The Glory of the Aztec Empire

On Saturday 25/03/22 (03/25 if you’re from the E.U.A) I presented another talk at the Museum of Western Australia on behalf of the Friends of Mexico Society. (Notes in BOLD have been added to this Post and were not part of my original talk)

This is an outline of my latest presentation at the Western Australian Museum as part of their Boola Bardip program of seminars. Boola bardip is a Whadjuk Noongar (1) term meaning “many stories” and refers to the oral tradition of story telling amongst aboriginal peoples of Australia (see note 1).

  1. the Whadjuk Noongar (also spelled Nyungar/Nyoongar/Nyoongah/Nyungah/Nyugah and Yunga) are an aboriginal people from the South West of Western Australia specific the the Swan River (the Derbal Yerrigan) Region around Perth. Derbal Yerrigan refers to the Swan River estuary, a site of yakan (turtle) dreaming. Yakan is the Noongar word for Long neck turtles.
Yakan Dreaming and creation of Kinjarling Yakamia by the artist Kiya Watt.

Kiya is a proud yorga (woman) belonging to the Wagyl Kaip Ilua Noongar Nation. Her bloodline and Moort (family/extended relations) connects her to Gnudju boodjah (boodja = land) in Esperance and Menang boodjah in Albany located in the South West region of Western Australia. Kiya was raised on Menang boodjah in a small town called Denmark then moved to Kinjarling where her twins son’s, herself and her father were all born. Her cultural ties, creation stories and connections to Kinjarling and her community are heavily reflected throughout her work.(1)

  1. check her out.

An Acknowledgement of Country is a statement showing an awareness of and respect for the traditional custodians of the land you’re on and their long and continuing relationship with the land. In this case we met on traditional Whadjuk Noongar boodja.

The Noongar are an indigenous Australian peoples who live in the south-west corner of Western Australia. There are 14 different Noongar groups (spelling variations notwithstanding) : Amangu, Ballardong, Yued, Kaneang, Koreng, Mineng, Njakinjaki, Njunga, Pibelmen, Pindjarup, Wadandi, Whadjuk, Wiilman and Wudjari. The Noongar people refer to their land as Noongar boodja.

The Glory of The Aztec Empire

4. Who are we? : The Aztecs (or Mexica) are an indigenous people (said to be the last of 7 groups that migrated from Aztlan – the land of the white heron) When are we? : Often described as “ancient Aztecs” the Aztecs are in fact a modern society/civilisation contemporary with our very own. They did not “spring up from nowhere” but were the recipients of 2 and ½ thousand years of culture in Mesoamerica.

One thing I briefly touched on in the talk but didn’t put in my notes was the origin/meaning of the word “Aztec”.

There is some controversy over the term. It has been posited that the word was “invented” by white anthropologists (and sometimes more specifically Alexander von Humboldt) to describe the people of the Valley of México because, at this stage, Western anthropology had no idea what the people called themselves so they helpfully invented the tern Aztec.

The most often espoused meaning is that the people (who I’m referring to as Aztec) were specifically the Culhua Mexica people who were one third of the Aztec Triple Alliance, a group created by the alliance of three city states whose intent was to overthrow a cruel and despotic ruler who held sway over the Valley (in which they were incredibly successful by the way.

Older traditions state that the people were initially called Aztec. They were one of seven groups living in the fabled homeland of Aztlan. Their primary God, Huitzilopochtli (a God of War and the Sun) demanded that they leave Aztlan. They were to drop the name Aztec and were now to be called the Mexica people. They were to travel until they encountered a specific omen (more on this later) at which time they were to put down roots and settle in the new found land.

The cultures that primarily affected the Aztecs were…..

5. The Olmec

6. Teotihuacano : The ruins of the city called Teotihuacan are located in the State of Mexico, 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of modern-day Mexico City : Teotihuacan was the largest city in the Americas, considered as the first advanced civilization on the North American continent, with a population estimated at 125,000 or more. The Toltecs sacked and burned the great city of Teotihuacán about 900 CE.

7. The Toltec. Tollan (“Place of the Reeds”), near the modern town of Tula (in the State of Hidalgo): in the 12th century, the invasion of the nomadic Chichimec destroyed the Toltec dominance of central Mexico. Among the invaders were the Aztecs, or Mexica, who destroyed Tollan about the mid-12th century. : The Mexica tried their very best to link their culture with that of the Toltec (through history and intermarriage) so as to legitimise their own culture and their place in the lands of Anahuac.

Anahuac is a Nahuatl name which means “close to water.” It is generally used to refer to the area known as the “Basin of Mexico” which is really now the area covered by the behemoth that is Mexico City.

