home city. After the Aztecs and their allies defeated the Tepanecs in 1428 C.E., the city became the capital of a growing empire. Under Moctezuma I in the mid 1400s, the Aztecs extended their empire to faraway regions.
By the early 1500s, the Aztec Empire stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. It covered much of Central Mexico and reached as far south as the current border with Guatemala. At its height, the empire included more than five million people.
An Empire Based on Tribute Unlike other empire builders, the Aztecs did not start colonies. Nor did they force conquered peoples to adopt their ways. Instead, the Aztec Empire was a loose union of hundreds of city-states that were forced to pay tribute to the Aztecs.
Collecting tribute was the empire’s most important business. The Aztecs relied on tribute to support Tenochtitlan’s huge population. Tribute took the form of whatever valuable items a city could provide. Cities might pay in food, cacao, gems and stones, cotton, cloth, animals, animal skins, shells, building materials, or even soldiers. Tax collectors stationed around the empire made sure that cities paid regularly.
Each year, huge amounts of goods flowed into Tenochtitlan. An average year brought 7,000 tons of maize; 4,000 tons each of beans, seed, and grain; and at least 2 million cotton cloaks. Warriors, priests, officials, servants, and other workers all received payment in tribute goods.
Warfare The demands of the empire made war the center of Aztec life. Successful battles allow the Aztecs to increase their sources of tribute. They also gained more territory, laborers, and sacrificial victims. As you will learn in the next chapter, the Aztecs believed that their chief god, Huitzilopochtli, required human blood for survival, so in war they took as many prisoners as possible to use in sacrifices. They also used the threat of human sacrifice to frighten city-states into paying tribute.
Every male Aztec was trained to be a soldier. In battle, the Aztecs used weapons such as bows and arrows, spears, clubs, and wooden swords with sharp stone blades. Warrior knights carried shields decorated with figures of animals such as the jaguar and eagle. The figures (Map Title)
The Aztec Empire, Early 1500s Page 277
represented different strengths that the Aztecs believed they received from these animals.
An Aztec declaration of war followed a ritualized pattern. First, the Aztecs asked a city to join the empire as an ally. The city had 60 days to agree. If the ruler refused, the Aztecs declared war.
The battle began when thousands of Aztec warriors descended upon the city. As the armies faced each other, a general gave the signal to attack. Aztec warriors excelled at hand-to-hand fighting. Most wars ended after one battle, usually with an Aztec victory.
After the city had fallen, the Aztecs brought their captives to Tenochtitlan. Some became slaves, but most were sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli.
The Aztecs made only a few demands on the defeated city. The people had to pay tribute, honor the god Huitzilopochtli, and promise obedience to the Aztec ruler. Otherwise, conquered cities remained independent. They kept their religion, customs, and language. They usually even kept their leaders.
These lenient conditions made it easy for the Aztecs to rule. But most of the conquered people never thought of themselves as true Aztecs. They wanted their freedom. These feelings led to a lack of unity in the Aztec Empire. Eventually, the Spanish would take advantage of that weakness by making allies of the Aztecs’ enemies when they invaded Mexico in 1519. You will learn more about the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in Unit 7. 24.5 Chapter Summary
In this chapter, you learned about the rise of the Aztecs from a band of nomads to the masters of a great empire. The Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico in the mid 1200s C.E. In 1325, they began building their capital city of Tenochtitlan. But the Aztec Empire only began to emerge in 1428, when the Aztecs and their allies rebelled against the Tepanecs.
Over the next 100 years, the Aztecs expanded their empire through warfare and alliances. Eventually the empire included hundreds of cities and millions of people. In the next chapter, you will learn about the daily life of the Aztecs at the height of their empire. (Caption)
These modern drawings of Aztec life show some of the forms of tribute paid to the Aztecs, such as feathers, jade, and tiger skins. Page 279
Daily Life in Tenochtitlan (Caption)
The Great Market in the city of Tenochtitlan was a center of daily life for the Aztecs. 25.1 Introduction
In Chapter 24, you learned how the Aztecs built their empire in central Mexico. Now you will explore what life was like in the Aztecs’ capital city of Tenochtitlan.
Imagine that you are an Aztec child living outside Tenochtitlan in the 1400s C.E. One morning your father, a chili pepper farmer, takes you to the great market at Tenochtitlan. Your father finds the vegetable section, where he spreads out his mat and displays his peppers. Then he begins to shout out prices. He gladly trades with a noblewoman, exchanging peppers for precious cacao beans. Later he trades his remaining peppers for a handmade clay cooking pot for your mother.
After all the peppers are gone, your father takes you on a long stroll around the city. You see the Great Temple where priests perform sacrifices and the ball court where nobles play a game called tlachtli. You gaze in wonder at the beautiful houses where noble families live and the splendid palace of the Aztec ruler. After the long walk home, you hungrily eat a simple mush made of maize before going to sleep.
This imaginary trip to Tenochtitlan suggests many aspects of