Aztec Archaeology and Ethnohistory

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Aztec Archaeology and Ethnohistory

Table of contents :
Series information
Title page
Copyright information
Table of contents
List of figures
List of tables
List of cases
A Word about Terminologies
Nahuatl Pronunciation Guide
Part 1 Setting the Stage
Chapter 1 Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World
Discovering and Uncovering the Aztec World
Pictorial Codices and Other Historical Documents
Pictorial Codices
Spanish Documents
Nahuatl Documents
Assessing the Documentary Record
Physical Remains: Architecture and Artifacts
The Fate of Material Objects
Assessing the Remains
Human Remains
The Value of Ethnography
Interpreting the Aztec World
Diversity and Variation
Dynamics and Causality
Chapter 2 The Aztecs as Mesoamericans
Mesoamerica: A Matter of Perspective
Aztec Precedents
The Merging of Chichimec and Toltec: The Aztecs in Mesoamerica
Challenges, Innovations, and Mexica Responses
The Role of Ethnicity
Part 2 Aztec Society and Culture
Chapter 3 Living on the Land
Environmental Features of the Aztec World
The Basin of Mexico
The Central Mexico Plateaus
The Broader Imperial Domain
Beyond the Empire
Sorting Out the Numbers
Urban and Rural
The Acquisition of Food and Other Necessities
Provisioning an Aztec Household
Commoner Houses
Elite Houses or Palaces
Food, Drink, and Clothing
Agricultural Techniques and Technology
Irrigation and Drained Fields
Household Gardens
Additional Strategies
The Farmer and his Tools
Nonagricultural Food Resources
Chapter 4 Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade
Craft Specialization
Diversity of Production
Strategies and Decisions in Craft Production
Organization and Context
The Production Process
Commercial Exchange
Travel and Transport
Markets, Marketplaces, and Market Systems
Types and Scales of Marketplaces
Marketplace Rules
Barter and Money
Markets: Some General Assertions
Professional Merchants: Economic Goals and Political Connections
Regional Merchants
Long-Distance Merchants
Specialization and Trade in Aztec Imperial Expansion
Luxury Artisans
Pochteca and Oztomeca
Intra-Empire Professional Merchants
Economy and Polity
Chapter 5 City-States and Imperial Rule
Political Organizations: From Altepetl to Empire
The Altepetl, or City-State
Conquest States and Confederacies
The Aztec Triple Alliance
Political Actors: Rulers and Emperors
Rulers and Rulerships
Duties and Expectations
The Establishment and Maintenance of Legitimacy and Power
Choosing a Legitimate Ruler
Legitimacy and the Bases of Power
Practical: Control over Land and Labor
Control over Symbols: Wealth and Display
Control over the Sacred World
Exercising Power
Political Dynamics: Building an Empire
Warfare and Conquest
Goals of Warfare and Expansion
Justifying, Mobilizing, and Financing Wars
Tribute and Imperial Finance
Imperial and Provincial Strategies
The Perspective of the Empire
Imperial Strategies
The Idea of Provinces
The Perspective of the Conquered
Chapter 6 Living as an Aztec
Nobles and Commoners: Restrictions and Opportunities
Statuses Ascribed by Birth
Intermediate Positions and Achievement in Aztec Society
Family and Daily Life
Family Formation and Roles
Kinship Rules
Marriage Rules and Household Dynamics
Life Cycle and Education: The Dynamics of Age
Birth and Naming
Childhood and Education
Adulthood: Men and Women in Complementary Roles
Life, Death, and the Afterlife
Crime and Punishment
Chapter 7 Religion, Science, and the Arts
Calendrics and Fate
Dynamics and Structure of the Cosmic World
Deities and Their Earthly Retinues
The Idea of Divinity
The Deities
Priests and Priestesses
Gods and Humans: Rituals and Ceremonies
Adorned Images and Sacred Bundles
Public Ceremonies and Offerings
Ritual Human Sacrifice and Cannibalism
Domestic Rituals and More Offerings
Divination, Magic, and Curing
Medicine as Empirical and Applied Science
Arts in the Service of Religion and the State
Books and Writing
Oral Expression and Philosophy
Monumental Sculpture
Chapter 8 The Aztec World
Emblems of Prestige and Wealth: Aztec Warrior Regalia as Inalienable Wealth
Symbolic and Historic Repositories
Symbolic and Practical Obligations between Donor and Receiver, Encouraging Heterogeneity and Legitimating Authority and Identities
Maintaining Connections with the Identity of the Original Owner
The Matter of Heritability and Transferability
Absolute versus Commercial Value
Warrior Regalia Embedded in the Aztec Economic, Social, Political, and Symbolic World
A World System
The Nature of Cores and Peripheries
The Mutual Relations among Cores and Peripheries
The Significance of Luxuries
The Defining and Dynamic Roles of Trade and Markets
A Culture under Duress: Aztec Responses to Spanish Pressure
What Happened to the Aztec Empire?
What Happened to the Aztec Elite?
What the Commoners Did
Old and New Material Things
Old and New Ways of Thinking, Believing, and Communicating
Cultural Resilience
Chapter 1. Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World
Chapter 2. The Aztecs as Mesoamericans
Chapter 3. Living on the Land
Chapter 4. Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade
Chapter 5. City-States and Imperial Rule
Chapter 6. Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life
Chapter 7. Religion, Science, and the Arts
Chapter 8. The Aztec World: An Integrated View

Citation preview

Aztec Archaeology and Ethnohistory

This book provides an up-to-date synthesis of Aztec culture, applying interdisciplinary approaches (archaeology, ethnohistory, and ethnog­ raphy) to the reconstruction of a complex and enigmatic civilization. Frances F. Berdan offers a balanced assessment of complementary and sometimes contradictory sources in unraveling this ancient way of life. The book provides a cohesive view of the Aztecs and their empire, emphasizing the diversity and complexity of social, economic, political, and religious roles played by the many kinds of people we call “Aztecs.” Concluding with three integrative case studies, the book examines the stresses, dynamics, and anchors of Aztec culture and society. Frances F. Berdan is Professor Emerita of the Department of Anthropology at California State University, San Bernardino. She won the Outstanding Professor Award for the California State University system in 1982–1983. She is author or editor of twelve books, including The Aztecs of Central Mexico (2005, 2d ed.), The Codex Mendoza (1992, co-authored), Aztec Imperial Strategies (1996, co-authored), and The Postclassic Mesoamerican World (2003, co-edited). Her articles have been published in Scientific American, American Antiquity, Latin American Antiquity, Ancient Mesoamerica, and Arqueología Mexicana.

Cambridge World Archaeology Series Editor

norman yoffee, University of Michigan Editorial Board

susan alcock, Brown University tom dillehay, Vanderbilt University tim pauketat, University of Illinois stephen shennan, University College London carla sinopoli, University of Michigan david wengrow, University College London The Cambridge World Archaeology series is addressed to students and professional archaeologists, and to academics in related disciplines. Most volumes present a survey of the archaeology of a region of the world, providing an up-to-date account of research and integrating recent findings with new concerns of interpretation. While the focus is on a specific region, broader cultural trends are discussed and the implications of regional findings for cross-cultural interpretations considered. The authors also bring anthropological and historical expertise to bear on archaeological problems and show how both new data and changing intellectual trends in archaeology shape inferences about the past. More recently, the series has expanded to include thematic volumes. Recent Books

in the Series koji mizoguchi, The Archaeology of Japan mike smith, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts a. bernard knapp, The Archaeology of Cyprus li liu and xingcan chen, The Archaeology of China stephen d. houston and takeshi inomata, The Classic Maya philip l. kohl, The Making of Bronze Age Eurasia lawrence barham and peter mitchell, The First Africans robin dennell, The Palaeolithic Settlement of Asia christopher pool, Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica samuel m. wilson, The Archaeology of the Caribbean richard bradley, The Prehistory of Britain ludmila koryakova and andrej epimakhov, The Urals and Western Siberia in the Bronze and Iron Ages david wengrow, The Archaeology of Early Egypt paul rainbird, The Archaeology of Micronesia peter m. m. g. akkermans and glenn m. schwartz, The Archaeology of Syria timothy insoll, The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa

C am b r i d g e W o r l d A r c h a e o l o g y

Aztec Archaeology and Ethnohistory Frances F. Berdan California State University, San Bernardino

32 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10013-2473, USA Cambridge University Press is part of the University of Cambridge. It furthers the University’s mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence. Information on this title: © Frances F. Berdan 2014 This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press. First published 2014 Printed in the United States of America A catalog record for this publication is available from the British Library. Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication data Berdan, Frances. Aztec archaeology and ethnohistory / Frances F. Berdan.   pages  cm. – (Cambridge world archaeology) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-521-88127-2 (hardback) 1.  Aztecs – Historiography.  2.  Aztecs – Social life and customs.  3.  Aztecs – Antiquities.  4. Ethnohistory – Mexico.  5. Mexico – Antiquities. I. Title. F1219.73.B463  2013 972′.01–dc23    2013027230 ISBN ISBN

978-0-521-88127-2 Hardback 978-0-521-70756-5 Paperback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party Internet Web sites referred to in this publication and does not guarantee that any content on such Web sites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.

C o n t e n t s

List of Figures  ..................................................................  page viii List of Tables  ............................................................................  xi List of Cases  ...........................................................................   xii Acknowledgments  ....................................................................   xiii A Word about Terminologies  .......................................................   xvii Nahuatl Pronunciation Guide  .....................................................   xix PART I. SETTING THE STAGE


Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World  ...............................................................   3


The Aztecs as Mesoamericans  ..........................................  31



Living on the Land  . .......................................................   49


Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade  ......................   89


City-States and Imperial Rule  ........................................   135


Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life  ...............  176


Religion, Science, and the Arts  . .....................................   215


The Aztec World: An Integrated View  ............................  259

Glossary  ...............................................................................  295 Notes  ...................................................................................  297 References  . ............................................................................   313 Index...................................................................................    335



1.1 Regions of Mesoamerica: Postclassic period 1.2 Aztec-period Basin of Mexico city-states mentioned in Chapter 1 1.3 Existing steps of the final two stages of Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor C1.1 The founding of Tenochtitlan as depicted in the Codex Mendoza 1.4 A phonetic glyph, tzintli, identifying a feather prepared for an elaborate mosaic by a skilled featherworker 1.5 Schematic layout of Tenochtitlan’s ceremonial precinct 1.6 Vessels for drinking pulque and cacao 1.7 Golden eagle bones and decorated knives in offering 125, Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor precinct C1.2 The renowned Aztec Calendar (or Sun) Stone 1.8 Bark beater currently in use in San Pablito, Puebla, Mexico C1.3 A twentieth-century Nahua woman weaving on a backstrap loom in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Mexico 2.1 Map of the boundaries of Mesoamerica 2.2 Classic-period Teotihuacan 2.3 The Teochichimeca 2.4 Sculptural reliefs from (a) Tula and (b) Tenochtitlan 2.5 Totonaca from the eastern Aztec Empire 3.1 Mesoamerican topography C3.1 A central Mexican landscape 3.2 Map of the Basin of Mexico in 1519 3.3 A stair-step schematic of the central Mexican plateaus 3.4 A hilly landscape of eastern Mexico 3.5 (a) An Aztec-period commoner house excavated at Capilco, Morelos; (b) a twentieth-century peasant house in central Mexico 3.6 Icnocalli: a humble or poor commoner’s house 3.7 (a) A molcaxitl (molcajete) for grinding up chiles and other foods; (b) a tripod serving dish 3.8 Generalized layout of a noble’s palace with large central courtyard and royal dais 3.9 Decorated spindle whorls viii

page 5 6 7 8 11 14 17 17 18 22 24 32 35 37 40 45 50 51 53 57 58 64 65 66 67 68

Figures 3.10 (a) Small bowl for steadying a lively spindle; (b) a young wife spinning, using spinning bowl; (c) a woman today spinning brown cotton73 C3.3 The Chapultepec aqueduct 78 4.1 Tribute sources of precious materials 91 C4.1 (a) Finely crafted turquoise mosaic disk; (b) detail 93 4.2 (a) Pottery molds with figures; (b) pottery stamp 95 4.3 Black on orange pitcher 96 4.4 Map of notable craft communities in the Basin of Mexico 97 4.5 A father teaching his son the fine art of lapidary work 98 C4.2 Coyote-designed shield crafted of feathers and gold 100 4.6 (a) Softening the bark for making amate (amatl) paper today in San Pablito, Mexico; (b) a girl embroidering in San Pablito 105 4.7 A cloak designed Ocuilteca style 106 4.8 A Cuextecatl (Huaxteca-style) warrior costume 107 4.9 Maguey (agave) plant 112 4.10 (a) Map of documented sixteenth-century weekly markets in the Basin of Mexico; (b) a twentieth-century Nahua woman selling her produce in a Mexican marketplace 119 4.11 (a) Cacao pod with beans; (b) large cotton capes, or quachtli; (c) copper axe money 124 4.12 Map of imperial and international trading centers 129 4.13 Map showing pochteca presence in the Basin of Mexico 132 5.1 Basin of Mexico ethnic groups 139 5.2 Royal genealogy of the Mexica of Tenochtitlan 145 5.3 Twelve conquests of Axayacatl as depicted in the Codex Mendoza 157 5.4 Imperial tribute from the rich province of Tepequacuilco 162 C5.3 Imperial tribute from the Gulf coast province of Tochpan 167 5.5 Map of the Aztec Empire in 1519, with tributary and strategic provinces 172 6.1 Lords with exalted titles and insignia 181 6.2 Commoners receiving orders for corvée labor 182 6.3 A wealthy deceased merchant wrapped in cloth and expensive adornments, accompanied by his precious feathers, stones, gold, and a jaguar pelt 187 6.4 Mexica kinship terminology: consanguines 192 6.5 The elder brother favored over the younger 195 6.6 Mexica kinship terminology: affines 196 6.7 Childhood punishments and tasks, ages 11–14 201 6.8 A young couple tying the knot in marriage 204 6.9 Judges meting out punishments to offenders 213 7.1 A priestly astronomer 218 7.2 A recently excavated monolith of the earth deity Tlaltecuhtli, unearthed near the Templo Mayor in Mexico City 231 7.3 Tlaloc, god of rain 232 7.4 Macuilxochitl presiding over the game of patolli 233 7.5 (a) A priest offering incense; (b) a ceramic censor 236



x 7.6 A whistle or flute 7.7 A human heart sacrifice 7.8 Doctoring a head wound 7.9 Herbal medicines for sale in a twentieth-century Mexican marketplace 7.10 Aztec glyphs: (a) cave, (b) palace, (c) deer’s foot, (d) the name Atonal C7.3 Glyphic versions of the name Moquihuix C8.1 Rewards in cloaks and military devices earned by courageous warriors C8.2 Maps of world systems commodities and their movements 8.1 (a) An indigenous tailor wearing a cape over Spanish clothes in colonial times; (b) a modern Nahua woman sewing trousers for her husband 8.2 A native warrior wielding a Spanish sword during the war of conquest 8.3 A modern Nahua woman weaving wool on a backstrap loom 8.4 Modern paper image of the native maize god Chicomexochitl (Seven Flower)

239 240 247 250 253 254 261 273–5

284 287 288 291

Tab l e s

2.1 Chronology of Central Mexico and the Basin of Mexico 6.1 Aztec Social Class Structure 7.1 The 260-Day Ritual Calendar 7.2 Cosmic Principles in the Aztec Worldview 7.3 Tenochtitlan Sequence of the Five Ages, or “Suns” 7.4 Ceremonies of the Monthly Calendar

page 34 185 217 220 224 226


Ca s e s

1.1 How It Survived 1: The Codex Mendoza 1.2 How It Survived 2: The Aztec Calendar Stone 1.3 How It Survived 3: The Backstrap Loom 2.1 The Aztec Migrations: Prelude to Tenochtitlan 2.2 Mexica Development Strategies: Prelude to Empire 3.1 Geographical Zones in the Aztec World 3.2 Famines, Frosts, and Floods: Aztec-Period Disasters in the Basin of Mexico 3.3 An Engineering Marvel: The Chapultepec Aqueduct 3.4 Thinking Like an Aztec 1: The Natural World 4.1 Thinking Like an Aztec 2: The Luxury Artisan 4.2 Making a Fancy Feather Object 4.3 The Value of Things 1: Some Subsistence Goods 5.1 Imperial Personalities 5.2 How to Move a Rock (Imperial Style) 5.3 Imperial Tribute Payments: The Province of Tochpan 6.1 Behaving Like a Proper Noble or Commoner 6.2 A Merchant’s Feast 6.3 After the Wedding, Then What? 6.4 The Exemplary Life 7.1 The Creation of the Fifth Sun, According to the Florentine Codex 7.2 Medical Issues and Cures: A Sampler 7.3 How to Write a Ruler’s Name: Moquihuix of Tlatelolco 8.1 The Value of Things 2: Rewards for Warriors 8.2 Foreign Goods and What They Tell Us 8.3 Desperate Rivals and the Fate of a World


page 8 18 24 38 40 51 54 78 84 92 100 126 142 149 166 178 188 197 202 221 248 254 262 273 278

Ac k n ow l e d g m e n t s

I consider it a great privilege to acknowledge the generous and kind support and guidance I have received from numerous colleagues and friends in developing this book. In the most general sense, I cannot imagine having arrived at the point where I could write the book without the intellectual heritage of my long-term colleagues who have made outstanding and lasting contributions to the field of Aztec studies, and who have supported me from the earliest days of my career, who have worked with me, and whom I count as friends. These include, most notably, Warwick Bray, James Lockhart, Alfredo López Austin, Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, and the late Arthur J. O. Anderson and H. B. Nicholson. Their influence can be seen throughout this book. Over the years and during the writing of this book, I have benefited immensely from stimulating discussions with many esteemed colleagues and friends with whom I have worked closely, collaborating with several of them on specific projects. These colleagues especially include Richard Blanton, Elizabeth Boone, John Chance, Laura Filloy, Janine Gasco, Kenneth Hirth, Mary Hodge, James Lockhart, Leonardo López Luján, Justyna Olko, Alan Sandstrom, Sue Scott, Michael E. Smith, Barbara Stark, James Taggart, Karl Taube, and Emily Umberger. My interaction with these generous and thoughtful scholars has been most pleasurable and productive.Their impact on this book goes well beyond the formal citations and references. Ethnographic work in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Mexico, with Patricia Anawalt was supported by grants from the National Geographic Society; this research yielded many insights into Nahua culture in its present-day manifestation. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Norman Yoffee: he suggested I write this book, encouraged me as I plodded along, and was patient when I took too long to finish it. Simply put, the book would not “be” without Norm. I am also grateful to Kenneth Hirth and an anonymous reviewer for their incisive and valuable comments on the manuscript, and to Karl Taube and other anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful and useful evaluations of the project’s proposal. xiii


Acknowledgments Over many years numerous scholars have invited me to deliver papers at professional meetings and research conferences, thus offering me opportunities to confront and grapple with tricky issues in the field. The thinking and analyses that I was encouraged to do on such occasions are reflected throughout this book. The conference and symposium organizers include, most notably, Michael E. Smith (world systems); John Chance and Barbara Stark (ethnicity); Brigitte Kovacevich (inalienable wealth); Laura Filloy Nadal (mosaic technologies); Kenneth Hirth (mosaic technologies); Colin McEwan, Caroline Cartwright, and Rebecca Stacey (mosaic technologies); Justyna Olko and Stephanie Wood (glyphic writing); Diana Fane, Alessandra Russo, and Gerhard Wolf (featherworking); Manuel Aguilar-Moreno (featherworking); and Lane Fargher (featherworking). All of these topics are highlighted in this book, and I am grateful to each of these scholars for the opportunities to refine my thoughts on these issues and for their valuable comments on my work. This book benefited greatly from research in the storage facilities of museums housing important and intriguing Aztec pieces. My visits to these museums were marked by the highest levels of collegiality, attentiveness, efficiency, and, well, fun. I would like to express a special thanks to Leonardo López Luján (Museo Templo Mayor), Pat Nietfeld (National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution), Christian Feest and Gerard van Bussell (Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna), and Gary Feinman and Gordon Ambrosino (Field Museum). A research leave grant in 2009 from California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), provided me with extra time and resources that helped measurably to move this book along – I am most grateful to the university. I also very much appreciate the sustained encouragement I have received from Peter Robertshaw as Chair of the Department of Anthropology at CSUSB and as a genial and respected colleague. In addition, Pete has consistently supported the Laboratory for Ancient Materials Analysis, CSUSB. Some results of work from this laboratory are reported in this book. The book is greatly enhanced by pictures and drawings generously provided by Jennifer Berdan, Robert Berdan, Leonardo López Luján, Alan Sandstrom, Michael E. Smith, and Emily Umberger. I very much appreciate their willingness to provide me with these excellent visual additions. Almost all of the drawings, figures, and maps in this book were produced by my daughter, Jennifer Berdan. She not only contributed the technical expertise, but also caught several inconsistencies and other points of confusion in my drafts, thus saving me from any number of embarrassments. The production of this book was managed, facilitated, and achieved by the expertise and patience of Beatrice Rehl, Isabella Vitti, and Holly Johnson. It was also a pleasure to work with Mary Becker, whose copyediting talents notably refined and clarified the book’s prose. I appreciate immensely the careful

Acknowledgments attention all of these experts applied to this project. The book’s final form is a reflection of their high standards. And finally I offer my deepest thanks to my husband, Bob, who unstintingly supported me throughout this rather lengthy enterprise. A heartfelt thank-you to all.


A Wo r d ab o u t T e r m i n o l o g i e s

This book is about the Aztecs. Or, more precisely, it is about the Mexica. In Mesoamerica. During Late Postclassic times. These terms may seem straightforward, yet they suffer quite variable use and therefore require some clarification.

Aztecs This term is particularly troublesome. Found scattered about in various documents of the sixteenth century, it achieved general usage after Alexander von Humboldt popularized it following his 1804 journey to Mexico and the subsequent publication of his adventures (see von Humboldt 1995). While used variously today, Aztec usually refers to the inhabitants of the Basin of Mexico during the Late Postclassic period (as I use the term here), although it also appears in reference specifically to the Mexica. Sometimes the use is restricted to Nahuatl speakers (as it is in this book), sometimes not. The Aztec Empire is equivalent to the empire of the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan, which dominated central Mexico from 1428 to 1521. Aztec also refers to imperial architectural and artistic styles, as well as to specific chronological periods. Nicholson (1971: 116) reviews its use, finally concluding that its “continued use … is probably justified by convenience and tradition, even if not, in the most technical sense, correct.” Mexica Mexica were inhabitants of the sister-cities of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco. Those of Tenochtitlan also came to be called Tenochca or Culhua-Mexica, the latter in recognition of their marriage ties to an honorable dynasty of nearby Culhuacan. These and other similar names of self-identification reflected history, heritage, and cultural and group affiliations. Mesoamerica This term refers to a culture area, encompassing the parts of Mexico and Central America that relied on maize agriculture and experienced the rise and xvii


A Word about Terminologies fall of sophisticated civilizations in pre-Columbian times. The area’s boundaries necessarily shifted over time, its northern extremity roughly at the fringe of the northern deserts, and its southern area reaching into present-day Honduras and El Salvador.

Late Postclassic (or Late Aztec) Late Postclassic designates a time period generally defined as 1350 AD to the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1521. Immediately preceding this time of Aztec domination were the Middle Postclassic or Early Aztec period (1150–1350 AD) and the Early Postclassic (950–1150 AD) (see Table 2.1; Hodge 1998: 198– 199; Smith 2003d: 30).

Na h uat l P ro n u n c i at i o n  Gu i d e

The language spoken by the sixteenth-century Aztecs was Nahuatl (NA-watl), called Classical Nahuatl by modern linguists. This language has persevered, albeit with five hundred years of linguistic change, and today is spoken by approximately 1.5 million persons in Mexico, many of whom call their language Mexicano (Me-shee-KA-no). The various dialects of this modern language, along with colonial written sources, offer clues to the pronunciation of the earlier language. The word Nahuatl is one of a cluster of words referring to good sounds (for instance, “nauatini: cosa que tiene claro y buen sonido” – “something that has a clear and good sound”; Molina 1970: 63v). In essence, it means clear and understandable speech. The pre-Spanish Aztecs used a glyphic writing system that contained some phonetic elements (see Chapter 7), and after the Spanish arrival the Roman phonetic alphabet was applied to Nahuatl.The earliest Nahuatl alphabetic records derive from the Cuernavaca region (late 1530s, early 1540s) and were probably based on canons developed by a Franciscan friar but actually written by various indigenous individuals (Lockhart 1992: 335). A profusion of Nahuatl alphabetic documents of many types followed during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries (see Chapter 1).These documents help us interpret actual speech patterns, since although “the system the friars taught the Nahuas was far from a perfect vehicle for recording the spoken language … it was nothing to be ashamed of ” (Lockhart 1992: 337). On the basis of ethnographic and ethnohistoric sources, Classical Nahuatl pronunciation would have followed these general rules: 1. With very few exceptions, stress or emphasis was on the next-to-last syllable of a word. 2. Vowels were pronounced approximately as indicated here (this is considerably simplified, as Nahuatl vowels were, additionally, long and short): a as in English palm   acatl (A-catl): reed e as in English bet   tepetl (TE-petl): hill xix


Nahuatl Pronunciation Guide i as in English see   chilli (CHEE-lee): chile o as in English so   tochtli (TOCH-tlee): rabbit (Note: o and u often appear interchangeably in written documents, and the actual pronunciation may have been intermediate between the two sounds: e.g., tochtli/tuchtli, Colhuacan/Culhuacan.) Combinations of hu- and qu- with another vowel were common. These were pronounced as follows: hua as in English wander   huacalli (wa-KA-lee): large basket hue as in English way   huexolotl (way-SHO-lotl): turkey hui as in English week   ihuitl (EE-weetl): feather qua as in English quality   qualli (KWA-lee): good que as in English kept   quechtli (KECH-tlee): neck qui as in English key   quiahuitl (kee-A-weetl): rain 3. Most consonants were pronounced as in English or Spanish. Significantly different ones were: ll similar to English fill  calli (KA-lee): house but held longer tl is a single sound, a t  coyotl (KO-yotl): coyote followed by a soft l tz as in English cats   tzontli (TSON-tlee): hair x as in English she   xochitl (SHO-cheetl): flower z as in English silly   mazatl, maçatl (MA-satl): deer c before an a, o, or   cacahuatl (ka-KA-watl): cacao bean consonant = k c before an e or i = s   ticitl (TEE-seetl): physician The tl at the end of words posed particular difficulties for the early Spaniards in Mexico, who often replaced it with their more comfortable Spanish te. So, for example, ocotl (O-kotl: pinewood) became ocote, tecolotl (te-KO-lotl: owl) became tecolote, and xitomatl (shee-TO-matl: tomato) became tomate. 4. Nahuatl has a glottal stop. This is a “catch” in speech sounding like “uh uh” in English. In many cases it appears that the early Spaniards in Mexico did not hear or recognize the sound, as it only occasionally appeared in written form. When they did include it, they typically indicated it with an h. For instance, ohtli (road) is most often written otli, ozomahtli (monkey) as ozomatli, and so on. In sixteenth-century Europe, spelling rules were, to say the least, rather flexible. Colonial documents written in Nahuatl also followed this spelling fluidity. For example, the name of the ruler Motecuhzoma (Mo-tek’w-SO-ma) is variously seen as Moctezuma, Montecuzoma, Mohtecuzoma, Motecuhzoma, and Montezuma, among other creative spellings.

PA RT   1

Setting the Stage

C hap t e r   1 D i sc ov e r i n g, U n c ov e r i n g, a n d I n t e rpr e t i n g t h e A z t e c Wo rld

Then he [King Ahuitzotl] called the stoneworkers and ordered them to finish the temple of their god as quickly as possible. Without delay they began to work on the stones that were lacking and carve the figures I saw in a painted manuscript, which were, in this manuscript, a sharp sacrificial stone and next to it an image of the goddess called Coyolxauh; and on the corners of the temple two statues with cruciform mantles, these made of rich feathers. Diego Durán 1994: 328; originally written 1581

This temple sat at the very heart of the Aztecs’ empire, the axis mundi of their known world (Figures 1.1 and 1.2). Soon to be dedicated, in the year AD 1487, this version of the Huey Teocalli, or Great Temple, was the fifth full expansion of a humble construction erected in AD 1325. That first modest temple, built of reeds, wood, and mud, was the effort of a small, bedraggled, and unwelcome group of Mexica who had recently arrived in the Basin of Mexico in search of a new homeland and, in their eyes, their destiny. The temple would experience one more expansion, in 1502. This was the temple seen and climbed by the Spaniard Hernán Cortés in his epic visit to the Mexica capital city of Tenochtitlan in November 1519 (Figure 1.3). Less than two years later, in August 1521, the great city fell to the Spanish conquerors, to be recast as Mexico City in the Spanish Empire’s colonial jurisdiction of New Spain. Those nearly two hundred years, from the settlement of Tenochtitlan in 1325 until its demise in 1521, saw the rapid growth of this immense urban center, from which radiated the greatest empire in the history of Mesoamerica. During its final hundred years this was a world politically and militarily dominated by the Mexica. Nonetheless, others in Mesoamerica (whether allies, subjects, or enemies) shared a similarly sophisticated civilization. Drawing on their accomplished predecessors, the Mexica and their neighbors constructed massive temples and palaces, engineered astonishingly accurate public works such as aqueducts and a dike, and employed precise astronomical and mathematical knowledge in their city planning and architecture. They 3


Setting the Stage created remarkable objects from stones, metals, feathers, shells, and myriad other materials for use in their personal and public lives. They applied clever cultivation techniques to increase food production and offset years of agricultural catastrophe. In addition to providing them with a cornucopia of useful resources, their knowledge of the natural world offered them a remarkable medical pharmacopoeia. These were a practical people, yet their beliefs extended well beyond the empirical universe into a teeming world of powerful gods and goddesses, enthralling myths and legends, and flamboyant public ceremonies. They wrote books based on a glyphic writing system and amassed impressive libraries. And the Mexica and their allies organized themselves socially, politically, and militarily to the extent that they dominated much of central and a part of southern Mexico by the time of Cortés’s arrival. With the Spanish conquest, this world was in part destroyed, in part transformed. Mexico City grew atop Tenochtitlan, viceroys supplanted Aztec kings, Spanish priests and ceremonies replaced their Aztec counterparts. Introduced Spanish industries, crops, and economic priorities took precedence over native ones.These and other traumatic events, impositions, and changes left only fragments of Aztec life behind to be discovered, uncovered, and interpreted over the successive five hundred years. Discovering and Uncovering the Aztec World

Those fragments of the Aztec world include pictorial codices, recorded oral histories and other accounts of the native survivors, massive and portable material objects, public and private architecture and engineering feats, and burials. Still today, about 1.5 million people speak the Nahuatl language, and additional features of native life have survived, some of them in remarkably sound fashion, most persistently in outlying areas of the Aztec realm. In all, these cultural elements experienced variable survival rates, depending initially on such factors as Spanish colonial policies, interests, and activities; native adaptations to the new lords of the land; geographical location; and happenstance. Later on in Mexican history, to the present time, more and more of the ancient Aztec world was uncovered and revealed through systematic archaeological, historical, epigraphic, art historical, linguistic, and ethnographic investigations based on evolving scientific techniques and theoretical approaches to understanding the past. And still, happenstance played (and continues to play) a role. All of these approaches depend on a solid foundation of data, and the following section offers a brief (and necessarily selective) foray into the most important of these sources.1 Students of Aztec civilization are particularly fortunate in having at their disposal a vast and diverse array of source material, ranging from primary written manuscripts, to stationary and portable physical remains, to the practices and beliefs of present-day Aztec descendants. It is,

Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World

Figure 1.1.  Regions of Mesoamerica: Postclassic period. (Drawing by Jennifer Berdan.)

indeed, a comforting reality that so many different sources of information can be pressed into service to unravel the intricacies and enigmas of Aztec life.

Pictorial Codices and Other Historical Documents Pictorial Codices

The Aztec elite were literate and produced vast numbers of pictorial codices. They had specialized books, professional scribes, and sophisticated techniques for recording their histories, cosmologies, ceremonies, calendrics, geography, royal genealogies, and economic matters. Only a handful of these pre-conquest manuscripts still exist, having survived the ravages of conquest and inquisition. In the Basin of Mexico, arguably only a single pictorial codex can claim a pre-conquest origin: the Matrícula de Tributos (Berdan 1980; Batalla Rosado 2007).2 However, some other now-lost codices reappear, copied and modified, in the colonial period (such as the first two parts of the Codex Mendoza, the Tira de la Peregrinación, and the Codex Telleriano-Remensis).3 Innumerable others, now lost, peek through early colonial narratives and histories, having been seen and used by some of the most prolific sixteenth-century Spanish and native writers in Mexico. Diego Durán, quoted at the beginning of this



Setting the Stage

Figure  1.2.  Aztec-period Basin of Mexico city-states mentioned in Chapter  1. (Drawing by Jennifer Berdan.)

chapter, is quite specific about his examination of such a codex, as are Juan de Torquemada (1969: vol. 1, 75, 77), Motolinía (1969: 2), Bernardino de Sahagún (León-Portilla 2002: 144–145, 163; Nicholson 1997: 4), and Alonso de Zorita4 (1994: 87; see also Glass 1975: 20; Robertson 1994: 49). Native chroniclers of the colonial period such as Alva Ixtlilxochitl (1965: vol. 2, 173–181) and Chimalpahin (Schroeder 1991: 16, 21)  also relied on these pictorial manuscripts for much of the content in their textual accounts. The great majority of extant pictorial codices derive from colonial times, and there are scores of them (Boone 2000a: 11; Robertson 1994; Glass 1975; Glass and Robertson 1975). Although composed after the Spanish conquest, these manuscripts reveal much about the pre-Spanish Aztec world. Some explicitly recount Aztec life before the conquest, the historical ones moving almost seamlessly through

Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World


Figure 1.3. Existing steps of the final two stages of Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.)

the conquest itself into the new colonial experience (e.g., Quiñones Keber 1995; Boone 2000a: 229, 247). Others record colonial matters that reflect continuing Aztec knowledge and practices concerning local histories, traditional community rights, maps and boundaries, family relations, naming, economic production, tribute duties, political order, herbal medicine, and even aspects of forbidden religious beliefs (e.g., Boone 2007, 2000a: 248; Glass 1975; Robertson 1994; Montes de Oca Vega et al. 2003; Prem 1974; Gates 1939; Berdan and Anawalt 1992; see Case 1.1). Most of these colonial pictorials are enhanced by the addition of handwritten glosses or explanations in Nahuatl and/or Spanish.These amplify and reinforce the glyphic presentation with textual details, although occasionally mistakes do creep in.5 Nonetheless, the pictorial images themselves were composed largely by native scribes, trained in native traditions and projecting native styles (Robertson 1994: 9–10; Boone 2000a: 11–12). The extent of retention of native style and content is impressive considering the close Spanish supervision of the production of many of these codices. So, although composed in colonial times, this large pictorial corpus, viewed critically, offers valuable insights into pre-conquest Aztec life. A particularly monumental colonial effort, resulting in an “ethnographic codex,” was that produced by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún and his Nahua collaborators and scribes during the middle to late sixteenth century. Combining Nahuatl text with pictorial imagery, this vast corpus of the Florentine Codex and Primeros Memoriales contains detailed information on matters such as gods and rituals, myths, rulership, kinship, ethnic groups, economic production, markets, natural history, and the Spanish conquest from the native point of view – indeed, anything (and more) that might be found in a modern-day ethnography (Sahagún 1950–1982, 1993; Baird 1993; León-Portilla 2002). While the images contain Spanish artistic and substantive elements (such as perspective and Spanish clothing and tools), they also are enriched throughout with Aztec glyphs that embellish the images with intriguing details6 (Figure 1.4).

Setting the Stage


Figure C1.1. The founding of Tenochtitlan as depicted in the Codex Mendoza. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 1r.)

Case 1.1  How It Survived 1:The Codex Mendoza Precious little is known of the provenience of any of the pre-Columbian and colonial codices. However, the partially known and rather haphazard history of one pictorial manuscript exemplifies the conditions under which such documents have survived – and highlights the astounding fact that any have survived at all. It was twenty years after Tenochtitlan fell at the hands of Hernán Cortés and his thousands of native allies. King Charles I of Spain (Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor) demanded to know more precisely what his military forces had recently acquired. Like other conquered areas in the Americas, his new territory in central Mexico, now the colonial world of New Spain, must be governed, its

Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World resources exploited, and its native people converted to Christianity. To obtain necessary information, the king’s representative in New Spain (Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza) commissioned the production of a pictorial codex, which consisted of three parts: a history of Aztec conquests, tributes paid to the Aztecs by geographical province, and an account of Aztec daily life, from cradle to grave. A probable history of this Codex Mendoza can be re-created, although “the evidence is often ambiguous and conflicting” (Nicholson 1992: 10). The year was most likely 1541, and the place was colonial Mexico City, built atop the vanquished Mexica capital city of Tenochtitlan. The manuscript’s creation relied on several skilled native scribes, who copied the first two parts from pre­conquest pictorials but possibly developed the third part anew. Their efforts were overseen by one or more Spanish clerics, who discussed the pictorial content with the scribes and added glosses in Nahuatl and Spanish, and somewhat more extended explanations in Spanish. As time passed, the job became more hurried, since it was necessary to send the document by mule train from the highland Basin of Mexico down to coastal Veracruz in time to catch the scheduled sailing of the treasure ships to Spain. As fate would have it, somewhere on the high seas the ship was set upon by French men-of-war; the French succeeded in taking the Spanish ship along with the Codex Mendoza and unknown other treasures. The next we know, the codex was in the hands of the French king’s cosmographer, André Thevet, who twice signed the manuscript in 1553. It then appears that the codex was purchased in 1587 by the Englishman Richard Hakluyt for 20 French crowns – Thevet and Hakluyt were acquainted, both being avid collectors and disseminators of travelers’ accounts. Hakluyt retained the codex until his death in 1616, willing it to Samuel Purchas. When Purchas died in 1626, his son inherited the document, which somehow passed by 1654 to Purchas’s friend and collector, Englishman John Selden. Five years later it entered the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, with two other of Selden’s Mexican manuscripts. There it languished until seeing the light of publication in Lord Kingsborough’s Antiquities of Mexico (1831–1848). It resides in the Bodleian still.

Beyond the pictorial, much of the oral and written record of this partially lost, partially transformed world became embedded in a variety of Spanish and Nahuatl documents produced in great abundance during the colonial period in Mexico. While sometimes augmented by pictorial images, these documents were primarily textual and were composed in the alphabetic writing introduced by the Spaniards. Spanish Documents

Written sources reflecting Aztec life but composed in the Spanish language include eyewitness accounts of the Spanish conquest, early colonial chronicles and histories, and censuses and other administrative, legal, and economic documentation. The five letters of Hernán Cortés (1928) and the “true”7 history of the conquest by one of his soldiers, Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1963), are well



Setting the Stage known and have been heavily mined for information on the Aztecs. Cortés’s letters-dispatches were written to the Spanish monarch as the conquest itself was going on; Díaz del Castillo’s account was composed by memory by the aging conquistador more than forty years after the events he describes. Although both of these contain their own biases, they also provide the discerning reader with intriguing details of Aztec life at the point of contact with the Spaniards. These accounts are augmented by the shorter and less-used relations of Andrés de Tapia (1993), Francisco de Aguilar (1993), and an “Anonymous Conqueror” (1971), whose actual participation in the conquest has been questioned (Warren 1973: 67–68). Shortly after the conquest and throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Spanish friars began accumulating and recording detailed information on indigenous history and culture, with the primary purpose of aiding their conversion activities. A pioneer among these was Andrés de Olmos, whose huehuetlatolli8 and 1547 grammar (1972) are all that has survived – his compendious works were already lost in the sixteenth century. However, he provided the inspiration for later sixteenth-century writers such as Toribio de Benavente (Motolinía 1969, 1971), Jerónimo de Mendieta (1980), Juan de Torquemada (1969), and our renowned Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún, who also wrote an extended paraphrase of his monumental Nahuatl-language work (1956). Another track of sixteenth-century colonial writers who drew on each other’s work (or some earlier sources) included Diego Durán (1971, 1994), a Dominican friar who compiled an Aztec imperial history as well as an account of native gods and rituals; Fernando Alvarado Tezozomoc (1975a, 1975b); José de Acosta (2002); and Juan de Tovar (Kubler and Gibson 1951).9 A great deal of secular writing produced in the colonial sixteenth and seventeenth centuries considerably augments our understanding of pre-conquest Aztec life. These range from the lawyer and judge Alonso de Zorita’s relation written “to give the Spanish Crown information regarding the government and tribute system of the Indians” (Warren 1973: 73) to the protomédico general Francisco Hernández’s wide-ranging natural history (1959). This latter investigator traveled in New Spain from 1571 to 1577 recording descriptive information on native plants and animals, interspersing interesting details on native customs along the way.10 Another particularly useful collection of documents is the Relaciones geográficas of the latter half of the sixteenth century (1578–1585); some of these textual sources include interesting and informative maps (Mundy 1996). The Spanish crown was understandably interested in the nature and value of its new holdings across the sea, and these geographic relations were designed to inform and enlighten the Spanish Council of the Indies. They consisted of a standard questionnaire carried by Spanish officials to communities throughout Spain’s new realm. Some of the most relevant questions (and responses) pertained to local demography and history,

Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World

Figure 1.4.  A feather prepared for an elaborate mosaic by a skilled featherworker is identified as that of a green tzinitzcan (trogonorus) bird by the inclusion of a human rear end, representing the sound tzin-. (After Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, illus. 108. Drawing by Jennifer Berdan.)

others to regional resources and trade, and still others to religious inclinations (Acuña 1982–1988; Cline 1964). Beyond these relations, the archives are bursting with other official reports, tax records, and legal records that embed “the complaints and pleadings of indigenous litigants, drawings of domestic compounds, genealogies, wills, and the testimony of hundreds of sixteenthand seventeenth-century Indians” (Kellogg 1995: 36). Some mestizos wrote important historical chronicles in Spanish in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Foremost among these were Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl (1965), a descendant of the pre-Hispanic rulers of Texcoco; Juan Bautista Pomar (1891), likewise a Texcocan royal descendant; and Diego Muñoz Camargo (1947), a Tlaxcallan noble. Each of these was interested chiefly in promoting the historical legitimacy and contemporary primacy of his own city-state under the new colonial political regime. Nahuatl Documents

The Spanish friars were diligent in teaching native nobles the alphabetic style of Spanish writing. By a decade following the conquest, literacy among the natives took a new form, many Aztec scribes having made the transition from glyph and oral rendition to alphabet. As a result, an impressively large and rich corpus of documents was composed alphabetically in the Nahuatl language. Major chronicles, histories, and oral literary forms were transcribed into this format, Christian catechisms and scripts were produced for purposes of conversion, and myriad Nahuatl-language documents recording day-to-day matters such as lawsuits, censuses, land disputes and other complaints, inheritance, town council meetings, market taxes, and even personal letters found useful niches in the colonial world. Three particularly significant histories, as chronicles or annals, survive in the Nahuatl language. The most extensive of these was produced in a series of documents by a Chalcan with the formidable name of Don Domingo de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin – Chimalpahin for short (Schroeder 1991; Lockhart et al. 2006). The Codex Chimalpopoca, hailing from the more northerly Basin of Mexico town of Cuauhtitlan, provides a yearcount record from the perspective of that town (Bierhorst 1992), and Fernando


Setting the Stage


Alvarado Tezozomoc’s Crónica mexicayotl (1975b) extols a Mexica historical perspective. Like the Spanish-language chronicles, each of these writers promotes his own community, its image, and its supreme importance. The Aztecs relied on rich oral traditions, often prompted by reference to specific pictorial codices. Beyond the huehuetlatolli, which have been preserved in several early sources, Aztec oral renditions have survived in the form of songs and poems. The longtime master of this genre is Miguel León-Portilla, who has suggested identifications of several notable Aztec poets (1992). The poems and songs, some of which would have been accompanied by music and dance, provide a window through which to glimpse some of the deeper aspects of Aztec culture – the people’s delights and dreams, their fears and fates. And since the native people often collaborated with Christian friars in producing Catholic catechisms and other texts, Nahuatl metaphors and imagery, reflecting indigenous cultural themes and priorities, frequently peek through much of this literature and find niches in elaborate colonial theatrical productions and spectacles (Burkhart 1996, 2011; Sell and Burkhart 2004; Motolinía 1969). An altogether different style of documentation involves notarial or civil records written in Nahuatl – and there are a great many of these. Ranging from wills to censuses to town council minutes, these documents enrich our understanding of such matters as family relations, social status rules and tensions, land use, and moral expectations. Through these sources we are able to enter the lives of a broad range of individuals, entwined in a great variety of relationships and enmeshed in very human circumstances of the “daily life” genre. So the exasperation of a father with his errant son emerges in the father’s will, the frustration of nobles with uppity entrepreneurial commoners appears in a town council’s minutes, and anger over the behavior of an allegedly abusive priest is reported in a formal complaint: all of these and more were composed in the Nahuatl language and provide an enormous corpus of fascinating data documenting colonial life and also revealing patterns harking back to pre-conquest times (Anderson et  al. 1976; Lockhart 1992; Lockhart et al. 1986; Haskett 1991; Cline 1993; Cline and León-Portilla 1984; Schroeder et al. 1997; Horn 1997; Wood 2003). Assessing the Documentary Record

Each of these styles of documentation has its advantages and cautions.The most obvious advantage is the richness, depth, abundance, and diversity of the documentation, allowing for fruitful investigations into almost all walks of Aztec life. We can learn of nobles and commoners (and the relationships among them), of agriculture and crafts, of men and women, of adults and children, and of people associated with different ethnicities. We can map out the marketplace, perceive the dynamics of palace life, envision flamboyant ceremonies, meet the gods and goddesses, comprehend sophisticated calendrics and medicine, understand the moral underpinnings of daily social life, and appreciate the richness

Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World of the Nahuatl language through speeches, poetry, and songs. Fortunately, some of the documents are hybrids. For example, some pictorial codices composed with native glyphs (such as the Matrícula de Tributos) were later (or at the same time) augmented by Nahuatl and/or Spanish alphabetic glosses or explanations. Another example is Sahagún’s Florentine Codex, which is based on information provided orally and pictorially by knowledgeable Nahuas and contains alphabetically written Nahuatl text with accompanying pictorial images, all of this later augmented by a Spanish version also prepared by the good friar.These and other additions help clarify meaning and reduce ambiguity, although one must beware of possible mistakes (see note 5). On the downside, all written records are produced for a reason, and in those reasons we frequently find biases. Documents can be biased in a number of ways. Some documents serve as instruments of purposeful manipulation and promotion: this expectedly occurs in the letters of Hernán Cortés to the Spanish monarch and later in counter-statements presented by one of his conquistadores, Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Biases are frequently explicit in Spanish religious documents condemning indigenous religious practices and beliefs. Biases can also take the form of perspective: Alva Ixtlilxochitl necessarily writes from his noble Texcocan viewpoint, Chimalpahin from his noble Chalcan one. Much of our documentary record derives from politically dominant centers and reflects the interests and perspectives of an urban and elite stratum of society. Related to this is another imbalance, an ethnic one. For instance, we know how the Mexica perceived the neighboring Otomí (as “blockheads,” they said), yet we do not know if the Otomí characterized the Mexica in similar terms. Nonetheless, recent work with Nahuatl civil records and the occasional emergence of regional documents such as the Códice de Xicotepec (Stresser-Péan 1995) help balance this state of affairs. In another vein, there is some danger in generalizing from specific statements. Chronicles, histories, and other relations necessarily derive from specific localities and groups – to what extent do the conditions they relate pertain to other communities and groups? And, on a somewhat different scale, when we learn that Aztec merchants were sent by King Ahuitzotl to coastal regions to trade his precious goods, was this a onetime event or representative of a frequent occurrence? The documentary record is fragmentary and thus unclear on many of these issues. Finally, since some sixteenth-century records derive from one another, as previously described, their relationships must be clearly understood before being considered corroborative sources. There are some disappointments. For instance, by his own admission, Bernal Díaz del Castillo states, “Do not be surprised, however, if I do not describe them [the great temple’s surroundings] as accurately as I might, for I had other thoughts in my head at the time than that of telling a story. I was more concerned with my military duties and the orders my Captain had given me” (1963: 238). His circumstances were understandable.



Setting the Stage

Figure 1.5.  Schematic layout of Tenochtitlan’s ceremonial precinct. (From McEwan and López Luján 2009: 132. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.)

Despite its limitations, this rich ethnohistoric record has yielded a wealth of information on Aztec life, especially for the time immediately prior to the Spanish conquest. Ethnohistoric research has a long and distinguished history in Mesoamerica generally (see Cline 1973; Nicholson 1975). During the past two decades, previously untapped documentary sources have come to light, and many known documents have become increasingly available, most with new translations and extended commentaries.With this expanded data base, ethnohistorians have turned their attention to more sophisticated contextual analyses of pictorial manuscripts and textual records; to unraveling the nature of indigenous cultures both before and after the Spanish conquest; to a better understanding of the

Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World Spanish conquest itself; and to formulating interpretations of native life based on evolving perspectives in anthropology, history, and art history (Berdan 2009b). For instance, the ethnohistoric record now has sufficient depth (especially with post-conquest documents) to make the application of agency theory11 a viable approach, enabling researchers to “examine the potential and constraints of specific cases where agency, structure and power intersect” (Johnson 2004: 246). Approached critically, the rich and diverse written record has the potential to capture much of the ancient Aztec way of life, almost ethnographically. However, it is still an incomplete and unbalanced record. Fortunately, additional and quite different sources of data are available from archaeological and art historical research on immovable physical remains and portable artifacts, from the physical anthropological examination of human remains, and from ethnographic and linguistic studies of present-day descendants of the ancient Aztecs and their neighbors.

Physical Remains: Architecture and Artifacts Architecture

Stationary physical remains constitute an important source of archaeological information. Fortunately, the Aztecs were builders on a grand scale. And their cities proudly exhibited many monumental public buildings. These stone structures inevitably included temples, palaces, ballcourts, shrines, and altars (Figure 1.5).12 Large sacrificial stones, sweatbaths (temazcalli), skull racks (tzompantli), and pavements were also common features in urban settings. Tenochtitlan, atypically large, contained additional buildings such as a priestly school (calmecac) and warriors’ assembly chambers in its central sacred precinct. Rarely, these ceremonial and political districts were walled, separating them from the more mundane realms of urban life. Large and small settlements contained residential areas with either stone housing (for elites) or houses constructed of less resilient adobe bricks or wood and thatch (for commoners). Often public and private stone structures retain sufficient structural integrity to reveal information on matters such as building periods, functions, associations with other structures, astronomical orientations, and building materials and techniques. Some also retain sculptural elements and/or mural fragments, yielding further cultural information and affording a look at the building’s decorative presentation.13 In the case of lower-status housing, only the foundations remain, nonetheless yielding data on matters such as housing plans and layouts, domestic activities, and building materials (Smith 2008: 163–166). The Aztec (indeed, Mesoamerican) preoccupation with controlling water is evidenced by the massive efforts expended on constructing aqueducts, canals, check dams, and hillside terracing.Various remnants of these still exist; an idea of the scale and sophistication of Aztec hydraulic engineering can be appreciated today at the pleasure gardens of Tetzcotzinco (Parsons 2002).



Setting the Stage

the fate of material objects Other pre-conquest remains are more or less portable artifacts, to be uncovered or recovered archaeologically, or found unprovenienced in museum or other collections. From the perspective of one art historian, artistic material remains can be classed as monumental sculpture (see Case 1.2), codices, stone sculpture, lapidary arts, wood sculpture, featherwork, textiles, and objects made from clay, gold, dough, resin, and paper (Pasztory 1983: 74–79). These were prominent in the more public and elite environments. Just as significant are objects of more common, everyday use such as spindle whorls, stone blades, stone and ceramic food-processing implements such as manos, metates, and molcajetes, and all manner of utilitarian ceramics such as plates and drinking vessels (Figure 1.6). Whether extravagant or utilitarian, objects uncovered in situ and often associated with ancient structures range from the thousands of objects found in the more than 162 ritual deposits (Figure 1.7) around Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor (López Luján 2005, personal communication 2010), to concentrated obsidian blades and associated debitage in an Otompan household workshop (Charlton et al. 1991), to cooking pots, spindle whorls, and ceramic figurines in a Morelos commoner house (Smith 2008: 167–170). These and other controlled excavations have uncovered material remains with careful attention to context and chronology. Other professional archaeological research endeavors have recovered artifacts through extended surface surveys, appropriate in cases where settlement patterns and other issues are investigated over broad areas (see Sanders et al. 1979; Nichols 2004). In both types of research, data on material objects are meticulously recorded to squeeze out the greatest amount of information on their context, history, function, and meaning and to provide the greatest potential for reconstructing ancient lifeways. Many objects, however, have no clear provenience or history. Some of these, such as the nine turquoise mosaics in the British Museum, the three feathered masterpieces in Vienna, and the Matrícula de Tributos in Mexico City, are rightfully renowned as both cultural pieces and objects of fine art. Others are less well known but no less significant in the cultural record despite their lack of provenience. The Spanish conquest itself contributed to the dispersal of many high-end Aztec-produced objects. Cortés (1928: 381–382) lists the many precious objects he sent to King Charles during the conquest. Also, at the end of the conquest, he states that “[a]mong the other booty taken from the city were many golden shields, crests and plumes, and other such marvelous things that they could not be described in writing nor comprehended unless they were actually seen” (ibid.: 229).14 He decided to send these treasures as a whole to the king. At least some major objects were displayed in an exhibition in Brussels in the year 1520. They were described with awe by the well-known artist Albrecht Dürer, who “marveled at the subtle intellects of men in foreign parts” (Keen 1971: 69).

Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World

Figure  1.6. Vessels for drinking pulque (left) and cacao (right). (Courtesy National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, nos. 002635 and 178070. Photograph by Jennifer Berdan.)

Figure 1.7. Golden eagle bones and decorated knives in offering 125, Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor precinct. (Photograph by Leonardo López Luján. Reproducción autorizada por el Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.)


Setting the Stage


Figure C1.2. The renowned Aztec Calendar (or Sun) Stone. (Drawing by Emily Umberger. Reproduced with permission.)

Case 1.2  How It Survived 2:The Aztec Calendar Stone Archaeologists excavating intact sites enjoy the luxury of discovering and unearthing ancient materials that have been largely untouched since they were deposited. In short, they are found much as they were left behind: in situ and conveniently provenienced. Not so, however, with a great many valuable artifacts that have found their way into museums or other collections with little known of their origins, history, or cultural affiliations. To some extent, this is the case with one of the most famous of all Aztec monuments, the so-called Calendar Stone or Sun Stone. Today it resides in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, and its history is no less fascinating and circuitous than that of the Codex Mendoza (Case 1.1). A reconstructed history of this monument goes rather like this (based on the meticulous research of Leonardo López Luján 2008 and Eduardo Matos Moctezuma and Felipe Solís 2004). The Calendar Stone first came into schol-

Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World arly view on December 17, 1790, approximately halfway through its long history. During leveling and repaving work on Mexico City’s Zocalo, it was discovered facedown just west of the Viceregal Palace. It was pulled to a vertical position, where it was first examined by archaeologists. It stayed there only until July 2, 1791, when it was moved to the cathedral. There it was set into the southwest tower, facing west, where it could be easily viewed. Such ready accessibility brought extensive wear and tear to the monument, and it clearly suffered from exposure to the elements (both human and natural). So in August 1885, this national icon was removed to the early Museo Nacional, where it held pride of place in the monolithic gallery (a journey that required considerable human effort and ingenuity, fifteen days, and 600 pesos). On June 27, 1964, it was finally transferred to the new Museo Nacional de Antropología in Chapultepec Park (this journey took only one hour, fifteen minutes). It rests there today, prominently displayed. This portion of the history of the Calendar Stone is well documented. But what about its prior life, before 1790? What do we know about its manufacture, use, and meaning during Aztec times? The early centuries of Calendar Stone history depend heavily on historical records, interpretations, and speculations. On the basis of the specific type of stone and documentary suggestions, it is likely that the stone originated in the southern Basin of Mexico, from which it was dragged 12–22 kilometers to Tenochtitlan’s ceremonial precinct. This probably occurred in the middle years of the Aztec Empire, perhaps during the reign of Axayacatl (1469–1481). Tenochtitlan’s imperial ruler surely had the power to acquire and transport such a mammoth stone (weighing in at 24.5 tons and measuring 3.5 meters in diameter), and its sculptural style is representative of the Aztec imperial period. It must have been located prominently in the ceremonial precinct, laid horizontally and associated with ritual human sacrifices on a nearby temalacatl (stone whorl, or base for gladiatorial sacrifices). It has been suggested that it was used either as a quauhxicalli (eagle vessel, or depository for sacrificial hearts) or as a base for the final sacrifice of a wounded gladiatorial combatant (Matos Moctezuma and Solís 2004: 37). Its exact location at that time is unknown, but apparently it was moved a few hundred meters south of the precinct just after the Spanish conquest: the Spaniards laid it faceup near the Viceregal Palace. Considered a bad influence by Spanish religious officials, the stone was buried facedown sometime between 1551 and 1572, where it lay until it was discovered in 1790.While there is considerable history here, the stone’s origins, imperial history, and context are lost.Where was it carved: on site or in Tenochtitlan? Was this really the rock moved from the southern Basin of Mexico recorded in the colonial histories? Where did it sit in the ceremonial precinct? How was it used? While answers to these questions evade us, the value of the monument is nonetheless inestimable. In particular, studies of its sculptural style and symbolism have been legion and have served as a window into the worldview of the Mexica (see Nicholson 1993).


Setting the Stage


Not only Cortés sent booty home – his compatriots also sent large quantities of precious Aztec objects to individuals and religious institutions in Spain. The objects themselves and their subsequent histories are mostly lost (Saville 1920: 8–104). Also lost or unidentified in collections are the great many objects unearthed by Spaniards in the aftermath of the conquest as they laid the foundations for their new buildings in place of the Aztec ones: [W]hen the ground was excavated to lay a foundation, gold and silver and chalchihuites . . . were found in great quantities; and a settler in Mexico who built on another part of the site found the same. The officers of His Majesty’s Treasury demanded this find as rightfully belonging to the King, and there was a lawsuit about it. I do not remember what the outcome was, only that they asked for information from the Caciques and dignitaries of Mexico. (Bernal Díaz del Castillo 1963: 238–239; writing ca. 1568)

This is largely the world of “treasures,” but less spectacular artifacts, including massive quantities of pottery sherds and other utilitarian objects found in structures, trash heaps, and corn fields also yield significant cultural information and have captured archaeological interest more recently. Many of these objects help reconstruct the everyday lives of nonelite members of the society. Assessing the Remains

As with the ethnohistorical documents, the archaeological record has advantages and cautions. A major advantage is that, unlike documents, archaeological remains are “quite unlikely to be manipulated by individuals with bias or vested interest” (Barber and Berdan 1998: 260). That is, a palace may be designed to display wealth and impress others at the time of its actual use, but once it has fallen into disuse and covered by subsequent structures, its essentials will be found much as they were left behind.  A commoner trash heap was not intended to impress or deceive, and the archaeologist will find it much as it was deposited in antiquity.15 Nonetheless, consideration should be made for the possibility of “structured deposition,” or the deliberate deposition of items that may appear as trash or rubbish (Cool 2006: 13–14). In analyzing remains, modern archaeologists have at their command a variety of productive research strategies, including controlled excavation, intensive survey and surface collection, materials analysis, household archaeology, and ethnoarchaeology (Nichols 2004: 275). A further advantage is the time depth afforded by archaeology and the ability to construct meaningful chronologies based on sequential deposits of material remains. Finally, archaeology focuses on material remains; actual structures and objects can yield information neglected or recorded only scantily in historic documents (see Case 4.1).These include matters such as detailed technological processes and tool uses, patterns of trade, standards of living under changing conditions, and economic investments in ritual activities. For instance, Michael Smith (2008: 172–173) has ascertained on the basis of house construction and

Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World artifact assemblages that an Aztec rural peasant’s life was not so different from that of an urban commoner. We can guess this from the documents, but they cannot tell us this with as much assurance as can the material record. Yet, like the documentary record, the archaeological record is incomplete and unbalanced. A full archaeological record of a complete Aztec site remains a dream. Indeed, Aztec city-states with reasonably intact monumental architecture (such as Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco) tend to lack available and preserved residential remains; on the other hand, where residential areas are accessible and have been excavated (such as at Otompan and Huexotla), few if any monumental architectural remains are available (Smith 2008: 20–21). Much of this is due to the impact of subsequent occupations: beginning with the Spaniards, new residents readily built their settlements atop existing Aztec cities and communities (sometimes reusing stones from Aztec structures), and many of these ancient locales are buried beneath today’s cities, towns, plazas, and roads. Accessibility is an issue. On a February morning in 1978, it was happenstance that opened a substantial portion of downtown Mexico City to archaeological investigation, soon to reveal the phenomenal Aztec Templo Mayor and much of its surrounding ceremonial precinct. This project continues to unveil stupendous and surprising remains (e.g., Figures 1.7 and 7.2; Matos Moctezuma and López Luján 2007). A further imbalance in the archaeological record involves perishability  – some materials like textiles and feathers are particularly fragile, and objects made of these materials rarely survive in the environmental conditions of central and southern Mexico. Indeed, of the countless objects of exquisite featherwork produced by the pre-conquest Aztecs, a mere seven can be counted in museums today.16 Balancing this loss is the fact that many native activities, such as featherworking, continued in colonial times  – the iconography changed, but the technology persisted, and we have many extant examples of colonial featherwork. Additionally, the archaeological record tends to come up short in “abstract realms of beliefs and language, social realms of activities and relations, ephemeral events such as market days (where the plaza is swept clean after every event), and everyday matters such as personal hygiene and styles of greeting” (Berdan 2005: 18). Archaeological information is also selective in another way: we may ask, for instance, how representative of a household’s activities are the remains left behind in its trash heap. What other items, perhaps more valuable to the householder, are we missing? Archaeological control of ancient Aztec artifacts is a fairly recent accomplishment, and many objects were removed from their contexts during the preceding five centuries. Nonetheless, we spend a good deal of time and energy with these objects trying to determine their places of origin, chronologies, and cultural associations. Some objects, such as the so-called mantle of Moctezuma and a spun feather textile have sat, misidentified, in museums for long periods of time.17 Often accompanied by a great deal of speculation, lack of clear


Setting the Stage


Figure 1.8.  Bark beater currently in use in San Pablito, Puebla, Mexico. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.)

provenience of such objects (and they are astoundingly numerous) diminishes their overall role in reconstructing ancient life. However, they should not be dismissed, as they carry other important information, such as details on technological processes and examples of abstract symbolism.18

Human Remains Quite different information can be gleaned from actual human remains, deposited as offerings or burials. These are particularly informative in the recent excavations at Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor and at Tlatelolco’s central precinct. In the Tenochtitlan excavations, offerings included some burials of elite personages who were ritually buried following cremation. But the majority of human remains consisted of sacrificed individuals, beheaded and some with their throats cut (López Luján 1999: 39, 42, 46; 2005: 180–183, 202–209). One

Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World Templo Mayor offering (number 48) included the remains of some forty-five children sacrificed to the god Tlaloc (González Torres 2003: 40).The Tlatelolco project has yielded thousands of human burials, ritually deposited or sacrificially offered (López Luján 1999: 34; Guilleim Arroyo 1999, 2008a; Matos Moctezuma 2008; Roman Berrelleza 1987, 1991). And excavations at Late Postclassic Zultepec, northwest of Tlaxcallan, have yielded fourteen human skulls with perforations indicating that they were displayed on a skull rack (Martínez Vargas 2003).19 Human remains deposited in the ceremonial precincts of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco have yielded valuable information on the circumstances of life and death of the individuals involved: their age, gender, medical conditions, and context and manner of death. They shed particular light on the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. Modern technology has made it possible to recover and identify biological remains of a different type – human blood. Evidence of human blood residue in the House of Eagles in the Tenochtitlan ceremonial precinct point to bloodletting activities in these military chambers (López Luján 2006).

The Value of Ethnography Some ingredients of native life have survived the centuries in remarkably sound fashion, primarily in outlying areas of the Aztec realm. These can be (and have been) documented ethnographically. This is particularly true in the cultural realms of language and technology. Today, about a million and a half people still speak Nahuatl or Nahuat, albeit with some expected modifications, such as the addition of Spanish loan words and constantly changing colloquialisms. The amount of rich cultural data embedded in language cannot be underestimated; for instance, the use of metaphors, kinship terms, and curing techniques all reveal long-standing traditions (e.g., Lewis 1951; Sandstrom 1991; Ruiz Rivera 2001). But the most overt relations with the past can be seen in the material, technological world – in the manos and metates for grinding maize, in the backstrap looms for weaving cloth, in the bark beaters for making amate paper, in the hoes and digging sticks for work in the agricultural fields (Figure 1.8). While the use of these traditional tools (many of them modified)20 is on the wane in this industrial age, their continued use offers valuable cultural details on long-standing traditions (see Case 1.3). The obvious advantage of ethnographic data is its depth and subtlety of information, the ability to discover particulars not present in the archaeological or ethnohistorical records. In addition to well-known ethnographic pitfalls such as informant bias and self-interest, the most obvious caution here involves the changes wrought by time. Five hundred years of sometimes dramatic cultural, economic, social, and political changes in Mexico have left their mark on even the most remote indigenous villagers, and all are integrated into the global, industrial world.21


Setting the Stage


Figure C1.3.  A twentieth­century Nahua woman ­weaving on a backstrap loom in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Mexico. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.)

Case 1.3  How It Survived 3:The Backstrap Loom The backstrap loom is an ancient tool in Mesoamerica. Seen on Jaina (Maya) figurines as early as the Classic period, illustrations of women weaving on the loom are found often in Postclassic codices and colonial pictorials. While informative, sculptures and pictures are static; they are limited in the information they can convey about just how one went about weaving on such an apparatus. And being essentially bundles of sticks, looms leave little behind for the archaeologist. Fortunately, many women today in indigenous communities in Mexico and Guatemala continue to weave on backstrap looms and provide us with a font of information on how this process works (and how it was likely to have worked in the past). The production of cloth on backstrap looms exhibits a great deal of continuity from pre-Columbian to modern times.Women are the weavers, then and now. Using a backstrap loom, they easily incorporate weaving into their other household activities and responsibilities (i.e., the work can be readily put down and picked back up). The loom equipment used today closely resembles that depicted in the sixteenth-century pictorial codices. What is missing in the early images, however, is information on matters such as the actual process of production, the time involved in weaving a piece of cloth,

Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World the learning process, weaving terminology, and symbolism in woven designs. Using a technology resembling that of past weavers, today’s weavers can enlighten us about these matters. For instance, the sixteenth-century Codex Mendoza (see Case 1.1) states in a Spanish gloss that a girl mastered weaving skills at age 14. How general is that statement, and when did the girl begin to learn to weave? The answers are suggested ethnographically: when I asked contemporary villagers at what age they became good weavers, they consistently (and independently) answered “age 14.” This was consistency beyond my wildest dreams! They also said that they began learning at age 5, information not available in other documentation. On another dimension, when asked about the time involved in weaving a certain length of cloth, the women were uncertain, as weaving was so fully integrated into other household activities  – they had difficulty arriving at a figure and, interestingly, did not think the matter particularly important. This may reflect long-standing, traditional approaches to the relationship between time and economic production. And as for designs, some animal figures woven into the cloth were identified as nahualli (animal spirit companions), an ancient concept.Yet five centuries have passed since weavers worked in the time of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin. How closely does the contemporary scene resemble the Aztec past? While remarkably tenacious, as we have seen, this bit of culture has undergone changes over that time. Most of the thread is now store-bought rather than hand-spun, wool has been added to the looms, new designs have been incorporated into the weavers’ repertoires, and fewer and fewer girls are learning the skills. Yet these are details compared with the fundamental retention of the basic technology, process, and approach to backstrap weaving. Ethnographic research reveals much about this (and other) arenas of life, expanding and enriching our understanding of the ancient mode of living.

Interpreting the Aztec World

Our vision and understanding of Aztec culture have changed dramatically since the “first encounters” between Europeans and Aztecs. Inescapably, scholarly interpretations of growing mounds of data on this civilization have been influenced by changing theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches embedded in the fields of archaeology, ethnohistory, art history, and ethnography.These interpretations cluster around four major themes: complexity, diversity, interaction, and causality.

Complexity Proposals about the nature of Aztec society entered the anthropological world in the nineteenth century when Lewis Henry Morgan (1878) described it


Setting the Stage


as a “clan-based military democracy in the middle stage of barbarism” in his conceptualization of general evolution (Carrasco 1971). Adolf Bandelier furthered Morgan’s conclusions, continuing to portray Aztec society as a tribal democracy, and it was not until the 1930s that Aztec scholars began to consistently dispute this claim. Nonetheless, some vestiges of this intellectual legacy persisted, and in the mid-twentieth century the complexity of the Aztecs remained a lingering issue. Adding to this persistence was Gelb’s (1952) characterization of the Aztec writing system as a “forerunner of writing” and even Gibson’s (1964) designation of major ethnic groups in the pre-conquest Basin of Mexico as “tribes.” Another contributing factor has been the near invisibility of archaeological evidence for an Aztec presence beyond the Basin of Mexico. Today, however, intervening decades of problem-oriented interdisciplinary research have revealed the Late Postclassic Aztecs as a full-blown civilization, state, and empire, with a demonstrable social hierarchy, political centralization, economic specialization, and urbanism. This is now generally accepted, with the caveat that Aztec complexity increased during its own history and these people exhibited less complexity in earlier times than later on. This does not mean that there was a necessary progression in all of these central Mexican societies toward increasing hierarchical depth and political centralization. An “alternative pathways to complexity” theoretical approach has proved especially useful in revealing variations in the complexity of political developments in the central Mexican highlands and the realm of the Aztec Empire generally (see Chapter  5). This approach allows us to think outside the box of singular “vertical political hierarchies” and toward a recognition of variation in political styles. And political variation was indeed a significant feature of central Mexico during the Late Postclassic period (Fargher et  al. 2011a: 306).

Diversity and Variation The very use of the term “Aztec” suggests commonalities and uniformities throughout central Mexico during Late Postclassic times. In recent years, this term has been used with increasing caution and in restricted contexts (see note on terminologies at the beginning of this book). We may speak of the “Aztec Empire” in the same sense that one speaks of the Roman Empire or the Inca Empire: it denotes those in power.The term “Aztec” also has utility in referring to archaeological periods, as well as applicability in terms of broadly shared cultural features. Yet in the realm of actual relationships and behaviors, in everyday life and on the ground as it were, individuals and groups did not refer to themselves as “Aztecs,” but rather took their identities from their calpolli, altepetl, or ethnicity (Chapters 2, 5, and 6). In accordance with relatively recent trends in anthropology generally, it has become more and more common (and useful) to refer to Late Postclassic central Mexican peoples according

Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World to their own emic designations  – especially neighborhoods, city-states, and ethnic affiliations (see Chapter 2; Lockhart 1992; Berdan et al. 2008). This is a particularly meaningful approach: not only does it allow for the insider’s perspective, but it also has led to a clearer understanding of local and regional variations and relationships among groups that clearly identified themselves as distinct from their neighbors.This focus on variation now allows us to see that the Tlaxcallan state was organized according to significantly different principles than the Mexica one (although people in both states spoke Nahuatl; see Case 8.3; Fargher et al. 2011a, 2011b).Throughout central Mexico, matters such as dynastic successions, marriage alliances, community layouts, and religious celebrations varied in principle and specifics across city-states and regions (Chapters 3, 5, 6, and 7). Indeed, local and regional variation has emerged as a major theme in Aztec studies. It has derived from archaeological, ethnohistoric, and art historical investigations, and has significantly refined questions (and answers) about cultural dynamics, economic production and distribution, social arrangements, and political relationships in this complex world. Archaeologically, the first major breakthrough in documenting Late Postclassic cultural diversity in central Mexico was the broadly constructed Basin of Mexico survey project (Sanders et al. 1979), which accumulated vast amounts of data on settlement patterns, intensive agriculture, population dynamics, and social organization. This project reinforced William Sanders’s (1956) conceptualization of a “Central Mexican Symbiotic Region”22 construed in cultural ecological terms and based on environmental complementarity.This set the stage for subsequent regional studies highlighted by the regional analysis approach exemplified by Richard Blanton and his colleagues (1993). It also led archaeologists to focus on rural households as well as urban entities (e.g., Smith 1996a; Evans 1988; summary in Nichols 2004) and to incorporate ethnographic findings into their investigations (e.g., Parsons 1996, 2006; Parsons and Parsons 1990). In recent years, Basin of Mexico archaeological research has revealed significant variation in, for instance, the distribution and organization of economic specializations (e.g., Charlton 1994; Nichols 1994; Brumfiel 1980, 1987, Spence 1985; see Chapter 5), as well as the size, layout, and structure of city-states (Smith 2008). According to Nichols (2004: 275), “The most striking finding from the recent and ongoing research is the heterogeneity of Aztec city-states and their socioeconomic complexity.” Similarly, in recent years ethnohistorians have become increasingly attuned to regional variations, which have become incorporated into their writings as a matter of course (see, e.g., Lockhart 1992; P. Carrasco 1999; Schroeder et al. 1997; Offner 1983; Harvey 1984; Boone 2000a; Smith and Berdan 2003c). One result of this approach is a refinement in documentary analyses. It has become increasingly important to associate specific documentation with specific locales, since matters ranging from dynastic successions to community layouts to the


Setting the Stage


structure of noble houses to land tenure rules varied from locale to locale and region to region (e.g., Pohl 2003). This is not always possible: according to Harvey (1984: 84), “One important deficiency in the general descriptions of land tenure in the sixteenth century is that there is rare mention of the locality or region to which a description applied.” Harvey echoes current recognition of the need to include regional and local variations in our cultural reconstructions. Much the same applies to art historical research, where the identification of distinctive art styles has contributed substantively to our understanding of culture change and interactions (e.g., Umberger 1987, 1996, 2008). The approaches, data, and conclusions of these multidisciplinary research efforts, with their recognition of diversity and variation, permeate this book.

Interaction Focusing on city-states (altepetl) as the building blocks of the Aztec Empire has contributed to a clearer understanding of regional and super-regional interactions and relationships. A hallmark of Late Postclassic times was its political and economic vitality, a vitality achieved through complex and competitive relationships. Some of these interactions were hostile, as in the nearly constant wars. Others were friendlier (but still competitive), for the flip side of warfare was alliance, and alliances were frequently forged. Both types of relationships tended to be unstable and strained (see Chapter  5). Complementing warfare and alliance were ties established through intricate webs of commerce (Chapter 4) and through shared symbols and styles (Chapters 7 and 8). And atop the numerous city-states hovered the imperial structure of the Aztec Triple Alliance. How can these diverse forms of interaction, between conqueror and conquered, enemy and friend, merchant and consumer, be described and explained? And what was the extent of these interactions? Robert Barlow mapped the geographic extent of the Aztec Empire in 1949, basing his map on documentary sources. Since that pioneering effort, a great deal of ethnohistoric and archaeological data have been uncovered, stimulating substantial refinements of both the map and the administrative nature of the Aztec Empire (Berdan et al. 1996). These refinements recognize the diversity of polities throughout the Aztec realm, as well as variable strategies employed by the imperial powers as they extended their dominion. The Empire pursued not just direct economic exploitation, but also diplomatic arrangements. It built on preexisting commercial relations and expanded them with state support. It fostered social and political interactions through alliances and elite marriages (Chapters 4–6). All the while, city-states embedded in this hegemonic imperial realm conducted their own wars, alliances, marriages, and commerce. Some of these interactions engaged long-standing Aztec enemies. In other words, the rather straightforward view of imperial life presented in Barlow’s time has emerged as quite a bit more complex (and interesting) in today’s conceptions.

Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World Our understanding of these relationships has been further enriched and expanded by the application of a modified world systems model (Chapter 8). This approach addresses interactions on a grand scale and highlights changing relations within and beyond the imperial borders (Blanton and Feinman 1984; Smith and Berdan 2003; Wells 2006). The model, as modified in Smith and Berdan (2003), recognizes that these relations were not just economic, but also embraced social, political, and symbolic interactions.

Dynamics and Causality The Aztec Empire was a secondary state and civilization, not a primary or pristine one, and the models set forth to explain the latter entities do not apply in this case (see Charlton 2000). By Postclassic times, Mesoamerican people had a great deal to draw on from a succession of prior civilizations (see Chapter 2 for an elaboration of this theme). They reaped the benefits of the vast amount of knowledge and the many experiments and mistakes of earlier peoples.They were definitely familiar with these prior civilizations, and in some cases revered them highly and drew on them for political and symbolic legitimacy. This Late Postclassic world was dynamic and rapidly changing, experiencing a surge in population, agricultural intensification, urban growth, expanded commercial activity (with increases in both the volume and diversity of trade goods), and greater interactions in symbolic and stylistic realms (see Chapter 8). Well-argued correlations among some of these dimensions have been offered (see Sanders et al. 1979; Nichols and Evans 2009), but can we also suggest forces generating these changes? William Sanders and his colleagues (1979: 236–281), basing their approach on the cultural ecological model, see close correlations between the Postclassic population growth and agricultural intensification. Michael Smith further suggests that relatively good living standards among Aztec peasants were achieved “through the intensification of household agricultural and craft labor beyond the needs of subsistence in order to participate actively in the market system,” although he recognizes that this is “difficult to confirm with existing data” (1996a: 385). Overall, there is little consensus about the forces driving the Late Postclassic population surge, the proliferation of small polities and urban centers, the importance of markets and commerce, and the distribution of economic specializations (Nichols 2004: 275). For instance, some researchers see market growth as the primary actor in the prominence of city-states (e.g., Blanton et al. 1993); others give pride of place to politics in the Postclassic world of urban–rural relationships (e.g., Brumfiel 1980, 1983, 1987). This latter position suggests that imperial forces were at work in generating local-level changes (e.g., tribute flows into the imperial capitals encouraged neighboring city-states to shift from craft specializations to agriculture). Political economy approaches



Setting the Stage contribute to an understanding of these dynamics, especially in considering aspects of the economy as “variously contingent on changing social, political, and ecological conditions” (Wells 2006: 268; see Hirth 1984, 1996). Questions about many Late Postclassic changes revolve around the impact of the Aztec Empire on conquered peoples as well as the responses of those people to their conquered status. For instance, in Morelos overall living standards decreased following imperial conquest, and agricultural terracing increased (suggesting a need to support a growing population and/or meet imposed tribute demands) (Smith 1994; Smith and Heath-Smith 1994). Elsewhere, possible impacts might have involved shifts in productive activities (e.g., from craft specializations to agriculture, as previously noted) and political influences on economic exchange (e.g., posited control by Tenochtitlan of its northern Basin of Mexico subjects; see Hodge 1998). On the other side of the coin, Chance and Stark (2007) consider the options of conquered peoples and polities under imperial rule (see Chapter 5). These options lead us to consider the matter of agency in cultural and political change. Aztec-period Mexico was a time of immense and rapid change; the Empire itself spanned only about three generations of people. These people experienced noticeable changes in their own lifetimes and in turn affected the trajectory of change. Investigating the role of these lives is the realm of agency theory, as “[m]odern archaeologists want to study how individuals experience material conditions and how new beliefs and meanings are inscribed in individual lives, especially in times of social change” (Yoffee 2005: 113). Modern ethnohistorians seek the same goal. While the lives of the elite are most visible (see Case 5.1), equally important are the social roles and decisions of any person in the society (Yoffee 2005: 113–114; see Chapter  8). Agency theory brings our imperial reconstructions to the individual level: What did it take to live like an Aztec? How did one wend one’s way through the demands and fortunes of everyday life? What led various people to make their various decisions? Questions such as these can lead to profound cultural understandings. These themes of complexity, diversity, interaction, and dynamics appear repeatedly throughout this book. Also permeating the book is a focus on connections. While individual chapters address particular realms of life, no selfrespecting Aztec would have divided up his or her life in this manner. Aztecs’ lives were a complex mosaic of everyday practical and ritual expectations and demands geared toward living in the present, depending on the past, and preparing for the future. In short, this book examines the nature, dynamics, stresses, and anchors of Aztec culture and society from a holistic anthropological perspective.

C hap t e r   2 T h e A z t e c s a s M e s oam e r i can s

From this time on the Chichimec barbarians acquired a little culture and lived like rational people and covered themselves with clothing. . . . They also made huts in which to live. . . . They began to have relations with the other people and to trade and bargain with them . . . becoming related to them by marriage, beginning to have lords, recognizing the authority of some men over others. Diego Durán 1994: 18; originally written 1581

The Aztecs were latecomers to Mesoamerica. As nomadic or seminomadic Chichimecs they migrated into Mesoamerica from the northern deserts, carrying some cultural features shared by other, similar migrants, along with other traits unique to themselves. Within a few generations after their arrival in the Basin of Mexico, they had incorporated much of the well-established Mesoamerican way of life into their own traditional cultural milieu.This chapter pursues the place of the Aztecs in Mesoamerica – just how typical, or how unique, were they? Mesoamerica: A Matter of Perspective

As a culture area, Mesoamerica traditionally encompasses approximately the lower two-thirds of Mexico, all of Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and adjacent portions of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica (Figure  2.1). In 1943 Paul Kirchhoff defined this cultural region by assembling a rather long list of diverse and very specific culture traits, such as agriculture based on maize, beans, and squash; chinampas (cultivated plots built up in shallow lakebeds); wooden swords studded with flint or obsidian; pyrite mirrors; stepped pyramids; ballcourts; eagle and jaguar military orders; merchants who occasionally served as spies; hieroglyphic writing; ritual use of paper and rubber; and two intertwined calendars yielding a fifty-two-year cycle (Kirchhoff 1943: 99–101). The idea was that although some of these traits were also found in other culture areas, their combination was distinctive to the geographical area 31


Setting the Stage

Figure 2.1.  Map of the boundaries of Mesoamerica. (Drawing by Jennifer Berdan.)

defined as “Mesoamerica,” and hence signified a certain amount of historical and cultural unity among the peoples living in that region. These commonalities were considered to result from “a shared history of diffusion and migration linking Mesoamerican societies” (Schortman and Urban 2001: 365). We have come a long way since Kirchhoff offered this conception of Mesoamerica, yet we still find value in the concept and recognize important commonalities within the region. These tend to be phrased more generally and revolve around such themes as agricultural intensification, specialization and trade, urban planning, legitimization of power, elite culture, knowledge systems, mythological and cosmological constructs, and stylistic regimes. Recast, these commonalities are seen today in different, more dynamic terms. In particular, specific and general cultural developments are now viewed in terms of more complex processes and interactions. While individual researchers tend to prefer one approach over others, there is an increasing tendency to interweave local ecological adaptations, regional and macroregional interactions, the fluctuations of regional unity and diversity over time, and the role of ethnicity in efforts to strengthen our explanations of the dynamics and workings of Mesoamerican civilizations. These typically require interdisciplinary undertakings. Especially useful have been macroregional and world systems approaches that recognize regional variations and seek to understand multiple

The Aztecs as Mesoamericans types of interaction among people of different societal levels and across different city-states and regions (e.g., Blanton and Feinman 1984; Feinman and Nicholas 2000; Smith and Berdan 2003b; Parkinson and Galaty 2007; Schortman and Urban 2001). For Aztec-period Mexico, a modified world systems perspective “is one of the few approaches capable of encompassing an area as large as Mesoamerica while accommodating a wide range of variation in the economic and political organization of the constituent societies” (Smith and Berdan 2003a: 12). As Mesoamericans, the Aztecs were participants, very significant participants, in this broader interacting world. Aztec Precedents

The focus of this book is on the Aztec Empire, the final act on the preHispanic Mesoamerican stage (see Table 2.1). However, the Aztecs (or, more specifically, Mexica) cannot be understood in a temporal vacuum. Civilizations stretched back to approximately 1200 BC in Mesoamerica, and in the Basin of Mexico and immediate environs, the basic tenets of Mesoamerican civilization were well established at least by the first century AD. These included a hierarchical social order; centralized power; urbanization; monumental public architecture; intensified economic production yielding substantial surpluses; specialization along economic, social, political, and religious lines; and a polytheistic religion. As a secondary state,1 the Mexica were in the enviable position of being able to learn from their predecessors. Already systems of sophisticated knowledge had been established, techniques refined, and practical and spiritual problems tackled. Drawing on earlier models, the Mexica had the basics at their disposal as they established their city-state: they knew how to grow crops, build temples, lay out a city, select rulers, make war, fashion weapons and armor, weave cloth, make pulque, and act haughty or humble as the occasion required. They could build their cities and city-states rapidly and confidently, much of the trial and error and experimentation having been undertaken by others before them. While secondary states in some vague sense owe organizational and thematic debts to all preceding ones in the broader region, in this case the debts most emphatically and directly derived from Teotihuacan and Tula. The Teotihuacanos created a huge and carefully planned early city with complex internal structures and external relations; the Toltecs of Tula expanded on these themes; and the Mexica further elaborated these patterns, reaping the benefits of the models these predecessors provided. Both Teotihuacan and Tula were considered “Tollans” by the later Mexica: such revered legendary-mythical centers were considered forgers of civilization, creating law, government, fine arts, and virtually all that was grand and valued by high-minded Aztecs. To gain political legitimacy in their new setting, it was essential for the Aztecs to


Setting the Stage

34 Table 2.1. Chronology of Central Mexico and the Basin of Mexico Dates (AD)

Central Mexico

Basin of Mexico

Prominent Polities

950–1150 1150–1350 1350–1521 (1325–1430) (1430–1521)

Early Postclassic Middle Postclassic Late Postclassic

Early Postclassic Early Aztec

Tula and the Toltecs Arrival of Mexica

(Late Aztec A) (Late Aztec B)

Prelude to Empire Aztec Empire

establish, demonstrate, and reaffirm direct links to the revered and semimythical world of Tollan (see Boone 2000b). The Aztecs themselves never experienced either Teotihuacan or Tula as a living city. Both were in ruins by the time the Mexica entered the central Mexican plateau, although Teotihuacan in particular still had a substantial population residing in the proximity of the ancient city. Instead, these migrants encountered a profusion of city-states dotting an increasingly dense landscape. These polities of varying size and importance dominated the central Mexican landscape from at least the first century AD until the Spanish conquest. They provided the foundation for cycles of political consolidation and fragmentation throughout central Mexico (Marcus 1998). Teotihuacan’s dominance was followed by approximately two centuries of political fragmentation into numerous independent city-states. These relatively autonomous polities eventually yielded to Tula’s prominence, again followed by fragmentation after Tula’s collapse in the late twelfth century.The Mexica of Tenochtitlan were one of these small city-states before they eventually revived (and ended) this pre-Hispanic cycle with the development of their Triple Alliance and expansionist empire from 1428 to 1521. In the words of Linda Manzanilla,“[I]t was Teotihuacan that inaugurated the era of large capitals in and around the Basin of Mexico” (2004: 117).This enormous urban center flourished from ca. 150 to 650/750 AD (roughly the Classic period) in the northeastern corner of the Basin of Mexico. It extended approximately 20 square kilometers, and its overall population may have reached a level of 100,000–200,000 residents. In many ways, Teotihuacan was unique among Mesoamerican cities: its grid layout defied the usual arrangements of major buildings around plazas, its formalized urban planning extended beyond the city center to encompass residential areas as well, it lacked the customary ballcourts, and it left no major monuments commemorating the deeds of exceptional rulers (Millon 1981; Pasztory 1997). Still, as an extensive urban center with monumental public architecture (and drawing on its own Mesoamerican predecessors), it had implemented solutions to problems of urban development and statecraft: the feeding and general provisioning of an extraordinarily large and dense population; the coordination of labor for massive public projects;

The Aztecs as Mesoamericans


Figure 2.2.  Classic-period Teotihuacan. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.)

the use of specific material objects as political, status, and military symbols; the inclusion (or perhaps integration) of multiple ethnic groups within the city; the coordination of specialized occupations; and the idea of empire and the ability of the state to enthrall distant regions. Impressive even in ruins,Teotihuacan was held in special awe by the Mexica newcomers (Figure  2.2). Through their legends, the Mexica revealed the paramount importance of Teotihuacan in their new life: they considered it to be the sacred setting for the creation of the current world (see Chapter 7) and the place where laws, rulers, and government were created (Boone 2000b: 375). Their familiarity with Teotihuacan derived from their proximity to the ruined site, from ceremonial pilgrimages made to the ancient city, and from actual artifacts uncovered there by unnamed Mexica (Boone 2000b: 387–388; López Luján et al. 2000: 219; Umberger 1987). Much has been written about the virtual appropriation of “things Teotihuacano” by the later Mexica. They carried away and reused actual Teotihuacan objects, sometimes modifying these antiques with their own significant inscriptions. Even more frequently, they copied and reproduced objects in this revered style (Umberger 1996). Some of these objects were exhibited; others were buried as offerings. No fewer than forty-one Teotihuacan or Teotihuacanstyle objects (including three masks, various sculptures, and a remarkable vase reused as an Mexica noble’s burial urn) have been uncovered in offerings in Tenochtitlan’s ceremonial precinct (López Luján et al. 2000; López Luján 2005:104). On two temples beside the Templo Mayor (the “red temples”), the Tenochtitlan Mexica brazenly copied Teotihuacan architectural (talud-tablero) and artistic styles, making an aggressive and visible statement of their perceived and claimed associations with this early venerable city. Equally obvious were similarities in urban layout: both cities were laid out on a grid anchored by major north–south and east–west avenues, the avenues met at a point of major


Setting the Stage ceremonial significance, and the primary temple faced west. The residential areas surrounding both cities’ epicenters were also formally arranged, retaining a rather neat geometric grid plan (Umberger 1987: 84; 1996: 89–90; Smith 2008). Both cities were atypical in Mesoamerican urban planning designs, which usually consisted of urban epicenters with ceremonial structures laid out formally around a central plaza, with the remainder of the city more casually arranged. Tula (ca. 950–1175 AD; Early Postclassic period), with an estimated population of around 50,000 inhabitants settled in a 13-square-kilometer area, was considerably smaller than earlier Teotihuacan (Diehl 2004: 124). Nonetheless, its influence on the later Mexica was easily as significant, in both practical and symbolic arenas. As with Teotihuacan, the Mexica associated Tula with origins, in this case the origins of fine arts and legitimate rulership.2 Mexica fine artisans were called tolteca, and the Mexica made concerted efforts to marry into legitimate Toltec lineages in their rise to power. Mexica links to Tula (some 80 kilometers north of Tenochtitlan) are ambiguous – Mexica legends depict Tula in fantastic and effusive terms, while the Early Postclassic site itself is humble by comparison. Aztec-period (Late Postclassic) remains, including ceramics, buried offerings, burials, and sculptures, have been found at Tula, and the area was occupied throughout Aztec times (Umberger 1987: 71–72; Smith 2008: 23–24).Yet it was the image of Tula in Mexica ideology that was most important – their reverence for that earlier civilization tangibly influenced their priorities, motivations, and behavior. In spatial terms, Tenochtitlan’s central precinct layout is only roughly coincident with that of Tula (with its west-facing main temple, low-lying platform, skull rack, and ballcourt; Smith 2008).3 However, Tula-style relief-sculpture warriors march along banquettes in the Eagle Warriors’ chamber adjacent to Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor, ceramic vessels were fashioned in Toltec style, and sculptured chacmools hark back to those at Tula. Umberger (1987) has studied these and other objects with an art historian’s eye and concluded that most were probably copies of older Toltec forms, as they exhibit specific stylistic variations characteristic of imperial Mexica art. While only few Toltec antiques themselves were retained (or have yet been recovered), it is impressive that the Mexica made the effort to replicate the Toltec style, venerating it in their own creative endeavors. The ceremonial use and display of legendary and foreign elements to bolster political legitimacy was not invented by the Mexica. However, they readily embraced the notion and were especially enthusiastic participants in this political strategy. Demonstrable connections with the revered past provided the Mexica with a solid symbolic basis for their political ambitions.4 Drawing on the glory and prestige of ancient Teotihuacan and Tula, the Mexica made an explicit statement linking themselves to the chain of venerated central Mexican civilizations. They did not, however, abandon their Chichimec heritage along the way.

The Aztecs as Mesoamericans


Figure 2.3. The Teochichimeca. (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, illus. 184. Courtesy University of Utah Press. Reproduced with permission.)

The Merging of Chichimec and Toltec: The Aztecs in Mesoamerica

Aztec culture was a hybrid culture, meshing nomadic Chichimec and settled Toltec attributes. The Mexica and several other groups undertook long migrations from the north into central Mexico, beginning their arrivals at least by the twelfth century AD. Collectively known as Chichimeca, they periodically joined and dispersed on their eventful journeys; the Mexica were the last to arrive in the Basin of Mexico. There they encountered numerous well-established sedentary peoples, some of them claiming Toltec affinities. Interacting with these groups, the Mexica and other migrants readily absorbed Mesoamerican traditions into their cultural repertoires. As Chichimeca, these northern peoples brought a number of cultural attributes to the table. There was a fair amount of cultural diversity among them. There were Teochichimeca, or “true Chichimecs” (Figure  2.3), who were nomadic hunters and gatherers, wore animal skins, used peyote, depended heavily on the bow and arrow, but nonetheless produced fine goods of feathers and stone (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 171–175). Whether the Mexica themselves were Teochichimeca at some point in their journey is a matter of conjecture. By the time the historical accounts catch up with them, they more closely resembled another type of Chichimeca, the Tamime, whose lifestyle was transitional between nomadic and settled. Sahagún (1950–1982: book 10, 171) suggests that such groups acquired the more “civilized” way of life by first honing language skills to learn from the settled peoples, thereby acquiring poor and tattered capes and cultivating small fields of maize.5 They apparently were successful at this transition, since they are also described as constructing great buildings (such as temples) and were well aware of prestigious luxuries such as rich capes, cacao, and precious greenstones (Durán 1994: 12, 19, 22). They had priests (suggesting a social hierarchy), coped with internal factions,

Setting the Stage

38 Case 2.1 The Aztec Migrations: Prelude to Tenochtitlan

Several historical sources, pictorial and textual, record the early history of the Mexica and other Chichimeca as they traveled from their arid northern homelands to their new settlements in and around the Basin of Mexico.These travels required some two centuries, from the early twelfth century until 1325 AD (for the Mexica). This adventurous history focused on a series of dramatic events that set the stage for subsequent urban and imperial developments. The earliest experiences, as recorded, display a mythic-historic quality, a style consistent with the Aztec worldview in which the line between the natural and supernatural worlds was thin and permeable. The more distant in time, the more mythical, so locations and itineraries from their beginnings at Aztlan to the curved hill of Culhuacan and the Seven Caves of Chicomoztoc remain vague. Also cast in mythical terms were internal conflicts along the way: in one quarrel the goddess Malinalxochitl split from her brother Huitzilopochtli, the Mexica patron god. On the ground, this resulted in the former faction settling at Malinalco, which the Mexica would later conquer.An even more dramatic conflict along the route took place at Coatepetl (Serpent Mountain). It pit Huitzilopochtli (as the sun) against his sister Coyolxauhqui (the moon) and her four hundred brothers (numerous stars), with Huitzilopochtli emerging victorious (as the sun conquers the forces of night each dawn). Events seem more “historical” as the Mexica passed through the ancient seat of power of Tula and entered the Basin of Mexico. The Mexica arrival in the Basin had been preceded by the migrations of several other northern groups. Most notable were the Tepaneca, who had settled to the west of Lake Texcoco, and the Acolhua, who had settled to the east. The west was already densely occupied with long-resident peoples, while the east was more sparsely inhabited.The Mexica stopped briefly at the Otomí center of Xaltocan, then journeyed along the western shore of the lake, passing through several well-established Tepanec city-states. They stopped at Chapultepec Hill, source of a desirable spring. There they were besieged by a coalition of established city-states. In dire straits, with their ruler captured by the Colhuacan king, the remaining Mexica fell into servitude to the Colhua ruler, Coxcoxtli. They then helped that ruler in his war against neighboring Xochimilco and appealed to him to provide them lands on which to settle. Coxcoxtli acquiesced but settled the Mexica at a place called Tizaapan, a locale inhabited only by poisonous snakes and other nasty vermin. Demonstrating extraordinary survival skills, the Mexica thrived there, earning the respect (or fear) of their Colhuacan overlords. The Mexica also revealed cunning diplomatic skills, arranging marriages with several Colhuacan persons, including a marriage between the ruler’s favorite daughter and the Mexica god Huitzilopochtli. This last ended in chaos, as the Colhuacan ruler was invited to the marriage ceremony, only to find his daughter sacrificed and her skin worn by a Mexica priest. Enraged, Colhuacan warriors chased the Mexica into the heart of Lake Texcoco.They finally stopped on a swampy island, where at last they saw an eagle perched atop a prickly pear cactus, the sacred symbol of their destiny. This was in the year Two House (1325), and it was there that they founded Tenochtitlan, their new seat of power.

The Aztecs as Mesoamericans These events reveal much about life in the Basin of Mexico during the Early Aztec period (1150–1350), prior to Aztec imperial domination. First, there were full-blown cities and city-states in the Basin at this time, and the landscape was already becoming rather crowded. Second, the relations among these city-states were highly volatile.Third, their strategies for survival included wars, alliances, elite intermarriage, and the use of mercenaries. And fourth, some citystates were more prestigious than others, being derivative seats of the revered ancestral Toltec heritage. Furthermore, events described in the Mexica’s early history, whether mythical or historical, carried relevance in their later history.Their Huey Teocalli (­Templo Mayor, Great Temple) in Tenochtitlan was also called Coatepec, commemorating the location of their patron god’s victory over his sister ­Coyolxauhqui. An enormous carved monument of this defeated goddess (discovered in 1978) sat at the base of the Templo Mayor. On a more general level, the Mexica’s early history demonstrates how they took advantage of local conflicts, bought into existing political strategies, and were willing to serve as subservient mercenaries while always having their eye on the ultimate prize of domination of their known world. These stories also highlight the Mexica view of themselves as tenacious, clever, and driven by a sacred destiny.

played the ritual ballgame, and were polytheistic. In other words, before they arrived in the Basin of Mexico, the Mexica and their fellow travelers had already acquired the basics of Mesoamerican “civilized” life. Their adjustment to permanent settled life in the Mesoamerican style would have been neither shocking nor traumatic (although it was eventful; see Case 2.1). The Chichimec world technically lay outside the more fertile Mesoamerican realm. It was, however, not isolated from that realm. Relations between centers in central Mexico and Paquimé (Casas Grandes) in the northern Chihuahua desert were active in Toltec times and later, as were relations with groups along the Pacific coast (see Foster and Gorenstein 2000; Fields and Zamudio-Taylor 2001). Turquoise traveled south from the U.S. Southwest, while scarlet macaws and their precious feathers, copper bells, shells, and even chocolate traveled north, presumably following mutually advantageous trade networks (Lekson and Peregrine 2004; Weigand and García de Weigand 2001; Pohl 2001; Crown and Hurst 2009).6 Chichimec familiarity with such materials (and whatever associated ideas traveled with them) should come as no surprise.7 Settling in the Basin of Mexico, the Mexica recognized the value of establishing connections with the glorified, generalized Toltec world.The overt strategies they employed to integrate themselves into that world, and ultimately dominate it, attest to this (see Case 2.2). On a practical level they orchestrated alliances and elite marriages, built a city following ancient central Mexican formats, trained their artists to copy Teotihuacan and Tula styles and objects (Figure 2.4), and built


Setting the Stage




Figure 2.4. Sculptural reliefs from (a) Tula and (b) Tenochtitlan. (Drawings by Emily Umberger. Reproduced with permission.)

expansive and expensive palaces and public buildings.They waged wars and made conquests. They gained wealth through tribute and commerce, thereby obtaining prestigious objects for display.They clearly recognized the power of symbols to link them to a “civilized” past. But while they acquired titles and deities reminiscent of the Toltec past, they also retained and honored their Chichimec titles (especially in warrior contexts) and gave pride of place to their own patron god, Huitzilopochtli. Case 2.2  Mexica Development Strategies: Prelude to Empire The history leading to Aztec imperial dominance was grounded in a series of pivotal events and assertive political-economic strategies. The dated events include the following: 1325 1337

Founding of Tenochtitlan Founding of Tlatelolco on the northern part of the island by a dissident group of Mexica 1372 Establishment of Acamapichtli as tlatoani of Tenochtitlan 1427 Death of Tezozomoc, powerful ruler of Azcapotzalco 1428– Battle for regional domination between an Azcapotzalco contender 1430 (Maxtla) and combined forces from Tenochtitlan and Texcoco 1430 Ascendancy of Nezahualcoyotl to the throne of Texcoco 1430 Establishment of the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan,Texcoco, and Tlacopan In 1325, when they established their new homeland at Tenochtitlan, the Mexica were in a weak position within the shifting geopolitics of the Basin of Mexico.

The Aztecs as Mesoamericans Yet they were far from helpless, and according to their own histories, they never lost sight of their destiny to eventually rule the world around them.Their shaky migratory history within the Basin had already taught them the basic strategies of survival, and they built on these strategies as they spent the next century striving for political dominance. The first strategy was directed toward the Mexica’s need to provision their island settlement in a manner appropriate to their (and their patron god’s) aspirations. The island was poor in building materials but rich in aquatic life and in potential agricultural development. They immediately set about trading lake resources (such as fish, frogs, larvae, and migratory birds) for stone and wood for their godly temple, all on a rather humble scale.Their setting was advantageous for canoe transport and communication, and they established a popular market. They also industriously began building chinampas, expanding their island settlement well into the shallow lakebed itself and providing necessary food resources for the growing city. A second strategy involved subservience and alliance. Settling at Tenochtitlan (and intending to stay there), they found themselves at the intersection of the three most powerful city-states in the Basin of Mexico: Azcapotzalco to the west, Texcoco to the east, and Colhuacan to the south. Apparently, they physically occupied land belonging to Azcapotzalco. They acknowledged the Azcapotzalco overlordship, paying tributes in aquatic resources and military service. As warriors, they energetically aided that city-state in its aggressive regional wars of conquest. The Mexica reaped the benefits of this mercenary activity, as their nobles were granted lands in some of the conquered areas. These lands provided an important economic base for an expanding elite, and eventually the Mexica’s status changed from that of vassals to that of allies. A third strategy involved the establishment of political legitimacy through elite marriages. The Mexica already enjoyed a history of marrying into the Colhuacan nobility, and pursued marriages into noble families of Azcapotzalco and Texcoco.The royal house of Colhuacan carried the prestigious Toltec ancestry, and a child (Acamapichtli) born of a Mexica leader and a Colhuacan princess was installed as Tenochtitlan tlatoani in 1372; this event conferred Toltec genealogical claims on the Mexica. Their subsequent rulers henceforth descended from this Mexica–Toltec lineage. From that time it was customary and expected for Mexica rulers and other nobles to intermarry with highranking lineages throughout the Basin of Mexico and beyond. A fourth strategy concerned urban development. The Mexica established their ceremonial precinct at the core of the infant city; they divided the surrounding area into quarters, and the quarters into smaller residential neighborhoods (calpulli, tlaxilacalli). Their productive base was expanded through chinampas. The Mexica encouraged others to settle in Tenochtitlan, and since the city grew rapidly, they were apparently successful in this.The city exhibited increasing wealth: nobles began to openly enjoy fancy and expensive lifestyles, and religious ceremonies became more and more flamboyant. A vibrant, energetic, wealthy, and growing city was essential as a symbol of power in the Mexica’s pursuit of imperial dominance.



