Collection Description

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Culture Description

The Uto-Aztecan speaking Aztecs were the dominant partners of an alliance of city-states based in the Valley of Mexico that ruled an expansive empire. Otherwise independent city-states (themselves organized into wards providing a number of services, including education) were bound together by an emperor ruling through a council of similarly-ranked elites, on down through a military, priesthood, and bureaucracy dominated by an hereditary nobility. Social promotion of commoners was possible through achievement in warfare, trade, and education. Subsistence depended on both extensive and intensive agriculture, supplemented by small animal husbandry, and by hunting and gathering. There were highly developed market, trade, and imperial tribute systems; artisans specializing in a number of crafts resided in particular urban wards.


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Middle America and the Caribbean --Central Mexico



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Collection Overview

Documents referred to in this section are included in eHRAF World Cultures and are referenced by author, date of publication, and title where necessary.

The principal focus of the collection documents is on the Mexica of the Valley of Mexico (the Tenochca, or inhabitants of Tenochtitlan in in particular) during the early sixteenth century, up and including the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec empire, 1519-1521. However, most primary sources pertain to the middle-to-late sixteenth century, and are informant recollections and reconstructions of the pre-Conquest Aztec and associated Nahua-speaking peoples throughout central highland Mexico (especially the rival Tlaxcalans), and many sources cover historical events from the arrival of the Aztecs in the valley in the thirteenth century, the founding of Tenochtitlan in 1325, and/or the rapid expansion of the empire starting in the mid-fifteenth century. Principal among the primary sources is Fray Bernadino de Sahagún's General history of the things of New Spain or Florentine Codex (1950-1969), eleven volumes [two of twelve original "books" combined]), considered by many to be the first ethnography, researched, written and illustrated from the mid-1540s to 1576 and therefore incorporating some Europeanized aspects. Its observations are frequently repeated in the remainder of the collection. Soustelle (1961) distills Sahagún and other historical sources into a single-volume reconstruction of pre-Hispanic Aztec culture in general.

History. The one eyewitness account from the moment of European contact is by one of Cortez’s soldiers, Díaz del Castillo (1910). Sahagún (1955) provides a recounting of the Conquest by Aztec informants, which León-Portilla (1962) supplements with other historical narratives from the native perspective. The Franciscan missionary Motolinía (1951) supplies the earliest synthesis of informants’ accounts of the Conquest, including the preceding reign of Moctezuma II and subsequent cultural consequences. Durán’s (1964) synthesis of Aztec history extends from mythic origins to the Conquest. Sahagún’s (1954) volume on kings and lords provides lists of Aztec rulers, but is otherwise concerned with the institution itself.

Padden’s (1970) history revolves around the moment of the Conquest, tracing the preceding development of Aztec sovereignty, and considering changes wrought over the following few decades. Gibson (1971) gives a brief account of the growth and socioeconomic organization of the Aztec empire, while Brundage (1972) offers an in-depth history of the rise of the Mexica from humble origins to rulers of a vast Mesoamerican empire to their defeat in Tenochtitlan by Cortez and his native allies.

Belief systems. Studies of Aztec culture by Spanish colonial missionaries, including Motolinía’s (1951) history, unsurprisingly emphasize religious beliefs and practices, inextricably tied to the calendar system. Durán’s (1971) survey of Aztec gods and rites includes a description of the calendar and monthly ceremonies. Sahagún (1951) likewise give an account of the priesthood, temples, calendar, and sacrifices; a separate report on cosmology expands upon calendrics and associated practices ( Sahagún 1953). His listing of deities includes accounts of devotees, and rituals of worship and propitiation (Sahagún 1950); a different volume recounts mythology concerning the deities (Sahagún 1952). Calendrics is featured again in another book describing how the day of one’s birth determined one’s fate, combined with another work listing omens and superstitions (Sahagún 1957). Sahagún (1952) covers death and the afterlife.

A general reconstruction of Aztec theology and cosmology from early sources is found in León Portilla (1963). Caso (1971) comparatively surveys knowledge about the Aztec calendar, with some mention of associated ceremonies and portents.

