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5-08-2015, 20:37

From Mesoamerica to Aztec Empire

Long before the region between North and South America was known as Central America, it was the heart of Mesoamerica, where ancient civilizations grew and flourished. The Mesoamerican peoples built monuments and cities. They created magnificent

Toltec warrior sculptures guard the top of the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl in Tula, Mexico.

art and music and worshiped their gods. Their societies were organized, complex, and advanced.

Humans have occupied Mesoamerica since as early as 21,000 BCE.1 As time passed, hunters and gatherers began settling in Mesoamerica and cultivating the land, growing maize, beans, squash, chili peppers, and cotton. Agricultural villages grew into cities, forming the basis of a succession of civilizations that ruled Mesoamerica throughout the centuries.

EARLY MESOAMERICA

The Toltecs' Influence



The Aztecs greatly admired the Toltec civilization, which became an ideal and highly admired culture to the Aztecs. They modeled much of their culture after the Toltecs, including their religion and art. The Aztec term Toltecayotl (Toltec heart) means a person has extraordinary qualities.


The Olmec civilization, which lasted from 1200 to 400 BCE, was the first highly organized society in Mesoamerica. This civilization became the basis for many new cultures in Mexico and Central America. The Olmecs developed trading routes and had a distinct artistic style, creating massive carved stone heads that still exist today. From 500 BCE to 1000 CE, the Zapotec civilization arose in the Valley of Oaxaca, where they built pyramids and palaces. The Zapotec people also developed an alphabet, a system of numbers, and their own calendar.

Later cultures, such as the Maya and Teotihuacan, built upon the knowledge of the Olmecs. They studied astronomy, created written languages, and used mathematics. Classes divided the people, with nobility and rulers in the highest ranks. Just before the Aztecs rose to power, the Toltecs held control from 900 to 1100 CE. As this civilization declined, the Aztecs slowly rose to power.

A Supernatural Vision




When the Mexica arrived on the island in Lake Texcoco, one of their priests had a supernatural vision that helped convince them this was the right place to settle permanently. In his vision he saw their god Huitzilopochtli, who told the priest he would know the sacred spot where the Mexica should found their city when he saw an eagle perched on a nopal cactus. When the Mexica arrived at the island, they saw this very sight and recognized it as a sign from the priest’s vision.

FOUNDING

tenochtitlAn



In the 1200s, a wandering tribe of peoples called the Mexica searched for a new homeland. They had originally left their mythical island home of Aztlan sometime in the 1100s.2 The name Aztec comes from the island’s name and has become the name commonly used for the people living in the Valley of Mexico during the reign of the empire.

In the early 1300s, the Aztecs arrived at Lake Texcoco. It was a swampy area with an unoccupied island in the Valley of Mexico. The valley was an excellent place to settle. It trapped water flowing from springs, rainfall, and A map from a book published in 1524 shows the Aztec Empire capital of Tenochtitlan, right, with a representation of the Gulf of Mexico, left. It is based on the recollections of Hernan Cortes.

aquifers, and all this water flowed into Lake Texcoco. It was a sprawling wetland that covered 400 square miles (1,000 sq km) and had abundant wildlife and vegetation.3

The Aztecs claimed the island in Lake Texcoco as their final home and named the community Tenochtitlan. Although the marshy land was not ideal for farming and there were few building materials, the area was rich in birds, fish, and other aquatic life. Several communities were located on the shores of Lake Texcoco, such as Culhua and Atzcapotzalco, and Aztec women began trading fish, birds, frogs, and greens from the lake at the markets in these

other communities. The Aztecs also established markets on the island, and outside communities brought goods to trade. This was the beginning of a trading network that would eventually help the Aztec civilization expand. The people also began constructing an agricultural system known as the chinampa system to farm food for the growing community.

From soon after the city’s founding in 1325, the Aztecs’ leader was Tenoch, who had been elected into office by a council of elders. Tenoch led the island community for 25 years. After his death, the new leader, Acamapichtli, brought together the people of Tenochtitlan and the people of Culhua. Acamapichtli was a noble who had both Aztec and Culhuacan ancestry.

GAINING POWER AND FORMING ALLIANCES



During Acamapichtli’s rule, from 1375 to 1395, the Aztecs were subjects of a greater power in the valley. They paid tribute and were under the command of Tezozomoc from the city of Atzcapotzalco, who ruled the valley until his death in 1426. Part of the Aztecs’ tribute was to fight in Atzcapotzalco’s military campaigns. Eventually the Aztecs were given permission to wage their own wars to conquer towns, demand tribute, and gain agricultural lands. They continued fighting for Atzcapotzalco, proving their military might, and were rewarded with land.