Setting the Stage The Mexica and other newly arrived Chichimeca did not simply adopt elements of the Mesoamerican world wholesale. More commonly, they recast and reinterpreted these objects and ideas to mesh with those in their own cultural milieu. For instance, according to Umberger (1987: 98), “the Mexica usually changed the identity of figures in their imitations of ancient forms. . . . Sometimes they used the same form for different deities . . . and sometimes different forms for the same deity.” As a case in point,Tenochtitlan’s association of its own chacmools with the god Tlaloc “is probably a Mexica invention, not a survival from the deep past” (Umberger 1987: 77). By the time the Mexica and their allies were forging their empire, they had effectively blended general Toltec imperatives with their Chichimec heritage. The process involved a relatively short time span, surely expedited by the Chichimecs’ earlier exposure to Mesoamerican cultural features. On their journeys southward, they had already built temples, but now in central Mexico they built enormous ones. Their Chichimec temples were dedicated to their patron god, but now their supernatural pantheon expanded and required a multitude of temples and priestly attendants. As Chichimeca they were already hierarchical, but now they became more and more caste-like. As Chichimeca they had leaders, but now their leaders were personally powerful rulers supported by a massive bureaucracy; their statecraft strategies and external relations were complex and sophisticated. As Chichimeca they had a few specialists, but now they developed well-defined, even hereditary specialist groups. And as Chichimeca they already wore cloth capes, but now fancy ones replaced the tattered rags of earlier times and were accompanied by expensive and exquisite ornaments. In other words, by the time the Aztec Empire had reached its pinnacle as a dominant force in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, these latecomers had enthusiastically acquired a Mesoamerican way of life, coming to define that way of life itself. Challenges, Innovations, and Mexica Responses

While the Aztecs were recipients of much from their dual heritage, they also became innovators and a dominant force in their Mesoamerican setting. They faced particular challenges requiring inventive and proactive institutional and behavioral responses. These challenges and responses largely involved matters of scale, intensity, and complexity. The Late Postclassic period in central Mexico (1350–1521 AD) experienced a major population surge, especially in the Basin of Mexico (Sanders et al. 1979: 183–184; Sanders 1981: 193). This demographic explosion resulted in a population of some 1 million people in the Basin in the early sixteenth century. At the most basic level, how was this unprecedented number of people fed? This challenge was met by intensified food production systems such as terracing, irrigation, and chinampas as marginal lands were made productive and lakebeds

The Aztecs as Mesoamericans were transformed into cultivated plots. While these strategies increased production substantially, the reliance of a large population on high-intensity and sometimes marginal agricultural systems also magnified the impact of famines and the potential for malnutrition. A second major challenge was political (see Brumfiel 1983). The Basin of Mexico was composed of a profusion of city-states that weathered internal dynastic struggles and competed with one another for resources, prestige, and prominence. This unstable situation resulted in the occasional yet short-lived preeminence of one city-state in the region, only to be replaced by that of another. The formation of the Triple Alliance in 1428–1430 set in motion the overwhelmingly dominant Aztec Empire. With their imperial strategies, the Mexica and their allies forged a relatively stable political environment in much of central Mexico. In that setting, commerce and marketplaces thrived: an increased variety and volume of local and imported goods became available to people across diverse regions and up and down the social hierarchy. As city-states were conquered by this aggressive and expanding empire, tributes flowed into the largest city ever seen in Mesoamerica, channeling more and more resources from outlying regions into the Basin of Mexico.These tributes helped support the city’s residents, supplied its artisans, funded its bureaucracy and wars, and provided the visible luxuries that symbolized the power and elevated status of rulers and other elites. These symbols were used to enhance Aztec power over wide regions, as they were shared and understood widely throughout Mesoamerica in Late Postclassic times. How, then, did the Aztec world differ from its predecessors? In general, innovations in the Late Postclassic Aztec world largely involved intensifying existing Mesoamerican cultural and institutional features. Earlier civilizations had developed sophisticated agricultural techniques; the Aztecs expanded on known technologies, creating, for example, a vast network of chinampas around lacustrine shorelines. The Mexica capital city of Tenochtitlan was the largest in Mesoamerican prehistory, and its size and full-scale urban planning were rivaled only by that of earlier Teotihuacan. Its primary temples were not the largest ever built in Mesoamerica,8 but they presented a novel plan of crowding numerous temples and other structures within a well-defined ceremonial compound (see Smith 2008: 68, 146).9 Radiating out from this and neighboring cities, Aztec military forces forged the most extensive empire in Mesoamerican prehistory, enthralling distant regions by means of tribute obligations, elite marriages, threats of reprisals, promises of protection, client relations, and the stimulation of craft production and commerce (see Chapters  4 and 5). Controlling that empire (although sometimes tenuously; see Chapter 5), Aztec imperial rulers and their elite cadres acquired unsurpassed political power. Like their predecessors and royal contemporaries, they brashly exhibited their power and elevated status. However, Aztec rulers and other elites could do so with unprecedented extravagance, so that Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (r. 1502–1520)


Setting the Stage


was said to have been served, at a minimum, more than thirty dishes at a single meal (Díaz del Castillo 1963: 225).10 In short, the Aztecs augmented an expanding Mesoamerican world already in motion, through conquest, commerce, and diplomacy. They spearheaded imperial policies and state-making strategies that interwove, to various degrees, broad regions and diverse peoples into a dynamic, interacting Mesoamerican world system. The Role of Ethnicity

While the concept of Mesoamerica is based on commonalities, it is important to stress the considerable cultural and linguistic diversity within that culture area. Especially significant is the fact that central Mexican peoples, organized into numerous city-states in Aztec times, considered themselves separate and distinct from others around them. To what extent were these distinctions based on ethnicity? How did these people define ethnicity, and how meaningful were ethnic identities in directing or constraining their lives? On the surface, distinctions along ethnic lines were visibly expressed in language, clothing, bodily adornments, hair styles, food preferences, and attributed “character” (Figure 2.5) (Berdan 2008: 116–127). Stereotypes of ethnic groups clearly existed, placing some judgmental and moral distance between these identifiable groups (as, for instance, when badly behaving Mexica children were chastised by being described as “Otomí blockheads”). Yet while these distinctions were recognized and verbalized, and even exaggerated during certain ceremonies, they were infrequently mobilized as a primary motivator in people’s lives and therefore had few serious consequences. Nonetheless, at a somewhat deeper level, ethnicity in the Aztec world differentiated groups of people on the basis of shared places of origin or residence and common histories. It was a cultural concept and did not have its basis in biological distinctions. Beyond common residence and common history, ethnic criteria included a shared destiny, common enemies, and common interest. Common residence was preeminent: ethnic groups tended to cluster in city-states (altepetl) and especially in their component districts (calpolli) (see Chapter  5). However, it was common for altepetl to be multiethnic and for residence in any city or community to be somewhat fluid in the face of considerable population movements and displacements in Aztec times. In other words, there was typically no one-to-one relationship between city-state and ethnic group, although usually a given city-state was dominated politically by one ethnic group. Shared histories were associated with common residence: “These historical and mythical links typically took the form of an origin story, adventurous peregrination, and founding legend, and often focused on a legendary leader and/or legitimized dynastic rulership” (Berdan 2008: 109). Such histories often justified the occupation or appropriation of a certain

The Aztecs as Mesoamericans


Figure 2.5. Totonaca from the eastern Aztec Empire, dressed in the colorful clothing for which they were known. (From Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, illus. 195. Courtesy University of Utah Press. Reproduced with permission.)

territory, so common residence and shared history became intertwined over time. Extending these ideas into the future, some ethnic groups emphasized the sharing of a common destiny; the Mexica’s drive to dominate their known world is a premier example of this. Ethnic groups also rallied around common enemies. To the extent that ethnic identities coincided with city-states, they provided common ground for the region’s ever-present wars. While one’s ethnicity may have provided an added dimension to loyalties in these situations, one’s city-state membership still predominated. Wars seem not to have been instigated against groups because of their differing ethnicity. On the contrary, the bitterest wars were waged by the Triple Alliance against polities in the nearby Valley of Puebla.11 These were not exotic groups; they were familiar Nahuatl speakers. Common interest provided a certain amount of adhesion within ethnic groups. Sentiments of attachment to one’s ethnicity were evident and reinforced in recurring public ceremonies; at the very least, an ethnic group’s commitment to its patron deity usually overrode obligations to other deities in the pantheon. Rituals surrounding such patron deities provided ethnic groups with a sense of exclusivity (see Chapter 7). The earlier discussion of the dual nature of Mexica culture, blending Chichimec and Toltec features, exemplifies the situational, protean, and subjective nature of ethnicity: “This malleability means that members can base their ethnicity on descent from common ancestors at one period and at another time shift to ethnicity based on location with only vague reference to common descent” (Sandstrom and Berdan 2008: 205). This underscores the need for understanding the changing contexts in which ethnicity appeared. In the Aztec world, an individual’s role in society was defined along multiple dimensions, notably residence, social class, occupation, and ethnic identity. Among these, ethnicity appears to have been the least significant, and ethnic groups seem to have been integrated into and even subsumed within the more basic residential units and social institutions. But ethnicity was not irrelevant, as “ethnic opinions and stereotypes were certainly easily established and could have encouraged, discouraged, or textured interaction” within and between territorial and social groups (Berdan 2008: 127).


Setting the Stage The Aztec world was a mosaic of cultures, languages, and self-interested polities forged through intricate and complex histories. Any single self-identified group, at any single point in time, might give priority to city-state membership, cultural affinities, linguistic commonalities, or even some special economic distinction in securing its place in this dynamic world. These priorities were adjusted and readjusted to meet sometimes dramatically changing circumstances in each group’s broader social, political, and economic universe. These affinities were not neat and clean. That is, they overlapped and crosscut one another, and there were few situations where all of these dimensions neatly coincided. City-states were often multiethnic and multilinguistic. Chichimecs lived side by side with Toltec descendants. Groups of craft specialists moved from their native communities to larger cities. Refugees relocated. “Foreign” military posts were installed in equally “foreign” locales. The complexity of this situation is, at first blush, perhaps bewildering. But it does not defy understanding. Certainly the Aztecs themselves managed quite well to wend their individual ways through this apparent maze. The remaining chapters in this book consider how they did this, by examining their economic, political, social, religious, and cultural milieu.

part   2 Aztec Society and Culture

C hap t e r   3 L i v i n g o n t h e  La n d

The country of New Spain is similar to Spain in that it has almost the same kind of mountains, valleys and fields, except that its mountains are more formidable and rugged. . . . Also there are ranges known to extend more than two hundred leagues . . . there are large rivers and very good fresh-water springs; extensive forests, over mountain and plain, of very tall pines, cedars, oaks, cypresses, encinos and many varieties of mountain timber. Anonymous Conqueror 1993: 165; originally appeared second half of ­sixteenth century, based on early sixteenth-century observations Environmental Features of the Aztec World

The Aztec imperial domain lay entirely within the tropics. Yet it was an immensely diverse region, its physical variations dependent largely on differences in elevation and rainfall (Figure 3.1). It was a land of majestic snowcapped volcanic mountains, broad fertile plateaus, semiarid valleys, lake-filled basins, verdant mountains slashed by deep barrancas, dense rain forests, mangrove swamps, and charming lagoons. It was a land ranging in elevation from sea level to 5,610 meters above sea level,1 and it is usefully divided by modern geographers into three distinct altitudinal levels: tierra caliente, tierra templada, and tierra fría (see Case 3.1). Landscapes transcending all of these zones were relevant to the Aztecs in varying degrees: their imperial core was established in the Basin of Mexico, and their closest relations and bitterest sustained enemies occupied the surrounding central Mexican plateaus. Their imperial hegemony extended more distantly from coast to coast and as far south as the present-day Guatemalan border, and they developed trade and diplomatic relations beyond their actual area of political control, especially into the southern coastal and rain forest regions of the Maya.


Aztec Society and Culture


Figure 3.1. Mesoamerican topography. (Drawing by Jennifer Berdan.)

The Basin of Mexico The Basin of Mexico was the nerve center of the Aztec Empire. The largest of the central Mexican high-altitude plateaus, this basin is approximately 7,000 square kilometers in extent. It is rimmed by majestic mountain peaks reaching as high as 5,465 meters,2 and it descends at its lowest point to 2,240 meters. It is well within tierra fría. It experiences moderate seasonal rainfall (May–September) that varies considerably from one year to the next. Rainfall is highest in the southwest and lowest in the northeast, and increases along the piedmont and mountain slopes. In Aztec times this internal-drainage basin had no hydraulic outlet and was dominated by a large system of five interlocking lakes predominantly fed by springs in the south, by rainfall runoff in the east, and by rivers in the north (Figure 3.2). The fresh waters of the two southernmost lakes, Lake Chalco and Lake Xochimilco, were rich in lacustrine resources and provided a favorable zone for extensive chinampa cultivation. The easternmost and largest lake was Lake Texcoco; it was saline, and while unsuitable for chinampa cultivation, it provided a variety of natural resources and was a productive setting for saltmaking enterprises. The two northern lakes, Lake Xaltocan and Lake Zumpango, were fed primarily by rivers and springs, and while brackish (Parsons 2008a:

Living on the Land


Figure C3.1.  A central Mexican landscape. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.)

Case 3.1  Geographical Zones in the Aztec World Geographers typically divide Mesoamerica into three distinct zones based on elevation. These zones exhibit characteristic fauna, flora, and patterns of human use. All of them were found within the bounds of the Aztec Empire. Tierra caliente (hot land) lies from sea level to an elevation of 1,000 meters.The hot, humid lowlands of this zone usually experience heavy rainfall, resulting in dense tropical forest or savannah grassland vegetation regimes. This is the home of jaguars, monkeys, and brilliant tropical birds, as well as myriad forms of coastal marine life. Aztec-period people living in tierra caliente and beyond were especially interested in these and other luxury resources, such as cacao, cotton, and fine greenstones. They also often enjoyed more than one harvest of staple crops annually. These lands included the coasts of the Aztec domain, as well as some areas to the south of the Empire. Tierra templada (temperate land) ranges from 1,000 to 2,000 meters in elevation. The lands in this zone range from rugged mountainous terrain to river valleys shadowed by volcanic mountains. Rainfall is variable and seasonal, concentrated in the May–October rainy season. Native vegetation is also variable, ranging from dry scrub woodlands to grasslands and mountain forests. In Aztec times, the drier temperate lands required irrigation or other hydraulic intervention to ensure reasonably reliable agriculture. Tierra templada lands under Aztec control lay mainly in the southern part of the Empire and in the mountainous regions descending toward both coasts. Tierra fría (cold land) rises above 2,000 meters, where the seasonal rainfall tends to be even less predictable than in tierra templada. The extensive highland plateaus of central Mexico, including the mountain-shadowed valleys or basins of Mexico, Tula, Toluca, Puebla, and Tlaxcala, all fall within this zone (Figure C3.1). Native vegetation responds to altitude and rainfall, and ranges from grasslands to scrub woodlands to pine-oak forests. Swamplands are (were) also common in basins or valleys with lakes. During Aztec times deer and rabbits inhabited these highlands, and lakes harbored vast amounts of ­lacustrine resources and


Aztec Society and Culture attracted large numbers of migratory birds. Other valued resources included timber, obsidian, salt, and reeds. In Aztec times, agriculture was a prominent human enterprise, although the growing season was shorter than in the other two zones, and frost was always a potential danger. Under these conditions, the ubiquitous nopal cactus and maguey were mainstays. These highland regions were the Aztec imperial heartland, as well as home to the Aztecs’ more persistent enemies.

24), they allowed the local inhabitants to build some chinampas. Together, these lakes dominated the basin, covering an estimated area of 800–1,000 square kilometers (Rojas Rabiela 2004: 23). Beyond the lakes, expansive flatlands extended several kilometers to a sloping piedmont region, culminating in rugged mountains. These many microenvironments, from swampy lakes to high-altitude mountainsides, provided varied natural resources and offered different potentials for human use. Natural resources were highly localized. The lakes and swampy marshlands yielded abundant plants and animals for human use, including “reeds, tuberous plants, algae, insects and insect eggs, frogs, salamanders, turtles, several species of fish and their eggs, several species of small crustaceans, and vast numbers of waterfowl and their eggs” (Parsons 2008a: 39). Saltmaking was concentrated along the saline shores of Lake Texcoco. Important obsidian quarries were located in the northeast (at Otompan), lime in the northwest, and localized deposits of clay for pottery making throughout. Forested areas (consisting especially of oaks and pines), including those above the frost zone, supplied woods for construction, fuel, and the manufacture of a multitude of artifacts. White-tailed deer, rabbits, and other small animals were common in these regions. These diverse resource areas tended to lead to economic specializations, especially in the hunting of animals and waterfowl;3 fishing; obsidian mining; saltmaking; pottery manufacture; and wood, lime, and reed processing. These specialized activities aside, agriculture was the fundamental economic activity in the Basin of Mexico. Agriculture took place in three general contexts: chinampas were cultivated in shallow lakebeds, irrigation agriculture was practiced in well-watered flatlands with deep soils, and rainfall agriculture was carried on along slopes with thinner soils and no permanent water supply (Parsons 2008a: 51).4 Seed crops (especially maize, beans, amaranth, and squashes) were grown in all three contexts; maguey, with its ability to withstand cold and drought, was especially important in the drier and higher areas. With the Basin of Mexico at such a high elevation, frost was a serious threat and the growing season was normally restricted to about six months.5 Especially critical was the timing of the rains: a delayed rainy season combined with an early frost spelled disaster. Other threats included violent, cold storms,

Living on the Land

Figure 3.2. Map of the Basin of Mexico in 1519. (Drawing by Jennifer Berdan.)

flooding, drought, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and grasshopper and rat plagues (see Case 3.2). So while the Basin was economically attractive and productive, it was not without its periodic risks.

The Central Mexico Plateaus The highland valleys of central Mexico, including the Basin of Mexico, have been variously called the central highlands, the Mesa Central, and the


Aztec Society and Culture


Case 3.2  Famines, Frosts, and Floods: Aztec-Period Disasters in the Basin of Mexico Agricultural life in the tierra fría was risky. Rainfall was erratic in timing and quantity, grasshoppers and other pests devoured crops, killing frosts appeared unpredictably, and the earth shook under earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The large Aztec population of the Basin of Mexico placed serious strains on the available food supply. As long as water levels were controlled, the earth stayed quiet, pests were impeded, frosts were conveniently late, and the anticipated tribute rolled in, the population could be fed. But nature was not always so cooperative, nor was human ingenuity always successful. Even in the face of intensified agricultural systems, extraordinary hydraulic engineering, and political sophistication, nature struck devastating blows to the Aztec core on several occasions between 1325 and 1521: 1332–1335* 1403 1410 1446 1447–1448 1449 1450 1450–1454† 1451 1453 1460 1462 1468 1475 1480 1490 1491 1495 or 1496 1500 1502 1503 1505 1506 1507 1507 1511–1512 1512 1513 1514 1514–1539‡

Drought Grasshopper plague Rain of fire (volcanic eruption?), hunger Grasshopper plague and famine Violent storm or blizzard Flood Heavy snows Devastating famine Frost Storm (perhaps frost, hail, and/or snow), destroying crops Earthquake Earthquake Earthquake Earthquake Earthquake Great hailstorm; fish died and the rivers left their channels Grasshopper plague Earthquake Great flood (royal mismanagement) Drought and famine Heavy snowfall (in Tlachquiauhco, south of the Basin of Mexico) Famine Plague of rats, devouring crop seeds Earthquake Flooding of Atoyac River (southeast of Basin of Mexico) Heavy snowstorms Three earthquakes Earthquake Famine Drought

* Based on tree-ring data (see Stahle et al. 2011). † This well-known famine is variously recorded as beginning in 1450 or 1454, although sources uniformly agree that it lasted four years. ‡ Based on tree-ring data (see Stahle et al. 2011).

Living on the Land The documentary record becomes richer in the later years. These events are variously recorded in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (Quiñones Keber 1995), Codex en Cruz (Dibble 1981), Códice Aubin (1980), Códice de Huichapan (Ecker 2001), Codex Chimalpopoca (Bierhorst 1992), Alva Ixtlilxochitl (1965), Durán (1994), Torquemada (1969), Chimalpahin (Anderson and Schroeder 1997), and Don Gabriel de Ayala (Anderson and Schroeder 1997). Tree-ring data (Stahle et al. 2011;Therrell et al. 2004) are somewhat coincident with the ethnohistoric record.

altiplano. This region lay predominantly in tierra fría and consists of “a series of chambers, each set off from its neighbors by mountainous partitions” (Wolf 1959: 3) (Figure 3.3). To the east and west of the Basin of Mexico lay the valleys of Puebla (elevation 2,100 meters) and Toluca (elevation 2,600 meters). These two valleys approximated the Basin of Mexico in elevation, topography, and climate but lacked the Basin’s dominant lakes. They contained broad alluvial flatlands, piedmont slopes, and ranging mountains. The natural flora and fauna also resembled that of the Basin of Mexico, with the exception of the latter’s lacustrine biome. Likewise, the major human enterprise was agriculture, conducted along the flatlands and on up the piedmont to the zone of risky frosts. To the north and south of these three dominant valleys lay regions included in Sanders’s (1956) “Central Mexican Symbiotic Region,” which also encompassed the three central plateaus. This region is defined by its intense and sustained degree of interaction – economic, political, social, and symbolic – in pre-Columbian times. To the north of the Basin of Mexico, across relatively low-lying hills, lay drier plains where agriculture was tenuous and reliance on maguey more important. Nonetheless, this was home to the important Early Postclassic center of Tula. To the south lay the attractive Valley of Morelos, which was some 1,000 meters below the Basin of Mexico. This was warmer, wetter country and a popular “resort” area for Aztec kings. Agriculture was more reliable in this land of hillsides and flatlands than on the central plateaus (especially with the human intervention of irrigation and terraces), and cultivation of more tropical crops such as cotton and various fruits was possible. Likewise, more temperate and tropical natural botanic resources, such as copal (Bursera sp.) and amate (Ficus sp.), were available at these lower elevations.6

The Broader Imperial Domain Beyond this central Mexican interaction sphere lay diverse ecological realms to the east, west, and south. To the east, the land drops dramatically from the central plateaus into a broken mountainous world and continues stair-step fashion to the coastal plain (Figure 3.4). The persistent action of several rivers flowing


Aztec Society and Culture


from the altiplano east to the coastal plain has carved gaping barrancas in the region leading to the coastal plain and has also provided important arteries of transport and communication. The coastal plain itself runs more than 800 kilometers along the Gulf and extends as far as 72 kilometers inland to the mountains. This entire region, wet and warm, lies within tierra templada and tierra caliente, and Aztec-period natural resources ranged from the oaks, cedars, and pines of the higher elevations to cacao, avocados, rubber, seashells, fish, and shellfish in the lower and coastal reaches. Below approximately 1,000 meters, two crops of maize can be harvested annually, and both white and brown cotton can be grown. To the west of the Valley of Toluca, the Aztec imperial advance was blocked by the powerful Tarascans. But the Empire extended to the southwest, and routes through the fiercely rugged Sierra Madre Occidental drop precipitously to a narrow coastal strip (less than 20 kilometers wide).The terrain is dramatic, broken by fast-running rivers, but the climate is largely hot and dry. Aztecperiod natural resources included cacao, gold, gourds, seashells, and fish. Most human settlement was along the coastal strip, and here people used irrigation to produce cotton and the customary food crops. The southern part of the Empire lay mostly in present-day Oaxaca, Guerrero, and southwestern Puebla states. This was a hot, dry land of rugged mountains and valleys, ranging primarily from tierra fría to tierra templada. Natural resources at the higher elevations consisted largely of oak and pine forests, descending to semiarid thorn forests. Other resources included gold, pottery clays, chert, basalt, maguey, and especially the treasured dye cochineal, along with the cochineal insect’s host, the prickly pear cactus. The staples of maize and beans were cultivated with the aid of irrigation. Even farther south, the outlying Pacific coastal province of Xoconochco provided the Empire with an abundance of tropical luxuries.

Beyond the Empire The Aztec Empire’s relations did not end at its political borders. Beyond the Empire, its ties were mainly economic, and they extended north, south, and east. To the north lay vast deserts through which turquoise moved into the Aztec Empire from as far north as the U.S. Southwest.To the south and east lay broad coastal lowlands, interior rain forests, and the high volcanic mountains of the Guatemalan highlands. These lands embraced all three elevation zones, from tierra caliente to tierra fría. Here beyond the Empire’s military and diplomatic domain lay the complex and resource-rich Mayan world. Trade mediated by international trading centers was lively between these realms, the Aztec rulers gaining access to treasured products such as precious feathers, jaguar pelts, cacao, fine salt, amber, and precious stones.

Living on the Land

Figure 3.3.  A stair-step schematic of the central Mexican plateaus. (From Wolf 1959: 7. Courtesy University of Chicago Press.)


Demographic issues persistently confound studies of the Aztec past. Just how many Aztecs were there at the time of the Spanish arrival? How were they distributed over the landscape? And what kinds of changes occurred in these demographies over time?

Sorting Out the Numbers It has become generally accepted in recent years that there were about 1 million Aztecs living in the Basin of Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest, and around another 2–3 million in the surrounding highland valleys.The usual modern estimate for the urban population of Tenochtitlan ranges from 100,000 to 250,000, most estimates settling on 200,000–250,000.7 Population estimates for broader areas are more problematic; for instance, numbers for the colonial realm of New Spain (much of central Mexico) range from 3,000,000 to 22,000,000 (Gerhard 1993: 22). These figures are all estimates, they are all contentious, and they all derive from different interpretations of (and approaches to) varied and incomplete ethnohistoric, archaeological, and ethnographic information.


Aztec Society and Culture


Figure 3.4.  A hilly landscape of eastern Mexico. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.)

Consider population estimates for the 1519 Basin of Mexico, the core area of Aztec imperial power. Such estimates range from a high of 2.96  million (Borah and Cook 1963) to a low of 800,000 (Sanders 1981). Whitmore (1992) arrives at an intermediate figure of 1.59 million, Gibson (1964: 141) at 1.5 million. Sanders’s multifaceted approach yields figures of 800,000 to 1.2 million (1981: 151). One reason for the uncertainty of the population numbers is the sketchy ethnohistoric record and the difficulties involved in interpreting it. While the Aztecs themselves apparently maintained censuses for obvious reasons of tribute collection, corvée labor assignments, and military conscription, none of these has survived. Imperial tribute tallies assigned tributes by community, but no information was included about the demographics of those settlements. For documentary evidence, therefore, we must rely on conquest-period and early colonial Spanish accounts. Several Spanish conquistadores offer figures for sizes of communities, military forces, market participants, and “areas.” According to their own accounts, they base these numbers on personal observation (Aguilar 1963: 162), inquiries of the natives (Díaz del Castillo 1963: 179), later examinations (Cortés

Living on the Land 1928: 47), or a combination of these. Their statements often vary wildly, even when the soldiers were apparently observing the same body of natives. The Anonymous Conqueror (1963: 178–179) reports the daily attendance at the Tlatelolco market at 20,000–25,000, while Cortés (1928: 87)  states 60,000. Cortés (1928: 80) estimates Texcoco’s population at 30,000 inhabitants, while Aguilar places this population at 80,000–100,000 or more houses (Aguilar 1963: 158). Cortés (1928: 43) reports that he faced a force of 100,000 warriors on a battlefield, while his soldier Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1963: 144) records 46,000 for the same battle.8 The Spanish observers also based their reports on different units, so the size of Tenochtitlan was estimated variously at 60,000 people (Anonymous Conqueror 1963: 178),9 100,000 houses (Aguilar 1963: 146), or the size of Seville or Cordoba (Cortés 1928: 86).10 It should be kept in mind that these conquistadores were under considerable stress, were promoting their personal agendas, and perhaps saw only a part of the bigger picture. The figures they report are also highly situational: numbers are given for some settlements and not others, some military forces and not others, and so on. And the actual sizes of “houses” varied considerably.11 Their figures also are generalized and invariably rounded off – themselves guesses or estimates. All of these seemingly little differences become magnified into highly variable population estimates. Sixteenth-century colonial sources suffer from other difficulties, not the least of which was the precipitous decline of the indigenous population, due primarily to introduced epidemic diseases. By the time the Spaniards had instituted systematic censuses, two major epidemics (1520–1521 and 1545–1548) and several more localized ones had already ravaged the native population of much of present-day Mexico. The impact of these epidemics was uneven across the landscape, and tropical areas were particularly hard hit (see Chapter 8). Spotty collection of census information began as early as 1522–1523 by Hernán Cortés, although little survives from those efforts. A similar fate befell a wider census conducted in 1531–1532 (Gerhard 1993: 28–30). A more complete census survives from 1547–1550, but it unfortunately already reflects the severe depopulation wrought by epidemic diseases (Gerhard 1993: 30). The Relaciones geográficas of 1579–1585 have also largely survived, although by that time much of the native population had not, having been ravaged by yet another major epidemic (1576–1581). Perhaps closer to reflecting pre-Spanish indigenous populations are some early (1530s to the early 1540s) censuses in Nahuatl from communities (or parts of communities) in present-day Morelos (Cline 1993). These are early and written in the indigenous language, yet they encompass only a small segment of the overall native population and may or may not reflect broader demographies. In general, then, these sixteenth-century historical sources must be used with caution as benchmarks for calculating the pre-Spanish native population.



Aztec Society and Culture Parallel lines of research based on archaeology began to yield interesting demographic information in the 1970s. Spearheaded by William Sanders (1970, 1981; Sanders et  al. 1979), a more comprehensive methodology was applied to the reconstruction of indigenous, pre-Spanish populations. These included consideration of relevant aspects of the natural environment, agriculture, and settlement patterns, resulting in lower overall population estimates than established through ethnohistoric sources alone. Sanders’s population estimates drew on the extensive Basin of Mexico archaeological survey project, which also identified an unprecedented population surge during the Late Postclassic (1350–1521 AD).12 Sanders and his colleagues (1979: 184) figure that the population during that time was doubling every one hundred years. This accelerated growth was to some extent the result of immigration (see Chapter 2), especially affecting the northern third of the Basin, which had been lightly populated during the prior few centuries (Parsons 2008b: 90). In-migration may also have focused on people with specific skills. Alva Ixtlilxochitl (1965: 69, 70, 158) relates that luxury artisans, including manuscript painters, were encouraged to settle at Texcoco; this derived either from direct political policy moving skilled artisans to the urban center or from more voluntary moves based on the perceived benefits of working in a lucrative and supportive atmosphere (see Parsons 1971: 216). Preventing or discouraging out-migration also would have contributed to the Basin’s sustained population growth. For instance, in the mid-fifteenth century, the Mexica emperor Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina demanded a stop to the exodus of Chalcan commoners in the wake of military disruptions (Parsons et al. 1982: 86–87). Chalco was a breadbasket for the Empire, and its labor was as important as its fields to the Tenochtitlan ruler. This overall population growth was also a response to the availability of more predictable agricultural food supplies based on significant increases in rainfall (Smith 1996a: 378–379). As the population grew, greater food supplies were required; this stimulated the use of intensified agricultural techniques, which in turn allowed and encouraged larger populations, and so on.This growth did not proceed unencumbered but was affected by empire building (with dominant polities desiring large numbers of subjects for tribute payments), political machinations (sometimes resulting in population displacements), and warfare and sacrifice (disproportionately reducing males over females). Famines and other natural disasters also interfered with the general growth trajectory (see Case 3.2). The Basin of Mexico archaeological survey project also revealed extremely high population densities throughout the Basin of Mexico in the Late Postclassic. This was expressed in an increase in the size and overall number of settlements (Parsons 1971: 244). While there was considerable settlement variation throughout the Basin (see Nichols 2004), Sanders arrived at an average

Living on the Land figure of 200 people per square kilometer for the Basin as a whole (Sanders et al. 1979: 219). As observed by Smith (1996a: 378), this is an extraordinary figure for an early state. By the time the Spaniards set eyes on the Basin, virtually every habitable zone was occupied (Sanders et  al. 1979: 200; Parsons 1971: 217).

Urban and Rural Settlements throughout the Basin of Mexico (and beyond) consisted of a wide variety of community types. The Basin of Mexico archaeological survey project identified several different scales of settlement, ranging from small dispersed rural hamlets to large imperial capitals, and numerous special-use sites such as saltmaking stations and shrines (Sanders 1981: 152, 189). Residential sites have been classified as (1) rural, consisting of hamlets, small villages, and large villages based on sizes from less than 100 to 1,000 persons; (2) local centers with some occupational specialization and usually containing 2,000–5,000 persons; and (3) supraregional centers, or imperial capitals (Sanders 1981: 152). This wide variation in settlement size and function suggests a heterogeneous, complex, and dynamic landscape. By far the largest settlement in the Late Postclassic Basin of Mexico was the island city of Tenochtitlan, at around 200,000–250,000 inhabitants. Estimates for the next-largest cities top out at around 25,000–40,000 for Texcoco (Nichols 2004: 272; Smith 2008: 152) and 23,000 for Huexotla (Smith 2008: 152), both on the eastern edge of Lake Texcoco. Other Basin of Mexico city-state capitals exhibited populations ranging from 600 to 13,500, with the typical capital at around 5,000 inhabitants (Smith 2008: 152). In terms of area, Tenochtitlan is estimated to have covered approximately 12–15 square kilometers, while the other Basin city-state capitals averaged around 1 square kilometer (Sanders 1981: 190; Smith 2008: 152). Tenochtitlan, therefore, was strikingly atypical in terms of both population size and area. In addition, it has been suggested that the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan were largely nonagriculturalists (Calnek 1972: 114; Sanders et al. 1979: 154–155), consisting of political elites, religious functionaries, craft specialists, and multitudes of other individuals providing a wide range of services (such as household servants, barbers, porters, and prostitutes).13 Still, counted among Tenochtitlan’s citizens were also numerous people living on chinampas, whose agricultural production would have served at least some of their own subsistence needs (see also Smith 2008: 67–68).14 The Basin of Mexico was crowded with a dense rural population, people occupying virtually every productive ecological zone. Dispersed rural settlements especially dominated the landscape in areas of chinampa and terrace cultivation, where it was convenient for people to live close to their fields (Nichols 2004: 274). These settlement arrangements indicate a “tendency for



Aztec Society and Culture individual houses, or small clusters of individual houses, to be broadly and continuously dispersed over the landscape” (Sanders et al. 1979: 163–166), often making it difficult to discern on the ground where one settlement ended and the next began. This suggests that this dispersed pattern conformed to a different set of social and political imperatives than simply urban versus rural and reminds us that these settlement types are constructions of archaeologists and ethnohistorians and may not reflect native conceptions at all. Indeed, the native perception of community was likely quite different, making little distinction between urban and rural and instead focusing on the altepetl, or citystate, as a comprehensive unit encompassing both urban and rural components (Lockhart 1992; Smith 1996a: 383–385; Nichols 2004: 283; Hicks 1984: 167; see Chapter 5). Indeed, nobles and commoners lived in both urban and rural settings, and there appears to have been “little difference between city and countryside in the lives and activities of Aztec commoners” (Smith 2008: 151). In addition to similarities in lifestyles, people living in city and countryside were linked by markets, marriages, religious ceremonies, and even systems of rotational labor that periodically drew rural peoples into the cities and “hindered the development of a clear distinction between rural and urban, or between peasant and proletarian” (Hicks 1984: 166). Indeed, there were some matters of life that all shared, initially those things we find in the realm of subsistence. How were the basic needs of the large numbers of people in Late Postclassic central Mexico met? How were they fed, clothed, and generally provisioned in a manner to which they were accustomed? The Acquisition of Food and Other Necessities

Here we address the essentials of anyone’s life in the Late Postclassic Aztec world, focusing on food but with some reference to clothing and housing (the comforts will come later).15 This is also a good place to embrace the theme of heterogeneity. It is usually fairly easy to distinguish “commoner” from “elite” in documents and on the ground, as there was, in general, a discernible material gulf between these two broad social statuses. Elites had more. And better. More food, more clothing, more and larger rooms in their houses. Better food, more ornate clothing, finer floors, and painted walls. That said, recent research has nonetheless concluded that things were not quite so simplistic and that there was some overlap in wealth between commoners and nobles, pointing to a “fluidity of wealth and privilege beyond the simple noble–commoner distinctions” and emphasizing “the multidimensional nature of Aztec eliteness” (Garraty 2000: 333–334; Smith 1994). The same kind of diversity can be seen among commoners. In the documentary record, we are acquainted with prosperous professional merchants (pochteca); although they were commoners, their wealth (at least portable wealth) would have exceeded that of many persons

Living on the Land of noble birth. With these considerations in mind, it is still useful to speak of commoners and nobles in terms of their usual circumstances of life. We may still speak of nobles and commoners at the same time recognizing considerable variations within these broad categories.

Provisioning an Aztec Household commoner houses A “typical” commoner house in the Aztec Basin of Mexico, including Tenochtitlan, consisted of a collection of rectangular rooms (calli) arranged around an open patio (ithualli), creating groups of rooms housing from two to six related nuclear families (Calnek 1972: 111; Evans 1988: 28; see Chapter 6).16 Each such compound may have been enclosed by a stone, adobe, cornstalk, or rush wall, creating an inward-looking arrangement (Calnek 1972: 111). In these layouts the individual rooms faced onto the patio and in most cases would have been the residences of individual families (Lockhart 1992: 65; Figure 3.5). Nonetheless, some of the rooms may have had specialized functions, providing space for storage, workshops, or religious worship (oratory). An enigmatic “woman-house” called cihuacalli may have been the focus of women’s household activities (Evans 2005; Lockhart 1992: 63, 66).17 The presence of an open courtyard allowed for the patio group’s expansion and contraction; individual rooms could be (and were) added or demolished as the life history of the local group demanded.18 Around the patio, individual calli tended to be at least somewhat separate from one another, although Tenochtitlan (and nearby Mexicaltzinco) gives an impression of more crowding than settlements elsewhere (Lockhart 1992: 63–65; Smith 2008: 166; Ávila López 2006). Throughout the broader central Mexican region, these rooms were used mainly for sleeping, cooking, eating, storage, and general protection from the elements, natural and supernatural. As is the case today, many of the day-to-day domestic activities took place out of doors, and the patio would have served as a focus for household production and interaction. As to size, excavated houses at Cihuatecpan, in the northeastern part of the Basin of Mexico, averaged 88 square meters and contained from three to eight rooms (Evans 1988: 26; 2005: 211). At Mexicaltzinco, a lake area just south of Tenochtitlan, single-room houses (xacalli or jacales) situated on chinampas measured 20 square meters, with more elaborate dwellings measuring twice that size (Ávila López 2006: 308). Surveys at Ixtapaluca Viejo suggest house sizes around 100 square meters, with some residences larger than 300 square meters (Blanton 1972). In Tenochtitlan, native sixteenth-century multi-room colonial houses, probably replicating their pre-Hispanic past, measured from 140 to 416 square meters (Lockhart 1992: 61; Calnek 1972: 112). In nearby Morelos, excavations of commoner houses have revealed a variation on these Basin


Aztec Society and Culture




Figure 3.5.  (a) An Aztec-period commoner house excavated at Capilco, Morelos, by Michael E. Smith. (Photograph by and courtesy of Michael E. Smith.) (b) A twentiethcentury peasant house in central Mexico. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.)

of Mexico arrangements: single-story, single-room dwellings were usual and averaged 26 square meters, with a larger commoner house at 77 square meters (Smith 1999: 149). It can be seen that there was considerable variation in commoner household size (and, by implication, household composition and perhaps

Living on the Land


Figure 3.6.  Icnocalli: a humble or poor commoner’s house. (From Sahagún 1950–1982: book 11, illus. 898. Courtesy University of Utah Press. Reproduced with permission.)

affluence) within and between communities. Excavations and documentary sources make it clear that nonelite houses also varied in terms of construction. In general there appears to have been little difference between urban and rural housing for most commoners, although urban settings appear to exhibit a wider range of living standards, as expressed in house size and construction materials. Excavated houses in central Mexico were made of adobe or wattle and daub, were set at ground level or on low platforms, and had floors of packed earth sometimes covered with gravel or (more rarely) a lime plaster (Evans 1988: 33; Smith 1999: 145, 146). Roofs were perhaps pole and beam in the Basin of Mexico (Evans 1988: 33) and thatch in the warmer Morelos valley (Smith 2003d: 134). These are generalizations, and construction materials and styles varied depending on environmental conditions, available materials, cultural traditions, and probably a dash of personal preference. For instance, Sahagún (1950–1982: book 11, 271–275; illus. 893–918) describes and illustrates twenty-three types of commoner houses (Figure  3.6), distinguishing them mainly by construction materials (e.g., reeds, wood, stone, or adobe), shape (e.g., squat, round, small, or narrow), and quality (ranging from the sumptuous merchant’s house to the “small house like a pigsty”). It must be assumed that these houses were, at any one time, in some stage of the building life cycle: under construction, finished, in need of repairs, or repaired  – hence the house itself commanded different commitments of time and energy from its householders at different times. In the commoner house, a hearth served as the cooking center and was defined by three hearth stones (Burkhart 1997: 29). In multi-room houses, cooking may have taken place in a small separate room or in the courtyard (Evans 1988: 34). Near the hearth the woman (or women) of the house stored and used the essential stone and ceramic kitchenware: a grinding stone (metlatl or metate), ceramic grater (mocaxitl or molcajete), cooking griddle (comalli), knives, bowls, pots, jars, and various types of serving wares (Figure 3.7). Storage

Aztec Society and Culture




Figure  3.7.  (a) A molcaxitl (molcajete) for grinding up chiles and other foods. (Photograph by Jennifer Berdan. Courtesy Field Museum, catalogue no. 93835.) (b) A tripod serving dish. (Photograph by Jennifer Berdan. Courtesy National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, no. 027169.)

Living on the Land

Figure 3.8.  Generalized layout of a noble’s palace with large central courtyard and royal dais. (Drawing by Jennifer Berdan.)

boxes contained clothing and other personal possessions and were the specific target of thieves (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: book 3, folio 70r). Other material goods in the room represented the occupants’ primary activities: women’s spinning and weaving tools, men’s agricultural or fishing equipment, and perhaps materials used in the production of a special craft such as pottery or stone tools. And judging from the prevalence of small figurines and censers unearthed in excavations of Aztec dwellings, household ritual was also an important component of domestic life. The room had virtually no furniture, although some houses may have had benches along one or more walls (see Evans 1988: 34). For sleeping, the occupants laid out woven reed mats (petlatl) at night, rolling them up in a corner during the day. Also resting against the wall were the ubiquitous broom, hoe, and digging stick (when not in use in garden or field). General heating inside the house was supplied by portable braziers (Evans 1988: 34).

elite houses or palaces A noble’s house (tecpan or tecpancalli) was far more expansive and elaborate than the usual commoner’s house in both area and amenities. Indeed, elite houses were of an entirely different magnitude. Nonetheless, their layouts bore a general resemblance to those of commoner residences with their focus on an enclosed courtyard (Figure 3.8). This open area was very large, with numerous adjacent rooms opening onto it; for instance, the palace



Aztec Society and Culture

Figure  3.9. Decorated spindle whorls. (Photograph by Frances Berdan. Courtesy Field Museum, catalogue nos. 96061–2, 96061–1.)

at Cihuatecpan had twenty-one rooms, Nezahualpilli’s Texcocan palace is schematically shown with thirteen rooms, and palaces at Chiconautla and Calixtlahuaca contained a warren of rooms leading off from the central patio (Evans 1988: 28; Mapa Quinatzin 1920: leaf 2; Elson 1999: 156; Smith 2008: 116). Some of these rooms provided living space (keeping in mind that these were large, polygynous households), but other rooms may have served specialized functions, providing the household’s occupants with separate sweatbaths (temazcalli), kitchens, and workrooms, some connected by corridors or hallways (Evans 1988: 118–133; Elson 1999: 156–159). The elite house or palace was not only a residence, but also the venue for the noble’s political and social life: advisers were forever present, diplomats and messengers came and went, courts of law were held, and tribute was received and stored. Elaborate feasting and religious rituals punctuated otherwise repetitive activities. Elite houses or palaces were built on elevated platforms and were large, sometimes extraordinarily large. In the imperial capital of Tenochtitlan, rulers’ palaces ranged from an estimated 7,950 to 25,425 square meters for three Mexica rulers, the palaces becoming larger over time (Smith 2008: 117).19 Just beyond the Basin of Mexico, excavated rulers’ palaces range from 2,000 to 6,800 square meters; other excavated noble houses from within and beyond the Basin of Mexico are smaller, ranging from 200 to 540 square meters (Smith

Living on the Land 2008: 117; Fargher et al. 2011a: 310–312). In a relative sense, noble houses were noticeably larger than the houses around them; the tecpan at Cihuatecpan was four times the size of its neighboring houses (Evans 1991: 88). Although few noble houses or palaces have been excavated, it can be seen that much as commoner houses varied in size, so too did noble houses. One important determinant of that variation appears to have been the range of political control and importance of the noble and, by extension, his traditional lineage: the palace’s scale and elegance reflected the resident noble’s political importance. Nobles were ranked, and that social and political reality was reflected in their dwellings. Houses of the elite were built of adobe, finely finished, and perhaps lavishly painted. The foundations were deep and of stone, the platform of cut stone, the floors and walls plastered and stuccoed, and the roofs and door jambs supported by wood beams. At the Cihuatecpan noble house, “cut stone, carved stone, adobe for the floors, stucco for the walls, expanses of rich red paint – nothing had been spared in the construction of the teuctli’s house” (Evans 1991: 88). One diagnostic characteristic of these elegant dwellings was the inclusion of large ornamental ceramic and pumice cones, which are depicted in the codices and have been found archaeologically (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 11, illus. 889–890; Elson 1999: 158). The walls were decorated with paint and mosaic: red was a popular color. In terms of construction, the noble house was “a product of skill: formed with skill” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 11, 270). The rooms of these elite houses were elegantly appointed, displaying the noble’s status and wealth. Exquisite textiles may have hung across doorways. Still, furniture was of little concern, although the head of household, as an important noble, would sit importantly on a woven mat or seat with a back (icpalli). Added amenities included additional patios, stone hearths, a kitchen, a granary, and one or more sweatbaths (Elson 1999: 156; Evans 1988: 118–133). The noble house contained much the same sorts of equipment and material goods as were found in commoner houses (such as cooking and serving wares and spinning implements): just more of it, of a finer quality and representing higher-status production, and more imports. For example, the palace at Chiconautla contained many more cotton spindle whorls than maguey ones, cotton being the more esteemed fiber (Figure 3.9; Elson 1999: 160). That same palace yielded cups for drinking pulque and chocolate, suggesting special feasting and/or ritual activities (Cohen and Elson, n.d.). These elite houses combined large-scale residential and administrative functions: many people resided there, many visited, many needed to be fed, clothed, and housed, and many were available to provide for the extensive activities of such a large household. Simply put, the broad social and political obligations of the noble and his household required an expansive household infrastructure.



Aztec Society and Culture This varied considerably in scale; imperial palaces far outdid the “usual” noble house in size and grandeur, and imperial rulers also enjoyed sumptuous pleasure palaces and gardens as retreats (see Chapter 6).

food, drink, and clothing People in both elite and nonelite households spent an undetermined amount of time maintaining their houses’ structural integrity and their members’ essential equipment, as well as procuring necessities such as fresh water, firewood, and medicines. Yet clearly the bulk of daily effort was expended in the endless provisioning of food and clothing for household members. In an elite household, while the noble himself may not have been directly active in procuring and preparing these essentials, most of his household (including his wives) was. The Aztec diet was built around numerous varieties of cultivated maize, beans, squashes, and chiles. Maize was a carbohydrate-rich grain, beans added protein, squashes and chiles provided essential vitamins and minerals.Additional foods included amaranth seeds and greens; chia;20 various fruits and vegetables such as avocados, nopales,21 tomatoes, and quelites (referring to a wide range of “greens”); pulque; and, for the aristocrats, chocolate. This diet was far from bland, with special flavorings available from vanilla, maguey syrup, honey, salt, various flowers, and, of course, chiles. In the Basin of Mexico and northern Mesoamerica, maguey (metl) was particularly important as a source of syrup and pulque. In the words of Sidney Mintz (1985), this overall diet consisted of a “core complex carbohydrate and flavor-fringe supplement.” Animal domesticates were few, but turkeys and dogs were occasionally thrown into the pot, as were wild creatures such as rabbits, armadillos, deer, fish, salamanders, ducks and other birds, and a host of edible insects and their larvae.22 Most people in the Aztec world were farmers and so acquired most of their meals by their own efforts. Nonagricultural specialists acquired cultivated staples in other ways, most commonly by frequenting the many markets held throughout the realm. Seasonality of harvests and regional availability of certain foodstuffs meant that even farmers sometimes relied on markets to meet their needs on a daily basis. While the maize tortilla was the mainstay of the daily diet, it was combined with these many other foods depending on availability, ritual calendar, household affluence, and (as everywhere) personal preferences. With such a wide range of foods available, it is no surprise that there were many interesting and tempting combinations, such as leaf-shaped tortillas; tamales stuffed with amaranth greens; turkey with green chiles; tadpoles with small chiles; maize gruel of chia, squash seeds, and chiles; and small prickly pear cactus fruit with fish eggs (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 37–39). While the daily fare in a commoner household might be rather monotonous, the meals in an elite household were more extensive and more varied, and lavish feasting on a large scale occurred

Living on the Land periodically, resulting in a flurry of activity among household members. Meals were eaten two or three times daily (Coe 1994: 110), although we do not know the portions consumed. Individual cacao-drinking vessels would have held, on average, one-quarter to one-half of a pint, while pulque-drinking vessels contained, on average, one-half to two-thirds of a pint of beverage.23 The Codex Mendoza (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 3, folios 58r–60r) indicates that children aged 3–14 were given from one-half to two tortillas, depending on their age. However, it is not clear what this means: tortillas came in different sizes and they were served with additional ingredients. These rations may be a metaphor. Aztec parents were clearly concerned about their children growing up to be hearty individuals; they even stretched them at the monthly ceremony of Izcalli to ensure their successful growth (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 2, 165–166). Cooking methods included stewing, boiling, or steaming (as with tamales) in an olla, cooking in a pit oven lined with maguey leaves, and preparing gruels and a multitude of sauces or casseroles (Coe 1994: 109–116).24 Most of these methods initially required the endlessly hard work of grinding maize kernels into a flour, a task requiring several hours of labor by one or more household women.25 Some women prepared an overabundance of food and sold it as fast foods in the market – these ranged from many types of tortillas and tamales to cooked stews and gruels (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 37–39; book 10, 69–70). The great variety of these prepared market foods suggests a lively consumer trade: obviously not everyone ate every meal at home, or perhaps this served as “take-out.” Provisioning a household with food on a daily basis required knowledge and planning at whatever social and economic level. Seasonal and regional variations were at least somewhat offset by the extensive market system. The Basin of Mexico served as the Aztecs’ breadbasket. But the Aztecs were also interested in agricultural production beyond this core zone: several nearby conquered city-states paid regular tributes in ample supplies of staples, fertile coastal areas served to bail out the Aztecs in times of severe famine, and certain highly prized products (such as cacao, special chiles, and vanilla) made their way into Aztec tribute stores and markets. Given the vagaries of highland agriculture, storage was an important consideration. The shelf life of some products (such as three-day pulque) was short. Other foods, especially pinolli made of ground maize, amaranth, or chia could be stored long enough to be taken on military campaigns (Coe 1994: 118–119). Chia, especially, “could be stored for months and even years before being used to prepare food” (Ayerza, Jr., and Coates 2005: 66). A further consideration was wastage, of which there appears to have been relatively little. For instance, maize kernels were eaten (probably by domesticated dogs as well as humans), the maize stalk was chewed, exuding a sweet sap, the tassels were used medicinally, and a smut fungus (huitlacoche) that occasionally grows on the ears was



Aztec Society and Culture eaten as a delicacy (Vargas and Casillas 2001: 391). Apparently, waste was not approved of; indeed, it was a religious affront to drop a maize kernel and not pick it up.26 As another example, maguey was used in the preparation of aguamiel (honey water) and pulque, it supplied fibers, needles and thread, as well as leaves for lining cooking pits, and it served as a working base for preparing feathered mosaics. Magueys were planted as fences and as protection against erosion on terraces, and today, at least, serve as supports for drying laundry. Much as commoner and elite households can be distinguished by scale, variety, and sumptuousness of their food provisions, so too can clothing. Clothing was one of the most overt indicators of one’s status: officially, commoners in the Basin of Mexico were expected to wear the coarser maguey fiber clothing, while the more prestigious (and smoother-textured) cotton was reserved for the nobility. In addition, commoner clothing was plain, noble wear highly decorated.27 Spinning and weaving were domestic activities learned ideally by all women, who were expected to acquire these skills by age 14 (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 3, folio 60r).28 Spinning and weaving tasks were intermittent, picked up and put down as necessary and readily integrated into other household routines. Spun thread was produced on spindles weighted down by whorls (usually ceramic); the heavier maguey fibers could be spun in the air, while the more delicate cotton fibers were usually spun with the aid of a small spinning bowl in which the spindle “danced” (Figure 3.10).29 Weaving was accomplished on backstrap looms, producing cloth that could be worn directly off the loom. Archaeologically, all that usually remains of these activities are the whorls, spinning bowls, and picks used in aligning the threads during weaving. Ceramic spindle whorls and spinning bowls are found widely distributed in excavated Aztec houses, whether humble or elite (Smith and Heath-Smith 1994: 357; Nichols 1994: 180, 184; Hicks 1994: 95). However, a greater number of these artifacts have generally been uncovered in noble houses.30 This is expected, since spinning was women’s work, and noble households were typically polygynous and also could draw on dependent labor from nearby households. It might also be expected that there was an emphasis in noble houses on the spinning of the more prestigious cotton. Excavations at the noble house at Chiconautla revealed ceramic whorls for spinning both cotton and maguey fibers, although the cotton ones far outnumbered the maguey ones (182 to 42) even in this maguey-growing area (Elson 1999: 160). Artifact assemblages from the noble house at Cihuatecpan, however, reveal a more even distribution of cotton and maguey whorls.31 Another pattern pertains in maguey-growing areas. At Otompan, spindle whorls for spinning maguey fibers were found in concentrations associated with maguey-processing activities, suggesting the presence of workshops focusing on the production of maguey fiber materials. At the same site, cotton spindle whorls were found evenly distributed, suggesting cotton spinning as a general household activity

Living on the Land




Figure 3.10.  (a). Small bowl for steadying a lively spindle. (Photograph by Frances Berdan. Courtesy National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, no. 121496.) (b) A young wife spinning, using spinning bowl. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 68r.) (c) A woman today spinning brown cotton. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.)