Politics, economics and society. Topics addressing the sociopolitical and economic organization of the Aztec empire are scattered throughout several volumes by Sahagún: the education of young men for the military and priesthood (Sahagún 1952); the institution of, and training for, leadership (Sahagún 1954); marketplaces (Sahagún 1954); merchants, trade (including slaves), and craft production (Sahagún 1959); social and occupational status (Sahagún 1961); agricultural products (Sahagún 1963); and subject or surrounding peoples (Sahagún 1961).

Gibson (1971) and Brundage (1972) view the broad sociopolitical and economic organization of the empire from an historical perspective. Barlow’s (1949) mapping of place names and subject peoples in an Aztec tribute list is a snapshot of the extent and territorial structure of the late empire. Carrasco (1971) examines social stratification and kinship among the pre-Conquest Aztec. Monzon (1949) focusses in on the structure and function of the calpulli in Tenochtitlan at the time of the Conquest; an institution combining aspects of kinship (clans) with the political and economic organization of city wards. Gardner (1982) explores the biological and social dimensions of kinship terminology.

Knowledge and art. Aztec knowledge of the natural world is exhaustively catalogued by Sahagún (1963), covering geography, geology, zoology and botany, including some dietary and medicinal uses. Otherwise, medical knowledge covering parts of the human body, diseases and treatments comprises part of a different volume (Sahagún 1961). Childbirth receives mention elsewhere (Sahagún 1957); and again in yet another volume, along with marriage and pregnancy (Sahagún 1969).

Examples of literary art are found in calendrical predictions (Sahagún 1957), but are largely contained in a dedicated volume by Sahagún (1969) that also addresses ethics. León Portilla (1963) offers a wide-ranging study of Aztec metaphysics, philosophy, and art. Dibble (1971) examines Aztec writing systems. Clothing and adornment are described by Sahagún (1954).

For more detailed information on the content of the individual works in this collection, see the abstracts in the citations preceding each document. For additional information on related cultures, see the Nahua Collection (NU46) and Central Mexico Postclassic Collection (NU93) in eHRAF Archaeology.

Overview by

Teferi Adem


Leon G. Doyon

Calmecac –school for nobles and select commoners –use "EDUCATION SYSTEM (871)"

Calpixque –local or provincial administrator with the principal duty of tax collection –use "TAXATION AND PUBLIC INCOME (651)"

Calpulli – territorial/production unit of a city-state: in rural areas typically a lineage-based, landholding group; more like wards in urban centers – use "LOCALIZED KIN GROUPS (618)" and/or "REAL PROPERTY (423)"; also use "COMMUNITY STRUCTURE (621)" or "TERRITORIAL HIERARCHY (631)" or "CITIES (633)"; also use "CLASSES (565)" for status aspect

Macehual, Macehualli (pl. Macehuales, Macehualtin) –commoner, esp. rural farmer –use "CLASSES (565)"

Pilli –noble, one of the ruling class –use "CLASSES (565)"

Quachtli –standard length of cloth used as a medium of exchange (also, cape or mantle) –use "PRICE AND VALUE (435)" or "MEDIUM OF EXCHANGE (436)"

Telpochcalli –school for commoners attached to a calpulli –use "EDUCATION SYSTEM (871)" alone or with "CLASSES (565)"

Ticitl –physician –use "MEDICAL PERSONNEL (759)"

Tlacotli (pl. Tlacotin) –slave –use "SLAVERY (567)"

Tlatoani –ruler of a city-state –use "CHIEF EXECUTIVE (643)"

Tlatocan –supreme or royal council –use "DELIBERATIVE COUNCILS (646)"

Tlaxochimaco –name of month; festival during that month featuring offering of flowers –use "ORDERING OF TIME (805)" for month; use "ORGANIZED CEREMONIAL (796)" for festival

Triple Alliance –"Three City League" of Tlacopan, Tenochtitlan and Texcoco; Aztec Empire –use "TRIBE AND NATION (619)"

Indexing Notes by

Teferi Adem


Leon G. Doyon

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