By 1426, the Aztecs had proven themselves equals to the warriors of Atzcapotzalco.

The new ruler of Atzcapotzalco, Tezozomoc’s son Maxtla, was a murderous and volatile ruler. In 1426, he killed his brother to assume power, and then he assassinated the Aztec ruler Chimalpopoca. The Aztec council quickly elected a new leader— Itzcoatl—who was a powerful warrior. Under his leadership, from 1427 to 1440, the Aztecs sought support from neighboring cities to fight a war against Atzcapotzalco. They found allies in the leaders of Texcoco, Tlaxcala, Tlacopan, and Xaltocan. After 114 days of battle, the Aztecs and their allies defeated

This map illustrates the strategic locations of the cities belonging to the triple alliance in approximately 1519.

Atzcapotzalco and gained more power than they had ever had before, with new lands and tributes at their disposal.4

This war led to a 1431 alliance between three important cities in the Valley of Mexico—Tenochtitlan, Texcoco (in the east), and Tlacopan (in the west). This alliance was the beginning of the Aztec Empire, with Tenochtitlan as its capital city.

BECOMING AN EMPIRE



The fastest way for the Aztecs to increase their resources and wealth was through conquest. The Aztecs began by defeating towns surrounding Lake Texcoco. They continued onto the mainland and past the Ajusco Mountains into the Valley of Morelos. Each defeated town became a city-state of the growing empire. Each city-state had to pay a tribute to the Aztecs in the form of goods or services, which varied according to the types of resources or skills found in the area. These tributes also increased over time as the growing empire’s needs increased.

In 1440, Montezuma I became the new Aztec ruler. Under his rule, the empire expanded into more distant lands. The Aztecs defeated the Huaxtecs in north-central Veracruz in the mid-1450s. They then defeated Coixtlahuaca in 1458 and moved on to defeat Cosamaloapan in 1459. By 1472, just a few years after Montezuma I died, the empire had grown to span Mesoamerica

A Great Sacrifice



When the Great Pyramid was completed in 1487, Ahuitzotl held a dedication ceremony. Atop the tall temple, Aztec priests and nobles, including Ahuitzotl, cut open and removed the hearts of 20,000 or more prisoners of war.5 The blood of the sacrificed victims flowed down the temple steps and pooled in the square below, horrifying the Aztecs and the ambassadors invited from other nations. Human sacrifice became a powerful political tool for Ahuitzotl and future rulers of the empire.

Axayacatl, a 19-year-old prince, became the next Aztec ruler. His campaigns defeated towns and lands to the west of Tenochtitlan. Under his rule, the Aztecs also suffered a defeat by the Tarascans near Lake Patzcuaro. In 1481, Tizoc came into power but did not expand the empire during his reign. Instead he focused on suppressing rebellions throughout the empire’s city-states. Under Ahuitzotl, who was elected ruler in 1486, the empire took a bloodier and more ruthless turn. His mass human sacrifice at the Great Pyramid was one of the bloodiest events in the history of Tenochtitlan. His conquests further expanded the empire until 1502, when the empire’s final ruler, Montezuma II, took power.

Montezuma II wanted to ensure the nobility favored him, so he created laws that exaggerated the differences between classes in Aztec society. How people dressed became even more important, so nobles could be easily distinguished from commoners. Court etiquette became more elaborate in order to show the highest levels of respect. The position of huey tlatoani, the Aztec emperor, gained more power, until Montezuma II was essentially a tyrant. His campaigns acquired even more territory for the empire. He also gained bitter enemies, especially in the unconquered people of Tlaxcala. By the time Cortes arrived in 1519, the empire was immense, with a population of approximately 5 to 6 million and covering an area of more than 80,000 square miles (207,200 sq km).6

THE SPANISH CONQUEST

lords met for a ritual dance. While they were gathered, Alvarado massacred the Aztecs involved. The Spanish beheaded the drummer, stabbed others in the back, and also tore off their arms. It was a horrific slaughter.

When Cortes returned with more soldiers, the Aztecs attacked the Spanish and Tlaxcalans in their palace. When the Spanish forced Montezuma to order his soldiers to stop fighting, the Aztecs realized Montezuma was no longer a true ruler since he was now defending the enemy. When Montezuma spoke to his people a second time, the crowd jeered at him and then threw rocks and arrows at the fallen ruler. He suffered injuries and died soon after.