  • atl.
    Principal English Translation:
    water; a body of water, such as a lake, river, or ocean; floods, flooding
  • -nahuac.
    Principal English Translation:
    next to, on the side of, near; close to; with, in company of

8. Where are we? : Intro slide – This is Tenochtitlan

9. Etymologically speaking the origin of the name Tenochtitlan is believed (generally) to derive from the Nahuatl tetl (“rock”) and nōchtli (“prickly pear”) and is often thought to mean, “Among the prickly pears [growing among] rocks.” The name is also linked to the (possibly mythological) historical figure Tenoch. The Nahuatl symbols of his name are found in the Mexican flag: Tetl, the rock, and Nochtli, the prickly pear cactus. The other image is the eagle eating the serpent – this was part of the prophetic imagery of the journey of the Mexica where their god Huitzilopochtli said they would know the location of their new home when they saw this omen.

10. The image did not originally have a serpent (in the eagles beak) but the “atl tlachinolli” glyph in the eagles beak. This symbol represented atl – water and tlachinolli (something burned (scorched earth); something burning; a conflagration), a symbolic reference to war. Each element is a source of energy and life-force but can also be one of destruction. Like the paired shrines to (rain god) Tlaloc and (war god) Huitzilopochtli atop the main temple of the Mexica (the Templo Mayor). The metaphor consists of two opposite elements (literally) – water and fire, forming two streams that join together to form one key idea (war).

11. Regardless of the imagery on the flag it has been pointed out to me (by a Mexican) that this flag is something that all Mexicans recognise and can stand behind regardless of their ancestry. Australia has yet to learn this (but Mexico has had 300 more years than Australia to address the issues)

12. Water and War. The two primary Gods of the Mexica were Huitzilopochtli (the God of War) and Tlaloc (the God of Water). Temples to these two gods sat side by side on the most important structure that lay at the heart of the city of Tenochtitlan, the Templo Mayor. Aztec society revolved around these two elemental forces. The Mexica were a bellicose* and belligerent* people and, at first, made little headway migrating into the Valley of Anahuac. This was not to last for long though. They were in constant conflict with the current inhabitants of the valley (attitude problems?) and ended up being relegated an area of salty, rocky, swampy, snake and locust infested land close to the centre of the valley.

  • bellicose – demonstrating aggression and willingness to fight.
  • belligerent – hostile and aggressive.

It occurred to me later (and I did not include it in my talk) but when I think of a bellicose and belligerent attitudes there is one (albeit fictional) people who fit this bill nicely.

Or should it be?

I intend no offense by this comparison; either to the Culhua Mexica people or the Klingon warrior Gowron, son of M’Rel.

13. The Mexica journey (from leaving the caves of chicomoztoc in the fabled Aztlan) to arriving at the place called Chapultepec is said to have taken 200 years.

14. The Valley of Mexico as it looked when the Mexica wandered into it. Tenochtitlan would be founded in Lake Texcoco, one of five lakes in the Valley. The other lakes being (from North to South) Zumpango, Xaltocan, (Texcoco), Xochimilco, Chalco
Atzcapotzalco, also spelled Azcapotzalco, northwestern Federal District, was founded in the 12th century and given the Aztec name meaning “anthill” because of its large population.

15. By 1375 the Mexica had installed their first tlatoani Acamapichtli and the construction of Tenochtitlan was well underway. Acampichtli was a native of Texcoco, his mother was Culhua roylaty, but his father was a Mexica noble. The council, or calpultin, decided to select a ruler with ties throughout the valley to cement the political place of the newly established Tenochtitlan. Acamapichtli was chosen and became the first Tlatoani of Tenochtitlan (This is an important moment. A tlatoani is a legitimate, elected ruler of a specific “city state” (altepetl). This was the first time the Mexica had a legitimate political presence in the Valley. It was the beginning of their rise to ascension). The Mexica were then a minor newcomer in a place with thousands of years of history. At the time (of this map 1420) we are under the rule of the 3rd Tlatoani Chimalpopoca and the Mexica are a force to be reckoned with.

Several of the maps used in my talk were created by Tomás J.Filsinger. Tomás has done some excellent work on mapping the (prehispanic) Basin of Mexico and I highly recommend seeking out his work. Tomás has also created celestial maps that depict the mechanism of the universe and the Aztec concepts of their place, both terrestrial and celestial, within it.

