Pre-Columbian Aztec society was a highly complex and stratified society that developed among the Aztecs of central Mexico in the centuries prior to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and which was built on the cultural foundations of the larger region of Mesoamerica. Politically, the society was organized into independent city-states, called altepetls, composed of smaller divisions (calpulli), which were again usually composed of one or more extended kinship groups. Socially, the society depended on a rather strict division between nobles and free commoners, both of which were themselves divided into elaborate hierarchies of social status, responsibilities, and power. Economically the society was dependent on agriculture, and also to a large extent on warfare. Other economically important factors were commerce, long distance and local, and a high degree of trade specialization
In the middle of the first millennium CE, the first waves of tribes speaking the forefather language of the Nahuan languages migrated south into Mesoamerica. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers and arrived in a region that was already populated by complex societies at a highly advanced technological level. Under the influence of classic Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Teotihuacanos, the Maya, the Totonacs and the Huastecs the proto—Aztecs became sedentary agriculturalists and achieved the same levels of technology as their neighbouring peoples. They held on to their language, many of their religious systems, and probably aspects of their previous social customs. Resultingly the foundations of "Aztec society" were developed as a synthesis between Mesoamerican societies and Aztec traditions, although today it cannot easily be discerned which parts come from where. Aztec society was not isolated from the larger Mesoamerican context, and in fact, most aspects of it were similar in structure to what existed in the surrounding societies.
The definition of the term "Aztec" which will be applied here is that of Michael E. Smith. He defines "Aztec" as including all the Nahuatl speaking peoples of central Mexico, that is in opposition to a definition restricting the term "Aztec" to cover the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan or the parties in the Aztec Triple Alliance. This definition is referring to specific circumstances of one particular Aztec group it will be done with the ethnonym referring specifically to that group e.g. Mexica for the inhabitants of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Tlaxcaltecs for those from Tlaxcallan and so on.
The sources for information about Aztec society are primarily documents written in the Spanish language in the first century after the Spanish conquest. Important among these are the Florentine Codex, a 12 volume ethnographic description of precolumbian Aztec society compiled by Bernardino de Sahagún, the chronicle of Diego Durán, and the descriptions of the first conquistadors such as those of Hernán Cortés himself and of Bernal Díaz del Castillo. In recent decades the archaeological study of precolumbian Aztec civilization has also unearthed important information about Aztec society which has led to a deeper understanding particularly of social structures and trade.
James Lockhart, who specializes in the historical description of the Nahua, said Aztec society was characterized by a "tendency to create larger wholes by the aggregation of parts that remain relatively separate and self-contained brought together by their common function and similarity". This understanding entails a social stratification that is built from the bottom – up, rather than from the top – down. Aztec hierarchy by this understanding was not of the type "where a unit of one type – the capital – controls subordinate units of another type" but instead a type where the main unit is composed out of several constituent parts.
Family and lineage
Family and lineage were the basic units of Aztec society. One's lineage determined one's social standing, and noble lineages were traced back to the mythical past, as the nobles were said to be descended from the god Quetzalcoatl. Prestigious lineages also traced their kin back through ruling dynasties, preferably ones with a Toltec heritage. The extended family group was also the basic social unit and living patterns were largely determined by family ties, because networks of family groups settled together to form calpollis. Lineage was traced through both the maternal and paternal lines, although with a preference for paternal lineage.
The calpulli (from Nahuatl calpulli meaning "big house") was a political unit composed of several interrelated family groups. The exact nature of the calpulli is not completely understood and it has been variously described as a kind of clan, a town, a ward, a parish or an agriculture based cooperative. In Nahuatl another word for calpulli was tlaxilacalli – "a partition of houses".
The calpulli was ruled by a local chief (calpuleh), to whom its members were normally related. He provided the calpulli members with lands for cultivation (calpullālli) or with access to non-agricultural occupations in exchange for tribute and loyalty.
The calpulli also ran a temple where the adoration of the deity of the calpulli was performed and a school called the Telpochcalli where young men were trained, mostly in martial arts. In some Aztec citystates calpullis were specialised in a trade, which was practiced by all of its members, and these calpullis functioned something like a medieval trade guild. This was the case in Otompan and in Texcoco and Tlatelolco. Other calpullis were composed of immigrant groups from other areas of Mesoamerica who settled together. There is evidence that Tenochtitlan had calpullis composed of Otomis, Mixtecs and Tlapanecs.
The altepetl (from Nahuatl āltepētl "water-mountain") was a citystate composed of several calpullis and ruled by a tlatoani. The altepetl was the unit that held sway over a given territory and defended and possibly expanded it by military might. The tlatoani was the head of the most influential calpulli, often because of having the most prestigious lineage. The word altepetl, however, did not only refer to the area but also to its population, and altepetl affiliation is thought to have been the primary criterion for ethnic divisions in Mesoamerica – rather than linguistic affinities.
