1491 | The Aztecs

I’m really excited about this section for two reasons: 1. I feel bad that the Americas are ignored for the first few eras of history. And 2. I studied Latin American history and the Aztecs in school and so I can’t wait to finally put my degree to use – take that dad!  

(Listen to the entire episode here!)

The Pre-columbian Americas

Civilizations in the Americas developed slightly differently than civilizations in Eurasia. First, they lacked two key factors in Eurasian development: river valleys and diverse domesticated animals. Sure, they have llamas and alpacas but that’s it – no horses, no oxen, nothing else.

Also, like I mentioned in an earlier episode, since they are oriented along a north-south axis, their civilizations are more isolated from each other. It’s more difficult for people to go from Canada to central Mexico and into Peru.

And for a long time, we thought that didn’t happen. But just recently archaeologists have discovered evidence that people did just that. We’ve found ancient macaw feathers from South America in the American Southwest and turquoise from modern-day Arizona in Peru. But since they didn’t have pack animals across those regions, that meant that the majority of that trading happened on the backs of people. Which makes it slower and more rare than Silk Road trade, for example, but also way more impressive.

Anyway, by the 1300s two important American civilizations had risen that we need to know about. In modern-day Mexico, there were the Aztecs and in Peru there were the Inca. Today, I’m going to talk just about the Aztecs because I love them. Also, I’m planning a whole special episode on the Inca after I finish Season 1 because I’m taking a group of 12 teenagers to Peru in June! I know, how brave of me. So come back after Season 1 and check that episode out! But for today, let’s go to Mexico.

origins of the Aztecs

Mexico was populated by a variety of tribes and civilizations for millennia. While ancient Egypt was thriving, the Olmec were carving massive stone head statues. While Islam was rising the city of Teotihuacan was thriving in central Mexico and the Mayans were building pyramids like Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. And while Charlemagne’s empire was breaking apart into the various European kingdoms, the Toltecs dominated the region.

Supposedly, a nomadic group of warriors known as the Mexica wandered down from the north. OK – I’m going to be a little snooty here but the actual name for this group is the Mexica. But everyone now knows them as the Aztecs because that’s what others referred to them as (meaning, from Aztlan – a region in the north). So to simplify things, I’m going to call them the Aztecs even though it hurts my little Latin American Studies heart.

The Aztecs | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog Source: By Alex Covarrubias (Coat of arms of Mexico.svg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Seal of the Government of Mexico (an eagle perched on a cactus eating a snake) Source: By Alex Covarrubias (Coat of arms of Mexico.svg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Aztecs rose to prominence as mercenary soldiers, fighting for other more powerful civilizations. Soon their reputation preceded them and when they tried to find a place to settle, other groups – fearful of having fierce warriors as their next door neighbors – kicked them out of all the good land.

According to legend, the Aztecs wandered central Mexico until they came upon a lake with a small island in the middle. There they saw an eagle eating a snake perched on top of a cactus. They took this as a sign from the gods that this would be their new home and the future flag of Mexico. Well, I don’t think they knew that part but it’s what happened.


The Aztecs | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog Source: By Jan Karel Donatus Van Beecq (1638-1722) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Drawing of Tenochtitlan By Jan Karel Donatus Van Beecq (1638-1722)
Now, this wasn’t an ideal place to build a city. And by that I mean it’s probably the worst place to have to build your city. But the Aztecs proved to be incredible engineers. They drained parts of the lake and built up the land in the middle of it to create the city of Tenochtitlan. Basically the entire city was surrounded by the rest of the lake and huge causeways were built so that there were three main roads into the city. To build these, people had to dive down to the bottom of the lake, dig massive holes, and insert huge wooden supports – all without modern technology and while holding their breath. It’s crazy.

They also built my favorite agricultural innovation – the chinampa. Chinampas were essentially floating gardens of earth on top of the lake where the Aztecs could grow what they needed just outside their doors. They would basically make underwater fences where they could intertwine reeds to create these artificial islands. Small boats would weave in between the gardens to tend to the plants. Basically, the Aztecs took an unlivable swamp and turned it into a thriving city of 5 million people – the same size as Paris and Naples at the time.

The Aztec empire

But the Aztecs weren’t content to just live in their swamp-island-city, they were conquerors. Through a series of conflicts, the Aztecs and their allies came to control most of central Mexico. Other groups were forced to pay tribute to the Aztecs in the form of goods and people. This system is very similar to one that was going on in China just a few hundred years earlier. The Tang dynasty had subjugated surrounding areas like Korea and Vietnam and forced them to pay tribute as well.

I mentioned that part of the tribute system was to give people to the Aztecs. And now we get to the part of Aztec history that most people, especially teenagers, like to fixate on – ignoring all of their other incredible advancements – yeah, I know. They practiced human sacrifice.

human sacrifice in world history

OK – just to be clear, I, Emily Glankler, do not endorse human sacrifice. But, hear me out, it’s important to understand the historical context of human sacrifice. This practice was really common in prehistory – basically the paleolithic era. We’ve found evidence of human sacrifice in prehistoric villages in modern-day England all the way through Africa and Asia.

In Japan, there are legends of a “human pillar” where they would consecrate a new building by burying a young woman alive to protect the building against disasters or enemy attacks. Homer’s Greek epics mention King Agamemnon sacrificing his own daughter to appease the gods. Even in the Bible, God supposedly asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, but at the last minute he stopped him and revealed that it was a test.