Aztec Society and Culture


(Nichols et al. 2000). The more specialized nature of maguey fiber production might have been due to its convenient link with other aspects of maguey production (such as pulque). The maguey-commoner/cotton-noble distinction may have worked pretty well in the highlands, but it was less significant in the lowlands. In highland regions, where maguey was grown, commoner women produced maguey cloth for their own household use and in some areas for tribute; they also spun (and presumably wove) cotton cloth for tribute and perhaps marketplace trade, ultimately having to procure both maguey and cotton (although they may have been careful not to wear such garments in public, they did produce and possess them). In the lower elevations, where maguey plants did not grow, we find commoners spinning cotton but very little maguey (Smith 2003d: 86).32 There, it is likely that commoners as well as nobles wore cotton clothing, and persons of different statuses were more directly identified by their garments’ degree of decoration. In terms of household provisioning, it appears that the more prestigious cotton traveled readily across ecological boundaries, while maguey did not and production from this plant remained a localized activity (perhaps associated with maguey’s wide distribution in highland environments). Looking at the general picture of noble and commoner houses and their everyday provisions, there were noticeable differences between elite and nonelite dwellings and amenities. But there was also a considerable range of affluence within both social categories, and even some overlap. Not all commoners, or all nobles, were alike. This theme of variation is an important consideration in our understanding of Aztec life and will reappear throughout this book.

Agricultural Techniques and Technology Throughout Late Postclassic Mesoamerica, agriculture provided the staff of life.The Aztecs and their neighbors invested heavily in agriculture, and it is the use of their array of cultivated crops and agricultural techniques, technologies, and knowledge that concerns us here. By the time the Aztecs arrived in the Basin of Mexico, maize, beans, squashes, chiles, maguey, and a host of hearty and nutritious plants had long been domesticated, hybridized, and cultivated by means of sophisticated and successful techniques. While the Aztecs added little that was distinctly new to the agricultural enterprise, they did employ existing techniques on a much grander scale, and more intensively, than did their predecessors. In the Aztec heartland and beyond, Late Postclassic farmers engaged in agricultural strategies that put considerable pressure on agricultural success. Agricultural techniques and technology were devised to suit local ecologies as well as to provide for household economic, social, and political needs: beyond

Living on the Land daily sustenance, any surplus foods were exchanged for other needed goods and services, were used socially and ceremonially to cement interpersonal bonds, and were applied to the inevitable tax and tribute payments. Since each farming household differed somewhat from others in terms of agricultural potential and obligations, this resulted in considerable diversity in individual cultivation practices. Population growth and intensive agriculture went hand in hand. By the early sixteenth century in central Mexico, it was imperative that the food supply be both abundant and reasonably reliable to sustain the expanding populations. Beyond that, it has been argued that large and dense populations were necessary to construct the infrastructures (especially hydraulic) on which increasingly intensive agricultural systems were built (Parsons 1991). Yet agriculture has always carried risks. In the Basin of Mexico, for instance, these included early frosts, late rains, droughts, and hoards of pests (see Case 3.2). Nature must be accommodated, and while the timing of rains and frosts was roughly predictable, these natural schedules were not perfect year to year. It was particularly calamitous if the rains arrived late and the frosts came early, thus shortening the growing season. Rain could be too little (droughts) or too much (floods), and ravenous pests or even a hailstorm might swiftly destroy carefully tended crops. Human intervention on the land sometimes increased production risks; for instance, overplanting could result in depleted soils, planting on slopes could prompt erosion, and diverting water courses for irrigation could alter natural hydraulic resources in unanticipated ways.Whether induced by nature or people, serious famines occurred in the history of the Aztec Empire, and were well remembered.What strategies did the people employ to minimize risks to their agricultural yields? Depending on landscape and resource potentials, Aztec farmers had at their disposal a number of effective techniques to reduce risks and indeed intensify agriculture. Much of this intensification was accomplished by altering the natural landscape and controlling hydraulic resources through terracing, irrigation, drained fields, and chinampas. Beyond landscape modification and control of essential water supplies, additional practices such as fallowing, multicropping, the use of seedbeds and fertilizers, and the planting of household gardens, also enhanced the farmer’s chances of success. While these many techniques were used throughout Mesoamerica in appropriate environments, they were also all found within the Basin of Mexico. To convey a sense of these techniques as risk-reducing and problem-solving strategies, it is convenient to focus this discussion on that Basin’s diverse, lake-dominated ecology.

terracing Terracing was an ideal means of ensuring continued productive agricultural yields on the sloping hillsides of the Basin’s piedmont. By the time of the Spanish arrival, terracing was “generalized over virtually all of the sloping



Aztec Society and Culture terrain of the basin from the lower to the upper piedmont” (Sanders 1981: 192). Terraces were constructed in two general ways.33 On the more gentle slopes, earth embankments were built up and lined with maguey, while steeper slopes required more substantial retaining walls provided by stone block constructions. Both styles of terrace construction involved fairly rough construction methods and irregular layouts, suggesting a lack of centralized planning or coordination (see Smith 2003d: 68). In both cases, the terraces improved soil depth and water retention: they stabilized the soil, inhibited erosion, and trapped precious water that arrived seasonally, sometimes in torrents (see Evans 1988: 10). Terraces as defined structures also served to delineate property lines, and where maguey was used, the by-products of those multipurpose plants were exploitable. Settlements associated with terracing tended to be dispersed, and Sanders and his colleagues (1979: 251) assert a direct association between the distribution of houses and the location of terraces.

irrigation and drained fields Control of precious water resources through irrigation was achieved on many scales in the valleys extending from lakeshore to piedmont. Through irrigation, water was diverted, transported, and distributed to cultivated fields from rivers and streams (which sometimes overflowed in the rainy season), as well as from springs. Irrigation techniques ranged from the building of small dams with low-investment canals diverting water to nearby plots, to floodwater irrigation arrangements, to complex, large-scale canal systems watering vast cultivated areas. It is likely that this wide range of scale, complexity, and investment reflected household, community, and state levels of involvement in the construction, maintenance, and control of these water control systems.34 During Aztec times, “every available tract of land was most likely being irrigated intensively, and virtually every type of water control system known was being employed” (Doolittle 1990: 149). With most of these lowlands now covered by an expanding Mexico City megalopolis, there are relatively few traces of these irrigation works.35 However, early colonial ethnohistoric sources frequently mention irrigation, although with few details. The most elaborate hydraulic project documented historically (and with physical remains) was the diversion of the course of one river to another in the realm of Cuauhtitlan (in the northwestern Basin of Mexico). The rivers were joined through the construction of an artificial channel 6 kilometers long, with additional canals excavated at roughly the same time. The project required some seven years, reaching completion in 1435 (Bierhorst 1992: 103). The entire hydraulic assemblage provided needed water to a droughtprone area, protected the city of Cuauhtitlan from periodic flooding, and created as much as 1,000 hectares of irrigable land (Doolittle 1990: 117).

Living on the Land According to the Anales de Cuauhtitlan (Bierhorst 1992: 103), the Cuauhtitlan ruler “apportioned laborers” to the project, although the basis and extent of this labor assignment were not specified. Was the work part of a peasant’s expected corvée labor duties, tied to a broader tribute requirement, or perhaps a special labor assessment? Aside from the laborers, it is clear that skilled engineers were involved, although, again, there are no statements about how that labor was acquired or entailed. Other extensive hydraulic projects included the construction of a lengthy dike across Lake Texcoco to control flooding and salinity levels on the western side of the lake. Further ambitious waterworks were associated with pleasure domains, such as that at Tetzcotzinco (Parsons 2002), and with the numerous gardens associated with royal palaces throughout the Basin. For instance, the palace of the ruler of the city-state of Ixtapalapan included ornate sunken gardens with “pools of fresh water” and a “fine lake of fresh water . . . and within the lake there are innumerable fish and birds” (Cortés 1928: 67–68). While numerous aqueducts were built during Aztec times, the construction of the lengthy dual-channel aqueduct bringing fresh water to Tenochtitlan from springs in Chapultepec was a particularly ambitious project involving expert engineering skills, a large labor force, and an established organizational framework (Cortés 1928: 92–93; Doolittle 1990: 120–127; see Case 3.3). Not all such undertakings were successful. Witness the failed aqueduct project spearheaded by the Mexica ruler Ahuitzotl in 1499, which resulted in a catastrophic flooding of Tenochtitlan and possibly led to the death of that supreme (and stubborn) ruler himself (Durán 1994: 362–373).36 Building that aqueduct, fed from springs in Coyoacan to the southwest of Tenochtitlan, required the forced efforts of laborers summoned from several conquered city-states, along with the skills of “the best masons to be found in the provinces” (Durán 1994: 365). Successful or not, such large-scale enterprises were stimulated by the need to solve specific problems of water availability. The constructions themselves not only required large initial investments, but also necessitated diligent maintenance by “men whose work it was to enter springs in order to clean them, maintain them, and repair drains and cracks through which the water could be lost” (Durán 1994: 365). Permanent canal irrigation especially dominated farmed fields along the alluvial plains in the Basin of Mexico and increased the extent and especially the reliability of agricultural productivity: it augmented natural rainfall (which could be somewhat serendipitous) and also extended the planting season by providing early-season watering.37 In some areas along the alluvial plains a high water table posed threats to successful agriculture. The Aztecs opened up such lands to cultivation by draining them and establishing a suitable balance of soil and water for sustained agricultural production. Drainage ditches were dug and the water drained off by



Aztec Society and Culture Case 3.3  An Engineering Marvel:The Chapultepec Aqueduct The Aztecs, their neighbors, and their predecessors were all expert architects and engineers. This can be seen in the precision with which they built their monumental temples, laid out their splendid cities, and constructed their massive hydraulic works. Controlling water was a supreme priority for the Aztecs: their lake environment offered abundant food and water, but was also threatened by floods and high salinity, and fresh water was not immediately or consistently available to the urban megalopolis of Tenochtitlan.The construction of aqueducts was an important and known solution to the problems of freshwater availability. The building of the aqueduct from the springs at Chapultepec to the center of Tenochtitlan was the most ambitious and successful of the Aztecs’ water transport projects (Braniff de Torres and Cervantes 1966, 1967). In building their aqueducts, the Aztecs drew on achievements and skills developed as many as 1,500 years before their time (Doolittle 1990: 126). The Chapultepec-to-Tenochtitlan aqueduct seen by Cortés in 1519 (1928: 92–93) was actually the second aqueduct spanning that course. Construction on the first conduit began in 1418. It was built on a foundation of staggered artificial islands about 3–4 meters apart (Doolittle 1990: 122). Mud mounds were built up on each island, wooden stakes were driven into each mound for support, and a single trough was hollowed out at the top of each mound and lined with compacted clay. These troughs, along with hollowed-out logs connecting the islands, served as channels for the transport of fresh water. This aqueduct lasted only about thirty years, being destroyed by a flood in 1449. The Aztecs learned from this experience and built a bigger and better contrivance (Figure C3.3). The new aqueduct appears to have been constructed on the base of the earlier one, but with significant improvements. First, it was built higher, which allowed protection from flooding as well as the ability to

Figure C3.3. The Chapultepec aqueduct. (Drawing by Jennifer Berdan.)

Living on the Land move the water greater distances where the base was uneven (as surely the artificial islands would have settled over time). Second, it consisted of two parallel channels, allowing one to be cleaned and repaired while the other carried the water. According to Cortés (1928: 92), each channel was “two paces broad and about as high as a man.” Third, the troughs themselves were lined with mortar. According to Doolittle (1990: 126), “[N]ot only was it larger in every respect, but it was constructed with permanence in mind.” A great deal of planning went into this project. As heads of the most powerful city-state in central Mexico, the rulers of Tenochtitlan commanded sufficient resources to construct waterworks such as this aqueduct on an unprecedented scale. A later aqueduct project, during the rule of Ahuitzotl (r. 1486–1502), was equally ambitious but was undertaken without the same foresight that had been applied to the Chapultepec aqueduct project. Its water flow was excessive, a calamitous flood ensued, and the construction had to be dismantled.

means of existing seasonal streams. According to Sanders et al. (1979: 275), these “ditch networks” would have required a large capital investment and considerable organization. Nonetheless, these efforts opened up previously marginal lands to agriculture along the plains and near the lakeshore. Clearly, hydraulic control in terms of directing water flows and managing water amounts and availability was central to the development of large population concentrations in the Late Postclassic Basin of Mexico. Conversely, the construction of largescale waterworks could not be achieved without a sufficient population of laborers, skilled engineering specialists, and a political system capable of coordinating such complex enterprises. chinampas

A specialized agricultural technique involved the creation of raised fields in shallow lakebeds. These chinampas were constructed by defining a rectangular area in a shallow part of the lake, stabilizing it with stakes, and piling up alternating layers of mud and vegetation until the plot extended about a meter above water level. The plots were stabilized by the planting of willow (ahuexotl) trees initially at each corner and then along the sides. As the chinampa matured, the farmer sometimes established his house on the raised field, providing him with the convenience of proximity to his work. Although a chinampa served as a farmer’s primary agricultural field, in these cases it could be treated much like a house garden; being adjacent to the house itself, it would have been the recipient of household protection and refuse. It appears that a single family may have worked more than one chinampa: wills from early colonial Culhuacan repeatedly demonstrate this, with plots often appearing in units of seven (Cline 1984). While chinampas were worked by individual farming households, the degree of state



Aztec Society and Culture involvement in their construction remains an open question. Certainly the primary Basin of Mexico city-states were deeply involved in the construction of waterwork infrastructures (such as dikes and aqueducts). More specifically, Sanders et  al. (1979: 280–281) argue that the “extraordinary regularity of the chinampa plots . . . indicates centralized direction or planning.” At the very least, a well-orchestrated coordination of labor efforts is suggested by this uniformity, especially during the planning and construction stages; this may have been undertaken by local lords or at the city-state level. On the other hand, some chinampa areas exhibit less regularity and may represent more individualized projects (Smith 2003d: 72–73; Sanders et al. 1979: 280). The sizes of chinampas varied considerably: they usually ranged from 2 to 4 meters wide and from 20 to 40 meters long (Parsons 1991: 21). However, Ávila López (2006: 321)  excavated pre-Hispanic chinampas in Mexicaltzinco that measured from 3 to 5 meters wide and from 6 to 30 meters long. Chinampa plots within concentrated urban settings tended to be smaller than those in more rural, outlying areas (Berdan 2005: 27). Chinampas were arranged parallel to one another, leaving open canals for convenient transport and for field irrigation (dipping into the canals served to water the fields, fertilize the fields with lake muck and aquatic vegetation, and also keep the canals themselves dredged and open). Chinampas were built in the southern Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco, the western portion of Lake Texcoco, and to a lesser extent in the northern lakes of the Basin. This technique required fresh water and flood protection; the southern and northern lakes were fed by springs and rivers, and the massive dike constructed across Lake Texcoco in the fifteenth century ensured protection from excess salinity and water runoff from the eastern part of Lake Texcoco. Chinampas could be constructed only in shallow waters, so they tended to be built out from lakeshores and around islands.38 It is estimated that by 1519 most of the area of the southern lakes and much of the lakeshore area of western Lake Texcoco was converted into chinampas (Sanders 2004: 68). This was the most intensive agricultural system in the Aztec world. There is, however, disagreement on just how productive this system actually was. Parsons and colleagues (1982) suggest that most of the people living in the Xochimilco/Chalco region were chinampa farmers, their labors not only providing their own sustenance but also yielding sufficient surpluses to supply nearby urban centers, including Tenochtitlan. Sanders (2004: 68)  calculates that chinampa cultivation in the southern lake area would have yielded harvests sufficient to feed the resident population of 65,000, along with surpluses for an additional 100,000 people. In contrast, Calnek (1972) concludes from his documentary investigations that the chinampas in Tenochtitlan would have yielded only 5–15 percent of the farming family’s food requirements and that

Living on the Land the value of farming these lands at all may have stemmed from their specialized production of vegetables and flowers, which the farmer could exchange in nearby marketplaces for his household’s daily fare. Chinampas in Tenochtitlan could have been perceived and used differently than those in less urban and more dispersed areas, but clearly more research is needed here. The expandability of this system also had political implications, with surpluses directed to powerful centers (such as Tenochtitlan), where they could underwrite expanding urban specializations, governmental bureaucracies, market activities, and military enterprises (Brumfiel 1991a: 61). The high, sustained productivity of these plots was achieved through multicropping, crop rotation, soil replenishment/replacement, and the use of staggered seedbeds, along with augmentations of water and natural fertilizers from adjacent canals. The southern lakes, especially, were frost free and enjoyed higher precipitation than the northern lakes, and plantings of different crops could be scheduled throughout the year: chiles planted in late September, tomatoes in October, squash in February, and so on (Gibson 1964: 321). It should be no surprise that these areas were responsible for paying the highest levels of staple food tribute in the Aztec Empire.39 At least three to four and as many as seven different crops a year could be produced under this regime (Smith 2003d: 70–71; Armillas 1971).The use of seedbeds greatly enhanced the efficiency of this system: the farmer could prepare seedbeds of one crop while another was maturing, and he enjoyed higher returns for his efforts since only germinated plants were transplanted. Multicropping also contributed to the plots’ high productivity: both staple crops (such as maize and amaranth) and garden produce (such as tomatoes and herbs) were grown on chinampas. Plant remains uncovered from excavated chinampas in Ixtalapan and Mexicaltzinco include amaranth, tomatoes, maize, quelite, epazote, and datura (Ávila López 1992, 2006). Considering the intensiveness of the agricultural strategies of irrigation, drained fields, and chinampas, it should come as no surprise that “most of the major population centers in 1519 were located near lakeshores” (Sanders et al. 1979: 232).

household gardens Rural residents, and many urban ones as well, invariably had gardens adjacent to their houses.These small plots, called calmil (house garden) in Nahuatl, were used to grow maize, vegetables, fruits, herbs, medicinal plants, ornamentals – whatever served the immediate needs of each particular household.These plots were conveniently tended (and protected) by any able family member and, as dumping grounds for domestic refuse, tended to maintain high fertility levels, normally higher than those of other types of fields. This was also the domain for any household turkeys and dogs, which also would have provided natural fertilizing. Seasonal surpluses from these plots, although invariably small, could be traded in nearby marketplaces for other needed goods or services. House



Aztec Society and Culture gardens supplemented food production on separate fields (in rural areas) or augmented more specialized economic activities (usually in more urban areas). For Cihuatecpan, Evans (1988: 23) suggests that each house enjoyed a house garden averaging about half a hectare (resulting in a dispersed settlement pattern). Similar arrangements may have pertained in the more urban Texcoco (see Hicks 1984).

additional strateg ies Whether farmers cultivated their crops in terraced, irrigated, chinampa, or house garden settings, they had at their disposal a number of additional yield-enhancing and risk-reducing practices. Among these were fallowing, multicropping, and the use of fertilizers. Fallowing allowed a plot of land to rest and rejuvenate, naturally enabling the soil to recuperate for another round of planting. This strategy, however, also necessitated large tracts of land.40 Multicropping (also called intercropping) involved the cultivation of a wide array of plants on a single plot. This carried important benefits: inhibiting pest damage, preventing erosion, maintaining soil fertility, and providing staggered harvests as the different plants completed their growing cycles at different times. Aztec farmers were well aware of the benefits of added organic material in enhancing soil fertility. For instance, they speak of a type of good soil called tlalauiyac: “I ferti­ lize it. I add humus to it. I make it mellow. I make it good” (Sahagún 1950– 1982: book 11, 252). Other fertile soils included tlaçollali (humus turned into soil) and quauhtlalli (soil with rotten wood or oak leaves). Lacustrine insects may also have served as a fertilizer (Parsons 1996: 444). Lands such as atoctli and atlalli (irrigated lands), along with chinampas, were repeatedly replenished by waterborne materials (Parsons 1996: 251–252; see also Sanders et al. 1979: 240). And, of course, house gardens benefited from daily waste materials generated by household activities.41 the farmer and his tools Aztec agriculture was hand agriculture. Wherever he cultivated, the farmer needed to set boundaries, prepare the soil, make furrows and hills for planting, dig holes, sow seeds, weed, water, weed some more, and harvest his crops – all manually. In highly vegetated areas, he also needed to clear the native vegetation. All of this was accomplished with a relatively uncomplicated toolkit consisting of different types of digging sticks, hoes, various styles of axes, and bags and containers of different sorts (see Figure 6.2). During the month of Etzalcualiztli, offerings of food and pulque were made to hoes, sowing sticks, spades for digging the earth, and carrying devices, indicating their ritual as well as practical significance (Durán 1971: 431–432). These tools were made of readily available materials, were relatively easy to manufacture, were available in the marketplaces (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 68; Díaz del Castillo 1963: 233),42 and would have been easy to replace if broken or lost. Most fundamental were digging sticks and hoes (uitzoctli and uictli),

Living on the Land which were made of a hardwood (oak was popular) with the tip sometimes fire-hardened or enhanced with a metal (copper) tip.43 These implements were used for digging holes in the earth, planting, turning the soil, weeding, hilling up corn – true multipurpose tools. Axes made of stone or copper with wooden handles were required for cutting trees and generally clearing vegetation. Bags or baskets of various fibers, reeds, gourds, or armadillo shells were used to carry seed; ceramic, wood, or gourd containers were employed in watering the growing plants (Rojas Rabiela 1984). In addition, farmers devised scarecrows, traps, and perhaps poisons to protect their crops from birds, rodents, and other pests (Rojas Rabiela 1984: 197). This relatively simple technology masks built-in complexities and strengths of these food-growing systems. Aztec agriculture relied on sophisticated techniques, ranging from terracing to irrigation to the use of chinampas, from multicropping to fallowing to the use of fertilizers. These techniques necessitated an extensive engineering, climatic, ecological, biological, and agronomic knowledge base. They also required well-honed skills, organizational expertise, and an energetic work ethic on the part of the farmers. It should come as no surprise that Sahagún’s informants describe the “good farmer” as “active, agile, diligent, industrious: a man careful of things, dedicated” (1950–1982: book 10, 41).

Nonagricultural Food Resources While agriculture was the primary food-getting activity, people throughout Mesoamerica depended on a wide variety of additional plants and animals to complement their diet. Most universal were domesticated dogs and turkeys; both supplied meat, and turkeys additionally provided eggs. Arguably also domesticated were the Muscovy duck, bees, and various birds such as macaws and parrots (Valadez Azúa 1999).44 A wide range of wild plants and animals were also included in the Aztec diet. Availability and exploitation of these resources varied considerably depending on local ecologies, seasons, access to markets, household affluence, ecological knowledge, and other factors (see Case 3.4). In the lake-dominated Basin of Mexico, edible lacustrine resources included “algae, insects and insect eggs, frogs, salamanders, turtles, several species of fish and their eggs, several species of small crustaceans, and vast numbers of waterfowl and their eggs” as well as tadpoles, various amphibians, and salt (Parsons 2008a: 39; Gibson 1964: 341; Sahagún 1950–1982: book 11, 63–64). The acquisition of these resources involved techniques of collecting algae (tecuitlatl) with very fine nets (Hernández 1959: vol. II, 408–409; Motolinía 1971: 327–328);45 netting small fish and insects (Hernández 1959: vol. II, 395–396; Parsons 2006: 128–145); netting fish eggs (Hernández 1959: vol. II, 396); attracting insect eggs (ahuahtli) (Hernández 1959: vol. II, 392);46


Aztec Society and Culture

84 Case 3.4 Thinking Like an Aztec 1:The Natural World

The Aztecs made full use of their environmental offerings by drawing on extensive ecological experience and knowledge based on both hunter-gatherer and sedentary agricultural backgrounds. They accomplished this by interacting with these diverse, densely packed, and busy environments on both natural and supernatural planes, combining empirical observations with religious beliefs. This dual approach resulted in specific attitudes and behaviors that defined their place in the natural world. The Aztecs were a practical people. They attributed observable, pragmatic, and utilitarian qualities to natural features and living things. Some features of the landscape posed perils; for instance, mountains were craggy, precipitous, and icy, containing dangerous gorges and “deathly” precipices. Mountains also provided habitats for dangerous beasts (tecuani).* A cave was “a frightful place.” Rivers (“running water”) were powerful and had the capacity not just to frighten, but also to drown people. The sea (ocean) was likewise frightening and terrifying (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 11, 258–263). Mountains, caves, rivers, and the sea were all the homes of dreaded, even man-eating wild beasts. But of these important features, mountains, especially, could also be beneficent in their natural offerings in that they were the sources of water and wood. And while rivers and streams could be ominous and deadly, they also sustained life; when sweet and quiet, water sources were “good tasting, savory, life-giving, our sustenance, our soul, our freshness” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 11, 249). This was especially true of wells, springs, and lakes, the latter also providing reeds, fish, and a multitude of other useful resources. Beyond the landscape, the diverse and animated world of animals and plants was also viewed in practical terms. The Aztecs appear to have classified animals as quadrupeds, birds, aquatic creatures, and terrestrial animals (including insects), emphasizing their habitats and perhaps their means of locomotion (Olivier 1999).† Native classifications of plants are less clear, although trees and herbs seem to have been major categories (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 11, 105–220). The Aztecs were well acquainted with plant and animal anatomy, physiology, life cycles, and behavior patterns. They described living things in great detail, suggesting a long history of observations. For example, they knew that resin from the copal tree exuded only during the dry season, that the tlatzcan tree was long-lived, that the opossum’s fur color changed with age, that hummingbirds became dormant in response to seasonal and temperature changes, and that locusts reproduced underground (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 11, 187, 106, 11, 24, 96). But, to the Aztecs, behavior patterns were more important than physical attributes, and some of these behaviors were directly applicable to their daily lives. For instance, the American bittern’s nocturnal singing predicted heavy rains, and the song of the necuilictli bird warned of imminent frosts (Berdan 1995). The Aztecs also imbued nature with more abstract, symbolic, and metaphoric qualities. In their worldview, all aspects of the natural world were infused with

Living on the Land animated qualities and supernatural forces: their environment was energetic and active, and capable of continually affecting their daily lives. For instance, mountains were considered “magic places” filled with life-giving and lifethreatening water, much like a large pot or, more to the point, a womb. The deity Chalchiutlicue, goddess of springs and rivers, owned these waters and was good enough to offer them to human beings for their sustenance (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 11, 247). People offered her material gifts in gratitude, but also out of fear that if she “became angered they would meet with misfortune” (Durán 1971: 269). There barely existed a myth, ritual, or deity that did not involve animals or plants as leading or supporting characters: the god Quetzalcoatl obtained maize for humans with the help of an ant, the Mexica patron deity was directly associated with the hummingbird, amaranth seeds were formed into idols, and ritual offerings often consisted of quail, serpents, and cultivated crops. Creatures ranging from jaguars to serpents to golden eagles to a richly adorned canine were ritually buried in offerings in Tenochtitlan’s ceremonial precinct (López Luján 2005; Olivier 1999; Polanco 1991; see Figure 1.7). On a more personal level, a dangerous, greatly feared shaman with evil intent could transform himself into a nocturnal beast such as an owl and perform villainous acts. And most of the calendric day names were animal names, to which an individual’s fate was attached at birth (see Chapter 6). In their view, the Aztecs were intimately intertwined with all other players in this “supernatural natural world.” * Today, among the Nahua of the Sierra Norte de Puebla, the monte is considered to be a dangerous, unfathomable place. † See Hopkins 1980 for animal classifications based on locomotion among the Chuj Maya.

spearing larger aquatic fauna (Linne 1948); and netting, snaring, and spearing waterfowl (Linne 1948; Hernández 1959: vol. II, 319–354; Sahagún 1950–1982: book 11, 26–39, 58). Waterfowl were either native or seasonally migratory (especially arriving in the winter dry season), attracted by the abundance of aquatic vegetation, fish, insects, and insect eggs in and around Lake Texcoco (Gibson 1964: 341–342; Sahagún 1950–1982: book 11, 26–39). Hernández lists thirty edible varieties of waterfowl, and Sahagún mentions more than forty types. Many of these birds nested around the lake, and their eggs were an important source of food for Basin residents.The 1550 Santa Cruz map (Linne 1948) illustrates tall netting apparatuses designed for ensnaring these birds by men working from canoes. Salt was available along the shores of the eastern part of Lake Texcoco, where it was extracted by means of solar-evaporation or leaching-boiling techniques (Parsons 1996: 446–450).The resulting salt was



Aztec Society and Culture transported in specialized containers (fabric-marked pottery) for sale in the Basin marketplaces. Today several of these resources continue to be exploited: netted insects are either used immediately at home or drowned and dried for later use or exchange, insect egg nurseries are prepared, and salt continues to be produced (Parsons 2006: 145, 1996).47 All of these resources were astoundingly abundant, some of them seasonally. Hernández (1959: vol. II, 392, 396) speaks of the incredible abundance of fish eggs produced by a “multitude” of fish, as well as the enormous quantities of insects and insect eggs covering portions of Lake Texcoco. Parsons (2008a: 41) estimates that edible insects may have amounted to “thousands of metric tons” annually and that the potential annual production of the other edible aquatic resources combined could have amounted to “at least many hundreds of metric tons annually.” In the eighteenth century, even as the lake resources were dwindling, an annual consumption of 900,000–1,000,000 ducks was estimated (Gibson 1964: 343). Similarly, in the early seventeenth century it was estimated that more than a million fish were annually caught in the southern freshwater lakes (Gibson 1964: 340). In addition to this abundance, many of these resources were eminently storable, especially through drying, and several of these resources were traded in the marketplaces and thus experienced efficient regional distribution (see Chapter 4). In light of the abundance, wide availability, and high protein content of these lacustrine resources, their significance in the Aztec diet cannot be underestimated. Their importance is further suggested by the presence of “water folk” specialists in the extraction of these resources, as well as the likely presence of lake and lakeshore property delineations and rights (Gibson 1964: 340–341: Hernández 1959: vol. II, 408–409). Parsons (2006: 330) speaks of the “domestication of wetland resources” in the sense that the lakebed peoples not only exploited but actively managed their lacustrine environment. Away from the lakeshore, wild floral and faunal resources were likewise abundant. Wild plants, some of them cultivated but not necessarily domesticated, were found in house gardens, open areas along the alluvial plains, and into the piedmont and forested mountains. Among them were nopal cacti, fruit and nut trees, and a host of plants that provided herbal and medicinal supplements. Edible terrestrial mammals included deer, rabbits, hares, armadillos, pocket gophers, and other small rodents and reptiles. Most were ensnared in nets, although deer were hunted with bows and arrows. Some of these animals provided additional by-products in the form of skins and furs (e.g., deer and rabbits), containers (e.g., armadillo shells), or medicines (e.g., opossum tails, powerful expectorants not to be taken casually). Quails and quail eggs were eaten, although most birds other than waterfowl were sought mainly for their feathers. Some nonaquatic insects were adjuncts to the diet, especially grasshoppers and maguey worms, while the honey produced by bees provided

Living on the Land one of the few sweeteners in this diet (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 11, 49, 93–94, 96, 98). Like the aquatic flora and fauna, these terrestrial resources significantly complemented the Aztec diet. Archaeological investigations indicate expected ecological differences in the exploitation of these many nonagricultural food resources. For instance, the saline eastern side of Lake Texcoco was the setting for salt production, insect/insect egg collection, and the netting of waterfowl (Parsons 1996; Linne 1948), and individuals may well have specialized in these activities (Parsons 1996). In a different ecological realm, evidence from Chalco (on the shore of freshwater Lake Chalco) suggests exploitation of both lacustrine and terrestrial environments, with a diversified use of rabbits and deer, waterfowl and quail, frogs and turtles, squirrels and armadillos, dogs and turkeys (Fabiola Guzmán and Polaco 2008).48 It is not known whether these resources were directly exploited by the people of Chalco or acquired by trade. The Aztec-period Chalcans were clearly involved in extensive trading networks, and among the resources unearthed were also exotic fauna, notably marine mollusks from both coasts and the collared peccary from outside the Basin of Mexico (Fabiola Guzmán and Polaco 2008: 315). In the region of the northern Basin lakes, the residents of Xaltocan likewise exploited lacustrine and terrestrial resources, with dogs and turkeys, rabbits and hares, ducks and geese, and smaller numbers of reptiles and amphibians and very few fish. As with Chalco, some marine mollusks were found, suggesting distant exchange relations (Valadez Azúa and Rodríguez Galicia 2005). These lakeside peoples, north and south, took advantage of the wide array of resources available to them in sustaining their households, exchanging surpluses, and paying their tributes. While agriculture was their mainstay, nonagricultural resources offered the Aztecs additional provisions, and their significance should not be underestimated. Food production in the Aztec domain beyond the Basin of Mexico was dominated by agriculture, but people’s diets were also complemented by additional important resources, both domesticated and wild. Although no other highland valley in this realm enjoyed a lake system comparable to that of the Basin of Mexico, most of the same terrestrial resources were exploited. In the warmer reaches of the Empire and beyond, cacao and vanilla were important products, and a variety of coastal and marine creatures provided significant edibles. There were further variations in the exploitation of nonfood resources, most of which were in the hands of specialists. In the Basin of Mexico lime was concentrated in the northwest and obsidian in the northeast. Cochineal was popular in the Pueblan and Oaxacan Valleys. And in more temperate and tropical regions, cotton, greenstones, metals, fine feathers, and a host of marine resources were produced and available. The imperial powers demanded some



Aztec Society and Culture resources and materials in tribute, but most of these varied food and nonfood resources reached the imperial heartland through mercantile activities. The specialized nature of nonagricultural production within and beyond the Basin of Mexico and the intricacies of commercial exchange are the subjects of Chapter 4.

C hap t e r   4 C ra f t S p e cia l i z ati o n, C o m m e rc e , an d  T ra d e

And at the beginning, when the infant was taken to be bathed, if it was a boy, they carried him with his symbol in his hand; and the symbol was the tool used by the infant’s father, whether of the military or professions like metalworker, woodcarver, or whatever other profession. . . . And if the infant was a girl, the symbol they gave her for bathing was a distaff with its spindle and its basket, and a broom, which were the things she would use when she grew up. Codex Mendoza, folio 56v (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, 118); originally written ca. 1541 The merchant is a seller, a merchandiser, a retailer; (he is) one who profits, who gains; who has reached an agreement on prices; who secures increase, who multiplies (his possessions). . . .The good merchant (is) a follower of the routes, a traveler. Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 42–43; originally written 1575–1577 or 1578–1580

The Aztec world was a world of specialists. In the political sphere there were royal advisers, ambassadors, military officers, judges, tax collectors, and scribes, along with a bevy of administrators and palace servants. Royal palaces could support intellectuals such as philosophers and astronomers, skilled architects and engineers, trained zoo and aviary caretakers, gardeners, and performers for the amusement of the ruler. In the world of religion, there were hierarchies of priests for every deity, supported by teachers, “composers of songs,” and cadres of priestly assistants. In the subsistence realm, it is likely that most food producers cultivated an assortment of crops or sought a variety of wild resources. Yet some foods, such as turkeys and their eggs, pulque, salt, and aquatic fauna, may have been available through specialized efforts (see Chapter 3). The service sector of the economy included barbers, porters, collectors of fresh water, masons, midwives, physicians, astrologers, and prostitutes. Numerous regional traders and long-distance merchants plied their trades full time. And there were the innumerable artisans who manufactured the great variety of utilitarian and luxury goods used by people from all walks of life. These 89

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goods included textiles, pottery, stone tools, mats, nets, baskets, sandals, paper, weapons, books, musical instruments, and finery fashioned from precious metals, valuable stones, and tropical feathers. Production of these objects was achieved by part-time or full-time artisans, involved one stage or many, and was geared toward commoner and noble consumers. The nature, organization, and dynamics of such craft production and the place of craft specialization in the broader spectrum of economic production are the subjects of the first part of this chapter. Craft Specialization

Specialization in the production of material goods reached a high level of diversity and intensity during Aztec times. In part, this was possible because of the food surpluses created by increasingly intense systems of agriculture, complemented by an abundance of nonagricultural resources. These surpluses released some persons, either partially or fully, from food-getting activities, allowing them to concentrate their time and energy in pursuing other production avenues. In part also, high levels of craft production were related to the demographic surge in the Late Postclassic, providing large bodies of producers and consumers of needed or desired goods. And also in part, these material specializations were stimulated and maintained by the increasing commercialization of the Late Postclassic, facilitating relatively efficient and effective flows of raw materials and finished goods on local, regional, and supraregional levels. Costin (1991, 2001) analyzes craft production along several different dimensions, including diversity, scale, intensity, concentration, organization, and the social context of production.These dimensions are useful here, with the added consideration of the production process itself (Berdan et al. 2003b: 97–99).

Diversity of Production Gary Feinman (2001: 192) suggests that early craft specializations in Mesoamerica focused largely on elite crafts – fine goods geared toward use and display by an aristocracy and exchanged over long distances.1 This was in Early Formative times, but by the Late Postclassic a wide range of both utilitarian and elite goods was being manufactured by specialized producers. In Aztec times, luxury crafts focused on featherwork, gold and silver metallurgy, fine stonework, mosaics of precious stones and shells, pictorial books, and fine decorated textiles and ceramics. The most prized raw materials derived from beyond the imperial core: colorful feathers from tropical regions, gold from the southern highlands, turquoise from northern Mexico and the American Southwest,2 jadeite from southern Mesoamerica, shells from both

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade

Figure 4.1. Tribute sources of precious materials. (Drawing by Jennifer Berdan.)

coasts, and cotton from throughout the lowlands (Figure  4.1). The use and display of objects fashioned from these precious materials were restricted to the aristocracy, the priesthood, and the state: this finery decorated godly idols, enriched ceremonies and state events, and bedecked elite persons (Case 4.1). Some stonework (whether of precious stones or lowly basalt) was religiously and politically inspired; for example, massive monuments were sculpted to exalt gods, rulers, and the achievements of city-states (see Case 1.2). Utilitarian crafts included the manufacture of a wide range of ceramic cooking and serving wares, ceramic ceremonial objects such as censers and figurines (Figure  4.2a), a variety of stone tools, reed mats, baskets, sandals, paper, decorative stamps (Figure  4.2b), tobacco tubes, musical instruments, farming implements, spindle whorls, ordinary textiles, and weapons  – the whole range of useful tools and objects found in most Aztec households, commoner and elite. Evidence for the diversity of Aztec craft production is gleaned from both ethnohistoric and archaeological sources. Ethnohistorically, virtually every craft (and its raw materials) was recorded as present in the famous Tlatelolco marketplace.3 These included luxury wares made of shimmering tropical



Aztec Society and Culture Case 4.1 Thinking Like an Aztec 2:The Luxury Artisan What did it take to be a luxury artisan in Tenochtitlan in, say, AD 1500? What was your attitude and approach to your craft, and how did that relate to your background, your training, and your support group? In short, what did it take to be successful? The luxury artisans worked in exotic, expensive materials such as tropical feathers, fine stones, precious metals, and marine shells. There was little room for error with these expensive materials, so a great deal of planning and groundwork went into the preparation of the fine piece to be fashioned. Sahagún’s informants tell us that “the good craftsman [is] a willing worker, patient, calm” (1950–1982: book 10, 25), working carefully and skillfully. More specifically, the featherworker was also “ingenious, imaginative,” the goldworker “observant” and “skilled of hand,” the copper caster “wise,” “imaginative,” and “adroit,” and the lapidary “informed” and a “designer of works of skill” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 25, 26). All were taught to be honest and trustworthy. This was the ideal, and descriptions of “bad” artisans indicate that the ideal was not always met: a featherworker might be “a destroyer of good work,” a goldworker “a pilferer, a robber of part [of the gold],” a copper caster a hasty and dishonest worker, and a lapidary a noisy, inept worker. In general, unacceptable attitudes included dishonesty and laziness, and objectionable behaviors involved carelessness, wastefulness, hastiness, and basically damaging or destroying the product and its materials (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 25, 26). Artisans learned their craft and its morality from their parents and others around them. These associates were a tightly knit group, and all of an artisan’s good and bad attributes and achievements were readily known and critically evaluated. A high quality of life for an artisan depended on conforming to the ideals of the trade, informally enforced by the immediacy of co-workers. Rewards were considerable, often involving rights and privileges to actively participate in the celebrations of the craft’s patron deity. Well-trained and skilled luxury craftsmanship can be seen in the meticulous workmanship of existing objects. Consider, for example, the manufacturing of the turquoise mosaic disk shown in Figure C4.1. The artistry required knowledge of religious symbolism and well-honed mechanical skills. The stones were chosen carefully for size, shape, and color, most of them only slightly larger than a pinhead. The artisans also displayed a frugal side, reusing and recycling pieces from other objects when available and appropriate. All the pieces were arranged meticulously, in accordance with a well-planned design. Their actual placement on the wooden backing must have required supreme patience, given their small size and variable colors and shapes. The entire design, with its chosen stones, most likely was first laid out without adhesive, the stones arranged and rearranged, and then rearranged again, until the desired effect was achieved (as is documented for featherwork mosaics). When the artisan was satisfied, an adhesive was spread on the backing and the

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade

a b

Figure C4.1.  (a) Finely crafted turquoise mosaic disk. (Photograph by Frances Berdan. Courtesy National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, no. 108708.) (b) Detail. (Courtesy National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, no. 108708.)



Aztec Society and Culture stones carefully attached. It is safe to say that this object was manufactured by an accomplished artisan. Adhesives applied to similar objects were pine resin, copal, or beeswax; sometimes combinations of these were used. Experiments at the Laboratory for Ancient Materials Analysis at California State University, San Bernardino, indicate that mixtures of pine resin and copal yield a stronger bond than either of the substances individually, suggesting that an artisan’s choice to mix these adhesives was not random, but rather based on practical and scientific experiences.

feathers, precious metals, valuable stones, and fine cotton – some sold by the artisans themselves and others purveyed by professional merchants. Also pres­ ent in that marketplace were artisans who burnished, varnished, and painted gourds; carpenters who worked woods into beams, pillars, lintels, poles, planks, and the like; those who fashioned digging sticks; those who made mirror stones; those who cast copper into bells, needles, axes, and awls; those who spun feathers for embellishing fine cloth; those who dyed rabbit fur; those who wove maguey fiber; those who made rope; and those who cured leather (Sahagún 1950–1882: book 10, 78–92). There were also weavers of maguey fiber capes and manufacturers of smoking tubes, baskets, mats, cane objects, brooms, and sandals. A broad range of pottery products is mentioned for this largest of markets, including braziers, basins, pots, griddles, pitchers, ladles, water jars, flat cooking plates, sauce vessels, and cups (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 69; book 10, 83)  (Figure  4.3). The obsidian blade maker is repeatedly mentioned and was adept at producing a wide range of objects (perhaps on order), including blades, razors, single-edged knives, double-edged knives, and “swords” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 85; Díaz del Castillo 1963: 233; Anonymous Conqueror 1963: 179). There were also those who made swords and shields, according to observations by the Anonymous Conqueror (1963: 179). There may even have been taxidermists, as suggested by Cortés’s mention of “the skins [of birds of prey] complete with feathers, head, bill and claws” for sale in the Tlatelolco marketplace (1928: 87) and the archaeological discovery of just such specimens in a Templo Mayor offering (Quezada Ramírez et al. 2010). The Tlatelolco marketplace was the largest and most diverse in all of central Mexico, offering “every article in use among the people” (Anonymous Conqueror 1963: 178). It provided a market for the local urban artisans but also attracted crafts produced beyond Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco itself. Outside that major urban complex, can we ascertain what sort of craft production was tied directly to the smaller surrounding city-states themselves? Durán (1971: 278) mentions cloth, fine gourds, and “exquisitely worked ceramics” as notable

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade




Figure 4.2.  (a) Pottery molds with figures. (Photograph by Jennifer Berdan. Courtesy Field Museum, catalogue nos. 3992–1, 3993–1.) (b) Pottery stamp. (Photograph by Jennifer Berdan. Courtesy Field Museum, catalogue no. 94838.)

commodities in the Texcoco market.4 In the mid-sixteenth-century colonial Coyoacan marketplace (Anderson et  al. 1976: 138–149), manufacturers were designated by the suffix -chiuhqui (maker) and included those who crafted clay vessels, ceramic pots (comitl) and griddles (comalli), smoking tubes, baskets, mats, metal objects, cane, obsidian blades, clay bells, sandals, tumplines, wood products, maguey fiber garments, cloth borders, spindles, and looms or loom parts.5 Similar goods were recorded for other early colonial markets in the Basin, with some variations, such as the availability of gourd containers, grinding stones, and small canoes in Xochimilco and Acolman in 1551 (Gibson 1964: 356). While many of these goods could have been produced outside these market towns, the localized nature of the markets suggests a more restricted commercial perimeter than that of the Tlatelolco market. Archaeological investigations at Huexotla (in the eastern Basin) and Otompan (Otumba),Teotihuacan, and Tepeapulco (in the northeastern Basin) offer additional clues about the diversity and extent of craft production in the Basin of Mexico and place those industries within specific communities (Figure 4.4). All of these centers were substantial Postclassic city-states in themselves, but paled by comparison to the Tenochtitlan megalopolis. Research at Huexotla has yielded small dispersed occurrences of blades, scrapers, and jars used in the production of maguey syrup; obsidian blades; small and large spindle whorls for spinning cotton and maguey fibers; ceramic molds for making spindle whorls, figurines, and urn adornments; and stone projectile points for hunting, along with small clay balls for blowgun hunting of birds and small game (Brumfiel 1987: 107). Aztec-period Teotihuacan specialized in the production of blades, scrapers, and other tools of obsidian, as did nearby Tepeapulco (Spence 1985;

Aztec Society and Culture


Figure 4.3.  Black on orange pitcher. (Photograph by Jennifer Berdan. Courtesy National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, no. 027184.)

Charlton 1978). Otompan appears to have been more craft-oriented than any of these, with specializations in obsidian and basalt tools; obsidian earspools and other fine stone ornaments; ceramic censers, figurines, molds and spindle whorls; and cotton and maguey thread (Otis Charlton et  al. 1993; Nichols 1994: 180; Otis Charlton 1994). In the central highlands beyond the Basin of Mexico, the range of artisans tends to resemble those from these Basin city-states. In nearby Morelos, just to the south of the Basin of Mexico, local Aztec-period people were weaving cotton textiles and manufacturing chert tools, obsidian blades and jewelry, bark paper and ceramic molds for figurines, spindle whorls, and censers (Smith 2003c: 252–254). To the east, 1560 Huexotzinco enjoyed the presence of woodworkers, mat makers, basket weavers, sandal makers, potters, painters and scribes, featherworkers, tobacco tube makers, and flower workers (perhaps arrangers) (Prem 1974; Brumfiel 1987). Farther afield, a great diversity of craft specialists was found in every niche of the Aztec domain and beyond. A glimpse at the Aztec tribute rolls reveals that most of the material goods delivered to the Aztec capitals arrived in the

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade

Figure 4.4. Map of notable craft communities in the Basin of Mexico. (Drawing by Jennifer Berdan.)

form of partially or fully manufactured objects. These ranged from plain and highly decorated textiles to feathered warrior costumes, gold ornaments, fine stone beads, lip plugs, copper bells and axes, bowls, paper, smoking tubes, reed mats and seats, and wooden carrying frames (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. III).


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Figure 4.5.  A father teaching his son the fine art of lapidary work. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 70r.)

Strategies and Decisions in Craft Production It can be expected that such diversity in craft production would have yielded a wide variety of production decisions and strategies. These involved scale, intensity, concentration, organization, and the social context of production.

scale In the Aztec world, most material objects, whether luxury or utilitarian, were manufactured in household settings by household members. Craft skills and knowledge, from weaving to metalwork, were passed from parent to child (Durán 1994: 468–469;6 Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. III, folios 56v–60r, 70r) (Figure 4.5). It might be presumed that the household crafting toolkit would also be passed to children within the household, as suggested by the symbols given to infants when they were bathed (quoted at the beginning of this chapter). Some material objects were produced in small amounts strictly for household consumption (“household production,” the term used by Peacock 1982), but many goods were produced in larger quantities and destined for market exchange (Peacock’s “household industry”). The extent of any household’s involvement in and commitment to the craft activity varied considerably, and these enterprises were combined with other, usually agricultural activities. In Huexotla, the small quantities and dispersed nature of craft debris strongly suggest widespread small-scale domestic crafting (Brumfiel 1987: 107). Similar conclusions hold for households excavated in Morelos (Smith 2003c) and Otompan (Otis Charlton et al. 1993; Otis Charlton 1994; Nichols 1994), although some crafts in Otompan appear to have been pursued with more exuberance than others and have earned designations as household workshops (Otis Charlton et al. 1993).7 Even luxury crafts appear to have been undertaken in domestic contexts; portions of large “orders,” such as ornate feathered pieces, may have been distributed to a number of artisans for them to fashion in their homes, delivering their piecework to some centralized, finishing locale.8 The resettling of some such households to palatial venues suggests a

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade super-domestic control over these politically attached artisans, although we are currently unsure of the nature of these palace–workshop–artisan relationships in the absence of archaeologically identified palatial workshops. It is possible that the artisan’s full household was involved in any relocation, and the craft continued as a domestic undertaking within or near a palace (Sahagún 1950– 1982: book 9, 91; Berdan et al. 2009; see Case 4.2). But it is also possible that manufacturing in these high-level settings was carried on at an industry-type workshop. The jury is still out on this important distinction. Domestic craft production was neither uniform nor simplistic. Some situational considerations included seasonality, response to market demands, life cycle of the family, domestic labor availability, access to raw materials, extent and scheduling of tribute demands, and the ability (or perceived need) to engage in multicrafting (as described later). Some of these complexities can be seen in the production of textiles. One common denominator of household crafting throughout the Aztec realm was cotton cloth production.9 This involved the spinning, weaving, and sometimes embellishing of cotton into items of clothing or other objects ranging from tortilla covers to corpse wrappings. Roughly half of the population (all women, nobles and commoners) was trained in spinning and weaving, and these individuals produced large quantities of cloth for their own household use, for trade in the marketplaces, and for tribute payments. All of this was accomplished in household contexts, although there is an exception, and the picture is a bit more complex than it seems. In commoner households an adult woman typically would divide her working time between cooking, child care, marketing, tending the household garden, and cloth production; the presence of more than one adult woman in a household was an advantage, and many commoner Aztec households were joint rather than nuclear (see Chapter 6). Some women in noble polygynous households would have been engaged in spinning and weaving as their primary activity. One would expect that there was a large potential difference in textile output between noble and commoner households. In an important exception to this model of household production, girls attached to the temple of Huitzilopochtli in Tenochtitlan spent at least some of their time making cloth for ceremonial use (Durán 1971: 84). While unrecorded, similar duties may have been assigned to priestesses and attendants in other temples.

intensity Intensity refers to the extent to which a craft was pursued on a part-time or full-time basis. Determining the intensity of craft production, especially of utilitarian objects, is singularly difficult. Ethnohistoric sources rarely offer such details, although archaeological investigations and ethnographic parallels can be more revealing. Brumfiel (1987: 102, 116) argues for a distinction between urban and rural craft production, suggesting the concentration of full-time luxury (and to a


Aztec Society and Culture


Figure C4.2.  Coyote-designed shield crafted of feathers and gold. (Photograph by Robert Berdan. Courtesy Museum für Völkerkunde,Vienna.)

Case 4.2  Making a Fancy Feather Object In Aztec Mexico, objects fashioned from fine feathers were essentially ornamental: they adorned gods, decorated buildings, bedecked royalty and other nobles, and embellished ceremonial processions and other pageants. Their shimmering, flowing presence added visual glamour and magnificence to high-level images, personages, and events. They were the prerogative of the nobility, who lavishly adorned themselves with brilliant plumes, wagered feathered cloaks and precious feathers in games of chance and skill, impressed enemy and allied nobles with gifts of exquisite feathered articles and received marvelous feathered pieces in turn, and went into battle wearing symbolically laden feathered costumes.