The fighting continued and the Aztecs took positions on the Great Pyramid, which overlooked the palace where the Spanish and Tlaxcalans were quartered. The Spanish rushed into the temple and threw the Aztec statues down the stairways and burned their shrines. The Spanish won that battle but knew they could no longer stay in the city. They escaped at night, battling the Aztecs along the causeways, but eventually did make it back to Tlaxcala. There, the Spanish and Tlaxcala rested and devised a strategy to capture Tenochtitlan.

The Spanish made allies with other Aztec city-states that were tired of submitting to the empire. Cortes convinced the leaders of Texcoco, one of the three main cities in the empire, to join him in the attack against

Tenochtitlan. The Spanish built ships to attack Tenochtitlan by water. Then, in the early summer of 1521, the Spanish and their allies attacked the city from three directions on the lake. The Aztecs fiercely resisted the Spanish and their allies, but the Spanish captured and demolished bridges and buildings, isolating the city and starving its citizens. Disease killed the newly appointed ruler and many Aztecs inside the city. The Spanish captured the city on August 13, 1521.7 The great Aztec Empire had fallen, and the Spanish were in control. In the decades that followed, the Spanish and mixed-blood Aztecs became the nobility and rulers in the land that became known as New Spain.

Montezuma II invited Cortes, his army, and the Tlaxcalans to enter Tenochtitlan so he could watch every move his enemy made. But the Aztec ruler had miscalculated his enemy. The Spanish invaders discovered the ultimate power of the empire rested in Montezuma II. They believed capturing him was the key to the empire’s fall. After Montezuma II was captured, he was taken to the palace where the Spanish and Tlaxcalans were staying. He kept up the appearance he was still ruling the city, but in early 1520 the ruler formally declared the Aztecs were the subjects of Spain.

Cortes demanded to have a Christian place of worship within the city and chose the Great Pyramid, a sacred temple for Aztec religious ceremonies. This public statement angered the Aztec people, who saw their ruler had lost his power. While Cortes was gone on a mission to Veracruz, one of his men— Pedro de Alvarado—was left in charge of the city. A large number of Aztec lords met for a ritual dance. While they were gathered, Alvarado massacred the Aztecs involved. The Spanish beheaded the drummer, stabbed others in the back, and also tore off their arms. It was a horrific slaughter.

When Cortes returned with more soldiers, the Aztecs attacked the Spanish and Tlaxcalans in their palace. When the Spanish forced Montezuma to order his soldiers to stop fighting, the Aztecs realized Montezuma was no longer a true ruler since he was now defending the enemy. When Montezuma spoke to his people a second time, the crowd jeered at him and then threw rocks and arrows at the fallen ruler. He suffered injuries and died soon after.

The fighting continued and the Aztecs took positions on the Great Pyramid, which overlooked the palace where the Spanish and Tlaxcalans were quartered. The Spanish rushed into the temple and threw the Aztec statues down the stairways and burned their shrines. The Spanish won that battle but knew they could no longer stay in the city. They escaped at night, battling the Aztecs along the causeways, but eventually did make it back to Tlaxcala. There, the Spanish and Tlaxcala rested and devised a strategy to capture Tenochtitlan.

The Spanish made allies with other Aztec city-states that were tired of submitting to the empire. Cortes convinced the leaders of Texcoco, one of the three main cities in the empire, to join him in the attack against

Tenochtitlan. The Spanish built ships to attack Tenochtitlan by water. Then, in the early summer of 1521, the Spanish and their allies attacked the city from three directions on the lake. The Aztecs fiercely resisted the Spanish and their allies, but the Spanish captured and demolished bridges and buildings, isolating the city and starving its citizens. Disease killed the newly appointed ruler and many Aztecs inside the city. The Spanish captured the city on August 13, 1521.7 The great Aztec Empire had fallen, and the Spanish were in control. In the decades that followed, the Spanish and mixed-blood Aztecs became the nobility and rulers in the land that became known as New Spain.

Killer Microbes



While Spanish weaponry and military tactics were important in the conquest of the Aztecs, the biggest killers proved to be microbes and disease. When Cortes arrived in 1519, the Mesoamerican population was approximately 22 million. By the end of the century, that population drastically dropped to 2 million. The Spanish brought diseases the native populations had never encountered and did not have natural immunities against, such as smallpox, measles, and mumps. Other evidence suggests ticks or mosquitoes spread fatal viruses, causing several widespread epidemics.

 

 

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