The Aztecs | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog Source: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Aztec ritual human sacrifice portrayed in the Codex Magliabechiano, 16th century
But, the Aztecs did commit human sacrifice on a scale rarely seen in world history. When they reconsecrated the main temple in Tenochtitlan, reports tell us that they sacrificed about 80,000 people over four days. They had a yearly calendar of religious festivals, many of which included specific types of human sacrifice. On some days, young virgins were to be killed whereas other ceremonies called for prisoners of war.

The Aztecs | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog Source: By Luidger [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons
A jaguar-shaped cuauhxicalli in the National Museum of Anthropology. This altar-like stone vessel was used to hold the hearts of sacrificial victims.
During some, they would tear out the heart while the person was still alive and documents talk about rivers of blood flowing down the steps of the temple. So… yeah. Pretty bad.

Aztec belief system

But, context is still important. The Aztecs didn’t commit  human sacrifice because they were just bloodthirsty – or cannibals as some historians have irresponsibly implied. It goes back to their belief system. The Aztecs worshipped a main sun god named, Huitzilopochtli. Dibs baby name! Side note: I was shocked because Microsoft Word recognizes the name Huitzilopochtli. When I typed it out it doesn’t give me that red underline, which I consider a huge win for global historical understanding. Good job Microsoft, for knowing your Aztec gods! Anyway.

The Aztecs | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog Source: {{PD-1923}} Wikimedia Commons
Depiction of a tzompantli (“skull rack”), associated with the depiction of Aztec temple dedicated to the deity Huitzilopochtli. From the 1587 Aztec manuscript, the Codex Tovar.

The Aztecs believed that this god’s job was to lift the sun up into the sky every day and allow life to continue. And apparently the sun is pretty heavy, so with all that lifting he needs extra strength. So human sacrifice and blood was basically like Huitzilopochtli’s protein shake each morning before he goes and deadlifts the sun for all humanity.

surviving sources

Also, it’s important that we understand that almost all of what we know about the Aztecs was written after they were conquered by the Spanish. This is a theme we should be noticing – a lot of the “bad guys” of history – Shi Huangdi, the Mongols, the Aztecs – are just the ones who didn’t get to tell their side of the story. Most Aztec writing was destroyed during the Conquest and we do have sources written by young Aztec men – but they were under the watchful eye of Christian monks who wanted to make sure they proved how “uncivilized” the Aztecs were before they got there.

Also, these young men had just experienced an insanely traumatic event – the only decent analogy would be a full-scale alien invasion of planet earth. That’s what it felt like from their perspective. And so a lot of their writings are trying to re-examine the Aztec way of life to figure out what they did wrong to have this happen to them. It doesn’t make what they wrote untrue, but it does give most of their writings a more negative tone than is probably fair.

The Quetzalcoatl myth

The best example of this conundrum is also one of my favorite mysteries in world history. I love it so much I wrote my graduate thesis on it.

The Aztecs | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog Source: By Eddo [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Quetzalcoatl By Eddo [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
So, the traditional textbook story goes like this: before the Aztecs rose to power, there was a Toltec king named Topiltzin who tried to stop the practice of human sacrifice. He was cast out of the tribe, came across the Toltec god Quetzalcoatl (a feathered serpent), and they merged somehow? Anyway, they come back to the Toltec tribe and vow to return one day for good to reassert their power over the people of central Mexico, at which point they sail off into the east and are never heard from again.


Fast forward to 1519. Hernan Cortes lands on the beach of Mexico where there are Aztec spies who have been camped out for days checking out the “mountains on the sea” – that’s how they described the Spanish ships. When Cortes and his men land on the beach they are wearing steel armor that gleams in the sunlight and are riding horses – animals the Aztecs have never seen.

First, let’s pause and think about how terrifying that would be. The spies report back to the last Aztec emperor, Montezuma, who believes that the legend had come true and the god Quetzalcoatl had finally returned to take control of the region again. He gives up, invites Cortes in, believing him to be a god, and that’s his downfall.

So it’s not crazy to think that they might have at first been at the very least incredibly scared or confused by these white dudes showing up with guns, steel, and horses. And the fact that disease swept through the empire even before they showed up would not have looked good to the relatively superstitious people of the empire.

And for a long time, this version that Montezuma believed Cortes to be a god was the go-to story and it played right into the idea that the Aztecs were dumb, backwards, and deserved to be conquered. For instance, the quintessential book about the conquest of Mexico was written by American William H. Prescott in 1843, during the era of Manifest Destiny and on the eve of the Mexican-American War.

People in the U.S. especially were glad to learn any story that made non-white Americans seem “less than” them because it made them feel slightly more justified in, oh, I don’t know, conquering their land and/or enslaving them?

A reevaluation of montezuma

But more recently, historians – like myself, not-so-humble brag – have reevaluated the story and come to see Montezuma in a very different light. After doing a lot of research, here’s my version of the story:

Montezuma clearly recognized that Cortes was something different. Maybe Cortes was the descendant of Quetzalcoatl who had gone away for a while, started a new line of rulers in the east, and this guy was the final result. But, the Aztec emperors also believed themselves to be descended from the Toltec gods as well and so he might have believed Cortes to be essentially his long-lost cousin, part-god like himself.

This explains why he was somewhat fearful but also respectful of Cortes. He sent emissaries out to greet him with gold and women. And he watched as Cortes marched through Mexico toward Tenochtitlan and eventually invited him in – it’s only polite when you have a semi-divine being in your neighborhood.

But Montezuma was not dumb. The problem was just that he didn’t understand the true intentions of Cortes. Montezuma approached this interaction as a diplomat. But Cortes was a conqueror. Montezuma made tons of efforts to establish peace and negotiate with the Spanish, but they didn’t want that – and they had enemy tribes of the Aztecs and guns to back them up. So the Aztecs gambled on diplomacy, invited the Spanish in, and lost.