Alliances and political hegemony
Altepetl states would normally strive towards dominating neighboring altepetl through warfare. In this way, weak altepetl would become subjugated by stronger ones to whom they then paid tribute. This often lead to the formation of alliances between subordinate altepetl in order to overthrow a dominant altepetl. Some alliances were short-lived, or ad-hoc and others were long term relationships where a group of altepetl would converge to form what was sometimes almost a single political entity. One example of a long term alliance between independent city-states would be that between the four altepetl of Tlaxcallan, Ocotelolco, Tizatlan, Quiyahuiztlan and Tepeticpac, which is normally thought of as a single state although it had four independent rulers and a certain level of internal competition. Another is the so-called Aztec Triple Alliance between Tlacopan, Texcoco and Tenochtitlan which was originally formed to end the dominance of the altepetl Azcapotzalco and which eventually achieved political hegemony and the greater part of Mesoamerica and has become known to posterity as the Aztec empire.
The most basic social division in Aztec society was that between nobles (Nahuatl pīpiltin) and commoners (Nahuatl mācehualtin). Nobles held a large number of privileges not shared by the commoners, most importantly the right to receive tribute from commoners on their land. Commoners on the other hand were free to own and cultivate land and to manage their own possessions, while still completing the services required by their lords and their calpulli, such as tribute payment and military service. Mobility between the two social layers was difficult, but in practice both the commoner and noble groups were structured into finer hierarchies and a high degree of social mobility was possible within a given layer. For example, the pochteca long distance traders were considered commoners, but at the same time held a number of privileges comparable to those of the lesser nobility.
The Mexica, the founders and dominant group of the Aztec Empire, were one of the first people in the world to have mandatory education for nearly all children, regardless of gender, rank, or station.
Until the age of fourteen, the education of children was in the hands of their parents, but supervised by the authorities of their calpulli. Periodically they attended their local temples, to test their progress.
Part of this education involved learning a collection of sayings, called huehuetlatolli ("The sayings of the old"), that embodied the Aztecs' ideals. It included speeches and sayings for every occasion, the words to salute the birth of children, and to say farewell at death. Fathers admonished their daughters to be very clean, but not to use makeup, because they would look like ahuianis. Mothers admonished their daughters to support their husbands, even if they turned out to be humble peasants. Boys were admonished to be humble, obedient and hard workers. Judging by their language, most of the huehuetlatolli seemed to have evolved over several centuries, predating the Aztecs and most likely adopted from other Nahua cultures.
Children were taught at home until about 15 years of age, but all Aztec children, boys and girls, were expected to attend school for some time when they were between 10 and 20 years old. Boys and girls went to school at age 15.
There were two types of schools: the telpochcalli, for practical and military studies, and the calmecac, for advanced learning in writing, astronomy, statesmanship, theology, and other areas. The two institutions seem to be common to the Nahua people, leading some experts to suggest that they are older than the Aztec culture.
- The telpochcalli or House of the Young, taught history, religion, military fighting arts, and a trade or craft (such as agriculture or handicrafts). Some of the telpochcalli students were chosen for the army, but most of them returned to their homes.
- The calmecac, attended mostly by the sons of pillis, was focused on turning out leaders (tlatoque), priests, scholars/teachers (tlatimini), healers (tizitl) and codex painters (tlacuilos). They studied rituals, ancient and contemporary history, literacy, calendrics, some elements of geometry, songs (poetry), and, as at the telpochcalli, military arts.
Each calpulli specialized in some handicrafts, and this was an important part of the income of the city. The teaching of handicraft was highly valued.
The healers (tizitl) had several specialities. Some were trained to just inspect and classify medicinal plants, others were trained in the preparation of medicines that were sold in special places (tlapalli). More than a hundred preparations are known, including deodorants, remedies for smelly feet, dentifric paste etc. Also there were tizitl specialized in surgery, digestive diseases, teeth and nose, skin diseases, etc.
Aztec teachers (tlamatimine) propounded a spartan regime of education – cold baths in the morning, hard work, physical punishment, bleeding with maguey thorns and endurance tests – with the purpose of forming a stoical people.
There is contradictory information about whether calmecac was reserved for the sons and daughters of the pillis; some accounts said they could choose where to study. It is possible that the common people preferred the telpochcalli, because a warrior could advance more readily by his military abilities; becoming a priest or a tlacuilo was not a way to rise rapidly from a low station.
Girls were educated in the crafts of home and child raising. They were not taught to read or write. Some of them were educated as midwives and received the full training of a healer; they were also called tizitl. Female tizitl would treat women throughout their reproductive life. They would admonish young wives, and after the second month of pregnancy, they began to watch for any problems. They preferred to save the woman's life over that of a fetus, resorting to embryotomy. Because of this, their work, called temiuxiuliztli, has sometimes been translated as "obstetrics" (Medicine in Mexico, before the Discovery. Dr. Manuel Valdez 1992). All women were taught to be involved "in the things of god"; there are paintings of women presiding over religious ceremonies, but there are no references to female priests.