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade Actual articles fashioned of feathers included textiles (especially cloaks and decorative hangings), warriors’ costumes, headdresses, back devices, shields, banners, fans, and other miscellaneous adornments. Feathers used in these creations ranged from ordinary feathers of ducks, turkeys, crows, and local waterbirds to exotic feathers from macaws, parrots, lovely cotingas, red spoonbills, hummingbirds, and especially the esteemed quetzal. The acquisition of the expensive and often nonlocal feathers required considerable up-front investments by the independent artisans; this was facilitated by access to markets and by the artisans’ close economic relations with their neighbors, the long-distance merchants, or pochteca. Featherworkers attached to palaces had access to materials acquired by their royal or noble patron. Beyond the precious feathers themselves, the featherwork workshop used materials and tools obtained largely from outside sources. When acquired, some of these were already manufactured or partially processed: these included orchid powder (for glue), bowls, baskets, paper, cutting blades, leather, maguey thread, and probably cotton textiles and cotton thread. Others were obtained as raw materials and used or transformed by the featherworkers, including maguey leaves (as a working surface), cotton, colors for dyes, bone blades, wood, and the common and precious feathers themselves. Most of these materials were available in the markets; others, such as maguey leaves and bone blades, were widely available and could have been obtained informally. In general, the toolkit was quite basic, given the sophisticated objects that were produced from it.* With the exception of the precious feathers, the technology required little capital investment. It could be argued that the largest investment in this craft would have been in the realm of technical knowledge, handed down from parent to child. Objects were manufactured from feathers in three ways: (1) feathers were tied together into long, flowing devices such as headdresses and fans, (2) feathers were glued to solid surfaces to produce intricate mosaics such as shields, and (3) feathers were spun and woven into textiles. To make a feathered mosaic shield, for instance, a scribe was called upon to draw the design, which would serve as the pattern for the feathered piece. The featherworkers then went to considerable effort to meticulously prepare a backing of painted designs, glue-reinforced carded cotton, and paper supports, topped with layers of ordinary and exotic feathers. The design was outlined in thinly trimmed feathers (to the naked eye these look like paint, but under the microscope they are clearly feathers). Then layers of feathers were applied. The first layer consisted of “glue-hardened feathers” (ordinary feathers entirely dipped in glue). The colors of these feathers were chosen (or created by dyes) to match the upper layers of expensive exotic feathers, which covered the surface with a shimmering presence. The design components were constructed separately and ultimately assembled into the finished object by the master artisan (e.g., in Figure C4.2, the coyote’s head and body consist of several pieces outlined in gold; on this artifact, the gold strips are folded under and the underside sewn onto the backing). All along the way, the feathers were repeatedly laid out in trial designs, matched,



Aztec Society and Culture trimmed, arranged, rearranged, and at last attached to finalize the exquisite creation. This work undoubtedly took place out of doors, most likely on an attached patio (unfortunately, we have not yet discovered such a workplace archaeologically, nor are there any ethnographically analogous featherwork settings). It would have been important to the artisans to arrange their colorful creations in outdoor lighting, where they would most commonly be displayed. It is unlikely that the enterprise would have succeeded within the confines of the dark, windowless houses. However, the featherworkers would be able to work only on days and at times without rain or wind, conditions that would damage or disperse the valuable feathers. All of the featherworking techniques required intensive training, and the detailed documentation for Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco indicates that parents taught these skills to their children.Training and manufacturing both appear to have been household-based, the households grouped within specified neighborhoods, or calpulli.These close physical arrangements facilitated the monitoring of high standards of workmanship and behavior. Within each featherworking household there was a well-defined division of labor and hierarchy of skills. If a household contained a master artisan, that individual was responsible for overseeing the stages of production and finalizing the object. In the production of a mosaic object, a shield for example, girls and probably women were responsible for dyeing feathers, and children (apparently boys) made the adhesives. More experienced artisans created the design and applied the feathers in layers. The manufacturing of a feathered mosaic object entailed several stages of production, all of them requiring considerable cooperation. Some processes were sequenced (as with the layering of expensive feathers atop ordinary ones), others were ongoing (like the selection, trimming, and dyeing of feathers), and others were on-call (such as the making of orchid adhesives, which tend to set up quickly). Cooperation extended beyond the household, since scribes were called upon to execute the initial design, and many objects were fashioned of combinations of gold, precious stones, and feathers, requiring inter-craft collaborations (Figure C4.2). Success in a featherwork workshop relied on systematic and efficient coordination of several separate tasks. Since some of these tasks were sequential in nature, others ongoing, and still others on-call, the organization of the workshop required well-established social relations and expectations among the different specialized workers. In addition to proficiency in the sphere of social relations, it was paramount that all of the workers shared a common attitude toward their enterprise: the documents attest to extraordinary attention to detail and meticulousness, and the extant feathered objects verify that the workers held to those virtues. Efficiency, predictability, diligence, and painstaking workmanship were the watchwords of this industry. * Perhaps we shouldn’t be terribly surprised by this. Today, some exquisite crystal manufactured in Waterford, Ireland, is fashioned using wooden and sometimes jerryrigged tools.

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade lesser extent utilitarian) specialization in urban settings and part-time utilitarian crafting in rural communities. Parsons et al. (1982: 384) and Sanders et al. (1979: 180–181) also see luxury crafting as an urban (specifically, TenochtitlanTlatelolco) phenomenon. Considerable investments in time, materials, and unique training suggest that luxury crafts such as featherworking, fine lapidary work, and goldwork typically were produced by full-time artisans. They were capable of supporting themselves from these specializations, since their aristocratic consumers provided a constant and fairly predictable outlet for their efforts. Indeed, in Late Aztec times, an expanding elite and growing empire would have required a high level of production from skilled luxury artisans in terms of both quantity and quality (Case 4.2; see Chapters 5 and 6). Nonetheless, elite consumers did not reside only in Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, and some luxuries were produced in rural settings (Brumfiel 1987: 107). We know that Xochimilco was a center for fine stonework, Texcoco was known for its elaborate polychrome pottery, and city-states throughout the Aztec imperial domain contained artisans fashioning brilliant featherwork, exquisite gold objects, and fine stonework (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, 80; Neff and Hodge 2008: 217; Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. III). It is usually assumed that many of the utilitarian objects used in both noble and commoner households were manufactured part time by urban and especially rural people. The many rural households, farming households for instance, combined craft activities with other economic pursuits. Along gender lines, while the adult man or men in the household farmed or fished, the women spun and wove cloth and taught their daughters to do the same.10 In various households, men, women, and children would have combined their energies to produce a wide range of goods such as pottery, mats, rope, baskets, sandals, paper, painted gourds, and even adhesives.11 Today in the village of San Pablito, Puebla, men and women cooperate in making native paper (amatl) (Figure 4.6a); women also cook and care for children; men and boys farm; and little girls and women make colorful embroideries for sale (Figure 4.6b).12 The extent to which craft activities contributed to any particular household economy is difficult to ascertain, and the full-time/part-time distinction is a broad one. In actual instances, there would have been a continuum of time and resource commitments, varying between households and within any given household as its subsistence strategies or political fortunes changed over time. These internal changes might have been long term, but there also surely were short-term adjustments responding to matters such as seasonal activities and needs, labor availability, and access to raw materials. At one end of this continuum we find the small amounts and dispersed nature of craft debris at Huexotla, suggesting limited household involvement in crafting (Brumfiel 1987: 107). Obsidian remains at Teotihuacan suggest a similar level of artisan involvement: although Spence describes obsidian-working sites as “workshops,” he clarifies that “obsidian working occupied only a


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fraction of the time of the workshop site occupants” (1985: 92). Farther along the continuum, concentrated craft remains at Otompan suggest more intensified craft activities in stonework, figurine and other ceramic objects, and maguey fiber products. These were intensive enough to be termed workshops, but their activities still probably did not engage the householders full time (Nichols 1994; Otis Charlton 1994). At the farthest point of the continuum were the luxury artisans, as discussed earlier. Kenneth Hirth (2009a) offers cogent and well-supported arguments for the likelihood of part-time crafting in agricultural households. But rather than viewing craft production as either part time or full time, he proposes the useful concept of intermittent crafting, in which a household diversifies its resource strategies by engaging in periodic craft production. Intermittent crafting takes into account the role of craft activities in an agricultural household’s economy as well as the notion that that role provided flexibility and income to the household in the face of such variables as seasonal agricultural demands, labor availability, and the rhythm of ceremonies and tribute schedules requiring large quantities of specific material goods. Intermittent crafting also could take up the slack for less predictable and potentially disastrous events such as drought, famine, and warfare. The concept of intermittent crafting as applied to Aztec rural households is particularly attractive and relevant: it allows us to view crafting, in varying degrees of intensity at any point in a household’s history, as a dynamic and risk-reducing component of diversified household economies.13 Along the same lines, Hirth (2009a: 21) offers the concept of multicrafting, or “the practice of multiple crafts within the same household.” When mobilized, multiple craft activities provided a household with diversified production output that was responsive to different consumer cycles, spreading its risks broadly and increasing its subsistence security.14 Concentration

Concentration refers to the physical location of production facilities and activities. The distribution of crafting was not random, and patterns can be seen along ecological, ethnic, city-state, and calpolli lines. The most basic spatial associations were between crafting and the natural availability of raw materials. For instance, obsidian working proliferated at Teotihuacan and Otompan, both geographically close to two primary obsidian sources at Otompan and Pachuca. The working of maguey fiber and the production of pulque from maguey were concentrated in highland areas where maguey grew in abundance. And evidence for papermaking has been found in Morelos just to the south of the Basin of Mexico, an area where the amaquahuitl, or “paper tree,” abounds (Smith 2003c: 253). The production of ceramics with specific clay compositions was localized in city-states near those clay sources (Minc 2009). Such associations, however, were far from perfect. An enormous amount of cotton cloth production took place in the highlands, where cotton could not

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade


a b

Figure 4.6.  (a) Softening the bark for making amate (amatl) paper today in San Pablito, Mexico. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.) (b) A girl embroidering in San Pablito. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.)

Aztec Society and Culture


Figure 4.7.  A cloak designed Ocuilteca style. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 34r.)

grow. Similarly, artistry using shimmering exotic feathers was highly developed in the central highlands, although these feathers derived from distant tropical settings. The same can be said for goldwork and fine stonework, although the most noted goldsmiths were the Mixtecs from the southern highlands, living in relatively close proximity to the sources of gold. Overall, the ability to produce crafts from nonlocal raw materials was well developed and relied on far-ranging trade networks and reliable regional markets. Ethnicity also appears to have been a factor in the distribution of craft specializations. For instance, rod-shaped lip plugs were markers of Otomí ethnic identity, and numerous such obsidian objects, in finished and partially finished form, have been found archaeologically at Xaltocan, an important Otomí center (Brumfiel et  al. 1994). Some material objects produced widely, such as ceramics and textiles, had specific cultural imprints and came to be known by those ethnic associations. This was especially true where a high degree of decoration or elaboration was involved, as in the exquisite Cholula polychrome pottery (on which Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin dined), in textiles woven or painted with designs carrying the ethnic names of their producers (such as Ocuilteca cloaks) (Figure 4.7), or in ornate feathered warrior costumes likewise ethnically named (such as Cuextecatl or Huaxtec costumes) (Figure 4.8). Yet ethnic boundaries were not so impermeable as to preclude others from manufacturing these objects as well. For instance, several widely distributed Aztec imperial provinces paid Huaxtec-style warrior costumes in tribute; none of these was in the Huaxtec region. More frequent and clear-cut associations can be made between primary political units (city-states) and particular crafts; indeed, some city-states became renowned for their extraordinary craftsmanship. In the Basin of Mexico, Xochimilco as a hotbed of luxury lapidary work and Texcoco as a center for fine polychrome pottery have already been mentioned. To these

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade

Figure 4.8.  A Cuextecatl (Huaxteca-style) warrior costume. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 34r.)

we can add Cuauhtitlan, noted for its excellent red jars; Azcapotzalco, famous for its silverwork; and Coyoacan, noted for its masons (Bierhorst 1992: 70; Gibson 1964: 350–351). Other Basin city-states were centers for mat making, basket weaving, woodworking, maguey processing, stonework, and ceramics.15 At a more specific level, some neighborhood divisions (calpolli) within citystates were also renowned for their specializations. For instance, Amantlan in Tlatelolco was so famous as a center for featherworking that featherworkers generally came to be known as amanteca (people of Amantlan), and Xochimilco, in addition to its lapidary fame, contained calpolli specializing in carpentry, sculpting, and ceramics (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9; Gibson 1964: 351). While information on these specializations derives from colonial documents, I agree with Gibson (1964: 350) that “the colonial period modified but never essentially altered this aboriginal principle of community and barrio specialization.” Some of these community specializations may represent pre-Aztec practices. However, in Aztec times some artisans moved to different city-states, where they were established in separate and distinct calpolli. A good example is Texcoco, where artisans of more than thirty crafts (including goldwork, silverwork, painting, fine stonework, and featherwork) each resided in their own district within that city, brought there by the ruler from distant parts (Alva Ixtlilxochitl 1965: vol. 1, 326–326; vol. 2, 187; Torquemada 1969: vol. 1, 147). The concentration of artisans in separate calpolli was also the arrangement in Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco (Monzón 1949; López Austin 1973; Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9).16 Other artisans were clustered near palaces, suggesting entailed economic attachments (as described later).



Aztec Society and Culture An additional venue for craft production was the marketplace itself. As in today’s marketplaces, it was not uncommon for artisans to work on their wares while they displayed and sold them on market day. This is particularly well documented for those who made stone tools: the Anonymous Conqueror (1963: 179) observed that “in another part [of the Tlatelolco market] they cut the stones for knives and swords, which is something very interesting to see, and they also make swords and shields.”17 The fashioning of stone implements in the marketplaces, perhaps on order, is also suggested by another observant conquistador, who includes among the Tlatelolco market vendors “the makers of flint knives, and how they split them off the stone itself ” (Díaz del Castillo 1963: 233). Later in the sixteenth century, friar Bernardino de Sahagún (1950– 1982: book 10, 85)  described details of obsidian working in the Tlatelolco market with a degree of clarity suggesting that he probably observed the artisans at work there.18 Kenneth Hirth (2009b: 91) has found convincing archaeological evidence for obsidian blade manufacture in Epiclassic Xochicalco market areas, suggesting that the artisan-sellers were independent specialists engaging in a household-level craft. While Xochicalco predates the period of Aztec hegemony, documentary statements suggest continuity of these marketplace activities through the Late Postclassic.19

organization and context The spatial distribution of crafts also reflected, to some extent, their organization and sociopolitical context. In this regard, we speak of “attached” and “independent” artisans. The former were situated in or near palaces, suggesting elite economic, social, and/or political relationships. This particularly applied to some luxury artisans who enjoyed the patronage of the local ruler. These artisans were assured access to raw materials as well as a guaranteed consumer. For instance, the Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco featherworkers attached to the Tenochtitlan ruler’s palace enjoyed access to the ruler’s aviary and tribute stores, and were specifically employed to produce ornate featherwork for the ruler’s finery, for exquisite gifts for the ruler’s diplomatic guests, and for the array of the god Huitzilopochtli (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, 91). It appears that these highly esteemed artisans (and perhaps also lapidaries and goldworkers) were resettled in or near the palace, yet it also seems that the household structure of production was maintained. That is, it is likely that entire households were relocated, allowing for the household’s division of labor to be maintained (see Case 4.2). Other artisans attached to the royal palace in Tenochtitlan included goldworkers and silversmiths, coppersmiths, painters, “cutters of stones,” greenstone mosaic workers, and woodcarvers, all of whom worked at or near the totocalli, or “bird house” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 45; Díaz del Castillo 1963: 230). Artisans continued to be attached to native nobles in the early colonial period. Don Juan de Guzmán, native governor of Coyoacan in the

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade mid–sixteenth century, enjoyed the perquisite that “all the artisans and craftsmen . . . be attached to the royal house to do what is needed” (Anderson et al. 1976: 150–151). Ten carpenters and ten stonemasons were also attached to Don Juan, but we know little about them beyond that he was having a house built, and “they are to do what is needed” (Anderson et al. 1976: 151). Prior to the Spanish conquest, when Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin employed sculptors to carve a statue of him, he paid them handsomely for their work.20 Perhaps these were independent artisans, although the payment could as well represent compensation to attached artisans. While royal or elite sponsorship provided attached artisans with a predictable livelihood, it perhaps offered them less opportunity for creativity than the independent luxury artisans working beyond the reach of the palace and selling their finery in the markets. Some of these independent artisans, producing both luxury and utilitarian goods, were concentrated in specific neighborhoods, or calpolli. Those clustered in calpolli possessed a certain economic exclusiveness and social cohesion, much like craft guilds of medieval Europe. The documentary record provides us with details on the inner workings of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco luxury “guilds,” and archaeological information from Otompan indicates neighborhood concentrations of other crafts, such as maguey fiber processing and lapidary and figurine manufacture in that city-state (Otis Charlton et al. 1993). Highly valued by the nobility and set apart spatially, the luxury artisans enjoyed certain privileges: they supervised their children’s education, administered their own internal ranking systems, arranged religious ceremonies dedicated to their patron deities, and negotiated special relations and perquisites with their city-state rulerships. The featherworkers of Amantlan in Tlatelolco, at least, had their own temple and elite school (calmecac).21 Featherworkers, lapidaries, metalworkers, and professional merchants (pochteca) all enjoyed the privilege of offering human sacrifices (slaves) in important public ceremonies. Independent artisans could not necessarily depend on the largess of the state in obtaining raw materials for their crafts. They relied on merchants and markets for access to raw materials and as outlets for their finished products. The Tlatelolco featherworkers maintained especially close relations with their equally exclusive neighbors, the entrepreneurial pochteca, who provided them with the shimmering tropical feathers essential in their craft. While undocumented, it is likely that similarly close relations existed between luxury artisans and merchants in other city-states. Whether attached to elite palaces or living in exclusive neighborhoods, specialized artisans required enduring and predictable links to several other areas of Aztec life: they gained status through participation in society-wide ceremonies, served royal and other noble palaces, dealt with long-distance merchants, and were consistent fixtures in any major marketplace.


Aztec Society and Culture


The Production Process Further insights into Aztec craft production can be gained from an examination of the complex and multifaceted process of specialized craft production itself, including its limitations, possibilities, and regional expressions. One significant dimension along which the processes of production vary is the ­luxury–utilitarian distinction. It is usually assumed that higher values attached to a product relate directly to production activities that are spatially centralized and politically controlled (through state subsidies or guild-like organizations), that entail complicated production processes and extensive capital outlay, and that demand more full-time commitment by the producers.22 Conversely, lesser-valued products would tend to be more dispersed, to be less politically controlled, to involve less complicated procedures and capital outlay, and to be undertaken as a part-time activity. I would add one more aspect to this list of fairly well-established propositions: that the greater value and prestige attached to an object, the more fragmented or “sequentially specialized” the production process. In other words, a valued raw material was developed, altered, improved, and embellished in successive stages by different specialists on its way to becoming a finished and highly desirable commodity. This complex process itself, of course, in turn would have heightened the value of an object (but was probably not the major determinant of value, yielding to such factors as rarity of materials, intrinsic qualities, and social and symbolic meanings). On the other hand, less highly valued and more commonly used objects tended to be produced by more collapsed, contained processes, involving fewer transfers from hand to hand to reach their final, consumable form. A brief look at the contrasts between maguey fiber and cotton cloth production will highlight these patterns. The hearty maguey plant (Agave sp.) (Figure  4.9) provided sturdy fibers for netting, cordage, sandals, and cloth destined for wear predominantly by people in the society’s lower echelons. These fibers derived from both the leaves and the “heart” of the plant, and ranged from very coarse to very fine. The process of producing maguey fiber and maguey fiber cloth was generally household-based and quite self-contained (Evans 1990; Otis Charlton et  al. 1993; Charlton 1994: 236). Maguey leaves do not appear on market lists as market items. Instead, it is documented that the preparer (“dresser”) of maguey leaves was “an owner of maguey fiber,” who toasted and scraped the leaves to yield the fiber (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 73). This same person was also the marketplace vendor of maguey fiber capes. Archaeological investigations at Otompan and Cihuatecpan (Otis Charlton et  al. 1993; Evans 2005) have revealed the co-occurrence of tools for different maguey-processing activities: stone scrapers for inducing the flow of sap (Parsons and Parsons 1990: 361) or for scraping soaked leaves, and large spindle whorls for spinning the fibers. This suggests that people in individual households engaged in both the

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade production of syrup/pulque and the preparation of fibers. According to Otis Charlton et al. (1993: 156), “The density and size of the clusters [of maguey whorls], along with their associations with maguey fiber processing tools and heavily used obsidian prismatic blades, support the presence of concentrated workshop activities.” It is likely that the weaving of maguey fibers was also part of this household-based process, but archaeological and documentary evidence for this is lacking. Rural dwellers outside of Otompan may have processed the fibers and passed them on to be spun by Otompan urbanites (Otis Charlton et al. 1993: 156). If the prepared fibers were moved to other spinners and weavers, this might have occurred through channels more informal than marketplaces, or the fibers may have been present in the marketplaces and not deemed worthy of mention. In any event, it does appear that maguey fiber and cloth production was regionally contained within highland magueygrowing areas (see Blanton 1996)  – large spindle whorls for maguey fiber spinning rarely appear in lowland regions (e.g., Stark 1990: 275). At Otompan and Cihuatecpan at least, maguey fiber production was spatially concentrated, while cotton spinning was dispersed throughout the center (Otis Charlton et al. 1993; Nichols 1994; Evans 2005). These patterns resemble Sahagún’s (1950–1982: book 10, 74) description of the marketplace sellers of maguey syrup: these individuals, who processed maguey into this delectable liquid, were also owners of maguey plants. Ethnographic research by Parsons and Parsons (1990: 297) indicates that present-day magueyprocessing activities are invariably located very close to the sources of the maguey plants themselves. These researchers (Parsons and Parsons 1990: 297–298) logically suggest that this was due to the enormous amount of waste involved in the processing: since this condition would have pertained in the Late Postclassic as well, we may assume a similar localization of maguey-processing activities for those times.This would also account for the lack of maguey leaves (as recorded) in Aztec-period marketplaces; the effort involved in transporting them would not have been commensurate with the rather modest economic returns. In contrast, “the evidence for cotton fiber and cloth production suggests a complex set of spatially separated sequences carried out across diverse regions” (Berdan et al. 2003: 99). Cotton was a lowland crop, cultivated on coastal plains, along river valleys, and in some low-elevation inland areas (such as in presentday Morelos state).Yet, unlike the manufacture of maguey fiber and cloth, cotton textile production spread across different ecological zones, being common in highland as well as lowland locales.23 Raw cotton was transported to spinners and weavers by cotton field owners, by regional traders (tlanecuilo), and by professional merchants (oztomeca) (Berdan 1988: 646). At Misantla, along the Gulf coast, enterprising individuals manufactured quilted cotton armor and sold it at battlefields (Relación de Misantla 1962: 17). Aside from this interesting option, the most common venues for exchange were the numerous highland and lowland marketplaces.24


Aztec Society and Culture


Figure 4.9. Maguey (agave) plant. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.)

Cotton cloth was frequently embellished with spun rabbit fur, spun feathers, and dyed embroidery threads. Weavers had access to rabbit fur and the feathers of birds such as ducks and turkeys through the Tlatelolco marketplace (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 77, 92) and undoubtedly other markets as well. They could purchase these materials to personalize their own clothing, to adorn an item for tribute payment, or for further sale. To embellish a woven textile, therefore, the weaver depended on the efforts of these other specialists, since the fashioning of these colorful additions involved specialized producers: the rabbit fur vendor was a dyer of those furs, the seller of spun duck and turkey feathers also spun them, and the dyes themselves were produced and sold separately from the spun threads (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 77, 92). Woven cotton cloth, embellished or not, seemed to enter the economy in more diverse ways than cloth woven from maguey fibers. While both maguey cloth and cotton cloth were produced for personal use, tribute payments, and market sales by the weavers, the cotton cloth also ended up in the hands of various professional merchants and traders who served as entrepreneurial middlemen. In general, the movement of highly valued cotton from raw material to finished, consumable product involved a good many specialized producers, transfers from hand to hand, and journeys across diverse ecological regions.25 The less prestigious maguey, in contrast, traveled from raw material to finished good in a considerably more contained economic and geographic arena. Whether locally constrained or regionally extensive, craft specializations provided households with important economic supplements or, in some cases, their entire livelihood. Nonetheless, some craft production was skimmed off for obligatory tribute payments, a political arm of the economy that is discussed in Chapter 5. In producing utilitarian crafts, artisans reached a wide range of consumers up and down the social scale; in producing preciosities, luxury artisans targeted the elite social, political, and religious world. To reach all of these consumers,

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade specialists depended on commercial exchange networks, especially central Mexico’s energetic merchants and extensive web of markets. Commercial Exchange

Central Mexico during the Late Postclassic was highly commercialized  – more so than during any prior era in the region: commodities proliferated, long-­distance trade thrived, markets were lively, and currencies were widely accepted (Berdan et  al. 2003a). The commercialization of the economy was widespread, as entrepreneurial trading networks extended to distant international trading centers, and everyday exchanges were relatively disengaged from direct political control. The extent of this commercialization, however, remains a persistent question. Land does not generally appear to have been a marketable commodity,26 and the bulk of labor (particularly agricultural labor) was likewise politically entailed. Some artisans, especially those producing luxury goods, were directly attached to noble houses, and their efforts most likely were not available in the markets; however, independent luxury artisans also existed. Similarly, the labor of porters appears to have been sometimes entailed by local rulers, sometimes available for “pay” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, 14; Hassig 1986). Some individuals such as barbers and porters reportedly offered their services (or labor) in the marketplaces (Cortés 1928: 88–89). But aside from land and most primary labor, it was understood and expected that individual householders and entrepreneurial merchants would balance their resources and seek livelihoods and profits in the numerous bustling markets of the realm.

Travel and Transport In the Aztec world, all travel and transport was by foot or canoe. On land, all goods were carried on human backs with the aid of a tumpline and carrying frame or basket. This restricted individual loads to approximately 50 pounds (Díaz del Castillo 1963: 109, 131–132; Hassig 1986:135–136). Householders selling small personal surpluses would have carried their own goods to market, while wealthy professional merchants would have engaged porters (tlamemeh) – perhaps large caravans of them – to transport their valuable wares great distances. In the latter case, porters reportedly worked in relays, an individual porter carrying his load “five leagues,” an ambiguous distance probably referring to a single day’s journey (Hassig 1986: 135–136). Both size of load and distance traveled may have been somewhat flexible depending on time of year, seasonal weather conditions, difficulty of terrain, and even perhaps political obstacles. In any event, while some of the long-distance mercantile travel would have paralleled modern road networks, many travelers embarked directly across country. Mirroring this early pattern, today in mountainous areas of Mexico


Aztec Society and Culture


market vendors often trek on foot “straight” home over hill and valley, crossing the zigzagging network of roads, and walking for up to three hours, each way, to and from the market. Where lakes, rivers, or coastlines afforded the opportunity, foot traffic was augmented or replaced by canoe transport. Since a single man poling a canoe could carry many times the weight of a foot porter, this was a more efficient way of moving large quantities of goods – Hassig (2001: 768) estimates that canoes could be forty times more efficient than porters. Lake Texcoco was reportedly crowded with canoe traffic at the time of the Spanish arrival, the canoes constantly moving people and goods to and fro between shorelines and islands. Throughout Mesoamerica, on rivers, and along the Gulf and Pacific coasts, merchants plied their wares in large dugout canoes capable of transporting several people with a wide array of merchandise (Edwards 1978; see Case 8.2). Aztec transport depended on human energy. It was also flexible and opportunistic: it responded to local conditions of terrain and weather, took advantage of specialized natural features such as lakes and rivers, and adjusted to changing political relations and boundaries. Within these parameters, Aztec people continued to use ancient pathways and roads, and invested in new roads and causeways to enhance their traveling options and efficiency. While most transport (especially foot transport) continued to be carried out within relatively contained city-state perimeters with their local markets, the Late Postclassic also saw the integration of broad regions by energetic, wide-ranging merchants.

Markets, Marketplaces, and Market Systems Marketing activity in ancient (and modern) states has more than one dimension. Markets are “institutions predicated on the principles of market exchange of alienable commodities” (Garraty 2010: 6). Forces of supply and demand are engaged, a critical mass of buyers and sellers is available, and at least some commodities or properties are available as transferable property. In the context of the Aztec Empire, markets were embedded in marketplaces, the actual physical venues where regular and predictable market exchanges took place. Beyond such individual locales, market systems were formed by “a regional network of interconnected marketplaces” (Garraty 2010: 10)  that actually expanded beyond the regional level to interregional and even extra-imperial scales. All of these – markets, marketplaces, and market systems – were pres­ ent and vital in the dynamics of the Aztec world. Certain aspects of markets (such as alienable property and large numbers of vendors and consumers) can be seen in the documentary record. The extent to which the forces of supply and demand operated in the markets is less securely documented and derives primarily from inference. Controversies still simmer over the extent to which market values were established by supply and demand or by the intervention

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade of political forces (see Blanton 1996). Marketplaces are unequivocally documented in the ethnohistoric records and inferred from archaeological studies (e.g., Hirth 1998; Garraty 2009, 2010; Smith 2010); likewise with market systems (see Blanton 1996; Garraty 2010; Smith and Berdan 2003b).27 During Aztec times, marketplaces (tianquiztli) enlivened every major city and town in central Mexico. Some met daily, others periodically. Some displayed a wide array of commodities; others were more limited or specialized. Some attracted long-distance merchants with exotic wares; others catered to more local vendors. Whatever the specifics, marketplaces served many of the daily and exceptional needs of every individual in the imperial world. Beyond “daily life,” the numerous marketplaces of the realm served as indispensable venues in economically integrating the wide-ranging world system of Late Postclassic Mesoamerica (Smith and Berdan 2003b; see Chapter 8).

types and scales of marketplaces In 1615 Juan de Torquemada felt he could “reduce all [the markets] to those of the city of Mexico [Tenochtitlan]; because you will see that through these it is possible to understand the markets of all the other parts of the land” (1969: vol. II, 555).28 While Torquemada was writing nearly a century after the Spanish conquest, the indigenous market system in Central Mexico had changed little since Aztec times (see Chapter 8). Since this colonial observer had traveled beyond Mexico City and observed other marketplaces firsthand, he most likely was referring to general marketplace features such as meeting schedules, the range of available market goods, and the orderly spatial arrangements of vendors and their commodities.Yet if we were to look more closely, we would see significant variations among these marketplaces, notably the singular metropolitan marketplace, urban specialized marketplaces, and provincial and extra-Empire marketplaces (including marketplaces straddling volatile borderlands).These different types of marketplaces played variable roles in the dynamics of the Aztec Empire and, more broadly, in integrating the Mesoamerican world system. Metropolitan Marketplace Our most detailed information on Aztec marketplaces derives from the extraordinary market at Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan’s sister-city. According to Spanish eyewitnesses and colonial accounts, virtually every raw material and manufactured object was offered for sale at this lively and noisy gathering (Cortés 1928: 87–89; Díaz del Castillo 1963: 232–233; Anonymous Conqueror 1963: 178–179; Sahagún 1950–1982: books 8 and 10). The range of available goods was so impressive that the conquistador Díaz del Castillo despaired of describing it all, concluding his account with, “If I describe everything in detail I shall never be done” (1963: 233). On the same tour of the pre-conquest Tlatelolco market, Hernán Cortés had a similar reaction to this market’s offerings: “There is nothing to be found in all the land which is not sold in these markets, for



Aztec Society and Culture over and above what I have mentioned there are so many and such various other things that on account of their very number and the fact that I do not know their names, I cannot now detail them” (1928: 89). Goods ranged from everyday foodstuffs such as maize and beans, to household objects such as pots and baskets, to nobles’ fancy adornments made of gold, precious stones, and shimmering feathers. Commodities ranged from the elegant to the mundane, from the exceptional to the everyday. Some, such as feathers and pigments, were sold as raw materials, while others, such as decorated textiles and fine stone necklaces, were expertly fashioned and meticulously adorned. A tempting menu of fast food was on offer to hungry marketers. This exceptional marketplace attracted tropical luxuries from distant lands as well as local lake products. The marketplace, indeed, drew on resources and manufactures from the entire Empire and even beyond: exotic feathers, cotton, and cacao came from lowland regions, chiles arrived from the southern Empire (present-day Oaxaca) and the Gulf coast, and fine stones such as jadeite derived from well south of the Empire’s military control. Products and goods from both local and distant areas provided the consumer with considerable choice: in this market were offered at least fifteen varieties of maize, twentyseven types of chiles, five distinct grades of cotton, and ten regional varieties of decorated gourd bowls (Berdan 1985: 344). This marketplace was especially effective in supporting urban craft specialists. For instance, artisans of fine stone or feather mosaics found enthusiastic elite consumers for their finery; at the same time other vendors used the marketplace to supply these very artisans with essential raw materials such as stones, feathers, glues, resins, dyes, cotton, and woods.The wide range of goods was made available by wealthy merchants with their exotic wares, by regional merchants, by local specialists, by nearby farmers with small seasonal surpluses, by collectors of aquatic resources – in short, by anyone with mercantile goals, available surpluses, or just something a little extra to sell. As a metropolitan marketplace, the Tlatelolco market was clearly in a class by itself. Reportedly as many as 20,000–25,000 persons attended this venue daily, with an estimated 40,000–50,000 participating every fifth day (Anonymous Conqueror 1963: 178–179). Its very scale and diversity were extraordinary: it served an outlandishly large and diverse population, it catered to a variety of ethnic groups, it served as a commercial outlet for urban specialists, and it provided specialized goods needed during the predictable ceremonial cycle. Its commercial range was also atypical, as it benefited from a vast amount of convenient lake traffic; the relative ease and efficiency of canoe over foot transport allowed large-scale transfer of goods to and from lakeshores and islands. Additionally, the network of causeways served the needs of marketers traveling on foot.The urban concentration of a relatively large number of elite consumers, hungry for symbols of their status, attracted professional merchants with their exotic wares.

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade It should come as no surprise that neighboring Tenochtitlan rulers took a special interest in this vigorous marketplace and desired to control it and its attendant wealth. Its conquest by Axayacatl in 1473 was surely undertaken, at least in part, to secure that control (Garduña 1997: 126).Wealthy and politically influential pochteca resided near this marketplace, and this conquest also wove these long-distance merchants more tightly into the web of Tenochtitlan’s political service (as described later).

Urban Specialized Marketplaces in the Basin of Mexico Before elaborating on the great Tlatelolco marketplace, Hernán Cortés (1928: 87) mentions that “the city [Tenochtitlan] has many open squares in which markets are continuously held and the general business of buying and selling proceeds.” The Anonymous Conqueror (1963: 179) states, “In addition to this great square there are others, and other markets throughout the city where foodstuffs are sold.” The marketplaces other than the food venues may have sold a diversity of goods, but we have no specific information on what these were (Anonymous Conqueror 1963: 178).The holding of food markets at various locations throughout the densely populated Tenochtitlan (spread out over some 12 square kilometers) was certainly practical.29 The Basin’s “second city,” Texcoco, also had multiple marketplaces, the largest held every fifth day and other, more ordinary ones held daily (and probably stocked with foods and utilitarian wares). The numerous marketplaces in these and other cities throughout the Basin of Mexico displayed a wide range of foodstuffs, utilitarian wares, local specialties, and exotic products and manufactures. Some of these urban marketplaces became well known for specific commodities:Texcoco was renowned for cloth, ceramics, and fine gourds; Otompan and Tepepulco for turkeys; Azcapotzalco for slaves; and Acolman for dogs. In this last case, Diego Durán relates from personal experience that Acolman was unquestionably the place to go to buy and sell dogs in both his (colonial) and pre-colonial times: One day I went to observe the market day there, just to be an eyewitness and discover the truth. I found more than four hundred large and small dogs. . . .When a Spaniard who was totally familiar with that region saw [my amazement], he asked, “Why are you astonished? I have never seen such a meager sale of dogs as today! There was a tremendous shortage of them!” (Durán 1971: 2785)

This same friar suggests that political policy had a hand in the establishment of these specialized marketplaces and that “some markets, therefore, became famous and popular for these reasons.” As an example he cites the slave markets at Azcapotzalco and Itzocan, stating that all those who were selling slaves “must go there and to no other place to sell” (Durán 1971: 277–278).30 He also includes the Acolman dog market among those established by political edict (Durán 1971: 278). Despite Durán’s claims, it appears that specialization did not



Aztec Society and Culture mean monopoly. Reportedly slaves could be sold in any market venue, and, at the very least, our detailed listings for the Tlatelolco marketplace include all of the goods sold in the surrounding specialized marketplaces. Specialization here seems to refer to a certain renown rather than an exclusive right. As venues offering a wide range of goods alongside their “famous” ones, these marketplaces would have provisioned the full range of local households (noble to commoner) and generally attracted the same types of buyers and sellers as the Tlatelolco market. These ranged from small-scale food producers to specialized artisans and wealthy traveling merchants.The presence of a featured commodity also drew an inordinate number of individuals with special goals. For instance, the slave markets required high-end merchants as vendors as well as wealthy persons as consumers; regional and long-distance merchants were attracted to the Texcoco marketplace, where they knew they would find consumers expecting their fine gourds brought from afar. Additionally, specialized marketplaces may have experienced uneven demand. For instance, dogs, turkeys, and slaves were often associated with feasting and religious ceremonies, and their specialized markets probably geared up for these scheduled and predictable events. Other urban marketplaces around the Basin of Mexico enjoyed less spectacular reputations, but nonetheless were “the place to go” for particular purchases. For instance, the Coyoacan marketplace offered a nice range of wood products, and the Cuauhtitlan marketplace presented the knowledgeable consumer with an excellent selection of pottery (Anderson et al. 1976; Gibson 1964: 358). Many of these marketplaces operated on a periodic rather than daily basis, convening every fifth or every twentieth day. The most common period recorded in the early colonial documents is weekly (see Figure 4.10a), which is translated into every fifth day in the pre-Columbian calendar.31 These schedules would have required some planning by vendors seeking the most suitable and profitable marketplaces and by consumers seeking specialized products.

Market Integration in the Basin of Mexico Were these Basin of Mexico marketplaces integrated into a broader market system? Michael Smith (1979) suggests a basin-wide market exchange system focused on the Tlatelolco marketplace. In this conceptualization, the market system was based on a commercial principle: goods traveled freely from smaller marketplaces to the great Tlatelolco market magnet and also freely from any marketplace to any marketplace in the region. Specialized marketplaces drew consumers from throughout the broader region. However, Leah Minc (2009) suggests that, at least in terms of pottery, marketplaces around the basin operated in fairly exclusive spheres. That is, pottery produced in one city-state domain only occasionally moved beyond that sphere to enter other, even nearby marketplaces. There were some variations in this pattern: fancy vessels were traded more widely than simpler ones, suggesting that commoners relied mostly on local production, while nobles drew on more extensive zones to supply their

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade


Figure 4.10.  (a) Map of documented sixteenthcentury weekly markets in the Basin of Mexico. (Drawing by Jennifer Berdan.) (b) A twentiethcentury Nahua woman selling her produce in a Mexican marketplace. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.)




Aztec Society and Culture more expensive and exotic needs. Minc’s (2009: 349–350) suggestion of definable market spheres applies to ceramics and, to some extent, to spindle whorls. Pottery is heavy, bulky, and breakable, and for these reasons alone it may have been confined to a more restricted marketing zone than many other commodities, which may have traveled about the region more widely and more freely. The question remains as to how applicable these spheres were to other types of portable goods. The profusion of Basin of Mexico marketplaces, and notably the Tenochtitlan food markets, was supported by highly concentrated urban populations. Specialized offerings in certain of these marketplaces reflected the need for predictable (and sometimes periodic) supplies of specific elite consumables such as slaves, dogs, and turkeys. Other locally available goods, such as foodstuffs, wood, mats, and pottery, drew on local production (Figure 4.10b). Regionally, the mammoth Tlatelolco marketplace was encircled by a large number of these smaller marketplaces. In addition to supplying their local residents, it is likely that these marketplaces served as down-the-line steps in moving goods from more distant regions into the full range of urban marketplaces. This was the documented case with turkeys, which were concentrated at Otompan and Tepeapulco and were transported from there to the Tlatelolco marketplace (Torquemada 1969: vol. II, 559). The periodicity of marketplaces aided in these movements; for instance, goods left over from the colonial Friday market in Chalco Atenco were sold the next day in Mexico City’s plaza, perhaps a reflection of early practices (Gibson 1964: 358).

Provincial and Extra-Empire Marketplaces Nonspecialized marketplaces proliferated within and beyond the Basin of Mexico. City-states throughout central Mexico boasted their own marketplaces, small or large, daily or periodic, serving local clientele or attracting more distant participants. Some of these locales played significant roles in the overall imperial economy.Their importance depended on a number of factors: local availability of raw materials and/or a notable local manufacture based on those materials; location along active commercial routes; imposition of tributes requiring that goods be supplied through markets; and direct political intervention in market activities. Markets throughout and beyond the Empire served local supply functions. A profusion of marketplaces provided individual householders with fundamental needs, such as staple foods, pottery, and basic tools. Many of these marketplaces would also have benefited from (and served as distribution points for) some local resource such as clay suitable for pottery making, reeds for basket making, lime for construction, or obsidian for tools. What might be the range of such a basic-needs marketplace? For the Postclassic Basin of Mexico, Blanton (1996: 59) derives a market service radius of 4–8 kilometers, and Minc (2006: 99) suggests a radius of 8–12 kilometers for ceramics in the Basin.An archaeological study

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade in the Lower Blanco region of the Gulf coast by Garraty (2009: 168) suggests a service radius of about 9 kilometers for a Middle Postclassic local market.32 The service areas for bulk luxuries (such as cotton, salt, and cacao) and more exotic goods have not been determined, but their range was most likely much greater. Sixteenth-century colonial documentation suggests that individuals were willing to travel 38–58 kilometers to markets to obtain goods such as obsidian, cotton, and salt in locales where they were not naturally available (Berdan 1985: 350). Aside from making these special products available, the basic economic function of these local markets was the provisioning of individual households, granting access to needed goods on a daily, seasonal, or situational basis while at the same time furnishing outlets for their small surpluses (from, e.g., kitchen gardens and household craft production). Political functions were also served, as local elites strove to sponsor renowned markets to enhance their social prestige and bolster their political influence (Hirth 2010). An affluent market reflected the noble’s ability to attract and control resources, qualities that made him appealing as a potential political ally. Markets favorably located along busy commercial routes gained fame and business, as well as the attention of ambitious city-state and imperial rulers. Among these were markets situated astride the important inland–Gulf coast corridors. On one such route merchants targeted markets in Tulancinco, Tzicoac, and Tochpan that convened every twenty days (see Figure 4.12). Tulancinco was located at the eastern edge of the highland plateaus, and the Gulf coast marketplaces of Tochpan and Tzicoac were both situated on the Tochpan River, part of a major and convenient highland–Gulf coast artery. These markets attracted merchants from far and wide carrying valuable and exotic goods (Alvarado Tezozomoc 1975a: 310; Alva Ixtlilxochitl 1965: vol. I, 283). It is no surprise that these city-states were on the Aztec conquest agenda. Similarly, Huexotla, just to the north of Tochpan and Tzicoac, entered the Empire as a “client state” (see Chapter 5), probably of interest to the Empire for its prime location along north–south/east–west trade routes. Its market was reportedly well known for salt and cotton, both of which were transported from some distance (Berdan et al. 1996: app. 4). In some cases the Aztecs promoted favorably located marketplaces, recognizing, for example, that Tepeacac on the eastern plateau was “situated in a place through which many pass” (Durán 1994: 258).33 Some of these also straddled ecological boundaries displaying not only “economic discontinuities” (Hirth 1978) but also cultural and linguistic distinctions (Berdan 1985). As “break of bulk” and “gateway communities,” their marketplaces provided regional as well as local services. Some markets gained or maintained business as a result of imperial tribute assessments. Marketing and marketplaces predated Aztec hegemony; ethnohistoric documentation and archaeological research indicate the presence of markets in Mesoamerica from at least the Classic period (see Blanton 1983, 1996; Hirth 1998, 2010; Garraty 2009; Smith 2010; Stark and Ossa 2010). Conquering



Aztec Society and Culture Aztec rulers capitalized on these established trade and marketing networks to acquire goods originating from other conquered regions and even from beyond their zone of control. For instance, raw cotton and tropical feathers were produced or natively available only in lowland regions, yet woven cotton textiles and feathered warrior attire were paid in tribute by nearly every highland province conquered by the Aztecs. For the Aztecs, such tribute assessments assumed the preexistence and predictable availability of these lowland materials in highland regions. Trade of some kind was involved; admittedly, with a dearth of specific data, we assume existing marketplaces as the most likely venues for exchange. Other examples include the greenstone and turquoise paid by Tochpan province, amber delivered by Xoconochco, and quetzal feathers demanded of Tlaxiaco and Coayxtlahuacan provinces (Berdan and Anawalt 1992; Ball and Brockington 1978: 113). In some cases, great distances were involved: reportedly the people of Icpatepeque trekked more than 144 kilometers to acquire gold dust, green feathers, and greenstones for their imperial tribute to Motecuhzoma (PNE 1905–1906: vol. IV, 161–162). In all of these instances, these materials did not originate in the provinces paying them in tribute, yet they must have been sufficiently prevalent in those provinces to capture the attention of the conquerors. Imperial intervention stimulated select markets within the Empire, as already noted for some specialized Basin of Mexico marketplaces. Beyond the Basin, a good example of imperial meddling involves the marketplace at Tepeacac, near the enemy Tlaxcallan border. Following its conquest, Tepeacac was required to hold a market where luxury goods such as gold, precious stones, fine feathers, rich clothing, cacao, and jaguar pelts were to be available (Durán 1994: 159). This edict offered a convenience to merchants traveling to “foreign” lands as well as to merchants restricted to trafficking within the confines of the Empire (as described later). Similarly, the imperially designated slave market at Itzocan was situated along the frequently traveled commercial artery from the Basin of Mexico to the trading center of Tochtepec, an active pochteca outpost. This arrangement favored the wealthy professional merchants dealing in slaves. While the conquering Aztecs took advantage of existing exchange networks and overlaid their tribute system on them, they also molded some of those networks to serve their own imperial needs.

marketplace rules Marketplace activities were governed, formally and informally, by specific rules. Large marketplaces, most notably the one at Tlatelolco, appear to have been subject to more stringent, overt regulations than smaller venues. At Tlatelolco, officials were appointed by the ruler to ensure “that no one might deceive another, and how [articles] might be priced and sold” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 67). These officials were high-ranking pochteca; any irregularities, such

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade as a vendor cheating with measures or a consumer with light fingers, were judged immediately and harshly by these officials.34 The record is silent on such proceedings in other markets; in these matters the Tlatelolco marketplace may have been unique, given its importance to both the state and the professional merchants. It was customary, regardless the scale of the marketplace, for city-state rulers to exact a fee from vendors based on type of commodity. This provided a tidy income to the local ruler as well as an incentive for him to promote an attractive and substantial market. Colonial documents also mention that goods must not be sold outside of a well-regulated marketplace: Motolinía (1971: 368) stated that the reason for this was to reduce theft; Durán (1971: 276) suggested that people feared retributions from the “god of the market” if they traded outside the marketplace. While these sources suggest that in some cases incentives to trade in the marketplace were deemed necessary, it is likely that most individuals clearly saw the benefits of attending the market: not only was a wide range of goods available, but the marketplace was the locus for important and anticipated social interaction where the news and rumor of the day (or week or month) were exchanged with enthusiasm. Less formal rules were also closely followed. Marketplace days were well established and widely known: as previously noted, some markets met daily, others every five days, and still others every twenty days. In the marketplace, all goods of the same genre were located together, as in today’s Mexican open-air marketplaces. The grouping together of similar commodities would have facilitated information on both product availability and price ranges. Prices were established by bargaining, whereby prices followed supply and demand fluctuations, whether regionally, seasonally, ritually, or even daily. Barter and Money

The actual form that marketplace exchanges took has been variously, though incompletely recorded. Several sources indicate that the most common means of exchange was barter: goods were exchanged for goods (Las Casas 1967: vol. I, 364, 368; Durán 1971: 275; Motolinía 1971: 374; PNE 1905–1906: vol. 6, 265, 281). Durán (1971: 286) describes exchanges of slaves for large cotton cloaks (quachtli), gold and stone jewels, and rich feathers. He also speaks of cloaks exchanged for jewels, jewels for feathers, feathers for stones, and stones for slaves (Durán 1971: 138). Although barter involving more everyday goods commands less specific documentary attention, all market goods were surely available for exchange through barter.35 Yet forms of money also facilitated exchanges in the Aztec marketplaces. As a broad concept, money is considered to perform four functions: to serve as a medium of exchange, to act as a standard of value, to provide for the storage of wealth, and to enable payment (Neale 1976: 7).These functions revolve around


Aztec Society and Culture





Figure  4.11.  (a) Cacao pod with beans. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.) (b) Large cotton capes, or quachtli. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 28r.) (c) Copper axe money. (Photograph by Jennifer Berdan. Courtesy Field Museum, catalogue no. 164652.)

the notion that certain objects are widely accepted as measures against which the value of other goods (or services) can be calculated and that those goods act as “an intermediate, convenient stage in converting one kind of good into another” (Neale 1976:7). Among the Aztecs and their neighbors, several types of objects are recorded as money in that sense: cacao beans, large white cotton cloaks (quachtli), copper axes, copper bells, stone and shell beads, and quills filled with gold dust (Figure 4.11). Most of these types of goods served commodity functions as well as money functions. Cacao was the elite beverage of choice throughout Mesoamerica; René Millon (1955) feels that the value of cacao as an aristocratic beverage far outweighed its importance as a medium of exchange. Cloaks were male attire, although there is no direct evidence that this particular type of cloak (quachtli) was actually worn. Copper bells served as noble gifts, adorned godly idols, and accompanied the deceased to the underworld of Mictlan (e.g., Boone 1983: 39, 45, 67, 68; Durán 1994: plates 36, 49, 58). Copper axes were precisely that, although it is difficult to think of a practical cutting use for many of the thin and fragile examples that have been found (Hosler 2003: 167–169; Hosler et al. 1990) (Figure 4.11c). Stone and shell beads were valued as ritual offerings, burial accompaniments, elite gifts, articles of ornamentation, and even gambling stakes throughout Mesoamerica (López Luján 2005; Durán 1994:

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade plates 49, 58; Durán 1971: plates 32, 34; Sahagún 1997; Landa 1941: 95–96). The development of these particular objects as money forms is understandable: they are quantifiable, divisible, durable, portable, and easily recognized (Neale 1976: 8). These objects are most visibly detected in the documents as media of exchange. LeClair and Schneider (1968: 467) argue that a high-demand commodity will begin to serve exchange functions when people “accept it in exchange for something else even though they had no immediate direct need for it in its ordinary use. For any commodity to serve this purpose, there has to be a consensus about it. When such a consensus arises, the acceptability of the exchange commodity begins to turn as much on its exchange function as it does on its original function.” Aztec objects with the most pervasive exchange functions were cacao beans and quachtli cloaks. These also doubled as useful commodities. Or did they? Early colonial sources are liberally sprinkled with comments on the use of cacao as money.36 These sources consistently point out that cacao could be exchanged for anything; Motolinía, although mentioning other objects as money, clearly states that cacao was the most common. In addition to purchasing commodities, these beans reportedly could also be used as payment for labor, such as the 40 cacao beans paid daily to workers in maguey fields in 1543 (AGI, Justicia 258). Thompson (1956: 97–98) mentions that porters in Yucatán were paid in cacao beans (20 beans per trip) and that fines were assessed in terms of cacao beans. These records date from the early colonial period, yet most likely represent continuity from pre-conquest times. Cacao beans were not all of the same type or quality, and hence they varied in value and perhaps even in preferred use. Sahagún (1950–1982: book 10, 65) mentions cacao beans from several places, including Tochtepec, Anauac (Gulf and Pacific coasts), and Guatemala. Cacao beans paid in tribute were clearly different varieties, with ones from the Pacific coast province of Cihuatlan described as “red cacao” (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 3, folio 38r). One set of valuations notes 240 unspecified cacao beans for 1 cloak (perhaps a quachtli) and 300 Cihuatlan beans for the same cloak (Scholes and Adams 1957). Clavijero (1970: vol. I, 68) makes a particularly interesting suggestion: that the Aztecs used one species of cacao for the drink (a small variety, called tlalcacahuatl), while three other species served as money. These cacao beans, according to Clavijero, had mutually exclusive functions (the beans used for money were not used for the drink, and vice versa). He also claims that the three species used for money yielded inferior beverages. Young (2007: 25–26) supports this claim, stating that four kinds of cacao were recognized and grown by the Maya, with one variety used more for a drink than as a currency. Cacao beans also varied according to quality. Market prices in a 1545 document from Tlaxcallan indicate that 200 full cacao beans equaled 230


Aztec Society and Culture


Case 4.3 The Value of Things 1: Some Subsistence Goods The Aztecs calculated value along many dimensions, some of them material, others more symbolic. In this case we consider the material side of things: how goods were measured against each other and given relative values. The following is a sampling of some central Mexican equivalencies of subsistence goods in terms of cacao beans. All of these figures derive from a 1545 Tlaxcallan document (Anderson et al. 1976: 208–213). The initial entry equates 1 Spanish tomín with 200 full or 230 shrunken cacao beans. Since the remaining prices are expressed in terms of cacao beans rather than Spanish coin, they probably reflect similar relative values present in pre-Spanish markets. 1 turkey cock 1 turkey hen 1 hare or forest rabbit 1 small rabbit 1 large strip of pine bark for kindling 1 large salamander 1 small salamander fish wrapped in maize husks 1 turkey egg 1 avocado (newly picked) 1 avocado (fully ripe) 1 prickly pear cactus fruit (newly picked) 2 prickly pear cactus fruits (fully ripe) 2 local green chiles (newly picked) 4 local green chiles (fully ripe) 1 large tomato 20 small tomatoes 1 tamale chopped firewood (unspecified amount)

200 full cacao beans 100 100 30 5 4 2–3 3 3 3 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

This small sample of equivalencies offers some interesting insights into Aztec valuations. First, quality: some perishable foods carried a higher value when recently picked than when fully ripe (the latter with a shorter “shelf life”). Second, valuation criteria: Cortés (1928: 89) says that number and measure (but not weight) were used in marketplace transactions. Here we see both number and size as valuation criteria (as with the salamanders and tomatoes). Third, fluidity: bargaining may have been useful in the final determination of some prices, as with the 2–3 cacao beans for a small salamander and the unspecified amount of firewood.

shrunken ones (Anderson et al. 1976: 208–213). Given these factors, standardization may have been rather fluid. While cacao beans carried relatively small value and were regularly exchanged for low-value items (see Case 4.3), they were apparently deemed

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade valuable enough to counterfeit. This was accomplished by removing or drilling through the outer husk and replacing the prized chocolate with sand, ground avocado pits, or a similar material (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 65; Oviedo y Valdés 1851–1855: vol. I, 316). The adulterated beans were then mixed in with good ones, and they were sold together as a measured quantity. Another item commonly mentioned in exchanges is the plain white cotton cloak, or quachtli, referred to earlier. These cloaks are described as money (e.g., ENE 1939–1942: vol. I, 86) for a variety of transactions. Slaves were valued in terms of quachtli (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, 87), quachtli were used as restitution for theft (PNE 1905–1906: vol. 6, 223), “bathed slaves” were ransomed with quachtli (PNE 1905–1906: vol. 6, 64), quachtli were used as the standard against which other goods were valued in a 1554 tribute document (Scholes and Adams 1957), and the standard of living was expressed in terms of these cloaks. For the last, it was estimated that a person (commoner?) could support himself (and his family?) for approximately one year on 20 quachtli (Motolinía 1971: 367). Reminiscent of cacao, different grades of quachtli, perhaps based on quality or size, also carried different values. One statement (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, 48) indicates that different grades of cloaks were each equivalent to 65, 80, or 100 cacao beans. Also as with cacao, there is little evidence to support the possibility that this type of cloak was actually worn or displayed. Again, if we were well-enculturated Aztecs, we might have understood that certain cacao beans and certain cloaks were used for exchange, while other types of cacao and cloaks were consumed or worn. We know less about the other documented forms of money, yet their use as commodities and a general lack of full standardization reflect this discussion of cacao beans and quachtli. It is difficult to find a practical use for quills with gold dust, beyond the one observation that they were used as a measure of value determined by the length and thickness of the quills (Díaz del Castillo 1963: 233–234). Copper bells were valued according to their size. The values of stone beads and red shells also probably varied along similar lines, although documentation is lacking. Copper axes ranged from paper-thin objects (often found in packets in caches) to heftier varieties. All were recorded as monies (Hosler 2003; Hosler et al. 1990) and were especially common in the southern part of the Empire and beyond. How did money forms operate in actual marketplace exchanges? Cacao beans were available as media of exchange for relatively inexpensive commodities, while quachtli were more appropriate in exchanges involving higher-end goods (see Case 4.3). It is possible that barter and money operated in tandem, with cacao beans used to even out exchanges established through barter (Las Casas 1967: vol. I, 368). And there may have been some arguing about the



Aztec Society and Culture money forms themselves, since cacao beans, quachtli, and other forms were not fully standardized. (That is, just how shrunken is this cacao bean, really? In contrast, in the United States today, one would not consider arguing that a nice shiny quarter should be worth 27 cents while a well-used dull one is worth only 23.) In another sense, a monetary standard (in cacao beans or quachtli or both) could have been operating in a conceptual sense, while the actual marketplace transactions looked like barter. For instance, both large tomatoes and turkey eggs were valued in terms of cacao beans (1 and 3, respectively, as in Case 4.3), but an actual exchange may have involved three large tomatoes for one turkey egg, but no cacao beans at all.

markets: some general assertions The great diversity and quantity of market goods lends support to some important assertions. With respect to markets in general, (1) Aztec households, large or small, elite or nonelite, were not self-sufficient and relied on market exchanges to provide or augment their everyday, seasonal, situational, or extraordinary needs; (2) markets were competitive; and (3) vendors, whether wealthy merchants or humble farmers, targeted a wide array of consumers who attended the market. With specific reference to the massive Tlatelolco market: (1) it drew on market goods produced far beyond its local city and region, the Basin of Mexico; (2) this market was a sufficiently important economic force that it drew political and military attention; and (3) it attracted short- and long-distance merchants who carried a wide range of goods to the imperial capital. Especially productive research on Mesoamerican marketing has recently emphasized “the importance of considering multiple spatial scales in the study of marketplace exchange, from localized activity areas to interregional interaction” (Stark and Garraty 2010: 33; Feinman and Garraty 2010). The assertions made here are consistent with this approach. Professional Merchants: Economic Goals and Political Connections Just as marketplaces of different types and scales provided the context for material exchanges, so did merchants, also of different types and scales, serve as major conduits for those exchanges. Most of the vendors in any marketplace were purveyors of their own surplus production. In the great Tlatelolco marketplace the wood seller was a woodcutter, the seller of lime was a limeworker, the basket seller was a basket maker, the turkey and egg vendor raised turkeys, the fish seller was a fisherman, bowl and griddle sellers made bowls and griddles, and so on. Some products and goods such as salt and cotton were sold by both producers/manufacturers and retailers (among them, regional merchants). Still other commodities were predominantly in the hands of longdistance professional merchants: fancy decorated clothing, precious stones,

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade


Figure 4.12. Map of imperial and international trading centers. (Drawing by Jennifer Berdan.)

tropical feathers, slaves, and the quachtli discussed earlier (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10). Of greatest interest here are the regional and long-distance merchants, those whose livelihoods were based on economic gain through profitable exchanges. Regional Merchants

Trade across regions, in middle-range goods, was the domain of regional merchants, or tlanecuilo. These professional traders could potentially deal in virtually any commodity, but they tended to concentrate on “bulk luxuries,” especially cotton, cacao, and salt. They frequented the great Tlatelolco marketplace, selling these bulk luxuries but also products as varied as chiles, painted gourd bowls, and cane carrying baskets (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 65–94). The tlanecuilo appear to have been particularly active in moving regional varieties of important commodities such as cotton, cacao, and chiles, providing the urban residents with an inviting assortment of consumer goods. The regional merchants did not, however, monopolize trade in those products. Goods often were supplied through a variety of means; for instance, cotton and cacao were retailed by tlanecuilo but were also imported by long-distance merchants (oztomeca) and sold by the field owners themselves.