16. In 1427 Itzcoatl, the 4th Tlatoani (and the first Huey Tlatoani – ruler over the whole Aztec empire not just the Mexica), had proven himself to be a fierce warrior and politician and during his reign occurred the Tepanec war which confirmed Mexica ambitions in the Valley of México. Itzcoatl was a notable historic figure who was responsible for throwing off the yoke of Tepanec rule and laying the foundations of the Triple Alliance which eventually created what we now know as the Aztec empire. After successes in conquering and subjugating several neighbouring territories Itzcoatl commissioned the construction of causeways south across the lake to Coyoacan and southwest to Culhuacan on the Itzapalapa peninsula. This created a land route from Tenochtitlan to Xochimilco via Coyoacan. Xochimilco then became a major agricultural supplier for the glowing jewel that was Tenochtitlan. One thing Itzcoatl did was to order the burning of libraries and the rewriting of history so as to cement the legitimacy of the Aztec lineage through this doctored history. Evans, Susan Toby : Ancient Mexico and Central America : “Archaeology and Culture History” 2nd Ed : 2008, Thames and Hudson : ISBN 978-0-500-28740-8
Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel (2007). Handbook to Life in the Aztec World. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-533083-0.

17. Itzcoatl was the bastard son of the first Mexica tlatoani Acamapichtli. It is said that Acamapichtli took a liking to a comely woman selling quilitl in the tianquiztli at Atzcapotzalco. The womans identity ranges from being a peasant, to a woman of “meagre status”, to a captured Tepanec noblewoman who had been sold into slavery. The only reason I bring it up is my love of the variety of herbs called quelites (quilitl). Gingerich, Willard (1988). Three Nahuatl Hymns on the Mother Archetype: An Interpretive Commentary. Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, 4(2), 191–244. doi:10.2307/1051822
Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel (2007). Handbook to Life in the Aztec World. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-533083-0.

18. The Nahua Mexica of Tenochtitlan allied with the Acolhua of Texcoco and the Tepanecas of Tlacōpan to overthrow the current Tepanec ruler Maxtla (son of the despotic tlatoani Tezozomoc who was described as “the most cruel man who ever lived, proud, warlike and domineering”) and establish what would become known as the Aztec Empire. In 1428 (as time was counted in the Christian calendar) Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco, Izcoatl of Tenochtitlan and Totoquihuaztli of Tlacopan took advantage of the death of the Tepanec ruler Tezozomoc. Maxtla had risen to power as tlatoani of the Tepanec by murdering his own brother, and rightful her to the throne, Tayáuh. The participation of Tlacōpan was a strategic necessity as they were Tepanecas and their participation legitimised the overthrow of the territory of Ātzcapozalco on the shores of Lake Texcoco which was the seat of Tepanec rule. The former Tepanec lands were divided among the three leaders and the city of Azcapotzalco was destroyed and turned into a slave market. I wonder if Itzcoatl reminisced about these (now) slave markets being the place where his mother and father first met? Enciclopedia de Los Municipios y Delegaciones de México Distrito Federal. (in Spanish). Mexico: INAFED. 2010. Archived from the original on November 10, 2014.

19. Less than 50 years later circa 1470

20. The Empire expands. Moctezuma I (c. 1398–1469), also known as Moteuczomatzin Ilhuicamina was the 5th Tlatoani of Tenochtitlan. During his reign he set about consolidating the Aztec empire. Major expansion was undertaken, and Tenochtitlan started becoming the dominant partner of the Aztec Triple Alliance. Moctezuma I greatly contributed to the famed Aztec Empire that thrived until Spanish arrival, and he ruled over a period of peace from 1440 to 1453. Moctezuma brought social, economical, and political reform to strengthen Aztec dominion over the Valley. De Rojas, J. L. (2012). Tenochtitlan: Capital of the Aztec Empire. University Press of Florida.
Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, “El que se muestra enojado, el que flecha al cielo” (1440-1469)”. Arqueología Mexicana (in Spanish). 2016-07-05. Retrieved 2018-04-08.

21. Circa 1440A.D. during the reign of Moctezuma I the Mexica worked under the instruction of their ally Nezahualcoyotl the Tlatoani of Texcoco to build a 15km long dyke to separate the saltier waters of Lago Texcoco and the lakes to the north from Tenochtitlan and the fertile freshwaters of Xochimilco and Chalco to the south. This dyke also helped address the frequent flooding of Tenochtitlan from these northern lakes. Torres-Alves, Gina Alexandra; Morales-Nápoles, Oswaldo (2020). Reliability Analysis of Flood Defenses: The Case of the Nezahualcoyotl Dike in the Aztec City of Tenochtitlan. Reliability Engineering & System Safety, (), 107057–. doi:10.1016/j.ress.2020.107057

22. 40 years later – 1510 – less than 10 years before Cortes’ arrival

23.Moctezuma Xocoyotzin was the 9th Tlatoani of the Aztec Empire reigning from 1502 (or 1503) to 1520. The first contact between the indigenous civilizations of Mesoamerica and Europeans took place during his reign, and he was killed during the initial stages of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, when conquistador Hernán Cortés and his men fought to take over the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan.