There were also two other opportunities for those few who had talent. Some were chosen for the house of song and dance, and others were chosen for the ball game. Both occupations had high status.
Trade and commerce
Prior to the fall of the Aztec, the Aztec people had a stable economy driven by a successful trade market. The markets, which were located in the center of many communities, were well organized and diverse in goods, as noted by the Spanish conquistadors upon their arrival. The regional merchants, known as tlacuilo, would barter utilitarian items and food, which included gold, silver, and other precious stones, cloth and cotton, animal skins, both agriculture and wild game, and woodwork. The trade market of the Aztec people was not only important to commerce, but also to the socialization, as the markets provided a place for the people to exchange information within their regions. This type of trade market was used primarily for locally produced goods, as there was not much traveling needed to exchange goods at the market. With no domestic animals as an effective way to transport goods, the local markets were an essential part of Aztec commerce. However, the Aztec nobility obtained much of their merchandise from neighboring highland basins, distant places within the empire, and from land beyond the empire therefore creating the need for a long distance trade organization. The long distance trade was carried out by merchants called pochteca, who were defined by their positions within the system. These professional merchants occupied a high status in Aztec society, below the noble class. The pochteca were responsible for providing the materials that the noble class used to display their wealth. These materials were often obtained from foreign sources. Due to the success of the pochteca, many of the merchants became as wealthy as the noble class, but were obligated to hide this wealth from the public. The pochteca were an advanced group who reported to 12 locations throughout the Empire, where the high officials were located.
The highest officials of the pochteca were the pochteca tlatoque. The pochteca tlatoque were the elder of the pochteca, and were no longer travelers, but rather acted as administrators, overseeing young pochteca and administering the marketplace. The second group of pochteca was the slave traders, known as the tlatoani. These people were often referred to as the richest of merchants, as they played a central role in capturing the slaves used for sacrificial victims.
The third group of long distance traders was the tencunenenque, who worked for the rulers by carrying out personal trade.
A group of trader spies, known as the natural oztomeca, made up the last group of pochteca. The natural oztomeca were forced to disguise themselves as they traveled, as they sought after rare goods. The natural oztomeca were also used for gathering information at the markets and reporting the information to the higher levels of pochteca.
All trade throughout the Aztec Empire was regulated by officers who patrolled the markets to ensure that the buyers were not being cheated by the merchants. Because markets were so numerous, in large cities reaching upwards of 20,000 people, the organization was crucial, and the Aztecs were able to create a successful market due to the success of enforcing the laws of the empire.
The pre-conquest Aztecs were an empire that prospered agriculturally, and they did so without the wheel or domestic beasts of burden. They had four main methods of agriculture that were quite successful. The earliest, most basic form of agriculture implemented by the Aztecs is known as “rainfall cultivation.” The Aztecs also implemented terrace agriculture in hilly areas, or areas that could not be used for normal farming. Terracing allowed for an increased soil depth and impeded soil erosion. The terraces were built by piling up a wall of stones parallel to the contour of the hillside. Dirt was then filled in, creating viable, flat farmland. There were three types of terrace agriculture, each one used for specific circumstances: hillslope contour terraces (steeper slopes), semi-terraces (gentle slopes, walls were made with Maguey plants rather than stones), and cross-channel terraces. Terracing was used mostly in the highlands of the Aztec empire.
In the valleys of the empire, irrigation farming was used. Dams diverted water from natural springs to the fields. This allowed for harvests to be successful on a regular basis because the prosperity of a field was not dependent upon the rain. Irrigation systems had been in place long before the Aztecs. However, they built canal systems that were longer and more elaborate than any previous irrigation systems. They even managed to divert a large portion of the Cuauhtitlan River to provide irrigation to large areas of fields. The network of canals was a very complex and intricate system.
In the swampy regions along Lake Xochimilco, the Aztecs implemented yet another method of crop cultivation. They built so-called chinampas, areas of raised land, created from alternating layers of mud from the bottom of the lake, and plant matter/other vegetation. These “raised beds” were between 2 and 4 meters wide, and 20 to 40 meters long. They rose about 1 meter above the surface of the water, and were separated by narrow canals, which allowed farmers to move between them by canoe. The chinampas were extremely fertile pieces of land, and yielded, on average, seven crops annually. In order to plant on them, farmers first created “seedbeds,” or reed rafts, where they planted seeds and allowed them to germinate. Once they had germinated, they were re-planted in the chinampas. This cut the growing time down considerably.
- Smith (2001) pp. 6–13
- Smith (2001) p. 5
- Smith (2001) p. 6-7
- Lockhart qp(1992) p. 436
- Smith (2000) p. 584
- Berdan (1982) p. 47
- Van Zantwijk (1977) p. 16
- Van Zantwijk (1977) pp. 16.17
- Smith (2001) pp. 107–113
- Berdan (1982) p. 57
- Van Zantwijk (1977) p. 17
- Smith (2000) p. 584
- Hassig (2001) passim
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