Aztec Society and Culture


The tlanecuilo were also a common fixture in the provincial and extra­provincial landscape, within and beyond the Basin of Mexico (see Figure 4.12). For example, in Coyoacan, near Tenochtitlan, regional merchants dealt in salt, wood, chia, and fish (Anderson et  al. 1976: 138–149). Merchants from Tenochtitlan itself carried loads of cotton from Cuauhnahuac south of the Basin of Mexico to sell in Tenochtitlan (Durán 1994: 106). In the southern imperial client state of Miahuatlan, nearby merchants traded in salt, cochineal, and amolli,37 while merchants from distant regions brought salt, maize, fish, cotton, and chiles to Miahuatlan’s market (PNE 1905–1906: vol. IV, 126, 122). Just beyond imperial control, merchants brought salt to Pacific coast communities, trading it for cotton (what they then did with the cotton goes unrecorded). Whether plying their wares in Coyoacan, Miahuatlan, or a multitude of other locales, these regional merchants are frequently described as hailing from specific communities. So there were the Atonco wood dealers in the Coyoacan marketplace, the Coatlan salt traders in Miahuatlan, and the Tenochtitlan cotton merchants. Unfortunately, the sources are silent on how mercantile activity was structured at this level. How extensive were these community trading specializations? Were trading enterprises individually based, or were they controlled and encouraged by some more formal organization? Did they travel with political entailments or support? These questions persist for the tlanecuilo but are more satisfactorily answered for the long-distance merchants, the pochteca and oztomeca. Long-Distance Merchants

Professional long-distance merchants were based in at least twelve Basin of Mexico cities (Figure 4.13), and they operated as both state agents and private entrepreneurs. As state agents, pochteca from five Basin of Mexico cities served as diplomatic emissaries for the Tenochtitlan ruler in lands beyond the imperial boundaries. These merchants, from Tenochtitlan, Tlatelolco, Huitzilopochco, Azcapotzalco, and Cuauhtitlan, carried the Tenochtitlan ruler’s goods beyond the Empire to exchange with rulers in foreign districts (see Figure  4.12).38 On at least one occasion, the Mexica ruler Ahuitzotl (r. 1486–1502) sent Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco merchants to the Tlatelolco market with 1,600 of his quachtli. There, the merchants exchanged the ruler’s cloaks for fancy ones, which they carried to Xicalanco and Xoconochco for exchange with foreign rulers there (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, 7–8). The fact that the ruler’s goods were embellished textiles rather than “money textiles” highlights the political overtones of these exchanges. In return, the merchants carried away jadeite, turquoise mosaic shields, tortoise shell cups, shells, wild animal skins, and an array of precious feathers (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, 17–19). This account stresses that all of these goods were the property of the Tenochtitlan ruler; the merchants were strictly emissaries in these exchanges. The diplomatic

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade nature of these ventures is further accentuated by the provision of armed escorts for the merchants when they traveled beyond the Empire. In addition, the royal popularity of these long-distance merchants undoubtedly stemmed from their critical role in supplying the nobility with essential symbols of their social status: fine feathers, precious stones, golden ornaments, exquisite clothing, and slaves. International trade centers served as important venues for exchanges between rulers of far-distant parts, with merchants as intermediaries (Figure  4.12). Formerly described as neutral “ports of trade” (Chapman 1957), these locales have since been shown to demonstrate a variety of political affiliations and a strong commercial flavor (Gasco and Berdan 2003). They attracted merchants and goods from long distances, facilitating trade from one end of Mesoamerica to another. So Xicalanco, an Aztec pochteca destination, drew merchants from Mayan polities as well, even though Aztec warriors may have been stationed there (Gasco and Berdan 2003: 113). Xoconochco, another pochteca destination, was an imperial province that attracted merchants with precious cargo from the Guatemalan highlands and beyond. Huexotla, an Aztec client state far to the northeast, appealed to highland merchants who found salt and other goods brought there from distant Mayan regions. Perhaps one of the most lively international trade centers was Cholula, although aside from its recognition as a merchant center, little is known of its economic dynamics. It was, during the Aztec imperial period, one of the most politically and militarily volatile areas of central Mexico. One thing is certain: several centers on the fringes of the Empire (and despite their political associations) provided known and predictable arenas for high-end merchants to exchange their luxuries and bulk luxuries with other merchants from afar. Professional long-distance merchants dealing in luxury goods served not only the Tenochtitlan ruler and were centered not only in the Basin of Mexico. Pochteca from seven recorded Basin of Mexico cities may have served the Texcocan or other ruler in the same manner as the professional merchants served the Tenochtitlan ruler (see Figure  4.13).39 And beyond the Empire, Cholula as a major merchant hub may well have had its own entailed merchants, as might have other polities outside the Empire such as Xicalanco and centers throughout the Mayan area. Other professional merchants from the Basin of Mexico, called oztomeca, served their rulers as spies in foreign or restless regions. They were masters of disguise, trading in marketplaces and gathering the most recent news and rumors of the region to report to the imperial ruler. It is no surprise that, as imperial ambassadors and spies, the pochteca and oztomeca were not particularly popular beyond their homelands and that, wherever they traveled, they went armed and in large caravans. Attacks on professional merchants were frequent provocations (and perhaps excuses) for the initiation of wars and conquests.



Aztec Society and Culture

Figure  4.13. Map showing pochteca presence in the Basin of Mexico. (Drawing by Jennifer Berdan.)

As private entrepreneurs, these same merchants appeared in the Tlatelolco marketplace selling fine clothing, exquisite feathers, precious stones, quachtli, and slaves (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10). They traded fine wares in marketplaces within and beyond the bounds of the Empire (Figure 4.12). Those who traveled on their rulers’ business to extra-Empire centers also carried their own private goods, such as fancy golden necklaces for nobles and obsidian tools and rabbit fur for commoners (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, 17–18). But some guild-organized merchants traded only within the imperial bounds, carrying high-value, low-bulk goods from market to market in pursuit of economic gain. The luxury market at Tepeacac, on the fringe of the Empire, may have been established with such merchants in mind (as described earlier). These merchants were apparently no more popular than those representing rulers, as they were accused of buying cheap and selling dear in their economic dealings, taking advantage of local producers (e.g., Durán 1994: 349).

Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade Specialization and Trade in Aztec Imperial Expansion

Aztec imperial expansion brought many advantages and opportunities, especially to luxury craft specialists and professional merchants. It also placed demands and stresses on these same individuals and groups.

Luxury Artisans Imperial expansion provided increasingly predictable supplies of raw materials to the luxury artisans of highland central Mexico through tribute imposition and the political support of long-distance merchant ventures. Luxury artisans transformed fine feathers, stones, and metals into the exquisite status-linked objects in remarkably high demand by the hereditary nobility. Some luxury artisans were “attached” to rulers and probably other high-ranking nobles, while others sold their finery in the marketplaces. In either case, as the aristocracy and its flamboyance grew, so too did the importance of the luxury artisans who enriched those nobles and provided the symbols of their exalted status (see Chapter 6). We can posit an expanding need for the output of the luxury artisans, resulting in the movement of such artisans to Basin urban centers (documented) and a certain amount of job security for those producers (posited). As expected, they enjoyed particularly close relations with longdistance professional merchants. On the other hand, while business must have been brisk, these artisans faced external competition, since many luxury items flowed into Basin cities as tribute in fully manufactured form (see Chapter 5).

Pochteca and Oztomeca City-state rulers enlisted the services of their resident professional merchants in diplomatic ventures advantageous to their polity. As political emissaries, these merchants contributed to the economic expansion of the Empire beyond its borders  – they provided exotic goods to the imperial elite that were not available through conquest and tribute. Furthermore, they collected intelligence from distant lands, both conquered and unconquered, to assist the Aztec polities in their military strategies of expansion. In their roles as both state agents and private entrepreneurs, pochteca and oztomeca also accumulated great wealth. Political sponsorship of their commercial activities offered them safety in hostile regions and access to extra-Empire markets. That said, these merchants were quite capable of expanding the Empire militarily as well as commercially by their own efforts. The conquest of the distant and rich realm of Xoconochco for the Mexica was attributed to pochteca military aggression. No wonder they were so esteemed by the Mexica ruler. Predictably, the political connections of these merchants made them targets for attack in outlying areas. Their journeys are consistently described as particularly


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hazardous, and they were robbed and even murdered often enough: carrying the flag of a conquering, enemy, or unpopular city-state, these merchants were “politically tainted” in their far-flung expeditions. While they were mourned, their fates provided the Aztec polities with excuses for continuing warfare and conquest. Merchants’ wealth (and perhaps imperial favor as well) also placed them in a tenuous social and political position at home, resulting in a need to mask their wealth in front of the hereditary nobility. Beyond that, the demands on ambitious guild-organized merchants must have created personal and household stresses as these ambitious individuals strove to climb the merchant hierarchy.

Intra-Empire Professional Merchants Despite the hypothesis of Acosta-Saignes (1945) and Chapman (1957: 122) that trade preceded tribute and that professional merchant trade ceased in conquered areas, a great deal of pochteca activity was concentrated within imperial bounds. Those merchants from the Basin of Mexico restricted to trading within the Empire would have greatly benefited from the expansion of the Empire, which extended their mercantile range and provided them access to increasingly distant exotic goods. They operated in markets, and the vitality of provincial and Basin markets was critical to their entrepreneurial success. As the Empire expanded to incorporate thriving markets such as those at Tochpan, Tzicoac, and Coaytlahuacan, these merchants gained in range and prosperity. Still, like the professional merchants sent to foreign lands, they carried the taint of unpopular political affiliations. Since merchant-spies operated within the Empire as well as beyond, they were usually under suspicion in their travels. And like the more far-ranging pochteca, the demands of gaining ascendancy in the merchant hierarchy must have been both stressful and costly.

Economy and Polity Like their counterparts throughout history and worldwide, Aztec artisans, markets, and merchants were embedded in their broader political, social, and religious milieu. City-state rulers engaged in selective meddling, artisans and merchants targeted and accommodated commoner and noble consumers, and all of these economic actors and institutions responded to the demands of the extravagant rituals of the annual religious calendar. This leads us to matters of polity and power: city-states, provinces, and empire. Our familiar economic actors are joined by political ones: rulers, generals, ambassadors, governors, tribute collectors, and a bevy of royal administrators who wend their way through political intrigues and the dynamics of city-state and imperial expansion.

C hap t e r   5 C it y- State s an d I mperia l   Ru l e

5 Rabbit [1458]. In this year the elder Moteuczomatzin declared war, and consequently all went to Coaixtlahuacan to fight the battles and make the conquests. At this time the great ruler Atonal was ruling there, occupying himself with tribute collection from everywhere in the coastlands. . . . By this time the city of Coaixtlahuacan had been captured. Then for the first time gold, quetzal plumes, rubber, cacao, and other wealth began coming in; then the Mexica began to feel cheered, thanks to the tribute goods. Anales de Cuauhtitlan, 1570; in Bierhorst 1992: 107, 108

This chapter is about power and politics. It necessarily outlines the basic political structures of altepetl (city-states), conquest states, and the Triple Alliance Empire. Consistent with this book’s themes of complexity, variation, and dynamics, this chapter focuses on the diverse bases for legitimate rule, the nature and uses of power, the goals of and justifications for military expansion, and the consequences of empire building. It also explores strategies involved in the process of imperial expansion: strategies used by the imperial powers as they expanded their domain, and strategies used by conquered peoples as they coped with domination. Nothing was simple in the Aztec world, least of all politics. Political Organizations: From Altepetl to Empire

The Altepetl, or City-State The spatial and symbolic heart of an Aztec’s life was his or her altepetl, or city-state. This term refers to the people of a particular place and supposedly also to the place itself (Lockhart 1992: 14). But not every settlement was an altepetl, only those with a legitimate ruling dynasty, a sense (if not the actuality) of political autonomy, control over local lands and labor, a well-established founding legend, often with mythological underpinnings, and a patron deity 135


Aztec Society and Culture complete with temple. It was also a primary tribute-paying or tribute-receiving unit. Some altepetl also exhibited a predominant ethnicity and/or a specialized occupation and may have enjoyed renown as extraordinary market or pilgrimage destinations. The word altepetl consists of the elements atl (water) and tepetl (hill), both considered essential to the identity and establishment of any politically significant community. According to Sahagún (1950–1982: book 11, 247), “[T]hey said that the mountains were only magic places . . . that they were filled with water. . . . And hence the people called their settlements altepetl.” The goddess Chalchiuhtlicue was in charge of sending the water from those mountains. All of this lent a strongly sacred quality to any altepetl. Yet these were essentially political units; the city-states of the Postclassic Basin of Mexico provided the basic building blocks of Aztec political life.They were present at least by AD 1200, predating the arrival of the Mexica in the Basin (Hodge 1996: 31; Nichols 2004: 272). Spatially, altepetl typically consisted of an urban center, politically attached outlying rural settlements, and accompanying farmland (Smith 2008: 89).1 In colonial times, the urban center usually became a cabecera (head town), while the outliers were called sujetos. This implies dominant–subordinate relations between urban and rural centers, but it is not so clear if that relationship held in Aztec times (see Lockhart 1992: 19–20; Fargher et  al. 2010: 236). Nonetheless, the urban center (capital city) served as the political, religious, and economic focus of the altepetl, and contained a central plaza, temples, royal palace, other elite palaces, ballcourt, marketplace, and commoner houses (Smith 2003a: 59, 2008: 90; Hodge 1984: 17). The city also served as the seat of power for the altepetl’s ruler or rulers (tlatoani, sing.; tlatoque, pl.). Rural settlements were primarily residential locales. City-states were divided into smaller constituent units called calpolli or tlaxilacalli (roughly defined as neighborhoods or wards). While these tended to be ranked in importance, with the tlatoani residing in one calpolli, their overall organization tended to conform more to a cellular than a hierarchical principle (Lockhart 1992: 16–20). That is, altepetl tended to be divided into an even number of calpolli (although seven was also a popular number), and each had its own name, deity, temple, leader, military school, and portion of altepetl lands (Lockhart 1992: 16–17). Each calpolli carried roughly equivalent shares of altepetl responsibilities. Tribute due to a city-state’s ruler was collected and administered at the calpolli level; along with tribute in portable goods, this included assessments of labor duties and the provision of military units when called to war. City-states varied considerably in size. By the Late Postclassic there were an estimated 30–50 altepetl within the Basin of Mexico (Hodge 1996: 31; Smith 2003c: 148) and several hundred beyond. Morelos, just to the south of the Basin of Mexico, was divided into almost 70 city-states (Smith 1994: 314). By the time of the Spanish arrival, the Aztec Empire controlled (to various degrees)

City-States and Imperial Rule about 450 city-states beyond the Basin of Mexico (Smith 2003c: 148). As for populations, a typical altepetl in the Basin of Mexico contained 10,000–15,000 people, while those in Morelos were generally smaller, ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 persons (Smith 2008: 90). As we saw in Chapter  2, Tenochtitlan was atypically large. The “typical” figures provide only a general idea of scale, but they do not convey a sense of the complexity and diversity of these political units. Hodge (1984, 1994) argues for a hierarchical ordering of altepetl, with the power of a city-state more closely associated with its population size than with its territorial extent (Hodge 1994: 61). This hierarchy in the Basin of Mexico ranged from Tenochtitlan (by itself) at the apex, followed by Texcoco (also by itself) as a regional state capital, then by a large number of city-state centers, dependent city-states, and administered city-states (Hodge 1994: 53–59). Throughout the Postclassic there was nothing stable about a city-state’s position vis-à-vis its neighbors. City-state relations featured competition and cooperation, warfare and alliance. City-states were in constant interaction with other city-states and “far from self-sufficient in the economic sphere” (Smith 2003a: 60). In this volatile political climate, most altepetl retained self-governance and control over their internal affairs, even though military conquest may have suppressed their political autonomy. Ongoing, fluid relations among city-states resulted in rather complex territorial configurations.While in general a city-state controlled contiguous territory,2 warfare, conquest, and redistribution of lands to nobles in other city-states resulted in discontinuities. If a city-state had been conquered at some time in its history, some of its lands and commoner labor may have been appropriated by its conquerors, who redistributed at least some of those resources to their own (and allied) deserving nobles. The new conquerors also claimed rights to tribute and allegiance from their vanquished subjects, whether nobles or commoners. Where conquests were made by allied powers, the subjugated lands were divided among the various conquerors. Pedro Carrasco (1999: 34–40) calls all of this “the intermingling of territories,” an apt phrase. It can be quite frustrating for the modern scholar to unravel these complexities. Gibson (1971: 390) says it very well with regard to the city-state of Cuauhtitlan: A single town was subject to many service and tribute demands, and its leaders received tribute from many other towns as well. Cuauhtitlan paid tribute in different amounts and principally from separate lands to its own tlatoani, to the tlatoani of Tlacopan, to Moctezuma II (who had “ten” private lands in the vicinity . . .), and to other owners in Tlatelolco, Culhuacan, Ixtapalapa, Mexicalcinco, Azcapotzalco and Texcoco.

The upshot was that, from the Aztec point of view, an altepetl was less a territorial unit than a political unit based on people’s allegiance to the ruling dynasty associated with the city-state (see Smith 2003a: 59; 2008: 91). While the altepetl was the predominant principle organizing political life throughout central Mexico, other principles and institutions also defined


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the control and allocation of critical resources. In the Puebla-Tlaxcallan and Mixtec-Zapotec regions, political authority rested with nobles and their noble or great houses, allied into kingdoms or confederacies (Pohl 2003; Chance 2000). Lane Fargher and his colleagues (2010, 2011a, 2011b) muster considerable evidence for an essentially egalitarian, achievement-oriented, and council-based government in Postclassic Tlaxcallan. Whether instituted as city-states or noble houses, these governing units coalesced into larger units through either conquest or alliance, resulting in conquest states and confederacies.

Conquest States and Confederacies During both the Early and Late Postclassic periods, some altepetl emerged as more powerful and aggressive than others. These city-states developed into conquest states, but they were not sufficiently extensive or complex to be considered empires (Smith 2003a: 58). In the Basin of Mexico prior to the ascendancy of the Aztec Empire, Azcapotzalco in the west and Texcoco in the east would qualify as conquest states. Azcapotzalco in particular had begun to gain Basin political prominence, enthralling a sizable number of city-states (including Tenochtitlan). During the Late Postclassic in Morelos, most of the region’s seventy city-states were subjugated by six conquest states that extracted tribute payments from their subjects and engaged in active warfare among themselves (Smith 1994: 315). City-states also shared a city-state culture, “a group of interacting city-states in a region characterized by a common language and culture” (Smith 2003b: 35). Some of these forged confederacies, although the bases for such confederacies varied. In the Basin of Mexico, such broad units were held together primarily through shared language and ethnicity; in the Puebla-Tlaxcallan and Mixtec-Zapotec regions, linkages based on common origin myths and elite interactions (including intermarriages) provided the foundation for confederations (Smith 2003c: 36; Pohl 2003). The Basin of Mexico confederations are among the best known to us today. In the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, eight of them vied for regional dominion,3 but none managed to gain any sustained control over the basin as a whole (Hodge 1996: 20)  (Figure  5.1). One notable confederation was Amecamecan/Chalco, in the southeastern corner of the Basin of Mexico. It qualified as a powerful confederation from 1367 until its conquest by the Aztec Triple Alliance in 1465 (Hodge 1984: 40).4 It was a troublesome bottleneck in the military expansion goals of the Triple Alliance, holding off Triple Alliance forces over the reigns of four Mexica kings. The Aztecs imposed military rule there for twenty years after its conquest, a move that accentuated Chalco’s strategic location and internal strength, as well as a lack of trust in its local rulers by the conquering Aztecs.

City-States and Imperial Rule

Figure  5.1.  Basin of Mexico ethnic groups. (Drawing by Jennifer Berdan, after Gibson 1964.)

The Aztec Triple Alliance Fortunes waxed and waned with city-states, conquest states, and confederations. The most powerful confederation to emerge in the early fifteenthcentury Basin of Mexico was the Aztec Triple Alliance, forged among the powerful city-states of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. Earlier in the fifteenth century, the Tepaneca of Azcapotzalco had emerged as the leading power in the Basin, when their elderly ruler died and his sons fought violently for the throne. With internal factions weakening Azcapotzalco, the Mexica of Tenochtitlan (allied with the Acolhua of Texcoco) made their move toward



Aztec Society and Culture military supremacy.This was in 1428. As the alliance emerged victorious, it was further strengthened by the addition of the Tepaneca city-state of Tlacopan.5 These victors then moved quickly to subdue other city-states in the basin: the southern city-states were conquered by 1432, those in the west were controlled by 1435, and those to the east were brought into the imperial web by 1430 (Hodge 1996: 20–21). As previously mentioned, Chalco remained a thorn in their side until 1465, and Tlatelolco retained its independence until its conquest by Tenochtitlan in 1473. Pleased with their results in the Basin of Mexico but far from satisfied, the Triple Alliance rulers set their sights farther afield, extending their dominion throughout most of central Mexico by the time of the Spanish arrival. In these enterprises, sometimes the three imperial capitals operated independently, sometimes in concert. The internal structure of the Triple Alliance is a matter of some controversy, due partly to partisan reporting from chroniclers favoring either Tenochtitlan or Texcoco. It is clear, however, that each of the three imperial capitals preeminently controlled certain conquered city-states, with the Mexica emphasizing polities to the south, the Acolhua to the northeast, and the Tepaneca to the northwest. Each imperial capital, therefore, sat at the apex of its own political hierarchy. Neat as this may seem, there were complications. When the three imperial entities went to war together, they divided the conquered lands and subjects unequally into three parts: two-fifths of the spoils went to Tenochtitlan, two-fifths to Texcoco, and one-fifth to Tlacopan, reflecting the relative stature of the three allied polities (P. Carrasco 1999: 33, 36). Further complications ensued upon the actual distribution of these resources, as lands and subjects were presented variously to an imperial ruler’s relatives, to allied and dependent rulers, to various nobles, to meritorious warriors, and to community divisions (calpolli or tlaxilacalli). And, of course, the supreme ruler kept some of these hard-fought gains for himself. Each imperial ruler was involved in these claims and distributions, so that over time each of the allies “had possessions in the sectors of the other two parties” (P. Carrasco 1999: 34). Although this alliance lasted only about ninety years, it underwent some significant changes during its short life span. One especially notable shift was in the power relations among the three supreme city-states. It appears that Tenochtitlan and Texcoco began on relatively equivalent footing. But as the Empire expanded, Tenochtitlan emerged preeminent in the military realm, while Texcoco retained prominence in law, engineering, and the arts. Tlacopan’s claim to fame, if any, remains unknown. Lori Diel (2007), looking at the dynamics of royal marriages, suggests that by 1519 Texcoco was perhaps smarting under Tenochtitlan’s dominance and was making moves toward greater autonomy. There were internal tensions, embedded in stories. One account describes a campaign between Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco (r. 1418– 1472) and Itzcoatl of Tenochtitlan in which the Texcocan ruler gained some

City-States and Imperial Rule rich tributary territories at the expense of Itzcoatl. A second story speaks of a “feigned war” between Nezahualcoyotl and Itzcoatl’s successor, Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, in which the Mexica ruler obtained lands in Texcoco’s territory (P. Carrasco 1999: 34; Hodge 1996: 21). These may not be entirely contradictory tales (since they are set at different times), but rather are reflective of the increasing power of Tenochtitlan at the expense of Texcoco. Other indications of Tenochtitlan’s supremacy in the alliance include the Mexica’s meddling in political and economic affairs in the Tepaneca domain (as described later); statements that imperial tribute from afar was delivered first to Tenochtitlan, to be then distributed to the other allies; and the fact that when Cortés arrived on the shores of Mexico in 1519 there was great talk of Motecuhzoma but not of the other allied rules. While each of the other imperial capitals retained some autonomy in their own affairs and performed ritual and political roles in imperial administration, by the early sixteenth century the Mexica had clearly emerged as the dominant military, political, and economic power of the alliance. Political Actors: Rulers and Emperors

Rulers and Rulerships I have repeatedly referred to city-states conquering other city-states, and this is common modern practice. But I may just as accurately (or, perhaps, more so) refer to a tlatoani conquering another tlatoani. Whether considering an altepetl or the Empire as a whole, focus was on that polity’s ruler. It was rulers, not citystates, who declared wars, engaged in diplomacy, feasted and intimidated enemy or rebellious rulers, and rewarded warriors, merchants, and others who served them in their political and economic enterprises. The initial Triple Alliance, then, may be better phrased as an alliance among Itzcoatl (of Tenochtitlan), Nezahualcoyotl (of Texcoco), and Totoquihuatzin (of Tlacopan). While individual rulers made their mark on the changing political landscape, it was the genealogical dynasty of a city-state’s or empire’s rulers that defined that polity. So we speak of not only rulers but also rulerships (tlatoca­ yotl). Continuity at the highest level was important. When it was interrupted (as with the installation of an imposed governor), this was a serious blow to the integrity of the polity. Indeed, the position of an altepetl depended to a great extent on the achievements and reputations of its rulers. A ruler was iyollo altepetl, “the heart of the city-state.” Molina (1970) equates “Pueblo de todos juntamente” with altepetl (99v), and under “Rey” he sends the reader to “tlatoani. Altepetl” (103r). He maintains consistency by equating “pueblo, o rey” with altepetl in the Nahuatl–Spanish section of his dictionary (4r). The close connection between a ruler (king) and the altepetl was clearly conveyed to Molina in the sixteenth century. All of this is posed in the singular: one tlatoani


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142 Case 5.1  Imperial Personalities

The Aztec Empire was a powerful military and political entity. Its rapid growth was based on well-established rules, conventions, and symbolic messages; diplomacy, feasting, royal marriages, and military encounters all revolved around these mutual understandings and expectations. Did these conventions have a life of their own, or was there room for each new ruler to stamp it with his unique personality and predilections? There are no native portraits of the Mexica dynastic rulers in the codices.There are several Europeanized portraits of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, but these do not necessarily reflect the indigenous image of the ruler. The closest rendering is the sculpture of the second Motecuhzoma at the base of Chapultepec Hill (commissioned by himself), but this reveals little of the ruler as an individual. Even in colonial codices executed by native scribes, Motecuhzoma and his predecessors are depicted in a standardized manner: usually sitting on royal woven seats, wearing turquoise diadems, covered with a cloak, and staring in profile. Aside from their name glyphs, they are usually indistinguishable from one another. Other renderings (in codices and especially in sculptures) depict rulers in standing poses as they perform military and religious duties. For example, Tizoc stands as he captures enemies on his famous stone, Tizoc and Ahuitzotl dress and perform as priests on the Dedication Stone, and Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin is paired with the god Huitzilopochtli on the Teocalli de la Guerra Sagrada (Pasztory 1983: 147–151; López Luján and Olivier 2009: 43).These, too, are highly standardized. Similar as they may appear in these depictions, all of the rulers had different personalities and approached their role as supreme ruler in different ways. Although their personality attributes are not easily detected, we can still gain glimpses of these rulers as individuals through their actions. These reveal, at the very least, their different strengths, weaknesses, priorities, and proclivities. We need look at only a few of these rulers to make this point: Axayacatl, Tizoc, Ahuitzotl, and Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin. Axayacatl, when he acceded to the throne at age 19, was already a renowned warrior. He ruled only thirteen years, during which he headed several military engagements, emerging victorious in about half of them. While he subdued Toluca and Tlatelolco, he suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Tarascans. Staunch warrior that he was, he was also ready and willing to negotiate with enemies, establishing numerous client states along volatile borderlands rather than pursuing a strictly military approach (especially along the Tarascan border). He was a political strategist as well as a warrior. Tizoc followed Axayacatl with an even shorter reign of six years; even his first military expedition (pursued to obtain sacrificial captives for his own coronation) was a failure. On the home front, he initiated a major expansion of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan; he was pious but not a battlefield leader, and his early demise was probably no accident. In this case, it appears that, if the electors wished to expand the glory of the Mexica, they chose poorly. Ahuitzotl, in contrast, has been likened to Alexander the Great (Davies 1987: 80, 87). He was ambitious, fearless, heroic, stubborn, and impetuous (Davies

City-States and Imperial Rule 1987: 80) and expanded the Empire to its greatest geographical extent (leaving, however, numerous unconquered city-states along the way). His goals and priorities were to control rich tribute-paying lands. These were tropical regions, far from his capital – he pursued these distant and expensive conquests with unwavering energy. Unlike Axayacatl, he rarely negotiated: he was not a big fan of the client state approach. Outright conquest was his modus operandi. All of this makes sense, as he was also an extravagant spender, lavishing fine goods on enemies and subjects alike, literally draining his palace and state coffers. He did not adhere as closely as his predecessors to noble–commoner distinctions and promoted some non-noble military men into his administration. He was a larger-than-life military hero and was loved for his generosity; he left his successor with few stores of much-needed luxuries and pressure to engage in still further conquests. That successor was Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin. We have more details on this ruler’s life than on any other, in that he had the misfortune to see his empire end at the hands of the conquistadores from Spain. Descriptions of this tlatoani vary, even contradict one another. He was hesitant and weak. No, he was a forceful military ruler. He was superstitious. No, he believed in the gods and fate just as any self-respecting Aztec did.While most of these impressions derive from reports of his interactions with the Spaniards, it should be remembered that during his reign he was proactive in solidifying his power at home and abroad. He made numerous successful conquests, spending most of his military energy closing the gaps left by Ahuitzotl and quelling rebellions among restless and unhappy conquered subjects.While expanding his domain, he also concentrated on glorifying his city, his gods, and his dynasty, sponsoring the ­sculpting of many major monuments. In particular, he took great care to properly celebrate and venerate the gods. His actions also show that he was a haughty and elitist ruler (like most of his predecessors); insisting on severe class distinctions, he reversed Ahuitzotl’s commoner appointments. All of these rulers were chosen because they exhibited qualities seen to be advantageous to the administration and expansion of the Empire. Some were weak (such as Tizoc), some stronger (such as Ahuitzotl). Some were diplomatic strategists as well as warriors (such as Axayacatl); others saw only war (again, Ahuitzotl). Some were pious (Tizoc and Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin). While a genuine knowledge of their personalities will forever elude us, we do get a sense of their individuality and their differing impacts on imperial growth.

per altepetl. Yet there were significant variations in polities, with some citystates qualifying as “composite” or “complex.” In some of these cases there was a hierarchy between rulers (as in Cuauhtitlan and Coyoacan), while in others the tlatoque ruled on a more equal footing (as in Cuitlahuac and Xochimilco) (Hodge 1996: 32–34; Lockhart 1992: 20–28).6 Nine tlatoque are identified for the Tenochtitlan Mexica from 1372 to 1520; six of them ruled during the Mexica imperial ascendancy (Figure 5.2). All of their reigns were characterized by the unrelenting pursuit of supremacy in the


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Basin of Mexico and beyond through political, military, and economic strategies. Their approaches varied, some relying more on negotiation and alliances, others more on outright military conquest (Case 5.1). But regardless of their different approaches and personalities, they all shouldered the same public and ritual burdens, were constrained by established expectations, and struggled to maintain legitimate rule. While rulers were preferentially and predominantly male, women occasionally ascended altepetl thrones. For instance, by some reports Atotoztli, a daughter of Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, succeeded her father as tlatoani in Tenochtitlan,7 and Chimalpahin mentions two strong and greatly feared female rulers in Late Postclassic Amecamecan history (Gillespie 1989: 98–106; Anderson 1997: 83; Carrasco 1984: 60–61).

Duties and Expectations Rulers were ultimately responsible for the fate of their domains and all the people within them. Metaphorically, the ruler cared for “the wings, the tail” (i.e., the commoners). Some of his most important duties lay in the military realm: warfare and the destruction of cities and the obverse, the guarding of his homeland. He personally commanded military campaigns.8 He assembled war councils and bestowed rewards on those who distinguished themselves in battle. If he conquered another city-state, he managed tribute collections and distributions. He involved himself in the installation of other rulers and nobles and in arranging elite marriages. His preeminent role in diplomatic negotiations demanded that he host lavish feasts and present his city as a powerful and wealthy entity. He dealt with internal affairs as well, overseeing the market, public works, education, justice, the ball game and patolli, and even proper sanitation. He was a problem solver: his subjects looked to him when there was famine or other disaster (Sahagún 1997: 198–201). The ruler also ensured that the deities were properly venerated (López Luján and Olivier 2009). He was personally engaged in the endless ritual round, performing autosacrifice when required,9 overseeing temple constructions and renovations, supporting the priesthood, and playing a prominent role in dramatic ritual sacrifices.At the spectacular dedication ceremony for Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor in 1487, the three Triple Alliance rulers performed the first of numerous human sacrifices (Durán 1994: 338–339). Throughout central Mexico, there were fairly consistent expectations and standards attached to the position of tlatoani. Sitting on their woven reed mats and seats at the apex of Aztec politics, they were models of their culture. Tlatoani means “speaker,” and a ruler was always expected to be an eloquent orator. It was also necessary that he be a skilled and experienced warrior and military commander, proven in combat. Few imperial tlatoque stayed home during major military campaigns, and several established their military reputations before being raised to that most exalted position. For example, although

City-States and Imperial Rule


Figure 5.2.  Royal genealogy of the Mexica of Tenochtitlan. (Drawing by Jennifer Berdan.)


Aztec Society and Culture reportedly still relatively young when selected as a ruler, Axayacatl had already earned his stripes on the battlefield (Davies 1987: 105). It was important for the ruler to earn the respect of his people, and when he was raised to the position of tlatoani, he was admonished: ‘[M]ay thou (not) be quarrelsome . . . may thou (not) offend the governed. . . . And (do not) be asleep, lie reclining, lie in pleasure; nor sleep, gorge, be a glutton. . . . May thy possessions not . . . wrongly result from the sweat, the fatigue, the labor of the common folk” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 6, 51). These are stated ideals and do not mesh particularly well with other information on the extravagant lifestyle of rulers with their massive meals and commoner support.10 It did not hurt that a tlatoani was deified (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 6, 52).

The Establishment and Maintenance of Legitimacy and Power choosing a leg itimate ruler In addition to strong personal qualities, the elected tlatoani of Tenochtitlan or Texcoco must also satisfy certain other prerequisites. He must be a close relative, most often a son or brother, of the prior ruler (usually a brother in Tenochtitlan, a son in Texcoco). Ideally, his mother should be the highest ranking of all of his father’s wives (see Chapter 6). He should be of a prime age (not too young, not too old), for he will be expected to already have gained fame on the battlefield and to lead strenuous military expeditions in the future. Indeed, as a rite of passage, a newly chosen ruler was expected to lead a major military expedition and obtain captives for sacrifice in his coronation. This reinforced his reputation as a warrior and solidified his right to rule. Of the imperial Tenochtitlan rulers, all but Axayacatl held the exalted military office of tlacatecatl or tlacochcalcatl prior to their election. These titled positions, along with two others, constituted the ruler’s advisory council.11 An additional titled personage, cihuacoatl, served as the ruler’s second-in-command. While the early ruler Acamapichtli reportedly served as cihuacoatl, no other instance of a cihuacoatl ascending the Tenochtitlan royal reed seat exists. At bottom line, therefore, a viable candidate for ruler had to be closely related to the recently deceased ruler, a member of that ruler’s advisory council (preferably holding one of the highest military titles), and proven in battle.That still usually left several possible candidates for the position, and so a process of election came into play. For Tenochtitlan, the electors are variously reported as consisting of an array of leaders, priests, and commoners, although as the Empire matured election became more and more concentrated in the hands of the nobility, including the cihuacoatl and the rulers of the other Triple Alliance cities. The existing tlatoani was also not shy about voicing his preference for his successor (Davies 1987: 107–109). Both genealogical continuity and proven abilities were crucial criteria.

City-States and Imperial Rule

leg itimacy and the bases of power Rulers attained and solidified their legitimate rights to rule on several levels beyond the genealogical and personal. These levels tied the rulership to practical, symbolic, and sacred dimensions of the Aztec world. Practical: Control over Land and Labor On a practical level, rulers exercised control over the most fundamental resources, land and labor. Land, particularly agricultural land, provided the basis for wealth, status, and power in Aztec life. Each altepetl claimed a territory along with its dynastic rulership. A city-state’s territory served as its patrimonial lands and economic base – it provided its inhabitants with a “home” as well as necessary sustenance. If well endowed, these lands had the potential to produce staple surpluses (notably maize), more specialized household resources (such as fish, flowers, or fibers), and raw materials for at least some utilitarian and luxury crafts (such as clay for pottery, reeds for mats, or feathers for mosaics). Control of land was in the hands of individual political and social elites, as well as corporate entities, particularly altepetl and calpolli. Altepetl lands (altepetlalli) were jealously held, vigorously defended, and painfully relinquished to any conqueror. Land was seemingly always contentious, an indication of its value. Indeed, in the course of their Basin of Mexico adventures the Mexica finally settled at Tenochtitlan, knowing full well that their godly appointed site was on the lands of three well-established citystates: this made them quite nervous, and “therefore they were in great misery” (Anderson and Schroeder 1997: 105).12 As component districts of city-states, calpolli also held lands (calpolalli) that were administratively distributed to calpolli residents. Like everything else in Aztec life, the allocation of these plots adhered to principles of social hierarchy and political rights: “some people got only one plot, some several, and calpolli leaders or important nobles might receive many times an ordinary commoner’s allotment” (Lockhart 1992: 142). Other (or perhaps the same) lands were identified as temple lands (teotlalli), military lands (milchimalli), and tribute lands (tequitlalli and tequimilli). These could be, as James Lockhart (1992: 156) suggests, certain calpolli lands “set aside, perhaps on an ad hoc, shifting basis, to help meet the needs of worship and warfare” and, I would add, changing tribute demands. Nonetheless, these designations place the Aztec city-state and its tlatoani squarely in control of local lands. Conquest ensured conquerors’ rights over the lands of the vanquished. Within the Basin of Mexico, actual plots of such conquered lands could be appropriated by conquering rulers and allocated to deserving individuals or corporate entities.13 Farther afield in Aztec imperial conquests, this system was not particularly practical (and the Aztecs were a practical people).Where garrisons were imposed in restless conquered areas (particularly along volatile frontiers), the local population was charged with sustaining the garrisons from their



Aztec Society and Culture own productive lands (e.g., see Berdan et al. 1996: 275, 278, 281; Berdan 1996; Smith 1996b). Similarly, where Aztec governors were installed, the local conquered people were obliged to support their households (e.g., see Durán 1994: 159), and Aztec armies on the march were provisioned by communities along their routes (e.g., Durán 1994: 351; Berdan et al. 1996: 292; Smith 1996b: 148). Conquering city-states could therefore distribute the burden of supporting state institutions and events. Royal and other noble palaces were endowed with lands to sustain the elevated lifestyle of their occupants. These lands (variously called tlatocatlalli, tecpantlalli, pillalli, and tecuhtlalli) were apparently attached to the palaces as private property, their yields supporting palace needs. High-ranking individuals could augment those lands through military service; lands conquered by the Triple Alliance (at least in the Basin of Mexico) were often allocated to the conquering rulers, participating nobles, and high-achieving warriors of any status, all according to their positions and accomplishments (see Durán 1994: 96–103, 110, 112–113, 121, 148). In a somewhat different twist, Aztec terms of conquest required the rulers of Tepeacac (beyond the Basin of Mexico, near Tlaxcallan; see Figure 4.12) to provide lands to whatever outsiders might wish to dwell there (Durán 1994: 159).14 The main point here is that control of conquered lands, whether gained through nobility status, battlefield prowess, or royal decree, was in the hands of state-approved individuals empowered by rulers. Lands by themselves are nice to have, but to make them productive requires the availability of a knowledgeable, motivated, and energetic labor force. Altepetl and calpolli lands were cultivated by resident commoners who owed a portion of their yield to their local ruler. This tax was paid in kind but also was due in the form of service – some of it by rotation in the royal palace, some of it on regular or periodic public works. While there were regular tribute and corvée labor duties, these demands were augmented in times of extraordinary need: the funeral or coronation of a ruler, initiation or intensification of a major construction project (such as the enlargements to Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor), cleanup of a failed construction project (such as Ahuitzotl’s notorious flooded aqueduct), or recovery from a natural or military disaster (such as a flood or conquest). A declaration of war entailed military service, potentially from all commoner men who were trained for such an eventuality. These were the demands on the locals. But in addition, an imperial ruler customarily levied tribute demands on subject populations – normally in kind (e.g., as recorded in the Matrícula de Tributos and Codex Mendoza, described later). Imperial overlords could also command the labor of conquered peoples  – apparently at will. Such was the case when Axayacatl demanded that stone, lime, and sand be brought from several surrounding provinces for the construction of a large stone platform. The provinces acquiesced. Similarly, Ahuitzotl “requested” building materials and labor from many provinces for the construction of his massive waterworks, and the second Motecuhzoma

City-States and Imperial Rule Case 5.2  How to Move a Rock (Imperial Style) Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin had a problem. As supreme ruler of a vast empire, he felt the need to demonstrate his power and glorify his reign. To satisfy this need, he decided to replace Tenochtitlan’s sacrificial stone (temalacatl) with one that reflected the growing magnificence of the city. But how was he to accomplish this? Since no such stone existed naturally on the Mexica’s small island, Motecuhzoma sent his stonecutters in search of “the largest and finest stone in all the province,” which they found to the southeast, in the province of Chalco (Durán 1994: 477). Motecuhzoma obviously felt at liberty to remove even an enormous embedded rock from one of his conquered provinces. The rock’s transport to Tenochtitlan was no small feat. First of all, given the sacred nature of this stone’s destiny, priests were summoned to perform appropriate rituals. Singers, dancers, and jesters provided a lighthearted counterpoint to the more solemn priestly rituals. Then Motecuhzoma ordered men from six nearby cities, all just to the south of Tenochtitlan, essentially in the chinampa zone, to bring ropes and poles to dislodge and move the stone. With each city working as a unit, the laborers struggled but could not budge the enormous rock. Seeing this, Motecuhzoma “begged” the Texcocan ruler for more men; with these reinforcements, the rock was moved a short distance. The rock seemed determined to move no further, and after two frustrating days, Motecuhzoma summoned Otomí men to come and add to the collective strength.Yet despite the efforts of priests, entertainers, and this multitude of laborers, the stone not only sat firm, but now spoke to the assembled, stating its intention to move only as far as it wished (and ominously proclaiming that it would never enter Tenochtitlan). And so it moved, but then stubbornly stopped again. Motecuhzoma brought in men from Azcapotzalco as reinforcements, but the rock spoke again, this time predicting Motecuhzoma’s ultimate fate – the end of “his reign, his power” (Durán 1994: 479). The rock continued to tease and deceive the laborers until it was pulled onto a bridge specially built for this project, whereupon it broke the bridge’s beams and crashed into the lake (taking with it many men who drowned). Divers were unable to locate the rock on the lake bottom, and it was subsequently found back at its original site. Motecuhzoma seems not to have been particularly surprised by this, although he was sufficiently unsettled to consider the need to personally make offerings and sacrifices to the rock. What does this story tell us about Aztec politics and its relationship with other aspects of Aztec life? • Motecuhzoma was willing to make a considerable investment in this project: an increasing number of laborers, provisions for those workers, the services of priests and entertainers (probably from Tenochtitlan and some perhaps from his own household), and handsome compensation for the stoneworkers. That said, the laborers were required to provide their own ropes and poles. The entire project was highly labor-intensive, reportedly involving 10,000–12,000 laborers (Alvarado Tezozomoc 1975a: 662). • Motecuhzoma was capable of calling on workers from numerous cities. He approached each polity differently: he ordered the six chinampa cities, he



Aztec Society and Culture begged the Texcocan ruler, he summoned the Otomí, and he requested help from the Azcapotzalco ruler. He never called on laborers from Chalco. These approaches reveal the Mexica ruler’s variable political relations with his neighbors. • Throughout the rock’s halting progress, priests continually performed rituals while singers sang, dancers danced, and musicians played their conch shells and whistles. While the priests sanctified the event and encouraged the stone to move, the entertainers may have served primarily to motivate the laborers. • The rock’s resiliency and stubbornness surpassed even that of the great lord Motecuhzoma, suggesting the inevitability of the prophecy voiced by the rock. The story highlights the Aztecs’ strong belief in fate, serving as a narrative platform for reinforcing this certainty.

ordered men from several subject city-states to help transport a large rock from Chalco to Tenochtitlan (Durán 1994: 276–277, 365, 477–480) (Case 5.2). Refusal was not an option, such was the power of the imperial rulership. The Mexica conquest of nearby Cuitlahuac required the latter to “furnish maidens to dance in the feasts to the gods; from now on they would serve the Aztecs in their public works and in their personal service and would pay any tribute that would be levied” (Durán 1994: 121).15 The demands did not end there, since subject city-states in the Basin of Mexico frequently were called upon to join imperial military campaigns in far distant regions. In these cases, however, the participants also enjoyed the rewards accompanying conquest: honors, status, wealth, and sometimes loot. Lands attached to royal and noble houses and/or appropriated through conquest were accompanied by the laborers tied to them. The production of these commoners (usually called mayeques, or “tenants”; see Chapter  6) was paid as tribute to the local noble rather than to the altepetl or imperial ruler. Palaces also enjoyed the services of attached artisans. For instance, featherworkers were attached to Motecuhzoma’s palace, creating his “dance array” and all the fine featherwork he presented as royal gifts to diplomatic visitors (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, 91). While these featherworkers were certainly well compensated, they stand in contrast to those featherworkers who worked independently, separate from the royal house and perhaps able to work under fewer constraints (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, 91–92). Furthermore, a temple could receive the labor of male and female penitents from specific city-state districts for one year; these young people performed menial chores and served its resident priests (Durán 1971: 81–86).16

Control over Symbols:Wealth and Display In Aztec society, everyone’s visual presence made a social and political statement. The material and design of a loincloth or tunic, the display of jewelry

City-States and Imperial Rule and other adornments, the presence or absence of sandals – all of these were signposts of a person’s social status. These visual indicators were particularly showy at the highest levels, and every bit of that showiness was laden with significance. The ruler himself was distinguished by specific regalia. At his coronation, he was vested with symbols of his exalted status: a blue cape adorned with turquoise (or designed in a turquoise color); turquoise noseplug, lip plug, and earplugs; decorated sandals; and especially a turquoise diadem (xiuhuitzolli), which he wore like a crown (Olko 2005: 113–136, 168; López Luján and Olivier 2009; Olivier and López Luján 2009; Matos Moctezuma 2009).17 On any ordinary day (if there were such), he would also appear adorned with precious arm bands, calf bands, and exotic feathers (e.g., Sahagún 1950–1982: book 6, 44). He also had at his disposal the finest military regalia when he went to war (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 33–35). The ruler sat on a woven reed seat, as a throne. The metaphor for rulers and the power they wielded was in petlatl in icpalli (the woven reed mat, the woven reed seat). His expansive palace contained his residential apartments, as well as a multitude of rooms dedicated to the administration of his city-state, conquest state, or empire: separate courtrooms for nobles and commoners, a chamber for war councils, large storage rooms, accommodations for dignified visitors, and rooms for the innumerable palace servants and artisans. Elaborate gardens  – and for Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin’s palace at least, a zoo and an aviary – completed the ensemble. Not only was the palace comfortable and ornate, it also buzzed with daily activity and served as a symbol of the tlatoani’s power and wealth (see also Chapter 3). All of these symbols were critical in the wielding of Aztec power: they declared hereditary and military rights and announced a ruler’s ability to exercise power associated with those rights. In Norman Yoffee’s (2005: 40) words, “In joyfully reaffirming order and legitimacy, rulers and elites use wealth to counter fragility, especially in celebrations and ceremonies that involve much of the wider society.” These heavily laden symbols impressed and intimidated both locals and visitors.