24. Tenochtitlan at its peak

25. The city was first divided into sovereign sociopolitical units called altepetl (in essence each was its own independent city state) and then into calpullis (neighborhoods). There were 4 main calpullis: Cuepopan (to the northwest), Aztacalco (to the northeast), Moyotla (to the southwest), and Zoquiapan (to the southeast), and to the north the great Tlatelolco (archaeological remains suggest that it was even older than Tenochtitlan). These units were under the authority of a noble chief. The organization was established by a chief, a community leader whose main function was the administration of the land and the registration of the crops, while he made decisions on other issues, with the help of a council of seniors. Each calpulli had its area of arable land (communal land) where everyone shared the crops and the work, it was also a way of generating social cohesion amongst neighbors. Each calpulli also had a school and an open-air market tianguis. The largest and busiest tianquiztli was Tlatelolco, with around 20,000 visitors on a normal day and up to 40,000 attendees on holidays.

26. A further breakdown – an overlay where once this land was riddled with canals and islands

27. London. Tenochtitlan was about four times the size of London at this stage.

28. Madrid

29. This map demonstrates the area of influence of the Triple Alliance at the peak of its power just prior to its subjugation by the Spanish. Note the area close to the centre of the map showing the area controlled by the Tlaxcallans. The area controlled by the fiercely independent Tlaxcallans comprised some 200 semi-autonomous villages united by their hatred of the Mexica. The Aztecs tried repeatedly to conquer and subjugate them but always failed. They were however able to cause much grief to the people of Tlaxcala through trade blockages..

30. The Palace of Montecuhzoma. The Huey Tlatoani is seated at the top of the image, and his supreme judicial council is in the lower right chamber (Codex Mendoza). The Aztec empire was made up of a series of city-states known as altepetl. From Classical Nahuatl āltepētl, from ātl (water) tepētl (hill) – usually translated to “city state”. Each altepetl was ruled by a supreme leader (tlatoani) and a supreme judge and administrator, the Cihuacoatl (Serpent Woman). The tlatoani of the capital city of Tenochtitlan served as the Emperor (Huey Tlatoani) of the Aztec empire. The tlatoani was the ultimate owner of all land in his city-state, received tribute, oversaw markets and temples, led the military, and resolved judicial disputes. The tlatoani were required to be from the noble class and of royal lineage (this is why it was important that the Mexica married into the Culhua line – see the family tree in the image (the princess/female line is only noted as “linaje de colhuacan”). Once a tlatoani was selected, he served his city-state for life. The cihuacoatl was the second in command after the tlatoani, was a member of the nobility, served as the supreme judge for the court system, appointed all lower court judges, and handled the financial affairs of the altepetl. New emperors were elected by a high council of four nobles who were related to the previous ruler. Emperors were usually chosen from among the brothers or sons of the deceased ruler. They were required to be nobles, to be over the age of 30, to have been educated at one of the elite calmecac schools, to be experienced warriors and military leaders, and to be just. Although the emperor had absolute power and was believed to be a representative of the gods, he governed with the assistance of four advisors and one senior advisor who were elected by the nobility.

31. The successes of Hernán Cortés in defeating the Aztecs was greatly boosted by his alliance with two great lords of Tlaxcala, Xicotencatl the Elder and Maxixcatzin. The Tlaxcallans fought alongside the Spanish for two years because Cortés had promised to help rid them of their mortal enemies the Aztecs. It is estimated that at least 250,000 Tlaxcallans were present at the siege of Tenochtitlan. Eventually, the Tlaxcallans saw that the Spanish were a greater threat than the Mexica. Xicohténcatl Axayacatzin (Xicotencatl the Younger) had been wary of the Spanish from the beginning. He did not believe that the Spanish were gods but merely greedy mortals and led several unsuccessful ambush attempts on them before he was reined in by the ruling council. After it became apparent to all the threat the Spanish truly represented, he tried to openly break with them in 1521 and was ordered publicly hanged by Cortés. Today Xicohténcatl Axayacatzin is considered a symbol of resistance against Spanish colonization

32. Tribute : Aztec culture was militaristic. The Mexica had a reputation for being belligerent, which is just a polite way of saying “hostile and aggressive”. Its relations with its neighbours typically revolved around war or the threat of it. The Mexica supported their Empire through trade and tribute. Conquered territories paid yearly tribute and there were harsh penalties for any who dared molest the travelling traders known as pochteca. Education was extremely important for maintaining strong societal structure. Forde, Jamie. (2017). Volcanic Glass and Iron Nails: Networks of Exchange and Material Entanglements at Late Prehispanic and Early Colonial Achiutla, Oaxaca, Mexico. International Journal of Historical Archaeology. 21. 1-27. 10.1007/s10761-016-0368-z.