Control over the Sacred World Politics and religion were tightly intertwined in the Aztec world. A ruler’s very coronation consisted of a sequence of ritual events, presided over by priests and accentuating the new ruler’s obligations to the deities. For example, the new Mexica ruler was dressed in priestly attire, proclaiming his religious roles. He made godly offerings in a public setting, affirming his ritual roles before nobles and commoners. His four advisers were also publicly sanctified. They all fasted, performed autosacrifice, and offered incense to Huitzilopochtli. All of these priestly activities were carried out by political officials, firmly connecting them to the realm of the sacred (Berdan 2005: 108).



Aztec Society and Culture Once he was enthroned, many of the ruler’s primary duties resided in the religious realm. It was his responsibility to ensure that the deities were properly revered and recognized in the multitudinous rituals, that the priesthood was supported, and that the religious infrastructure (including impressive temples and idols) was maintained at a level commensurate with the prestige of his city-state (indeed, all of this glorified his rulership). All of these obligations took a highly visible form. Among other ritual duties, the ruler participated in human sacrifices on the tops of temples, danced at specific ceremonies dressed in deity paraphernalia, and along with other rulers led a critical dry-season pilgrimage in honor of the rain god Tlaloc (López Luján and Olivier 2009; Townsend 2009b: 137–139). He also took the spontaneous lead in particularly stressful rituals, such as Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin’s propitiation of a bewildering talking rock (see Case 5.2). The ruler was bedecked with turquoise adornments, and this was no accident: turquoise was associated with the powerful fire god Xiuhtecuhtli and bestowed deified attributes on the ruler. The shimmering blue feathers of the lovely cotinga (xiuhtototl), also part of the ruler’s raiment, enhanced this association with the fire god. During the feast dedicated to Xiuhtecuhtli, god and ruler were united, as both the deity figure and the dancing ruler shared the same turquoise adornments. Nor was religious symbolism neglected in the military arena: the Mexica emperor’s martial regalia were dripping with godly symbolism, particularly that of Xipe Totec (Olko 2005: 134, 153–154, 181, 254–255). In short, the ruler appeared, to citizen and foreigner alike, as the embodiment of the deities and as the realm’s primary link with the gods. He hefted a heavy load indeed, but an essential one that contributed significantly to his legitimacy.

exercising power Armed with extensive resources, sacred symbols, and a dazzling persona, the ruler used a variety of devices to exercise and extend his power (or at the very least, protect his power base against more powerful adversaries). He accomplished these goals through lavish feasting and gift giving, control of inalienable wealth, sacred manipulations, diplomatic ventures, and outright military conquests. Elite feasting involved extravagant displays, demonstrating a ruler’s control over material resources and restricted symbols. These especially took place during major secular and sacred events such as a ruler’s coronation or funeral, the dedication of a temple, or the celebration of a calendrical religious ritual. These displays invariably involved the flaunting of power and material wealth, lavish feasting, exorbitant gift giving and receiving, and other demonstrations of power such as human sacrifice.These were not simple dinner parties; feasting could last for days (e.g., Durán 1994: 307). They required a substantial material investment on the part of the ruler-host, who shouldered the costs through tribute payments, his own palace production, and marketplace exchanges.18

City-States and Imperial Rule Gift giving at such events, while reciprocal, was not meant to be equivalent: “The lesser lords made gifts to the supreme ruler at certain festivals held every year; they did this in acknowledgement of their subjugation and vassalage . . . the supreme ruler gave to the lesser lords, his vassals, and to the lords of neighboring towns . . . rich cloaks and other presents, according to the quality of each lord” (Zorita 1994: 188–189). While the giving was uneven, reinforcing the position of the more powerful ruler, it was essential that the preeminent lord observe proper etiquette and provide extravagantly for his guests. For example, at the 1487 dedication of the Templo Mayor, Ahuitzotl invited both friends and foes. Upon their arrival, invited visiting lords were offered “elegant phrases,” water for hand washing, a chocolate drink, flowers, tobacco, and elegant lodgings. Later on, they were given costly military insignia and shields, fine clothing, flowers and tobacco, and of course an abundance of food and drink (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 65; Durán 1994: 331–335). This event was also laden with intimidation: all guests, whether friends or enemies, were filled with “bewilderment and fear. They saw that the Aztecs were masters of their world” (Durán 1994: 336). A ruler was expected to generously reward his servants, whether ambassadors or stoneworkers, and to bestow gifts on his commoners at specified ceremonial events (see Chapter 7). At feasts to which he invited foreign rulers he also offered gifts to “all the noblemen, brave warriors, and lords, and judges, and rulers of the youth, and all the singers, and all the keepers of the gods, fire priests, and [other] priests” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 65; see also Durán 1994: 306–307). These considerable levels of conspicuous consumption and generosity contributed to the solidification of a ruler’s dominance over his own citizenry (nobles and commoners) and a willingness of those subjects to continue to serve him: “On account of their hospitality these lords were honored, obeyed, and well served” (Zorita 1994: 184). The ruler also bolstered his political position by demonstrating control of inalienable wealth: land, labor, and certain material symbols of status.While the criteria for earning these symbols were culturally established, the ruler nonetheless monopolized the right to bestow them. Among the most significant of these symbols were feathered warrior costumes consisting of a feathered warrior suit (tlahuiztli) or skirted suit (ehuatl), along with a headdress and/or back device and a shield (see Chapter 8). They were worn and carried by the fortunate warriors in future battles, displaying more than the costume itself: the insignia represented military obligations to the ruler and carried a great deal of powerful political and religious baggage. They provided a warrior with incentives and motivations, and embodied responsibility and power. Where battles relied primarily on hand-to-hand combat, they enhanced the Empire’s ability to win wars. Deserving warriors were publicly and ceremonially awarded their insignia by the ruler during certain monthly ceremonies, providing sacred validation to both the warriors’ achievements and the exclusive rights of the ruler



Aztec Society and Culture to reward them with this religiously imbued attire. Whether in military or ceremonial contexts, these acts of gift giving highlighted and cemented essential yet uneven links between the ruler and his elite military cadre. The actual martial devices and insignia served as specific physical authentications of these ties, responsibilities, power relations, and social distinctions. As with feasting, this involved a considerable investment on the part of the ruler; in this case, the gifting targeted warriors and warrior loyalty. Rulers also wielded their power by associating themselves and their rule with the sacred world. Arguments can be made that the Mexica rulers consciously aligned themselves and their history with the established cosmic order (Diel 2008: 49).They did this by manipulating their history to conform to cosmologically significant dates (such as One Flint), thereby communicating “the legitimacy and sacred nature of their rule” and “to show their rule as divinely sanctioned” (Diel 2008: 26–27). They also recast history (as did Itzcoatl in burning books predating his reign)19 and even adjusted calendrical events themselves. The most significant of these changes was effected by the second Motecuhzoma, who postponed the traditional date of the New Fire ceremony (dealing with nothing less than the destruction of the world; see Chapter 7) from One Rabbit to Two Reed, either to avoid an unlucky Rabbit year or to overtly express his power (Diel 2008: 37). Diplomacy was yet another avenue available to rulers in their exercise of power. Rulers wielded power through negotiations as much as conquests, fitting the approach to the situation. One such avenue was marriage: rulers were fond of exercising power over one another, and the place of a ruler in city-state and imperial hierarchies was overtly exhibited in elite marriage arrangements. It was expected that a higher-ranking ruler would offer a daughter in marriage to a lower-ranking ruler.These marriages provided political alliances, but the alliances contained clearly understood dominant/subordinate subtexts. On another plane, royal women sent to subordinate rulers as wives served as political agents: “with loyalties tied to her father over her husband, this royal wife was both spy and military agent” (Diel 2007: 269). Rejection or maltreatment of such a wife signified a serious break in political relations and a provocation of war. A different diplomatic context harnessed trade as the medium: in far-distant regions, undoubtedly too expensive to consider conquering, the Mexica ruler sent professional merchants as his envoys – exchanges of material goods provided the ruler with tropical luxuries and maintained amiable relations with these distant polities. Rulers also expressed diplomacy (sometimes) by accepting immigrants and refugees.The Mexica ruler Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin even welcomed refugees from Huexotzinco, traditionally an enemy, and allowed them to stay in Tenochtitlan until unrest in their homeland subsided (Durán 1994: 446–451).This particular event, strange at first blush, was manipulated by the Aztecs: the Huexotzincas had had a falling out with their

City-States and Imperial Rule Tlaxcallan allies, and the Aztecs saw an opportunity to gain a military advantage over the Tlaxcallans. The Triple Alliance rulers, especially the Mexica tlatoque, used all of these devices, including outright military conquest, to not only control neighboring polities, but also extend their dominion to the far reaches of their known world. Political Dynamics: Building an Empire

The Triple Alliance Empire is set apart from other conquest states largely by virtue of its immense territorial and population size. Sanders (2008: 69) estimates that at its height the Empire encompassed more than 400 polities, 5–6 million people, and 77, 220 square miles (approximately 200,000 square kilometers).20 How was this far-reaching and diverse domain achieved and administered?

Warfare and Conquest goals of warfare and expansion Several forces motivated the Aztecs’ persistent imperial moves. In the first place, conquest states were nothing new in Mesoamerica. The Aztecs drew on mythical underpinnings (such as legendary Tula) and their own historic traditions (as underlings to powerful Azcapotzalco) in framing their own imperial destiny. The precedents and procedures were already there. City-states were constantly jockeying with one another, each trying to gain dominance over others. In this political climate, rulers had reputations to uphold and dynasties to preserve and glorify.The Mexica were no different and by 1428 were poised to compete at an exceptional level. Indeed, their histories repeatedly insist on their divinely inspired destiny to rule their known world; this gave them not only motivation, but also a great deal of confidence. Once set in motion, continuing conquests became imperative. If the Aztecs showed any weakness and did not ceaselessly demonstrate to their conquered subjects their ability to dominate them, rebellion would become a serious problem. Rebellions occurred frequently enough in any event (Berdan 2011b). Second, as already mentioned, rulers and other nobles depended on lavish and boastful displays to continually advertise and thus visibly solidify their power. Since rulers competed with one another through extravagant feasts and other spectacles, they needed authoritative and reliable control over material wealth. Conquest and tribute were among the most dependable means of ensuring that flow of wealth to their coffers. By 1519 the elite’s need for wealth, and its exhibition, was escalating. Third, gods needed to be nourished, and most of that responsibility ultimately fell to the state. Religious rituals required opulent offerings and human sacrifices.These were provided largely through state edict and tribute payments



Aztec Society and Culture designated for religious maintenance and ritual performances, although most of this wealth for the gods fell outside of the regular state tribute payments as recorded in the Matrícula de Tributos (as described later). It has been estimated that approximately 80 percent of the materials and artifacts in the numerous offerings around Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor originated outside the Basin of Mexico, but still within Aztec hegemony (Matos Moctezuma 1988: 88–91; López Luján 2005: 99–105).21 Materials coincident with Aztec tribute receipts include copal; greenstone beads; turquoise masks, mosaics, and beads; lip plugs; copper bells; Spondylus shells; rubber; and eagles (López Luján 2005: 99–105). Far more common were diverse materials and objects not found on the standard tribute lists, including marine sands, corals, turtle shells, alligator skulls, shark teeth, pumas, rattlesnakes, charcoal, sacrificial knives, earplugs, miniatures, and antiques (López Luján 2005). A particularly high proportion of the materials were animal. Among these, marine fauna predominated, deriving from both Pacific and Atlantic coasts (López Luján 2005: 101–102). Only a very few animals appear on the imperial tribute tallies: in addition to the eagles and Spondylus shells of the Matrícula de Tributos, Durán (1994: 204–205) mentions various shells, turtles, and quail. Additional sources identify seashells, fish, shellfish, and alligator teeth from tributary provinces and client states situated on both coasts (see Berdan et al. 1996: 278, 286). Other objects, for example stone masks from Mezcala (in present-day Guerrero), were manufactured in that distant area and brought to Tenochtitlan. We do not know the specific mechanisms by which so many of these materials and objects were obtained and distributed for religious use, but it seems unlikely that distant subjects voluntarily and willingly offered up these objects for burial to a god in a distant city-state, even if one of those gods was the omnipresent Tlaloc (see Chapter 7). These materials and goods may have been acquired through special-purpose tribute (as described later) and the ever-active commercial arteries (Velázquez Castro 1999: 23–25; López Luján 2005: 77–78). The fact that the vast majority of the earlier marine deposits (pre-Ahuitzotl) derived from the Atlantic coast, and the later ones (beginning with Ahuitzotl’s reign) were Pacific coast species, suggests that there was a significant relationship between the deposits and the establishment of imperial conquests and client states. Imperial control over Pacific coastal regions was a particular achievement of Ahuitzotl. However these materials were obtained, it does appear that the religious world was keeping abreast of the political world in terms of consumption. There was a definite increase in the quantity of materials deposited in the Templo Mayor offerings over time (López Luján 2005: 105). Militarism had a long history in Mesoamerica, and the Mexica were preeminently warriors. From their first arrival in the Basin of Mexico, they were enlisted as mercenaries in the interminable wars among competing city-states. They earned reputations as courageous and unrelenting warriors, reputations that would serve them well as they struck fear and trepidation in the hearts of

City-States and Imperial Rule

Figure 5.3. Twelve conquests of Axayacatl as depicted in the Codex Mendoza. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 10r.)

their military targets. In a world of largely hand-to-hand combat, this psychological edge was a significant advantage. Aside from tradition, the Mexica, their neighbors, and more distant polities engaged in warfare for two primary reasons: the acquisition of captives for sacrifice to the gods and the conquest of city-states to control their material wealth through tribute. Battlefield tactics and rules were geared



Aztec Society and Culture toward these goals. Capturing an enemy was more highly valued than killing him. The captive’s later sacrifice pleased the gods, provided spectacular ceremonial and political evidence of the victor’s dominance, and endowed the captor with renown and visible symbols of his achievement (see Case 8.1). This does not mean that battlefield casualties were nonexistent; if the sources are to be believed, thousands perished on the Late Postclassic battlefields.22 Each side was determined to win, despite the lure of captured enemies. And winning itself brought great rewards: initially, loot for the successful warriors, then rich gifts for the victorious ruler, followed by negotiated tribute on a year-after-year basis. Conquering a city-state sometimes required a siege, sometimes a hard-fought battle outside the city itself. In either case, the attackers’ immediate objectives were clear: to appropriate the city’s marketplace and to destroy its temple. If the city’s main temple was overwhelmed, it was burned. The defenders lost heart, as their god had clearly been defeated by another, more powerful deity. It comes as no surprise that the symbol of conquest was a burning temple: victory in symbol and defeat in fact (Figure 5.3). Some wars were explicitly engaged by the Mexica to acquire captives for sacrifice and to train warriors in battle. These so-called flowery wars were conducted primarily with the constellation of enemies to the east: Tlaxcallan, Huexotzinco, Cholula, and Tliliuhquitepec. These periodic encounters appear to have been ritually staged battles without conclusion; while one side or the other would claim a victory based on the number of captives, no actual conquest ensued and the armies returned home without material booty or tribute. The benefit, according to the Mexica, lay in the acquisition of captives and the training afforded young warriors in an arena fairly close to home. Despite the “flowery war” posture, it is more likely that the Aztecs were engaging the Tlaxcallan confederacy in earnest, with conquest in mind. By 1519 the Tlaxcallans were surrounded by Aztec provinces and were struggling to maintain their essential trade routes. Yet the Tlaxcallans continued to put up fierce resistance, “won” as often as not, and were still independent when the Spaniards arrived (Fargher et al. 2010). This was to be a key factor in the ultimate fall of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin.

justifying, mobilizing, and financing wars It was not difficult to find politically acceptable reasons to go to war. Rulers were sensitive to any real or imagined affront, providing sufficient and convenient excuses to mobilize an army.23 In some cases, excuses were constructed to legitimize a war of conquest. Some affronts involved attacks on Aztecs themselves. One of these was quite personal: Moquihuix, ruler of Tlatelolco, openly maltreated and demeaned his wife, a sister of the Tenochtitlan ruler Axayacatl.This prompted quick and violent reprisals from Axayacatl in 1473, resulting in Moquihuix’s death and Tlatelolco’s

City-States and Imperial Rule conquest (Anderson and Schroeder 1997: 136–141). Other attacks on Mexica and their allies were more general: emissaries were killed in foreign lands, and pochteca were prevented from trading and even robbed and killed (e.g., Durán 1994: 106, 223, 349, 350, 409, 442; Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 3, folio 66r). Since pochteca were forever on the road and known to be on state as well as personal business, their assassinations were especially frequent provocations of war. Some areas, already conquered, were suspected of being restless or in a state of outright rebellion (e.g., Durán 1994: 315, 323–324, 399). Intelligence on these polities was most likely conveyed to the Aztec rulers by their pochteca and oztomeca; it is perfectly understandable why these merchants were so often assaulted on their journeys. The Aztecs were duty-bound to put down rebellions quickly; inaction would have suggested weakness and would have opened the door to even more rebellions.24 The Aztecs were also obligated to support their own conquered polities against aggression by their unconquered neighbors. Thus complaints by some of these subjects led to conquests of their neighbors (e.g., Durán 1994: 263, 264, 374). One of the most direct ways to instigate a war was to ask a “favor” of an unconquered area: the Mexica asked Xochimilco for stone and wood, Toluca for wood, and Quetzaltepec and Tototepec for fine lapidary sand (Durán 1994: 105, 264, 417). All of these requests carried an underlying message, one of subservience, and were thinly disguised ploys to initiate military aggression. In each of these cases the unconquered polities refused (fully understanding the message). Warfare and conquest followed. Some justifications for military reprisals were more subtle: a ruler who refused an invitation to an imperial feast or ceremony conveyed a serious insult to his host – and sufficient reason for military aggression (e.g., Durán 1994: 341). And boredom and inaction also played a role: if too long a time passed without military action, one ruler at least went seeking it, stating the need to keep his army sharp (e.g., Durán 1994: 425). One reason wars had to be legitimized was that the Mexica ruler needed support from his military orders and his allies. Mobilizing for war took place on an event-by-event basis; the Aztecs had no standing army. When Axayacatl decided to mount an offensive against Tollocan, he called a council of war with his military leaders and ordered them to prepare men and provisions for war. He then sent envoys to the kings of Texcoco and Tlacopan, who agreed to join the campaign (Durán 1994: 265–266). Ahuitzotl’s offense against Tecuantepec entailed an agreement by all three Triple Alliance rulers, who sent envoys to other Basin of Mexico allied city-states that also agreed to join the war. This vast army gained more warriors (and provisions) along the way, at Aztec-held Huaxacac. Later, Ahuitzotl’s move against Xoconochco, the most distant Aztec target, also involved agreements from rulers of nearby provinces to add their forces to the expedition (Durán 1994: 350–352, 375). One of the keys to the Aztecs’ success (although they also suffered failures) lay in their ability to



Aztec Society and Culture mobilize extraordinarily large military forces; in a world of largely hand-tohand combat, numbers were critical. Rulers and warriors from the several already conquered Basin of Mexico city-states were eager to participate in these wars given the lure of immediate loot and more sustained tribute payments. Warfare was lucrative to the victors. Training and organization also played important roles in successful military operations. The many urban telpochcalli (young men’s houses, or schools for male youth) in the Basin of Mexico provided basic martial training to all young men. Youths were also taken to wars, usually carrying the equipment of more seasoned warriors, to observe and get a firsthand sense of actual battlefield contests. Battles themselves were fierce, furious, and noisy. Projectiles from bows, atlatl, and slingshots pierced the air, obsidian-studded clubs and spears battered and penetrated armor and flesh, and colorful banners moved about identifying military divisions. Determined warriors, some wearing elaborately feathered insignia, advanced ferociously on one another. Captives were dragged from the battlefield to be later sacrificed, and the courageous warriors winning those captives were rewarded with insignia declaring their achievements. The whole affair must have been an awesome spectacle, and better for a young, future warrior to observe all this from a distance before participating in it. Each ruler recruited his own army, provided at least some of the necessary weaponry for his warriors, and imparted an inspirational speech in the group’s own language before battle (Durán 1994: 375–378, 410). On the road to their destination, each of the allied contingents traveled separately, each set up its own camp, and each advanced on the battlefield as a unit (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 52). These incessant and in many cases distant wars were costly. Expenses included weaponry, provisions, rewards, and the maintenance of garrisons in restless regions. Documentary sources indicate that some martial support was provided by rulers, market vendors, en route communities, subject communities, entrepreneurs, and the warriors themselves (food and perhaps repairs to their own equipment; see Durán 1994: 167). In preparing for war, some of the weaponry and insignia were provided by the ruler (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 51–52), although it is not clear if all warriors, especially commoners, received this largesse. Nobles would have been provided with cotton armor25 and feathered insignia, but unrenowned commoner warriors may have entered battle with little protection.26 The ruler himself went in style, wearing exquisite adornments of feathers, gold, and precious stones (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 33–35). Food for the army was reportedly supplied by Tlatelolco market food vendors, who provided “biscuits, and finely ground dried maize and chia seeds, and dried maize dough, and dried, lime-treaded maize dough” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 69). But a warrior might also carry toasted maize kernels, maize flour, bean flour, toasted tortillas, sunbaked tamales, chiles, and ground

City-States and Imperial Rule cacao, some provided by the rulers’ storehouses and some furnished by the warrior himself (Durán 1994: 350). In distant campaigns, supplies would have run low, and subjects and allies along the route were expected to support the needy army. They provided food, additional warriors, porters, and guides (e.g., Durán 1994: 351, 352, 377; Berdan et al. 1996: 267, 282, 284, 290, 292). In some especially unstable conquered and client areas, the Aztec conquerors deemed it useful to install garrisons.These also needed to be provisioned, usually by resident subject peoples (see Berdan et al. 1996: 275–276, 280–283, 285–286). Expenses also included postwar rewards of military insignia and specially decorated cloaks to warriors who distinguished themselves in the battle (see Chapters 6 and 8). These were supplied from the ruler’s storehouses. This leads us to the question of how these rulers stocked and replenished their storehouses to equip and reward officers and warriors on a repeated basis. To what extent were these stores based on tribute collected from already conquered polities? In the bigger picture, how much did earlier military successes support and allow future ones? Rulers supplied their military contingents (the nobles, at least) with cotton armor, feathered insignia, and weapons. Some of these are found on the annual tribute rolls (Matrícula de Tributos and Codex Mendoza): several styles of insignia that were awarded to warriors capturing specific numbers of enemies (see Chapter 8), raw cotton that could be used for fabricating armor, and very little weaponry (canes for arrows provided by Tepeacac province). No cotton armor itself was recorded on these tallies, and no other weaponry (not even the multipurpose obsidian). However, other sources do mention payment of weaponry. For example, Durán mentions “arrows, shields, swords, slings, as well as special shields made just for the lords” among the regular tribute to be paid by Tlatelolco, as well as cotton armor, shields, bows and arrows, maguey fiber slings and stone shot, blades of white stone or obsidian, and flints for arrows and darts provided by other conquered polities on regular schedules and special occasions (1994: 412, 205–206, 261, 303, 318, 473). Other documents mention maguey shields, bows and arrows, cane shields and other cane weaponry, blades for lances, and raw cotton for armor among tribute payments (Berdan 1996: 127–129; Smith 1996b: 148). Amounts are not specified, so it is not known if these payments were sufficient to provision the large armies that were mobilized frequently. To some extent, weapon manufacture may have been each warrior’s responsibility; the materials were available in the marketplaces, and Durán (1994: 167)  does relate a speech by the first Motecuhzoma in which that ruler admonishes his warriors to prepare their swords, sharpen their blades, repair their shields, and straighten their canes and reeds for arrows and darts. Unfortunately, we lack sufficient numerical data to determine the relative proportions of state versus individual contributions to military support.



Aztec Society and Culture

Figure 5.4.  Imperial tribute from the rich province of Tepequacuilco. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 37r.)

tribute and imperial finance Tribute was the most political of the economic means of moving goods about. It was essentially a one-way process entailing the transfer of raw materials and manufactured goods from conquered peoples to their overlords. Some of

City-States and Imperial Rule these raw materials and manufactured objects were utilitarian, others luxurious. Tribute levies took a variety of forms: calendrically scheduled payments of specified goods, situational levies focused on supporting special events or provisioning an imperial or royal need (such as a kingly coronation or ritual event, or the acquisition and transport of materials for a construction project), service in the royal palace and in temples, and military service. While occasionally a city was razed and depopulated following conquest, this was unusual and counterproductive to the economic goals of the conquerors. A vanquished but potentially productive population provided its conquerors with loot, captive warriors for sacrifice, immediate gifts, and agreements to pay negotiated tributes on a specified schedule or whenever demanded. Terminological issues have recently been raised about the use of the word “tribute” for these demands. For instance, Daniel Tarschys focuses on scheduling, preferring the word “tax” for predictable, calendrical demands and reserving the term “tribute” for relatively unpredictable and irregular payments from subjected peoples involving “more personal and emotional” ties (1988: 3). Other distinctions between tribute and taxes focus on hierarchical political relationships: taxes are demanded of a citizenry by its own polity, while tribute entails payments demanded of conquered peoples (Mair 1977: 98; Berdan 2001: 262).With reference to the Aztec tribute system, where both regular and irregular payments served to finance imperial and royal goals (and where both types of payments were rendered by the same subject peoples), I find the political criterion more useful than the scheduling one. Focusing on these political relationships also highlights the symbolic nature of tribute; each payment, arriving with great pageantry in the imperial cities, symbolically reaffirmed dominant–subordinate relationships. In essence, tribute constitutes obligatory payments from conquered to conqueror, in whatever form and on whatever schedule. The Empire extracted tribute from its conquered peoples on a polity-bypolity basis, resulting in a staggering mosaic of tribute payments (Figure 5.4). Despite its diversity, some interesting patterns can be detected in this system along ecological, economic, geographic, political, ritual, and historical dimensions. With reference to ecology and economy, tribute assessments were essentially based on materials and goods readily available to the conquered peoples (e.g., Zorita 1994: 186–187). In most cases these coincided with local raw materials and traditional skills, and reflected local ecology: shells arrived from the coasts, shimmering feathers from the tropics, woods from forested highlands, cotton from the lowlands, jaguar skins from jaguar habitats, and cochineal from areas of intense cochineal production. Yet, as with other things in the Aztec world, this was neither neat nor simple. Some provinces paid tribute in goods not locally produced. These included greenstones and turquoise from Tochpan; greenstones from Tochtepec; greenstones, amber, and quetzal feathers



Aztec Society and Culture from Cuetlaxtlan (all three provinces situated along the Gulf coast); amber from Pacific coastal Xoconochco; cotton cloth from highland provinces that could not grow cotton; and warrior costumes constructed with colorful tropical feathers, also paid by highland provinces (see Gasco and Voorhies 1989: 68–69; Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. II, 114, 118, 124, 133). These goods must have been abundantly and visibly present in these areas when they were conquered, sufficiently so that the conquerors could rely on their new subjects to deliver them in regular and sustained tribute payments. It is likely that these goods were customary commercial commodities in these provinces, carried by merchants and traded in markets; in the examples just given, Xoconochco, Tochtepec, and Tochpan were especially active trading venues (see Chapter 4). Thus established trade and market activities fed into tribute demands, and so to some extent the tribute system relied on sustained mercantile activities. Likewise, the tribute system supported the continuation of these trading conduits as subjects sought nonlocal materials and objects to fulfill their tribute obligations. And further, by conquering one area, the Aztecs gained access to products and goods produced beyond the bounds of their military control: the Empire’s economic thrall extended well beyond its actual conquests. Tribute paid as raw materials included staple foodstuffs, cacao, cotton, eagles, gold dust, turquoise stones, and feathers. At least some of these raw materials could have served the needs of the imperial ruler’s palatial artisans in their luxury craft productions. However, most tribute was delivered in manufactured or partially manufactured form, such as woven clothing, reed mats and seats, paper, decorated gourd bowls, amber lip plugs, greenstone beads, and feathered warrior costumes and shields. This imposition of tribute in manufactured objects would have stimulated craft production in conquered areas of the Empire. Some tribute payments conformed to geographic constraints and patterns, imposed by both natural and cultural conditions. One such pattern relates to the Mesoamerican transportation system. All transport being on foot or canoe, distance and terrain played significant roles in the choices of goods demanded in tribute. With one exception,27 heavy and bulky foodstuffs were delivered by provinces close to Tenochtitlan, even though every province in the Empire produced these staples and was capable of delivering them in tribute. Distance also played a role in labor tribute: provinces close to the imperial capitals (mostly in the Basin of Mexico) were more often called on for labor on special projects (see Case 5.2) than more distant provinces, which paid their tribute in raw materials and manufactured goods, and occasionally battlefield captives.28 Exceptionally, Texcoco demanded palace and temple service, on a rotating basis, from both nearby and distant city-states (for analyses of this system see Douglas 2010: 69–78; Offner 1983: 97–114). In a rather different case, the most distant province of Xoconochco delivered all of its tribute twice a year, a regularity perhaps instituted to accommodate long-distance transportation costs. These costs would have pertained especially to cacao: Gasco (n.d.)

City-States and Imperial Rule estimates that the cacao tribute delivered from Xoconochco to Tenochtitlan amounted to 5 metric tons annually, which necessitated a daunting physical and logistic effort. Politics and religion went hand in hand in Aztec life, and this can be seen in the scheduling and use of tribute. Much tribute arrived in the imperial capitals in regularly scheduled payments tied to the monthly calendar (see Chapter 7). Calendrical periods of tribute collection in the Matrícula de Tributos and Codex Mendoza were annual, semiannual, and every eighty days (or quarterly).29 Periods for some goods were predictable: warrior costumes and foodstuffs were delivered annually, and clothing semiannually.30 Other goods and products followed no particular pattern. A separate imperial tribute document indicates that conquered peoples delivered rich clothing, warriors’ costumes, fine jewelry, feathers, and slaves for the celebration of five major Aztec ceremonies (Scholes and Adams 1957). The scheduled payments included utilitarian and luxury materials and goods. Among the utilitarian goods were staple foodstuffs, other foodstuffs such as chiles and honey, salt, maguey fiber clothing, lime, firewood, and wooden planks, beams, and carrying frames. Luxuries included enormous quantities of decorated cotton clothing,31 cacao, wild animal pelts, gold dust and ornaments, turquoise stones and masks, tropical feathers, and feathered warriors’ costumes, shields, and headgear. Other goods included raw cotton, plain cotton clothing, dyes, copal incense, balls of rubber, and shells. Scheduled tribute payments were collected by imperial tribute collectors in each province (calpixque; sing. calpixqui) and brought to the petlacalco, or ruler’s storehouse in Tenochtitlan.32 Special occasions, such as the coronation or funeral of a ruler or the dedication of a major temple, and the idiosyncratic needs of a ruler all had political and religious overtones and prompted tribute payments in goods or service (or both). These were paid above and beyond the scheduled demands and were geared toward satisfying the needs of the moment. For instance, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin’s coronation brought into Tenochtitlan wave after wave of burden bearers from all corners of the Empire:33 reportedly, every day a thousand burden bearers carried loads of animals and birds for food, chiles, seeds, cacao, fish, and fruit, all to contribute to the new ruler’s extravagant feasting (Durán 1994: 406). The dedication of the Templo Mayor in 1487 under Ahuitzotl was a particularly notable occasion for the delivery of special tributes. Conquered peoples from throughout the Empire delivered quantities of gold, jewels, ornaments, precious stones and feathers, men’s and women’s clothing, cacao, chiles, seeds, fruit, game, and birds for the solemn and opulent festivities (Durán 1994: 335–336).While these goods contributed substantially to the celebrations themselves, their dramatic delivery also had a symbolic impact: enemy guests invited to the dedication,“seeing such wealth and opulence and such authority and power, were filled with terror” (Durán 1994: 336). Religion and politics were unabashedly intertwined.



Aztec Society and Culture Case 5.3  Imperial Tribute Payments:The Province of Tochpan Tochpan was one of thirty-eight tributary provinces of the Aztec Empire, located in the Empire’s northeast corner (see Figure 5.5).A close look at this province reveals a great deal about imperial expansion: conflicting claims to conquest, changes in tribute demands over time, and reasons behind specific types of tribute assessments. The most enigmatic issue involves Tochpan’s muddy conquest history. The conquest of Tochpan itself, as the major polity in this province, was claimed variously by Axayacatl (in the Codex Mendoza), Tizoc (on his famous carved stone), and Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina (in Durán’s history). Although rebellions are not recorded for this city-state, perhaps it was restless and each ruler found the need to remind Tochpan of its subservient status. More likely, one or more of these records may have been inflated: Tochpan was a prize, and claiming its conquest heaped fame and glory upon its conqueror. To complicate matters, the Texcocan-biased chronicler Alva Ixtlilxochitl attributed Tochpan’s conquest to the Texcocan ruler Nezahualcoyotl (r. 1418–1472). Other sources suggest that the conquest was a Triple Alliance affair, the province’s tribute being divided among the three imperial capitals. However Tochpan and its neighbors were actually subdued, their defeat occurred during the middle of the fifteenth century. Shortly before the Spanish arrival, the towns grouped together as an imperial province also included Papantla, quite a bit to the south and not conquered until the sixteenth-century reign of Motechuzoma Xoco­ yotzin.The composition of provinces would have looked different over time; in this case, a late conquest was tagged onto an existing administrative unit. We are fortunate in having a variety of historical records for this region. In particular, documents tell us about the tribute demanded of Tochpan upon its conquest and then its tribute assessments approximately half a century later (especially in the Matrícula de Tributos and Codex Mendoza tribute tallies; Figure C5.3). Immediately following its conquest, Tochpan’s annual tribute ­consisted heavily of textiles (a situation also found in other conquered provinces in the few cases where we have similar documentation). For both the Mexica (Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina) and the Texcocan (Nezahualcoyotl) claims, highly decorated textiles dominated the list of demands. The emphasis on textiles makes demographic sense: warfare and battlefield captures would have significantly depleted the male segment of the population, leaving a disproportionate number of women to carry the tribute burden: weaving was women’s work. Early Mexica demands also included colorful exotic feathers, yellow dyes, fruits, and a variety of chiles. Other valuables and products were apparently available in Tochpan at the time of its conquest, since the lords of that land offered precious gifts to stop their slaughter and then presented more gifts to their conquerors before their departure: seafood, honey, cacao, white feathers, paper, gold, and jewels in addition to those items appearing on their annual tribute tally. There were both continuities and changes in tribute demands over the next half-century. A great deal of decorated clothing (some perhaps of different styles) along with one variety of chile is also found on the later lists, although we can only infer that they were required consistently year after year between the ­mid-fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The tropical feathers, yellow dye, and fruits have

City-States and Imperial Rule

Figure C5.3.  Imperial tribute from the Gulf coast province of Tochpan. (From

Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 52r.) been removed from the list and replaced by a wider variety of goods: feathered warrior costumes, small white feathers (down), greenstone and turquoise beads, and turquoise mosaics. As the Empire expanded into more distant regions, tropical feathers became available from other conquests, as did the yellow dye. After half a century, the region’s gender balance may have been at least somewhat restored, and more manufactures and mercantile goods appear on the later list. A province was assessed with respect to materials readily available to it, and in some ways Tochpan’s tribute requirements are easily anticipated; in others, unexpected. Clothing, chiles, and feather down as well as feathered ­warrior



Aztec Society and Culture costumes are anticipated targets for tribute payments. Cotton was grown abundantly, and the region was well known for its exquisitely woven textiles. Locally available precious feathers were embedded in the two sets of warrior insignia. Still, it is somewhat surprising that the feathers themselves have disappeared from the earlier demands – at a time when precious feathers would have been in high demand by an ostentatious Aztec elite. There are some possible explanations for this. First, Tochpan had a well-known market, and professional merchants may have moved sufficient quantities of feathers to the eager Aztec consumers. Second, these types of feathers were paid by other provinces, and perhaps the conquerors preferred to emphasize precious stones from this province: no province paid everything it possibly could, and the Empire was craftily selective. A third possibility was that the bird population of this area was becoming diminished: this was actually the northern habitat fringe for most of these tropical varieties. Especially surprising are the greenstone beads and turquoise beads and mosaics. Neither stone was native to this region, turquoise probably arriving from the north, greenstone from the south. Yet they must have been conspicuously available for the Aztecs to require them as annual tribute payments. It is most likely that they were traded extensively in Tochpan’s market, the ever-observant pochteca reporting their abundance to their kings.

Tribute was also rendered in the form of service. Some of these obligations were fulfilled on a perpetual basis, as in the case of mayeque, or serf-like commoners who provided field labor and household service to a specific noble and his palace (see Chapter  6). Nobles acquired these labor rights as partial compensation for their political positions and responsibilities. Their attached commoners were typically exempt from imperial tribute. Some other services were periodic, such as those provided by conquered city-states to the Texcocan palace and temples on a rotating basis, as mentioned earlier. Still others were situational: a large construction project (such as Ahuitzotl’s unfortunately failed aqueduct) or the moving of an enormous rock (see Case 5.2) prompted a call for a large number of laborers, and rulers did not hesitate to make those demands. Finally, tribute assessments reflected changing conditions in the provinces and at home. Immediately following a war, the male component of the conquered population was disproportionately reduced due to battlefield casualties and captures. It is, then, no surprise that early tribute demands weighed heavily on the fruits of women’s work, especially woven cloth (see Case 5.3). As time went on and the gender balance of the city-state began to be restored, tribute payments generally became more diversified. In another vein, tribute assessments reflected the changing needs of the imperial political and social order. A growing nobility (see Chapter 6) required more and more status-linked luxuries: rulers and high-ranking nobles needed to grace their aristocratic persons, adorn their aristocratic palaces, dine in aristocratic ways, and feast their neighbors in appropriately aristocratic styles. It was convenient that as the Empire

City-States and Imperial Rule expanded geographically, it moved out of the highlands into more temperate and tropical zones, lands offering luxuries ranging from cotton and cacao to precious stones and shimmering feathers. Our available documentation emphasizes the imperial perspective. But what about those who paid the tributes? Smith and Heath-Smith (1994) consider that, following Aztec conquests in Morelos, “increased tribute at the imperial and regional and state levels probably contributed to the observed changes in agricultural production [increased], textile manufacture [increased], standard of living [lowered], and elite conditions.”34 Smith (1994a: 336) further suggests that the actual demands of Aztec imperial, conquest state, and city-state tribute demands in Morelos, at least in the realm of textiles, may have been as little as three cotton cloaks per household annually. This relatively low estimated demand is paralleled by Gasco’s (n.d.) calculations of cacao yields in distant Xoconochco. On the basis of current levels of production, she suggests that the 5 metric tons of cacao paid annually in tribute to Tenochtitlan could have been produced on slightly less than 17 hectares. We have no figures on the total amount of land dedicated in this region to cacao production in Aztec times. However, somewhat more than 12,000 hectares are applied to cacao cultivation today – this even in the face of recent declining production (Gasco in press). This does not appear to be an especially burdensome imposition. In another instance, after their conquest by the Aztecs, the people of Chalco increased their cotton fiber production, perhaps in response to imperial tribute demands (Hodge 1998: 211). Overall, these indications are suggestive of imperial impact, but it remains undetermined if similar patterns pertained to other tribute goods and to other regions of the Empire. Rulers treated tributes as their own royal property, to be used and distributed by them.While this allowed these august persons considerable discretion, it also required that they conform to established cultural expectations. Generosity was one such expectation: the ruler distributed subsistence goods to commoners at specific ceremonies, allocated goods to support temples and priests, gave expensive gifts and held lavish feasts for high-ranking friends and foes, properly rewarded his valiant warriors, supported widows and orphans, generously compensated his artisans, and warehoused large quantities of foodstuffs against possible famine.35 Rulers did not stint in their rewards. Communities and officials who contributed to rebuilding Tenochtitlan noble houses following a flood were granted clothing, cacao, chiles, beans, and slaves (Durán 1994: 373). Merchants returning from a successful military/commercial venture were given beautifully decorated capes, rabbit-fur capes, loincloths, and foodstuffs (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, 5–6). In addition to these types of allocations, vast quantities of goods were required to support the enormous state bureaucracy and the ruler’s extensive palatial needs.Virtually all of the goods used for these many purposes are recorded as tribute or “gift” payments, whether by


Aztec Society and Culture


tributary or strategic provinces and whether through scheduled or situational levies. These payments were directly related to various strategies used by the Aztecs in the formation of their Empire.

Imperial and Provincial Strategies The Empire was constructed on the well-established concept of city-state, and the same devices that city-state rulers used to gain and consolidate power were extended to more expansive imperial control.The Aztecs built their empire by implementing a variety of strategies, while at the same time conquered peoples engaged in coping mechanisms that worked in their own favor.

the perspective of the empire Under the Empire, rulers were hierarchically related to one another. Asymmetrical relations among local and/or imperial rulers were established and reaffirmed by outright military conquest as well as political and diplomatic arrangements, and city-state dynasties continually fluctuated in power and prestige. In this political environment, the Empire itself achieved its phenomenal growth by pursuing a number of strategies initiated at the imperial level: economic, political, elite, and frontier (Berdan and Smith 1996). Imperial Strategies The “economic strategy” was designed to control essential economic resources from subject city-states.36 It entailed direct military conquest, resulting in the acquisition of city-states grouped into tributary provinces (Figure  5.5) that paid regularly scheduled tributes to the imperial coffers. These provinces provided the backbone of imperial and royal finance, and consisted of city-states conquered from the Empire’s inception into the second decade of the sixteenth century. The “political strategy” entailed direct interference with subjected citystate rulerships. While the Empire was generally hegemonic, it did employ aggressive political measures in city-states that posed real or imagined difficulties for imperial administration. This was the case, for instance, with Chalco, which was ruled by an imposed military governor (cuauhtlatoani) from 1464 to 1486, and with Tlatelolco, which was ruled by a cuauhtlatoani from the time of its conquest by Tenochtitlan in 1473 until the Spanish conquest (Hodge 1996: 33). It is noteworthy that most of the instances of these impositions occurred within the Basin of Mexico, where the Aztecs had begun their conquests; there, the imperial powers could ill afford rebellious rulers so close to their seats of power and therefore sometimes installed their own, more trustworthy relatives.37 And while conquered city-states close to the imperial capitals were burdened with sometimes heavy labor demands (more so than more distant conquered provinces), they also enjoyed rewards

City-States and Imperial Rule associated with participating in successful wars (such as booty and prestige goods granted for the capture of enemy warriors). When the call for a distant war went out, rulers and warriors from these city-states often eagerly volunteered. Within the Basin, therefore, conquered city-states were more tightly integrated into imperial goals and enterprises than were outlying subjects. Nonetheless, even though the Empire interfered less in the political affairs of more distant provinces than in those closer to home, governors, garrisons, or fortresses were installed in outlying areas that were seen as potentially troublesome (Berdan et al. 1996). The “elite strategy” was related to the cohesion developed by nobles throughout the imperial realm and beyond. Marriages among elites were common and were expected to cement political ties among polities and solidify dominant–subordinate relationships (as described earlier; see also Gutiérrez 2010: 15; Gutiérrez et al. 2009: 53). Frequent feasting and gift giving among nobles reaffirmed a mutual “eliteness,” regardless of the political agenda and even though some extravagant displays left both friend and foe thoroughly intimidated. The “frontier strategy” involved an overt plan on the part of Aztec rulers to control distant polities without the expense of a full military conquest; they achieved this through negotiation rather than outright conquest.These “strategic provinces” (see Figure 5.5), similar to the Roman Empire’s client states (see Luttwak 1976), were typically located adjacent to hostile borderlands, along important trade routes, or close to critical resources (see Smith 1996b). They were clearly subservient to the Empire, yet they rendered “gifts” rather than tribute and often received gifts in return (although surely there was a fine line between tribute and gifts, materially and symbolically). Thus Tetela on the fringe of the eastern Empire offered the imperial rulers war captives from their constant borderland wars, and received shields and other war materiel in return (Berdan et al. 1996: 289). It is a good guess that the imperial rulers intended that these weapons be used by the warriors of Tetela in their endless skirmishes along their unstable border with Tlaxcallan. In the west, where a string of strategic provinces faced the powerful Tarascan Empire, these provinces held that tense borderland for the Aztec Empire in a relatively inexpensive fashion.

The Idea of Provinces Whereas the Aztecs conquered individual city-states, they also created larger units: provinces. While the term “province” is found in Alva Ixtlilxochitl and Durán, in large part this notion derives from the Matrícula de Tributos and Codex Mendoza, fiscal documents that record tribute payments from thirty-eight provinces, probably around the years 1516–1518 (Berdan 1992).38 In these documents, each province contained from one to twenty-six city-states grouped together under a “head town.” In some documented cases, these groupings reflect prior political entities. In Morelos, for example, the conquest state of



Aztec Society and Culture

Figure 5.5.  Map of the Aztec Empire in 1519, with tributary and strategic provinces. (Drawing by Jennifer Berdan, after Berdan et al. 1996: fig. A4–1.)

Cuauhnahuac became the Aztec province of Cuauhnahuac, while the province of Huaxtepec was created by joining together the independent and conquest states of Huaxtepec, Yauhtepec, Tepoztlan, Totolapan, and Yacapitztlan (Smith 1994: 315). The Gulf coastal gran provincia of Tochpan was reportedly formed by the conquest of seven existing provincias, altogether encompassing sixty-eight towns (Alva Ixtlilxochitl 1965: 197). In some cases, provinces grew and expanded out of geographical convenience; for instance, the late conquest of Papantla was tagged onto the existing province of Tochpan. What, then, was the meaning of “province”? On the surface, it referred to imperial tribute-paying groupings, as well as to regional polities (including conquest states), from the perspective of the Empire.39 Spatial contiguity (or at least proximity) appears to have been the basic criterion for grouping citystates into provinces. Where conquest states were involved, a shared history of pre-Aztec conquests formed groupings under Aztec domination. Established regional hierarchies are suggested by Molina’s (1970: 99) association of prouincia (provincia) with uey (huey) altepetl (great city-state), a term akin to huey tlatoani, referring to a supreme ruler. This usage suggests a hierarchical order of citystates (altepetl) within a “province” (huey altepetl).

City-States and Imperial Rule Almost all provinces were multicultural, with several languages spoken within their boundaries. A few, however, such as the strategic Totonac province of Cempoallan and the tributary Mixtec province of Yoaltepec, exhibited ethnic and linguistic uniformity (see Figure 5.5). While this appears to be rather simple and straightforward, the formation, structure, and administration of provinces was a more complex and diverse matter. For instance, if these were tribute-paying entities, one might expect the head town to be the center for provincial tribute collection. This seems to have been true in most cases, yet there were exceptions. For instance, the “head town” of Coyolapan province may have been head town in name only, as one of its constituent city-states, Huaxacac, was clearly the center of imperial administrative, economic, and military activities (see Berdan et al. 1996: 281).

the perspective of the conquered As the Empire pursued its aggressive agenda, those subject to imperial attention also implemented their own coping mechanisms in the face of a greater military power. The documentary and archaeological records reveal a number of options selected by conquered polities. These have been described as acquiescence and accommodation, self-interested cooperation, intermarriage and other exchanges, and rebellion (Berdan 2006b); resistance, appropriation, and innovation (García Márquez 2005: 141); bolstering, resistance, emulation, and exodus (Skoglund et al. 2006); and complicity, appropriation, and assimilation along with bolstering, resistance, emulation, and exodus (Chance and Stark 2007).40 These several strategies overlap and can be generally boiled down to (1) self-interested cooperation, encompassing bolstering, acquiescence, and complicity strategies; (2) emulation, appropriation, and assimilation; (3) resistance and rebellion; and (4) exodus. Self-interested cooperation took many forms and was situationally employed by conquered peoples to their own advantage (especially by local nobles, even at the expense of their own commoners). With bolstering, local rulers viewed incorporation as a reinforcement in their own regional rivalries. In the eastern Empire, for instance, conquered Quatlatlauhcan called for imperial support in its incessant wars with neighboring Tepexic (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: book 2, 99). The imperial rulers assented, as the situation afforded them the opportunity to extend their conquests. Some polities that chose acquiescence avoided the ravages of outright military conquest and could enter the imperial web as client states. These more relaxed relations with the Empire resulted in less severe economic obligations. Furthermore, these client rulers “carried with them the weight of empire when they engaged in the internecine wars common along those volatile borderlands” (Berdan 2006b: 161). With complicity, the economic and political positions of local rulers could also be bolstered vis-à-vis their own commoners: Michael Smith (1994a: 340)  suggests that “[w]ith Triple Alliance support, provincial conquest-states could increase their



Aztec Society and Culture own nonimperial tribute demands” by exacting more for themselves alongside the imperial collections and could also gain militarily at the expense of their neighbors (Chance and Stark 2007: 223). Provincial commoners were not completely helpless or naive in some of these situations: commoners in both Coatlan and Cuetlaxtlan boldly called on their Aztec overlords to replace their own dynastic rulers (Berdan et al. 1996: 279, 286). Emulation, appropriation, and assimilation were strategies employed by local rulers as they took on the trappings of their overlords and were “likely pursued by both local elites and aspiring commoners or high-ranking artisans” (Skoglund et al. 2006: 557). This can be seen in local acquisitions of imperial language and styles. We find the Nahuatl language spoken among local elites in non-Nahuatl areas, an acquired skill that must have enhanced their relations with the Aztecs and heightened their perceived prestige among their local subjects (e.g., see Berdan et  al. 1996: 290–291). In the southern part of the Empire, local rulers of conquered Tlapa-Tlachinollan experienced considerable acculturation to their conquerors, rapidly adopting Aztec styles as well as noble titles and symbols of power (Gutiérrez et al. 2009: 53; Gutiérrez 2010: 15–16). The presence of imperial vessel styles in provincial Cuetlaxtlan implies local emulation and imitation, as does the scattered presence of other works of art and writing throughout the imperial realm (see Skoglund et al. 2006; Umberger 1996). Indeed, Elizabeth Boone (1996: 182) suggests that provincial rulers subscribed to imperial aesthetics by acquiring Aztec-style manuscript forms, and Lori Diel (2008: 15) further states that “local rulers readily adopted the annals format, just as they did the calendar, to show their allegiance to the imperial capital . . . the subject community mimicked the capital city in hopes of appropriating some of that power for itself.” Power, prestige, and survival by association. Resistance and rebellion took both covert and overt forms. As expected, covert forms of resistance are difficult to identify and must be inferred. However, it may be that the retention of local textile styles in imperial tribute payments signaled local stubbornness (see Berdan 1992). Outright rebellions are more clearly documented; rebellions were not only possible but rather common and seem to have been on the upswing as the Empire matured. Conquered city-states viewed any sign of imperial weakness as an opportunity to rebel. One such type of opportunity involved dynastic successions. The uncertainties surrounding the death of an imperial ruler and the selection of his successor offered a well-timed occasion for rebellion, and rebellions were frequent while the imperial throne was in transition. Other opportunities for rebellion arose when the Empire suffered major military defeats and was perceived as weak and vulnerable. Again, conquered city-states were not shy about rebelling at such opportunistic moments (see Berdan 2011b). Rebellions were typically mobilized by local conquered rulers, who faced dangerous reprisals; in the case of Cuetlaxtlan’s rebellion, for

City-States and Imperial Rule instance, this province’s tribute was doubled and included almost impossible demands, such as white jaguar skins (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 2, 123). This same Cuetlaxtlan was encouraged in its rebellions but was left unsupported by neighboring Tlaxcallan (it is not entirely clear who initiated these collaborations – the Tlaxcallans wanted a route to the sea, while the Cuetlaxtlan ruler gained a strong ally for his rebellion). Attempts to enlist powerful allies to overthrow existing overlords was a known local strategy; the ruler of nearby Cempoallan replayed this very scenario upon the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, casting his lot with Cortés. Exodus seems to have been an option chosen in desperation, but one that was adopted often enough in Postclassic Mesoamerican history.The great midfourteenth-century central Mexican famine sent droves of highland peoples to the more fertile Gulf coast, where Mexica, Chalca, Texcoca, Xochimilca, and Tepaneca peoples took refuge (García Márquez 2005: 127). In the early sixteenth century, people from Huexotzinco sought asylum among their onagain, off-again enemies, the Mexica, believing neighboring Tlaxcallan to be the greater enemy. Master artisans sought lucrative opportunities in distant places or were otherwise lured from their homelands (see Chapter  4). Thus there was quite a bit of moving about the landscape and mixing of ethnic peoples in single altepetl and provinces. While altepetl and provinces were political entities, they were ruled, defended, supported, and simply lived in by people of every social station available in the Aztec world. How people wended their way through their complex, dynamic, and often demanding social environment is the subject of the next chapter.