33. Children of noble birth started their education at a young age, usually between six and thirteen, at a school called a calmecac. The program of this school was rigorous, covering not only combat training from Jaguar Knights and Eagle Warriors, but also the academic study of calendars, math, reading, and writing. Religious education was also a part of the curriculum as religion ties into all aspects of Aztec life. For everyone else in Aztec society, young boys would receive little training at home until they reached the age of fourteen. Then, they would be taken to telpochcalli. This was the military school for the common folk and was run by older military veterans.

34. Girls also attended school in the Aztec Empire but not the same ones as boys. Instead of focusing on warfare and weapons, girls were instructed in housekeeping. They were also be taught the religious traditions and history of the Aztec Empire. For, instance they were instructed to learn the songs and poems of the different religious festivals and ceremonies and learned to dance. These schools were important for developing and fostering the Aztec culture among its people. Aztec children were also instructed early in life about manners and correct behavior. It was important to the Aztecs that children not complain, mock the old or sick, and especially not to interrupt. Punishment for breaking the rules was severe.

35. Cihuateteo : Women were revered for their ability to create life. Women who died during childbirth were afforded the highest honours and like warriors who have died in battle the accompanied the Sun on its daily journey through the sky. These women became cihuateteo (cihuatl “woman” : teteo “gods”)

36. Aztec warriors were the lifeblood of the Aztec society and, despite your social rank there was opportunity for growth and status if you had the skill and bravery. Once trained and proven as warriors, students of both the calmecac and telpochcalli could officially join the military as soldiers. Like all military systems there are prestige systems to raise your way through the ranks, whether it is through time put into service, brave deeds or other valiant actions. The Aztec system was a little different because ones rank was determined by the number of opponents they have captured on the battlefield. Regardless of your status as commoners or nobles the root of progression was similar for all the warrior ranks, capture (without killing) more enemies on the battlefield.
• Tlamani – A commoner who had taken one captive
• Cuextecatl – A warrior who had taken two captives
• Papalotl – A warrior who had taken three captives
• Cuauhtlocelotl – Eagle Jaguar warriors – fearsome warriors who captured four captives
• cuauhchicqueh – Shorn Ones – The uppermost warrior who had captured many enemies and performed many brave acts in battle The ultimate ranking for an Aztec warrior was to be a member of the prestigious ranks of the cuauhchicqueh, the Shorn Ones. The shaved warriors were a warrior society of the Mexican army which was made up of the most seasoned men of all societies and these were characterized by their shaved heads except for the middle, like a Mohican. They were distinguishable by their yellow Tlahuiztli (suit),to be a member of this society, the warrior had to have captured more than 6 captives in the flowery war in addition to demonstrating other feats to obtain the rank. They were shock groups within the army and despite not having been as recognized as the jaguar or eagle warriors, the Cuachicqueh were the first combatants to enter the heat of battle, swearing never to back down on pain of if they backed down they would be killed by hands. of his classmates. With promotion came responsibility, and the hierarchy held separate jobs for high ranking soldiers besides simply being a warrior. Some veteran warriors of above average status would be teachers at the telpochcalli, while even older veterans would put up their weapons and become tacticians. Jaguar warriors and Eagle warriors held a large variety of roles in the temples in Tenochtitlan. Some would act as guards for these temples, while others played a more direct role in religious activities, like during the gladiatorial sacrifices at the Tizoc Stone, where Jaguar warriors would attack an armed captive that was tied to the stone.

37. The tizoc stone

38. Mexica Legal System : They also had various special jurisdiction courts, including commercial courts (which handled marketplace and merchant disputes), family courts, fiscal affairs courts, a military court, and a religious court (which handled cases concerning priests, students, and religious matters). The Aztecs additionally had neighbourhood courts that were similar to modern justices of the peace. The Chief Justice (of the Suprerme Court), or Cihuacoatl, determined the final verdict and his decision could not be appealed to the Emperor or the other judges. If the Cihuacoatl decided that a case was too important for the Court to rule on alone, it was sent to the Emperor, who held court every 12 days and rendered final judgments with the assistance of four elder noblemen. The Emperor retained the ultimate right to intervene in cases or appeals that were of importance to him or to the empire. The judiciary was self-policing, and judicial misconduct was punished by reprimand for the first minor offense. After the third minor offense, a judge would be removed from office and have his head shaved, which was considered a great humiliation among the Aztecs. Major breaches of professional ethics, including bribery, accepting gifts, and colluding with a party to a case, were punishable by death. Under the Aztec legal system, crimes were severely punished. While capital punishment was common, other punishments included restitution, loss of office, destruction of the offender’s home, prison sentences, slavery, and shaving the offender’s head. Numerous offenses were punishable by death, including homicide, perjury, rape, abortion, highway robbery, moving boundary markers, serious defamation of character, destruction of crops, selling stolen property, weight and measure fraud, witchcraft, incest, official graft, pederasty, inciting a public disturbance, sedition, treason, desertion or insubordination by soldiers, use of the emperor’s insignia, and serious judicial misconduct. The Aztecs had a prison system, which included the cuauhcalli (a “death row”), the teilpiloyan (a debtors’ prison), the petlacalli (a prison for individuals who were found guilty of minor crimes), and a fourth type of prison which involved a judge drawing lines or placing sticks on the ground and ordering the prisoner not to cross them. It was possible for victims or families of victims to intervene in the execution of a sentence. If they chose to forgive the perpetrator, his death sentence was removed and he would become a slave of the victim’s family. General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex; Berdan F. F. & Anawalt P. R. (1992). The codex mendoza. University of California Press.

39. Aztec medicine : The Nahuas had schools of medicine where people could study to become various medical specialists.
• Tlamatepetli-Ticitl – Medical Internist
• Texoxotla-Ticitl – Medical Surgeon
• Tezoc-Tezoani – Haematologist
• Tamatqui-Ticitl – Midwife
• Papiani-Panamacani – Herbalist
• Teixpatli – Eye Doctor
• Tlanatonaniztli – Dentist
• Tenacazpati – Ear Doctor

Aztec medicine no longer exists as such but some of its traditions are still practised through the healers known as curanderos (curanderas are female practitioners). This art of Curanderismo has evolved and adapted some Moorish practices as introduced by the Spanish and some African practices introduced via slave imported into the New World. Hippocratic medicine is said to have influenced certain aspects of curanderismo however the “temperate theory of humors” as espoused by Hippocrates already existed in Mesoamerica in its own form. The three most common types of curanderos are the yerbero (herbalist), the partera (midwife), and the sobador (massage/bodyworker)
Like the Aztec medical practitioners curanderos also have specialty practitioners. Some of these include…..
• Brujo, bruja. (Witch) Person who uses coercive spiritual practices to cause harm to another. Any long-lasting, serious illness that does not respond to a medical doctor’s treatments may be attributed to brujería.
• Consejeras: (or Señoras) female counsellors
• Espiritista: (Spirit Medium). Someone who enters into trance to channel a famous healer. El Niño Fidencio, a revered Mexican curandero, has a large following of mediums that channel his spirit called Fidencistas.
• Granicero: Weather Worker. Ritual specialists, who in indigenous tradition manipulate the weather. A granicero sometimes receives their gift after surviving being struck by lightning
• Huesero: Bone-setter, trained in the indigenous methods of adjusting or setting bones and performing spinal alignment. Hueseros, aside from being prehispanic chiropractors, also deal with sprains, strains and fractures as what in modern terms would be called an osteopath.
• Oracionista: A healer who works primarily through the power of prayer.
• Temascalera/o. Sweat-lodge keeper who conducts purification ceremonies.

40. The Spaniards esteemed the medical knowledge of Aztec physicians. Hernando Cortés reportedly told the Spanish monarch that the Aztec physicians were superior to those in Spain, so superior, in fact, that the king need not bother sending Spanish physicians to the New World. Fray Toribio Motolinía thought that the Indian doctors were “so experienced that they have cured many old and serious infirmities which the Spaniards have suffered many days without finding a remedy”.Patricia de Fuentes, ed. and trans, “The Chronicle of the Anonymous Conquistador,” The Conquistadors; First-Person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico, (Normon: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 181.

41. The Aztecs had developed sophisticated anatomical terminologies and had classified the parts of the human body, organizing them into systems. Aztec physicians understood the workings of the heart and circulatory system long before Europeans possessed such knowledge. They were familiar with the details of the internal structure of the heart. Historians generally credit William Harvey, an Englishman who lived between 1578 and 1657, with putting forth the first theory describing the circulatory system. Motolinía quoted in Joie Davidow, Infusions of Healing; A Treasury of Mexican-American Herbal Remedies (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999)

42. The Aztecs however did have the benefit of “live subjects”. In Europe they were still stealing corpses to experiment with.

43. Obsidian scalpels. A nanometre is one billionth of a meter.
Buck BA. Ancient technology in contemporary surgery. West J Med. 1982 Mar;136(3):265-9. PMID: 7046256; PMCID: PMC1273673.

44. Complex surgery was being performed in Mesoamerica at the time of the arrival of the Spanish. The practise of trephination was occurring at the time (and possibly thousands of years before this in Peru). Aztec doctors were aware of the spinal cord and spinal injuries and wrote of warriors with “cripple hands” after receiving trauma to the upper spine. Prognosis was not good for these type of injuries and no treatments were offered.(so they definitely had limitations). Skulls found at Cholula (Puebla) and Monte Alban (Oaxaca) show evidence of healing after having had surgery performed on them.
Canalis, R F et al. “Prehistoric trephination of the frontal sinus.” The Annals of otology, rhinology, and laryngology vol. 90,2 Pt 1 (1981): 186-9. doi:10.1177/000348948109000220
“The Classic Source Book of Orthopaedics: primitive man and ancient practice Edgar M. Bick.” Clinical orthopaedics and related research ,139 (1979): 2-16.
Tiesler, Vera. (2003). Cranial Surgery in Ancient Mesoamerica.
Rodríguez, Zaid Lagunas (1972). “La trepanación suprainiana en cráneos de Cholula, Puebla”. Comunicaciones Proyecto Puebla-Tlaxcala (in Spanish). Puebla, Mexico: Fundación Alemana para la Investigación Científica, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.
Zuccaro, G. The dawn of neurosurgery in pre-conquest Mesoamerican territories. Childs Nerv Syst 33, 1621–1629 (2017).

45. Human hair was used to suture wounds and Aztec physicians were especially skilled in treating battle wounds and setting bones; and unlike their European counterparts, these physicians had an array of narcotic plants that could be used as anaesthetics. The Aztecs had an extensive herbal repertory which the Spanish were keen to take advantage of.

46. One aspect of Aztec society that baffled the Spanish was their personal hygiene. Aztecs bathed regularly. The conquistador Andres de Tapia reported, in a tone of wonder, that Montezuma bathed twice a day. As well as bathing regularly the Aztecs cleaned themselves in sauna-like hot-houses called temazcalli. This emphasis on cleanliness extended past the individual to the city, and Tenochtitlan was the prime example of the emphasis on personal hygiene expanded to much greater scale. The city is said to have had a crew of at least a thousand workers who had the specific job of sweeping and washing every single street of the city on a daily basis. The city’s extensive sewage system removed most wastewater from the city, with the notable exception of human excrement, which was saved and used as fertilizer their chinampas.Becerril, J.E. & Jiménez, Blanca. (2007). Potable water and sanitation in Tenochtitlan: Aztec culture. Water Science & Technology: Water Supply. 7. 10.2166/ws.2007.017

47. Smallpox

48. Tenochtitlan and the CDMX. CDMX – the Ciudad de México (previously called el D.F. – the Distrito Federal)

49. Water in the Valley. A view of Tenochtitlan as Cortes may have seen it when descending into the valley from the mountain range formed by the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl.

50. Mexico Valley looking towards Popo and Itza

51. The waters recede

52. Tenochtitlan – Artists renderings

53. Aztec water management : The transformation of the Basin of Mexico started with the foundation of Tenochtitlan in 1324. Mexico City’s inhabitants have been exposed to insufficient water supply, low water quality, a lack of sanitation services and catastrophic floods since the city was originally built. The Aztecs quickly understood that the survival of their city depended largely on the preservation of the fragile hydrological balance of the surrounding lakes. To gain control over the hydrology of this Basin and mitigate such water threats, authorities at the time decided to build a complex system of drains, dams, dykes and aqueducts.Musset, A. (1992) El agua en el Valle de Me´xico [Water in the Valley of Mexico]. Siglos XVI–XVIII (Mexico City: CEMCA).

54. To preserve the quality of water from the lakes and reduce health risks, city authorities prohibited the disposal of waste into the lakes or the channels that surrounded the city. The transgression of this rule was severely punished. There were public toilets located on the causeways and the human waste was collected and used. Urine was stored and sold. It was used as a mordant for dying cloth and (amongst other things) its medicinal properties. Faeces were collected and used to fertilise the chinampas. Becerril, J.E.; Jiménez, B. (2007). Potable water and sanitation in Tenochtitlan: Aztec culture. Water Science & Technology: Water Supply, 7(1), 147–. doi:10.2166/ws.2007.017

55. They constructed chinampas to cultivate more vegetables and to expand existing land for housing. Due to the abundance of water and sunlight, as well as a temperate climate, the chinampas were highly productive, producing up to four crops a year, and about two-thirds of the food consumed in the city. Tortolero, A. (2000) El agua y su historia [Water and its History] (Mexico City: Siglo XXI).

56. Basic chinampa construction.

57. The causeways were riddled with bridges which could be easily moved and provided impressive defensive measures. These proved to be extremely effective when fighting the Spanish and caused them much grief on La noche victoriosa. The Spanish know this event however as La noche triste (or the sad night/night of sorrows). Stories say that the Spanish lost around 450 men that night and anywhere between 1000 and 4000 Indian allies.

58. These causeways also played a part in the demise of the Mexica. They were the sole source of freshwater to the city as they held the aqueducts that carried water into the city. The Spanish, when laying siege to Tenochtitlan, blockaded them and prevented the city’s inhabitants access to freshwater. Once again water (and war) lay at the heart of survival of the Mexica.

59. The aqueduct bringing freshwater from Chapultepec into the heart of Tenochtitlan (which is now only an hour or so’s stroll) was the primary source of freshwater for the city and it was this that Cortes disabled. Other supplies of water were bought in by canoe but this too was disrupted by Cortes’ makeshift navy. Cortes constructed 13 brigantines and used these to dominate the waters of Lago Texcoco.

60. Image : the lakes and overlays of modern construction

61. Image : the lakes and overlays of modern construction

62. Image : the lakes and overlays of modern construction

63. Xochimilco and the remnants of Tenochtitlán’s aquatic heritage

64. Xochimilco satellite image.

65. Xochimilco Google Earth image. There are around 170 kilometres of canals in Xochimilco today

66. Xochimilco Google Earth image

67. Xochimilco Google Earth image

68. Xochimilco Google Earth image

69. Xochimilco Google Earth image

70. Uncontrolled urban sprawl and pollution was endangering the health of Xochimilcos aquatic waterways. The axolotol native to this area was in danger of extinction. Over the last decade or so environmental actions have been taken which have largely reduced these impacts and the glory of Xochimilco is being restored.

71. Image : Xochimilco. There is much beauty to be had in Xochimilco. It is a popular weekend escape for denizens of the city

72. Image : Xochimilco

After my talk the Mexican Folkloric dance troupe Ixtzul performed several dances from the state of Jalisco.

Ernesto, the leader of Ixtul, explained some of the history of Jalisco and the stories behind the dances performed.

A note on reference texts used

The Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca is a 16th-century (sometime between 1547 and 1560) Nahuatl-language manuscript, dealing with the history of Cuauhtinchan. It is currently located in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris.

Codex Mendoza. The Codex was created by indigenous painters in the mid-16th century, probably at the behest of the first Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza. It recalls and documents imperial tribute lists, royal history, and practices of daily life among the pre-Hispanic Aztec.

Codex Boturini, also known as the Tira de la Peregrinación de los Mexica (Tale of the Mexica Migration), is an Aztec codex, which depicts the migration of the Azteca, later Mexica, people from Aztlán. Its date of manufacture is unknown, but likely to have occurred before or just after the Conquest of the Aztec Empire.

Written between 1540 and 1585, the Florentine Codex (so named because the manuscript has been part of the Laurentian Library’s collections since at least 1791) The Florentine Codex is divided by subject area into twelve books and includes over 2,000 illustrations drawn by Nahua artists in the sixteenth century.

  • Book I: The Gods
  • Book II: The Ceremonies
  • Book III: The Origin of the Gods
  • Book IV: The Soothsayers
  • Book V: The Omens
  • Book VI: Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy
  • Book VII: The Sun, Moon, and Stars, and the Binding of the Years
  • Book VIII: Kings and Lords
  • Book IX: The Merchants
  • Book X: The People
  • Book XI: Earthly Things
  • Book XII: The Conquest

The Badianus Manuscript : (Codex Barberini, Latin 241) Vatican Library; an Aztec Herbal of 1552 by Martín de la Cruz and Juan Badiano. The Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis is an Aztec herbal manuscript, describing the medicinal properties of various plants used by the Aztecs. It is the earliest known treatise on Mexican medicinal plants and native remedies.

The Codex Magliabechiano is an illustrated cultural encyclopedia of indigenous culture created in Mexico probably at some time between 1529 and 1553 for a European audience. One of its artists was especially well versed in traditional Mesoamerican painting techniques, providing a link to the preconquest visual art tradition. The manuscript boasts 107 pages of pictures interspersed with Spanish-language texts. Among the topics addressed in text and image are religious rites, deities, native dress, and cosmological beliefs. The Codex Magliabechiano is especially valued as the most faithful surviving witness to an earlier illustrated manuscript of similar content that also informed the creation of the Codex Tudela and the Codex Ixlilxochitl, as well as other manuscript and print studies of Mesoamerican culture—known as the Magliabechiano Group.


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