C hap t e r   6 L i v i n g as a n A z te c : S o c ial S tat u s a n d Daily  L i f e

One’s father [is] the source of lineage, the beginning of lineage. . . . He advises, he admonishes one. He is exemplary; he leads a model life . . . he is thrifty . . . establishes order. . . . One’s bad father [is] lazy, incompassionate, negligent, unreliable . . . a shirker, a loafer, a sullen worker. Bernardino de Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 1; originally written by 1569 One’s mother . . . [is] sincere, vigilant, agile, [she is] an energetic worker – ­diligent, watchful, solicitous, full of anxiety. . . . She caresses, she serves others. . . . One’s bad mother [is] evil, dull, stupid, sleepy, lazy . . . disrespectful, inconsiderate, disregarding, careless . . . she expounds nonconformity. Bernardino de Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 2; originally written by 1569

It would have been an impossible task to write the preceding chapters without making fairly frequent reference to nobles and commoners, so deeply were these divisions of Aztec social life woven into all aspects of their existence. Yet a bit more can still be said about the strictly social side of their defined relationships and the inner workings of the Aztec social hierarchy. Everyone occupied a position in this hierarchy and carried out (or not) a prescribed role or roles relative to his or her station in life.Whatever niche or niches an individual occupied, that person’s location in the social hierarchy and primary associations within a family network essentially defined his or her life’s opportunities and restrictions. An Aztec’s life story was initially established by the circumstances of birth – birth in the sense of parentage, birth in the sense of gender, and birth in the sense of a fate-laden astrological date. Beyond these dictates, an individual was faced with opportunities – for both achievement and disaster. A man could demonstrate courage or cowardice on the battlefield; a woman could exhibit energy or laziness on the domestic scene. Men and women could be respectful, obedient, and diligent, or they could turn to gambling, thievery, or excessive drinking. These and other of life’s options were played out in a dynamic social setting that featured an intense social hierarchy, complex city-state and 176

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life imperial bureaucracies, community and family institutions, and associations based on achievements, occupations, and religion. Nobles and Commoners: Restrictions and Opportunities

The fundamental division in Aztec social life was between nobles and commoners, although there were gradations within both of these broad categories.To complicate matters a bit, the strictness of these ascribed distinctions varied through time, even within the brief history of the Aztec Empire. In the mid-fifteenth century, the Mexica ruler Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina (r. 1440–1468) declared a number of very specific laws designed to separate nobles from commoners, further distinguishing different grades of nobles from one another (see Case 6.1). It is not clear if these sumptuary rules were already in effect at the time of his formal declaration, although it is likely that at least similar ones were, if only in an informal sense.1 Motecuhzoma’s predecessor, Itzcoatl (r. 1426–1440), exalted nobility status by granting noblemen specific “titles of distinction according to their merit” (Durán 1994: 97), accompanied by preeminence (prestige) and lands acquired through conquest. These awards did not come unencumbered: for their part, the titled nobles dedicated “their lives, their honor, their property, their wives and children, all at his service and for his defense” (Durán 1994: 97). Later on, Ahuitzotl (r. 1486–1502) relaxed these rules and allowed greater mobility for achieved commoners into at least quasi-noble status. Considering this approach rather lax, Ahuitzotl’s successor, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (r. 1502–1520), reinstated the more stringent sumptuary rules, reinforcing sharp status distinctions between nobles and commoners. These fluctuations, based largely on personal royal preferences and policies, underline the power of rulers and the state in matters of social rights and relations.

Statuses Ascribed by Birth Nobles and commoners were distinguished by birthright. At the time of the Spanish arrival, under the second Motecuhzoma, these distinctions were more caste-like than class-like, exhibiting an ascribed rigidity based on political, social, and religious dictates. Nonetheless, this was still a highly dynamic society, and some persons found themselves in ambiguous positions, floating between genuine nobility and commoner status (see Table 6.1).

nobles All nobles, whatever their rank, claimed a restricted and lofty ancestry. That heritage was based on a mythical-religious link to the important creator deity, Quetzalcoatl, elevating nobles above mere mortal status. In more earthly terms, Mexica nobles traced their descent to their first legitimate ruler, Acamapichtli. By the early sixteenth century, these descendants may have “numbered in the


Aztec Society and Culture

178 Case 6.1  Behaving Like a Proper Noble or Commoner

The sumptuary laws of the Mexica ruler Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina (r. 1440– 1468) included adherence to the following status-related rules: 1. The ruler appeared in public only when absolutely necessary. 2. Only the ruler was permitted to wear the gold diadem within his city, although other great nobles could wear this adornment in war, representing the ruler. 3. Only the ruler and his second-in-command (cihuacoatl) could wear sandals in the royal palace. Within the city, other great noblemen could wear sandals. Highly adorned and gilded sandals were reserved for nobles, while achieved warriors could wear simple, low-quality sandals. 4. Only the ruler was permitted to wear the finest decorated cotton capes, embellished with royal emblems. 5. Capes of specific designs were reserved for the great nobles, while those of other designs were to be worn by lesser noblemen. 6. Commoner warriors were allowed only the simplest capes and loincloths, with no distinguishing designs. 7. Cotton clothing was reserved for the elite, with coarse maguey clothing worn by commoners. The manner of wearing capes was also specified: nobles were allowed long capes, while commoners’ capes could not extend below the knee (unless the man had suffered visible war wounds on his legs). 8. Only great nobles and courageous warriors were allowed houses with a second story. 9. Only the high-ranking nobles were permitted to wear lip plugs, earplugs, and noseplugs made of gold and precious stones. Some commoners who had distinguished themselves in battle were allowed to wear these adornments, as long as they were made of cheap materials such as wood or bone. 10. Similarly, only rulers and great nobles were permitted to dance with gold and feathered arm bands, anklets, and rattles. Other jewelry made of gold and fine stones was likewise restricted to these august individuals. As with the prior law, achieved commoner warriors were allowed these adornments as long as they were manufactured of nondescript materials. 11. Nobles and commoners were received in different rooms in the ruler’s palace. Most of these rules specify the socially and politically acceptable use of overt symbols of status. Not only did these rules distinguish nobles from commoners, but they also exalted the ruler above other nobles, and greater nobles above lesser ones. The laws were supported by the power of the state and given the stamp of divine approval (Durán 1994: 208–210).

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life tens of thousands” (Calnek 1974b: 202), given the elite practice of polygyny and the custom of tracing descent along both male and female lines. Since usually only one noble per city-state could rule as tlatoani at a time and since a limited number of honorable titles were granted to deserving nobles, it is understandable that many gradations of nobles appeared over time. Political power and social status went hand in hand, so it is not surprising to find rulers (tlatoque) at the pinnacle of Aztec society. These august individuals ruled over domains large and small; they were ranked among themselves, with the great imperial ruler called huey tlatoani, or “big speaker.” Rulers of whatever level wielded considerable power, as seen in Chapter 5. Directly below the ruler was his titled aristocracy, including those closest to him who served as his immediate advisers and from whom his successor would be chosen. Titled noblemen (tetecuhtin) were many; they ruled over noble houses,2 were the custodians of ancient and revered titles, acquired lands and people to work those lands by virtue of their titles and personal achievements, and occupied the most important jobs in the city-states and Empire (Figure 6.1).They were judges and generals, governors and ambassadors.There appears to have been some regional variation in the power bases of these titled nobles. In some cases, they may have had direct associations with calpolli and calpolli lands; they may also have enjoyed lands and laborers that were inherited and/or attached to them by virtue of the titles granted them by their overlord (see Lockhart 1992: 106, 108). Still lower on the social ladder, yet nobles by birth, were simply the pipiltin, “sons of nobles,” who enjoyed elite rights and an elevated lifestyle, although they less commonly headed noble houses or wielded highly respected titles.3 The most likely scenario for the creation of these pipiltin is that they were the younger children (or children of lesser wives) of a tlatoani or tecuhtli. There must have been a considerable number of these, with no city-states or titles to inherit, yet with the desire and expectation to live as nobles should live. Lesser nobles (especially those in the Puebla-Tlaxcallan region) remained attached to a related tecuhtli’s noble house; this acknowledged their noble status and assured these nobles-by-birth of an elevated lifestyle and standard of living (Lockhart 1992: 102). Depending on achievements, opportunities, or inclinations, they might serve as tribute collectors, teachers, scribes, military officers, or bureaucratic officials. Priests of all ranks were also selected from among the nobility, as these were the learned men of the realm, educated in a priestly calmecac (as described later). Nobles, whatever their rank, enjoyed certain perquisites.They lived in lavish palaces (see Chapter 3), were exquisitely and expensively attired, received tributes and services from designated commoners, and held the most prestigious jobs. Men practiced polygyny, having many wives and children and extending their noble legacies. In addition, “polygyny resulted in the creation of large, wealthy, and showy households” (Berdan 2011a: 67). Consider the palatial household of Nezahualpilli, ruler of Texcoco from 1472 to 1515: he reportedly



Aztec Society and Culture had 2,000 wives and 144 children. Only 11 of the children were considered legitimate, yet all were granted considerable wealth and important positions. Nezahualpilli’s father and predecessor, Nezahualcoyotl (r. Texcoco 1418–1472), supposedly fathered 117 children; the 60 sons were all provided with lands and commoners to work them (Offner 1983). No doubt, these noble offspring expected extraordinary wealth and lofty jobs. Yet their rapid expansion must have begun to wear on their commoner subjects, who supported these elevated aristocratic standards of living. While they lived high, nobles also carried weighty responsibilities. Beyond duties specified for rulers (see Chapter 5), performance in lofty aristocratic positions often involved serious consequences: a battle’s fortunes might lay with a military leader’s decisions, the interpretation and execution of justice lay in the hands of eminent judges, and favorable relations with the deities depended on proper priestly performance. It was expected that all nobles, especially those with elevated responsibilities, would exhibit exemplary behavior and serve as models of proper “Aztec-ness,” behaving in a manner to be respected, admired, and emulated. These high expectations meant that any breaches in proper behavior, from moral transgressions to outright criminal actions, were punished especially severely. It was particularly important for proper nobles to carry on the legacies of their forebears, always demonstrating their exemplary upbringing. Various “good” noblemen were described as courageous and reserved, energetic and reverent. Apparently there were also “bad” nobles, described as irresponsible, impetuous, disrespectful, and, in general, troublemakers.4 They were both leaders and followers, depending on their current location on the political ladder, but were consistently expected to advise and take responsibilities (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 15–22). Noblewomen managed large, complicated households and, like their male counterparts, were expected to honor their noble lineages. They were also held to high standards of behavior: they were respected and esteemed for their patience, kindness, dignity, and humility. They demonstrated persuasive and peaceful administrative skills. Those who did not live up to these standards were described as untrained, unjust, pompous, and negligent (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 45–50). One variety of “bad” noblewoman was considered “common, dull  – descended from commoners, irritating” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 48). The gulf between nobles and commoners was a well-recognized and often-reinforced one.

commoners Those not born as nobles were, by definition, commoners (usually called macehualtin). People in this stratum of society occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder, owing tributes in goods and/or services to a noble overlord. As Lockhart (1992: 96) has observed, the term macehualli carries the dual meaning of “commoner” and “subject.” In short, while the nobility enjoyed an extraordinary lifestyle, the commoners provided it.

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life

Figure 6.1.  Lords with exalted titles and insignia. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 67r.)

Commoner farmers, fishers, and artisans are considered to fall into two general categories: macehualtin and mayeque or tlalmaitec. The former were calpolli residents in central Mexico’s many city-states who owed public service and tribute to their tlatoani. Their labor supported the coatequitl, or rotational draft labor system (see Figure 6.2). Mayeque were attached to noble houses (teccalli or tecpan) and the private lands of individual nobles. These dependent commoners were directly responsible to their lord and were not required to contribute to the public labor drafts. In either case, their activities, standards of living, and types of obligations were similar: farmers farmed and owed foodstuffs to their overlords, fishers fished and paid in their aquatic yields, and artisans fashioned everyday and expensive items, paying their tributes in their manufactured goods. Like other aspects of Aztec life, one’s specific status as a commoner could rapidly change, especially following the fortunes of war. Warfare and resultant conquest directly affected a city-state’s commoner population, as, for instance, in the conquest of Coyoacan by the Mexica: Following that city’s conquest by the Aztecs, its communal lands were divided. Some were allocated to the Aztec ruler for the support of the royal palace and state functions. Others were distributed among the successful warriors, according to their merit and accomplishments in battle. Durán makes it clear that the residents of Coyoacan were then made “terrasguerros” [mayeque]. Since their communal (calpulli) lands had been turned into private lands for the Aztec nobility, their new status was that of mayeque, or tenants. (Berdan 2005: 67)


Aztec Society and Culture


Figure 6.2.  Commoners receiving orders for corvée labor. Note tears. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 70r.)

Yet we cannot say that mayeque were economically any less well off than macehualtin. Socially, macehualtin may have had an edge over mayeque, since their economic base rested in the communal lands of a calpolli and they could enjoy the other advantages of that organization. Calpolli were more than simple residential districts. Their residents were integrated administratively under the leadership of a calpollec, were focused religiously on a patron deity and temple, and had a military school for young men (telpochcalli). Some calpolli were united through a common ethnicity and perhaps kinship. The importance of kinship as an organizing principle seems to have varied considerably; Carrasco (1971: 368) suggests that the smaller calpolli may have been organized “around a core of consanguineal kinsmen.” Members of some calpolli engaged in a common occupation, a few developing into some relatively powerful artisan “guilds.” Members of a calpolli were taxed as a unit, and a calpolli’s young men went into battle as a unit. It is unclear if some mayeque, such as those just described from Coyoacan, also maintained these cohesive features. Social expectations differed noticeably for nobles and commoners. The Aztec “astrological handbook,” or tonalpohualli, makes this quite clear. For example, a noble born on the favorable day One Alligator would be “a lord, a ruler; he would prosper; he would be rich and wealthy.” A commoner born on the same day would be “a brave warrior – a valiant chief, esteemed, honored and great. He would always eat.” A nobleman born on One Rain or One Wind was destined to be “a wizard . . . an astrologer, one who had spells to cast,” while a commoner born on those days would be a “demon,” but not on the order of an astrologer. A nobleman born on One Deer would become famous, wealthy, and generous; a corresponding commoner would succeed as a brave warrior, even “a valiant chieftain.” Conversely, bad day signs specified the ways in which nobles and commoners could fail. The astrological handbook makes few class

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life distinctions for women, although they also were subject to good or bad fates. In short, expected behaviors were defined differently for nobles and commoners. Good signs favored people in both statuses, elevating them in their own social arenas: favored nobles would become powerful and wealthy, favored commoners would be successful as warriors, farmers, or artisans. In contrast, unfavorable signs foretold failure in one’s expected undertakings (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 4). There were also clear distinctions between the living standards of nobles and commoners. This can be seen archaeologically in domestic structures and artifact assemblages. Excavated sites in Morelos indicate distinctive differences between noble and commoner houses in size and building materials (see Chapter 3), as well as in the quantity of elite items (such as polychrome pottery and jade jewelry) (see Smith 1997). Some commoner houses possessed these fine goods, but noble houses clearly had more of them. Differences in wealth would have been visible in many aspects of life; the bathing and naming of an infant, for example, was celebrated by both nobles and commoners, but with differing degrees of affluence. The noble household provided an elaborate banquet with large amounts of food, tobacco, chocolate, and flowers, along with lively entertainment. A commoner household celebrated the same momentous event with less extravagance: “perhaps only leftover, bitter sauces, and stale tamales and tortillas were offered them; along with old, withered flowers” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 4, 124).5 While the gulf between noble and commoner was vast, commoners themselves were not all alike, exhibiting a wide variation in activities and standards of living. We see commoner lands ranging from 92 to 8,701 square meters in a section of Texcoco and from 4 to 1,377 square meters in Tenochtitlan’s chinampa districts (Hicks 1976: 72; Calnek 1974a: 47). In Morelos, some commoner houses possessed expensive elite goods (see Case 8.2), while others did not (Smith 1997). Some fortunate artisans might be employed by the ruler or an affluent noble on a regular or situational basis and compensated handsomely. For instance, sculptors commissioned to carve a statue of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin were generously paid for their skills. Upon beginning the work, each received an unspecified amount of clothing; ten loads of squashes and beans; two loads of chiles, cotton, and cacao; and a boatload of maize. When the work was satisfactorily completed, the same sculptors were each provided with two slaves, two loads of cacao, a load of cloth, and some pottery and salt (Alvarado Tezozomoc 1975a: 668–669). While these payments were essentially in subsistence goods (with the exception of slaves and cacao), they were substantial and may well have allowed these commoners to provide more than “withered flowers” at their child’s naming ceremony. Social status was linked to power as well as wealth, the general notion being that nobles enjoyed power while commoners did not.Yet there are some suggestions that commoners were not entirely powerless. They were reportedly


Aztec Society and Culture


instrumental in a significant provincial power struggle: commoners of the citystate of Coatlan,6 displeased with their ruler, called on the Mexica for assistance in their political machinations (Berdan et al. 1996: 279). “While not terribly common, this type of populist movement was not unknown; while commoners are characteristically described as powerless, they were neither naive nor shy in the face of these types of power plays” (Berdan 2011a: 73). Commoners also provided the rank and file of the army-on-the-march, and their loyalty was essential to successful military campaigns. These warriors, exhilarated by victory, were not always easy to control. For instance, the Mexica ruler Ahuitzotl, personally leading the conquest of Tecuantepec, ordered a halt to the massive looting of the city by his forces. However, “the soldiers became very angry and swore they would never again go to war in such a remote region where, having conquered, they were not even allowed to sack the cities for their own benefit” (Durán 1994: 353). Even so powerful a ruler as Ahuitzotl found it necessary to promise them compensation in order to calm their rebelliousness. Some commoners played important roles in specific society-wide ceremonies, especially those linked to patron deities of particular occupations. For instance, sculptors, painters, weavers, and embroiderers worshipped the goddess Xochiquetzal; mat makers revered Nappa Tecuhtli; hunters honored Camaxtli; physicians revered Teteo Inan; “water folk” worshipped Opochtli; and merchants worshipped Yacatecuhtli (Durán 1971: 239, 244; Sahagún 1950– 1982: book 1; see Chapter 7). Many of the ceremonies honoring these deities were public affairs, the relevant professionals contributing substantially to their successful observance. For instance, merchants and mat makers bathed slaves and offered them for sacrifice during their specified ceremonies, and physicians were expected to flatter and please Teteo Inan during her feast day (see Chapter 7). In short, these commoners, linked by occupation, contributed to the larger ceremonial world of the Aztecs through their required participation in public rituals. Indeed, they were primary actors on some of these ceremonial stages.

Intermediate Positions and Achievement in Aztec Society Little is cut and dried in any social system, and Aztec society was no exception. While it is convenient to divide the society into nobles and commoners, there were also a number of people of ambiguous status. Some had drifted down from the lofty elite world. Others, commoners, were rising up to enjoy a more elevated and even influential lifestyle (Table 6.1). People occupied these positions on the basis of both birthright and personal achievement. Of those reasonably categorized as “intermediate,” only the teixhuihuan (someone’s grandchildren) exhibit diminished social status.These persons were most likely the grandchildren of tetecuhtin or pipiltin. With polygyny a common practice among nobles, the number of elite children was potentially quite

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life


Table 6.1. Aztec social class structure Status Nobility Rulers

Nahuatl Term

Definition and Obligations

tlatoani (sing.) tlatoque (pl.)

Supreme heads of citystates, conquest states, and empire Head of a noble house; usually occupied high governmental and military positions Children of rulers and titled lords; occupied governmental, military, and religious positions

Titled lords

tecuhtli (sing.) tetecuhtin (pl.)

Nobles (“sons of nobles”)

pilli (sing.) pipiltin (pl.)

Intermediate positions Distant noble relations (“someone’s grandchildren”)

teixhuiuh (sing.) teixhuihuan (pl.)

Eagle nobles

quauhpilli (sing.) quauhpipiltin (pl.)

Professional merchants

pochtecatl (sing.) pochteca (pl.)

Luxury artisans

tolteccatl (sing.) toltecca (pl.)

Commoners Commoners Attached commoners


macehualli (sing.) macehualtin (pl.) maye (sing.) mayeque (pl.) tlalmaitl (sing.) tlalmaitec (pl.) tlacohtli (sing.) tlacohtin (pl.)

Tlaxcallan: distant relatives of and subordinate to a specific noble/noble house Commoners achieving quasi-nobility status through battle exploits Merchants organized in guilds and trading luxuries over long distances; also served as state agents Producers of fine objects of gold, precious stones, and feathers; some attached to palaces, others probably guild-organized Primary producers organized into calpolli Primary producers working on nobles’ private lands Provided much urban labor for nobles; status attained through economic need, gambling, or a criminal act (usually theft)


Aztec Society and Culture large, with room for only one of them to inherit leadership of the noble house. The noninheriting individuals, still of noble blood, continued to be attached to the noble house but seem to represent a stage “transitional between noblemen and commoners . . . whereby some nobles were falling out of the nobility” (Lockhart 1992: 98). In early colonial times, there was considerable confusion regarding the noble versus commoner status of these individuals (Lockhart 1992: 97).While the term teixhuihuan is found only in documents pertaining to Tlaxcallan, the actual existence of persons in this type of position was probably widespread, perhaps represented by the tecpanpouhque (those who belong to the palace) in the Basin of Mexico.While Offner (1983: 135) refers to these persons as commoners, he also recognizes that “because of their close association with their lords, they enjoyed a high status and were highly respected by the common people” (1983: 128). Their responsibilities included the maintenance and care of the palace, and they were of sufficient importance to accompany their lord on jaunts outside the noble house. Every generation would have created more of these loosely defined individuals. Quauhpipiltin (eagle nobles) were individuals rising from the commoner ranks into a quasi-noble status. They achieved this through military exploits involving the capture of several enemy warriors on the battlefield (see Case 8.1).7 The nobility-by-birth tended to regard these men as upstarts or intruders on their established status. They were quite popular with Ahuitzotl during his reign and at that time occupied some high administrative positions, although his successor strongly curbed their privileges.There are suggestions that this status could not be inherited by one’s children, so it was strictly a onetime award based on an individual’s personal achievements. A quauhpilli commoner could rise even higher on the social/political ladder by being installed as a quauhtlatoani, an appointed temporary ruler of a subdued city-state (Lockhart 1992: 109). Quauhpipiltin were also possible candidates for other governmental positions open to commoners: as the ruler’s executors (achcacauhtin) in Tenochtitlan, as part of a shared command (with a nobleman) in some conquered city-states, and even as members of the Texcoco royal council (Carrasco 1971: 354–355). Professional merchants and luxury artisans were commoners by birth, although there are suggestions that some nobles may have engaged in luxury craft production (see Pasztory 1983: 66). Luxury artisans are placed in an “intermediate position” in the social hierarchy on the basis their extraordinary wealth and the political favor they gained as a result of their economic importance (Figure 6.3). They were in an enviable social position: the results of their labors were in great demand by the expanding nobility, who required more and more luxury goods to advertise and flaunt their social status. Professional merchants (pochteca) acquired considerable wealth, prestige, and influence in their roles as private entrepreneurs and state agents (see Chapter 4), some of them (oztomeca) spying for the state as “disguised merchants” in outlying regions. They also enjoyed certain privileges not available

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life


Figure 6.3.  A wealthy deceased merchant wrapped in cloth and expensive adornments, accompanied by his precious feathers, stones, gold, and a jaguar pelt. (From Nuttall 1903: folio 68r.)

to other commoners. While this might seem ideal, the merchants nonetheless found themselves in a rather tenuous and stressful social and political position vis-à-vis the nobility (who were, for their part, dependent on the merchants for their status symbols).They feasted elaborately among themselves (Case 6.2) but went about humbly when in public. They portrayed themselves as hardworking, self-sacrificing travelers in service to the state. They found it necessary to sneak back into Tenochtitlan after a successful trading expedition, hiding their accumulated wealth from the prying eyes of the elite. In short, the merchants carefully and intentionally shunned the elite world of conspicuous consumption, perhaps to avoid openly challenging the powerful nobles and their elevated position in the social hierarchy (see Berdan 2005: 37). These professional merchants were members of guild-like organizations in specific calpolli of Basin of Mexico city-states. Physically concentrated and favored by the state, they controlled essential aspects of their profession: membership, training, standards and expectations, accumulation of wealth, status, rewards, and the organization of trading expeditions. Members of these guilds were ranked hierarchically on the basis of their successes in economic ventures, generosity in feasting, and contributions to religious rituals.The highestranking merchants served as judges in the marketplaces, a significant economic and political role. Trading ventures were organized by guild leaders and must have been somewhat complicated: pochteca carried not only their own and their ruler’s goods, but also the property of other guild members not making the journey (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, 14). Much as the pochteca and oztomeca contributed to the economic prosperity of the Empire, so too did the wealthiest pochteca contribute to the Empire’s spiritual well-being. During the month of Panquetzaliztli, a wealthy, accomplished merchant could purchase, bathe, and offer a slave for sacrifice. This largess entailed a great deal of feasting within the guild (Case 6.2) and ultimately the offering of the sacrifice for the religious benefit of the society at large.

Aztec Society and Culture

188 Case 6.2  A Merchant’s Feast

Having travelled to dangerous and distant lands and braved natural elements and human enemies, the Aztec pochteca returned to their home cities laden with luxurious and exotic goods. Had they been nobles, they would have flaunted this finery in a shameless display of conspicuous consumption. But they were not nobles.Any display of their great wealth would have seriously annoyed the hereditary nobles. Instead, the merchants applied their wealth to climbing their own social ladder, a hierarchical system specific to the merchants. To be an ambitious merchant was to spend hard-won wealth on lavish feasts, essentially exchanging that material wealth for social position within the merchant guild. The most extravagant feast for them took place during the month of Panque­tzaliztli.This is what it cost:

1 slave for sacrifice (worth 30–40 quachtli, or large capes) 800–1,200 precious cloaks 400 decorated loincloths unspecified quantities of tunics and skirts 80–100 turkeys 20–40 dogs bins of maize, beans, and chia unspecified quantities of tomatoes, chiles, and squash seeds 40–60 jars of salt atole in “merchants” vessels 3–4 “boats” of water (1 boat of water = 1 small cape = 100 cacao beans) 20 sacks of cacao beans for drinking 2,000–4,000 chocolate beaters miscellaneous items, such as firewood, charcoal, large baskets, cups, plates, and sauce dishes Not mentioned for this particular feast were the usual amenities, including copal incense, flowers, tobacco to aid digestion, and hallucinogenic mushrooms. The slave was offered for sacrifice, the clothing was presented as gifts, and the lavish feast was enjoyed by those in attendance. High-ranking merchants and nobles were invited to such festivities, enjoying the potlatch-like formalities and their host’s unstinting generosity (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, 45–48).

Luxury artisans (toltecca) likewise enjoyed the potential to gain considerable wealth, despite their commoner status. Their very name harked back to the revered and esteemed Toltecs, elevating their social status with a single word. While we know less about these socially and economically ascending commoners, they appear to have resided in urban calpolli, focused their rituals on specific deities, and maintained close relations with both the professional merchants and high-ranking nobles. For instance, the featherworkers

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life (amanteca) lived in close proximity to the pochteca in Tlatelolco, some of these accomplished artisans also taking up residence in Tenochtitlan’s royal palace. In another vein, the lapidaries were sufficiently influential to provide the ruler Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin with incentives to initiate war on two distant city-states when those polities refused to provide him with an especially fine abrasive sand for the lapidaries’ craft (Durán 1994: 417–424). In general, as producers of fine works made of feathers, gold, and precious stones, these artisans were influential and catered to the wealthiest and most powerful individuals in Aztec society. They were correspondingly well compensated for their skills (see Chapter 4 for a more extended discussion of the luxury artisans). Can those who occupied these intermediate positions be considered a “middle class”? Frederic Hicks (1999) has suggested that they can be and that their presence in the social hierarchy was essential to the maintenance of the upper echelon.Yet, in the early sixteenth-century Aztec world, the social scheme more closely resembled a caste system, the fundamental division between nobles and commoners determined more rigidly by birthright than one might expect of classes with greater mobility. The social wiggle room afforded by various avenues of achievement (e.g., battlefield exploits, merchant and artisan gains) does not necessarily mean that these persons constituted a meaningful “middle class.” Indeed, the ascent of the achieved warriors was highly individualized, and the luxury artisans and professional merchants operated more as distinct privileged and wealthy occupational groups than as a broadly based middle class. Fallen nobles were still attached to specific noble houses and shared no particular commonality across the many noble houses. It is difficult to detect a common set of “middle class” values or lifestyles among these types of persons. Indeed, life in the intermediate social realm was probably somewhat fragmented and ill-defined, where wealth, power, and prestige were not as consistently packaged as in the more traditionally established noble and commoner tiers. The intermediate realm represented a dynamic, unsettled, and in some ways unpredictable social situation. Consider how the dictates of two individual rulers (Ahuitzotl and Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin), mentioned earlier in this chapter, could either promote or restrict those on the social upswing. This leaves the slaves among individuals who achieved particular social niches. Slavery was not a desirable option, as it signaled a severe loss of social position. Slaves were of two general types in Aztec society: warriors captured on the battlefield and individuals who entered a more long-lasting period of slavery largely through their own efforts. The captives made little impression on the social scene, as they were soon offered as ritual sacrifices. Their most significant contribution took the form of the social honors bestowed on their captors, and the part they played as sacrifices in maintaining the universe (admittedly not a small matter; see Chapter 7).



Aztec Society and Culture It is the other genre of slaves, tlacohtin, that concerns us here.These were persons who faced unfortunate circumstances or made poor and ultimately detrimental decisions, resulting in the surrender of their labor to another person and even perhaps their lives to the state religion.The circumstances and individual decisions involved serious poverty, irresponsible personal behavior, and certain crimes. Poverty existed in the Aztec world. Sahagún (1950–1982: book 4, 31) describes the poor person as dressed in rags, living in a cold and ramshackle house and surrounded by rubbish. Economically destitute, such a person could relieve his or her hardships by a servitude transaction enacted before at least four witnesses – a willing individual could provide the desperate person with 20 cloaks (expected to support the person for one year), demanding service in repayment of the debt (Motolinía 1971: 366–367). In some cases, economic penury was the result of an individual’s own actions; an uncontrollable addiction to gambling appears to have been an especially common vice. Playing out an unhappy scenario, such an individual could lose all of his belongings and those of his parents and finally lose control over his own labor as well, and possibly even end up as a ritually bathed sacrificial offering  – all to cover gambling debts (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 4, 94). This unfortunate man, it was said, was burdened by an unlucky day sign, One House. A woman born on the same day was fated to be lazy and careless, ultimately entering servitude, where she continued to be vain and incorrigible (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 4, 95). She could then be sold to slave dealers, ending up as a ceremonially bathed sacrifice. In some other cases of impoverishment, however, the forces of poverty were beyond an individual’s control. A most calamitous occurrence was the devastating drought in central Mexico in the mid-1400s. Years of famine left vast numbers of people starving, many of whom sought relief by selling daughters (for 400 ears of maize) and sons (for 500 ears of maize) into slavery to people on the Gulf coast, where maize was plentiful (Torquemada 1969: vol. 1, 158). In a different vein, debts always had to be honored: if a person incurred a debt and died without paying, a surviving family member was obligated to work off the debt (Motolinía 1971: 370). An additional road to enslavement involved the commission of certain crimes, especially theft. Consistent with the theme of debt payment, the apprehended thief was obligated to work for his or her victim until the amount of the theft was paid off. The status of slave in the Aztec world was generally not inherited8 but was instead individually “achieved.” Slaves were not considered property; rather, they retained rights to marriage and possessions, sometimes acquiring slaves themselves. And they were not neglected ritually, for they were treated with special care on the day One Death (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 4, 34). While virtually anyone could acquire slaves, undoubtedly the greatest number were found in the households of nobles who could both afford and use them. They served the many everyday needs of these extensive and complex households, and themselves were provided with a certain level of sustenance, more closely

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life resembling a social welfare system than our customary notions of slavery on the worldwide historical stage. The status of slaves was often transitory: some would have provided the obligatory service obligations and paid their way out of their unfortunate circumstances, while others, if uncooperative, were sold to slave merchants, who might fit them with collars and sell them in the marketplaces. Wealthy purchasers sought such slaves for sacrifice at specific religious ceremonies and gained considerable prestige by offering them. The fact that specialized slave merchants frequented marketplaces and that certain marketplaces were wellknown venues for slave dealings suggests a lively trade in these individuals. Family and Daily Life

Beyond expectations attached to social statuses, an individual’s behavior was molded and carried out within the context of a family and was linked to the dynamics of familial roles, gender, and age. In this most basic of institutions, what sorts of rules and proprieties did one live by, what sorts of expectations were attached to one’s designated roles in life, and what kinds of rights and obligations did one exercise in relations with others? In short, what did it take to live as a proper Aztec on a daily basis? As is usual in human societies, most individuals learned their culture’s conventions and adhered closely enough to their prescribed lot in life. Yet proper social mores were not always successfully imparted, absorbed, or practiced.Whether through extraordinary circumstances or individual decisions, some individuals deviated from “the proper life,” in the most extreme cases embarking on a life of crime.

Family Formation and Roles kinship rules Families were constructed from kinship rules specifying both consanguineal and affinal relationships. With one’s station in life established initially by one’s parentage, kinship took center stage. Whether born high or low, every Aztec individual traced relations equally through father and mother, that is, bilaterally (see Figure 6.4). Great significance was placed on these dual relations at the loftier social levels, since the consolidation and conveyance of considerable power and property were involved. At more humble commoner levels, bilateral relations provided a broadly based network of obligatory and supportive kin relations. Aztec kinship relations were distinctly ego-centered. Related kin radiated outward from each individual, designated by parallel terms on father’s and mother’s sides (e.g., -ahui- refers to both father’s sister and mother’s sister). Furthermore, terminological distinctions were made depending on whether a male or a female was the reference point. For instance, one’s older sister



Aztec Society and Culture

Figure  6.4.  Mexica kinship terminology: consanguines. In actual use, these terms ­carried possessive prefixes (e.g., nonan = my mother). (From Berdan 2005: 74. Courtesy Wadsworth.)

was called -pi by the younger sister and -hueltiuh by the younger brother. Accentuating their ego focus, Nahuatl kin terms were (and are today) always found in possessed form (e.g., my mother, his older brother). As can already be seen, within one’s own generation, siblings (and first cousins) were further distinguished by age relative to the speaker.9 Such fine distinctions were made among members of one’s own generation, and gender distinctions were made in the next three ascending and one descending generations. However, one’s great-great-grandparent was called by a single term whether male or female, and likewise with one’s grandchild. What do these terminologies suggest to us about actual relations within a family setting? First of all, relative age among siblings was especially significant, older siblings carrying heavier familial responsibilities than their younger siblings. This would have especially

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life been the case in households containing married brothers, where the elder brother would be the undisputed head of the joint household, controlling the domestic resources. Along with these responsibilities (or potential responsibilities) came special privileges (Figure 6.5). Second, gender differences were reinforced through these terminologies, in terms of both the individual being referred to (or addressed) and the person speaking.With every speech act, one’s gender was verbally reaffirmed (notably within one’s own generation): these types of distinctions would have served to reinforce, on a continual basis, the differences between male and female in the world of kin relations. Finally, kin terms were generalized in distant generations: perhaps this far from ego, actual interpersonal relations were relatively weak and did not require fine-tuning. However, this does not mean that ancestors were not revered, for they clearly were: the pervasive Nahua concept of tlacamecayotl (literally “rope of people”) refers to the deep ancestry of people living nonetheless in a rather shallow context of related kin (see Kellogg 1986b).

inheritance Inheritance, or the transfer of possessions and titles usually on the death of the owner, was carried out in the context of these kinship rules. A bilateral system implies inheritance of possessions, titles, and rights from both father’s and mother’s sides, and this was indeed the case with the Aztecs. While detailed information on pre-Columbian property inheritance is admittedly thin, colonial documentation is richly endowed with wills and similar records that reflect pre-conquest indigenous patterns. The most significant resources were house sites and lands. The issue of land transference continues to be a nagging problem for present-day scholars. We have seen that altepetl and calpolli were involved with controlling lands but, as Lockhart (1992: 146)  asks, “to what extent is use of the word ‘communal’ justified?” Lockhart argues compellingly that both inheritance and corporate allocation were involved in pre-conquest land transferences, with the sale of land less common (Lockhart 1992: 146–147, 154–155). Kellogg (1995: 123) asserts that in late pre-Hispanic times “an increasing amount of land was becoming ‘privately’ owned . . . though this ownership may often have been by kin groups, not individuals.” House sites and compounds, as well as lands, were usually divided among close relatives, particularly siblings and offspring. If siblings inherited together, the eldest brother was considered the guardian of the property, in keeping with his elevated status in the kinship system. Where a spouse survived, that individual often inherited the entire property, to be held for eventual inheritance by the couple’s children. Males and females could inherit from either males or females, with no clear preference except with land, which tended to favor male heirs. More distant relatives, including in-laws, could also inherit these resources, but this may reflect the severe indigenous depopulation in early colonial times. Movable property consisted essentially of household



Aztec Society and Culture possessions, such as agricultural tools, metates and other cooking utensils, weaving equipment, clothing, cacao beans, boats, and musical instruments (Cline and León-Portilla 1984).These fell to a broad spectrum of heirs, without regard to gender, although women tended to more frequently bequeath their possessions to female heirs or grandchildren than did men (Kellogg 1986a: 322–323). In the colonial sixteenth century, tribute received from dependent laborers could be inherited, as in a 1566 will where a nobleman passed on such payments in turkeys, cacao beans, chiles, wood, and tamales to his wife (Kellogg 1986a). It is likely that this reflects a pre-conquest situation. Inheritance of titles followed specific rules and was, of course, restricted to rulers and other nobles. Grounded first and foremost in kinship relations, a title was generally passed from brother to brother (as in Tenochtitlan) or father to son (as in Texcoco and Tlacopan). Yet this is still a bit vague, for the title did not automatically pass to, say, the eldest surviving brother or son, but to the one deemed most capable of wearing those honors and carrying those responsibilities. The rank of the potential successor’s mother was also a prime consideration in the choice of the new ruler. Still, the eldest theoretically topped the list: “The son chosen was the eldest son born of the ruler’s principal wife . . . if the eldest son was not qualified to rule, his father selected from his other sons the one who seemed the most competent to succeed, always giving preference to the sons of his principal wife in this and all else” (Zorita 1963: 90). In this example, the father made the determination, but at the loftiest level, that of the Triple Alliance rulers, the choices involved confirmation by other high-ranking nobility and the rulers of the other two allied city-states (see Chapter 5). With this much at stake, one can not only imagine but also find records of intense sibling rivalries and jealousies. Nezahualpilli, who rose to the throne of Texcoco in 1472 at the tender age of 7, was selected over four older brothers, the eldest instated as regent for the young lord. Nezahualpilli’s three other rivals plotted against him, and he was saved only by the intervention of the rulers of Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan, who whisked him off to Tenochtitlan to be confirmed as legitimate ruler of Texcoco. This apparently carried sufficient weight to stifle the ambitions of his contentious siblings (Alva Ixtlilxochitl 1965: vol. 2, 241–250). Yet there was some leeway with these principles and procedures: as already seen, Nezahualpilli was a younger brother; so was the Mexica ruler Axayacatl, and the Mexica tlatoani Itzcoatl was born of a slave girl rather than a noble princess (Durán 1994: 53, 71).10

marriage rules and household dynamics Marriage extended an individual’s web of kin and provided for the core development of new household units (Figure 6.6). At around age 15 for females and age 20 for males, spouses were sought and new families formed (McCaa 1994). The choice of a suitable marriage partner was constrained by rules of exogamy and endogamy. Rules of exogamy applied to the nuclear family, but apparently

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life


Figure 6.5. The elder brother favored over the younger. (From Sahagún 1950–1982: book 5, illus. 9. Courtesy University of Utah Press. Reproduced with permission.)

not beyond. Preferences for endogamy were tied to the social hierarchy and, less clearly, to calpolli. Nobles were expected to marry nobles, usually with political advantage in mind and highlighting the relative social ranks of the inlaws (see Chapter 5).11 The ruling dynasty of Tenochtitlan further consolidated power and resources by orchestrating marriages among close royal relatives: “The principal wives of the Tenochca rulers, and consequently the mothers of their successors, were women of their own dynasty and very close agnates, in some cases daughters of former kings” (Carrasco 1984: 63). A similar idea of consolidation may have been sought by commoners residing in calpolli, or at least specialized calpolli. In particular, professional merchants and craft specialists concentrated in fairly exclusive residential districts would have benefited from an endogamous approach. For instance, the featherworkers produced their luxurious objects in a household setting, where both males and females performed specialized roles in the manufacturing process; certainly a girl who had been trained to select feathers with a keen eye to color was a desirable addition through marriage to any other featherworking household, as was a boy who had been instructed in other aspects of the craft (see Case 4.2). Such households, and the calpolli generally, could continually consolidate resources and maintain their exclusive knowledge base, reinforcing their pivotal economic roles vis-à-vis the elite. Nobles further expanded on political opportunities by marrying several women of noble birth, thus gaining many valuable allies. This elite polygyny resulted in expansive and complex households, numerous children, and a good dose of palace intrigue (see Chapters 3 and 5). The scale of these households is suggested by that of the Texcocan ruler Nezahualpilli (r. 1472–1515). While the number of family members is perhaps exaggerated, even if he had half of his reported 2,000 wives (most likely concubines) and 144 children, his household size, complexity, and expenses (provided by dependent commoners) would have been extraordinary (Alva Ixtlilxochitl 1965: 267). Perhaps his father had set the bar: this ruler’s 60 sons were all provided with lands and commoners to serve them, and his 57 daughters would have required preferential elite marriages. While all these children received noble inheritances, they were not all equal: those of the primary (highest-ranking) wife were considered “legitimate” and


Aztec Society and Culture

Figure  6.6.  Mexica kinship terminology: affines. In actual use, these terms carried possessive prefixes (e.g., nomon = my son-in-law). (From Berdan 2005: 74. Courtesy Wadsworth.)

given preference, especially in the inheritance of titles. Of Nezahualpilli’s considerable brood, only 11 of the children were considered “legitimate.” This still set the stage for fierce sibling competition, as already seen in the example of this ruler’s early quandaries. This is rich interpersonal detail, but unfortunately we have much less information on commoners. However, we do know that they married monogamously and formed various types of households. While they lived in much smaller dwellings containing fewer adults and children (see Chapter 3), this does not mean that their households were necessarily simple or harmonious. A usual feature of bilateral kinship systems is flexibility of postmarital residence options. Upon marriage, most couples had some choices available as to their place of marital residence, with an important difference between nobles and commoners. Logically and according to the histories, it appears that the highest-ranking nobles, at least rulers and heads of noble houses, had the least choice (not unusual among royalty throughout history). A male tlatoani or tecuhtli by necessity would remain in his own altepetl or noble house upon marriage, with his several wives (even if they were of higher rank) moving into his expansive palace. By the same token, a more unusual female tlatoani would expect her husband to move to her palace, but unfortunately precise information on this is lacking. More options seem to have been available to commoners, who could set up their own household, reside with the groom’s parents and/or brothers, live with the bride’s parents, or engage in a less common but still suitable arrangement. These choices led to the formation of either nuclear or joint households, with joint households usually containing from two to six nuclear families. In Tenochtitlan, joint families were the most common, with the young couple frequently residing with either set of parents and less often with any close relative on either the groom’s or bride’s side. Agnatic ties among males were preferred,

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life with joint households frequently formed through brother, father–son, and uncle– nephew relationships. Postmarital residence with the bride’s family seems to have represented either a temporary period of bride service or concerns about resource and labor availability (e.g., where the groom’s family was already too large for its resource base, and the bride’s family was short on male labor). Household dynamics dictated that when the elderly parents died, the remaining joint household consisted of a group of married siblings, which was a common occurrence. As already mentioned, in this setting the oldest brother became the head of the joint household. Social class entered in mostly in terms of scale: sons often brought their brides to reside in the noble houses or palaces of their birth. Given the practice of elite polygyny, these sons potentially were many, and they themselves enhanced their households with more than one wife. Early colonial data indicate that both joint and nuclear households were formed elsewhere in central Mexico, with a rough equivalence in the incidence of the two types (see Case 6.3). Several factors might have been conducive to the formation of either nuclear or joint households among commoners. The key was flexibility. The variety of options available to the newly married couple would have allowed them to

Case 6.3  After the Wedding,Then What? Having achieved family approval and braved the lengthy wedding ceremony, a new couple needed to find a place to reside together, either temporarily or permanently. An Aztec couple had several options open to them depending on their social status, resource base, presence of relatives on either side with available or expandable living space, and probably personal preferences or conflicts with relatives (although we know little of this).In Chapter 3 we saw, archaeologically, a wide range of house sizes and physical layouts. Yet beyond the arrangements of rooms and despite the presence of household artifacts such as cooking implements and figurines, the archaeological record offers relatively few details on the relationships among the actual occupants of these various houses. For this, we must turn to ethnohistory, although that also has its imperfections. In this case, the details come from early colonial times and hence are tinged by demographic and social changes associated with the trauma and aftermath of the Spanish conquest. Nonetheless, some of the very early colonial information (first half of the sixteenth century) can still be considered reflective of pre-conquest conditions. Census data from Tepoztlan, just to the south of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), reveal slightly more nuclear families than extended ones (54 to 43 percent) throughout the town of 12,062 persons (Carrasco 1971: 368). The majority of joint families consisted of two married couples, most of them linked through brother or father–son relationships. In the barrio (calpolli) of Molotla (probably in nearby Yauhtepec), census data revealed roughly onethird nuclear families to two-thirds joint families, while in the Tlacatecpan barrio (calpolli) of ­Tepoztlan the ratio was quite different, with slightly more


Aztec Society and Culture


than half of the families of the nuclear variety and the remaining households consisting of joint families (Carrasco 1976). Within Tlacatecpan, the general capolli residents were organized primarily into nuclear families (about two-thirds), while those persons attached to the noble house of the calpolli lived primarily in joint households (about two-thirds). A perhaps well-known and strategic advantage of forming smaller nuclear households in the first instance was the allocation of land by household; an advantage for forming joint households in the noble house was the consolidation of labor and resources under the local tecuhtli. These and similar census data also provide quantitative details on the size and composition of households. A few examples of analyzed household data appear in the following table, indicating the presence of at least some joint households in every case. Of particular interest is the wide variation reported for the central Mexican region generally (in the final entry of the table), suggesting local adjustments to specific conditions, be they geographic, cultural, political or social. Location Tepoztlan (Acxotla barrio)* Tepoztlan (Tepetlapa barrio)* Quauhchichinollan* Tepetlaoztoc† Central Mexican towns generally ‡

Average No. of Married Couples per Household

Average No. of Persons per Household





2.1 1.3 2.93 (range 0.78–5.71)

7.2 6.0 –

* Data from Carrasco 1971. † Data from the Codex Vergara (Offner 1984: 138). ‡ Data from Borah and Cook 1960: 97–98.

either establish their own household (if they had sufficient resources to do so) or join an existing household with ample resources and labor needs to accommodate them. On one dimension, a household required a workable balance of male and female labor, both for its own provisioning and for specific tribute payments (such as textiles, which were produced by women). On another, the different options of household formation “allowed the population constantly to realign itself relative to available resources, especially land, thus evening out the pressure on its resources” (Berdan 2005: 76). Whether polygynous or monogamous, nuclear or joint, the household was the individual’s most fundamental physical and social environment, providing basic needs and support. Aztecs relied on this setting and these relationships throughout their life cycles, from cradle to grave.

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life

Life Cycle and Education:The Dynamics of Age birth and naming After a well-observed pregnancy (as discussed later), a person’s birth normally took place under the skillful care of a midwife, who eased and supervised the birth, bathed the baby, and disposed of the umbilical cord: a baby girl’s was buried by the household hearth, tying her to her lifelong household tasks, while a baby boy’s was dried and deposited on a field of battle, dedicating the child to life as a warrior. The midwife ritualistically introduced the infant to life as a Mexica with warnings of the travails ahead in an uncertain world: “It is the place of one’s affliction, of one’s weariness, a place of thirst, a place of hunger, . . . a place of weeping” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 6, 177). The bathing and naming of the child were of utmost importance and took place shortly after birth. The parents summoned a soothsayer, who consulted a tonalamatl, or “book of days,” to reveal the fate and future of the newborn based on the child’s date of birth in the 260-day calendar. “Good” days led to an honorable, fulfilling, and prosperous life, while “bad” days foretold a life of drunkenness, gambling, and poverty (see Chapter 7). The influence of “bad” days could be muted by naming the infant up to four days after the actual birth day – hence the importance of consulting a soothsayer. Once a propitious day was selected, the midwife ritually bathed the baby in the house’s courtyard with the infant’s relatives as witnesses. If a boy, the child was given the symbols of his gender and future: a cloak, loincloth, tiny shield, a bow, and four arrows. If a girl, she was provided with the symbols of her gender and her associated lifelong duties: a tunic, skirt, petite spindle whorl, batten, basket, spinning bowl, skeins, and shuttle. The child’s name was then announced, young children running off and shouting the new name for all in the community to hear.These rituals were followed by more or less extravagant feasting by the attendant adults, depending on their means. A person’s name, regardless of rank or gender, often reflected his or her birth date in the tonalamatl, such as Ome Quauhtli (Two Eagle),Yey Ehecatl (Three Wind), or Macuilli Tochtli (Five Rabbit). Other names could also be given, although it is not known how many names a person might simultaneously or sequentially carry. These names might be martial, poetic, or even humiliating and could refer to some physical or personality characteristic obvious at some point in a person’s life (Lockhart 1992: 118). There were discernible differences in naming by gender. A woman, for instance, might enjoy the name Quiauhxochitl (Rain Flower) or Miauaxiuitl (Turquoise Maize Flower), and at least in colonial times, a woman’s name often denoted her birth order (as in Ana Tiacapan: Ana Eldest).12 Birth order was not usually indicated in a man’s name, despite the distinct social superiority of an eldest son. A man might be honored with the name Quauhcoatl (Eagle Serpent),Tequani (Fierce Beast, lit. “People Eater”), or Ocelopan (Jaguar Banner) (Anderson and Schroeder 1997: 135, 139). Most names did not denote social status, although some did, such as



Aztec Society and Culture Motecuhzoma (Our Angry Lord) or names augmented by an important title like Tlacatecuhtli or Chichimecatecuhtli. Some names referred to a person’s individuality or some notable life event: thus the name Motecuhzoma, speculates the Dominican Diego Durán (1971: 424), was bestowed on the second imperial ruler of that name when he scowled at his naming ceremony. It is not known to what extent other names were drawn from unique situations, although colonial names such as Magdalena Necahual (Abandoned One) and Gabriel Tomiquia (The Death of Us) are suggestive of lively and creative preconquest naming (Lockhart 1992: 120–121). Native names or parts of names survived the Spanish conquest, often as surnames combined with Christian given names when a person was baptized. So we see names such as doña María Tonallaxochiatl (Mary Flowery Water of Summer), Francisco Tlamaceuhqui (Francis Penitent), Juan Tzonen (John Hairy), Martín Huitzilcoatl (Martin Hummingbird Serpent), and Pedro Tochtli (Peter Rabbit), as well as occupationally suggestive names such as don Martín Coyolchiuhqui (Martin Bell Maker) and Juan Tlaxcalchiuhqui (John Tortilla Maker, or Baker) (Anderson et al. 1976: 66–67, 84–85, 126–127; Cline and León-Portilla 1984: 79; Lockhart 1992: 120–121). If a person carried a native title, that was added to the existing name and apparently superseded other names, at least in the colonial period (yielding, e.g., Martín Tlacuchcalcatl and Bartolomé Atempanecatl; Anderson et al. 1976: 84–85, 92–93; Cline and León-Portilla 1984).

childhood and education Among the Aztecs, childhood was largely a time of preparation for adulthood. This involved enculturation into accepted social mores, practical training in occupational skills, instruction in ritual activities and responsibilities, and, for men, the honing of martial arts. A person’s initial education and training took place within his or her natal household, boys learning mainly from their fathers and girls from their mothers. Of primary importance was the instilling of proper values and rules of behavior, as seen for noble children in Case 6.4. Whether for boys or girls, moderation, obedience, and a diligent work ethic were paramount in living a proper Aztec life. If one’s fate or personal decisions led one down a different path, then only misery and poverty awaited. “Exemplary” virtues were instilled in a child from the earliest age and thenceforth reinforced with frequent admonitions and, when those failed, corporal punishment, including piercing with sharp thorns, beatings, and a chile-fire treatment meted out to children at different ages for being incorrigible, rebellious, negligent, or sloppy in their work (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 3, folios 58v–60r; Figure 6.7). Lengthy admonitions included humiliating young offenders through comparisons with the neighboring Otomí: “[T]hou art a real Otomí, a miserable Otomí, a green-head, a thick-head, a big tuft of hair over the back of the head, an Otomí blockhead” (Sahagún 1950– 1982: book 10, 178). While punishments and admonitions seem to dominate

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life

Figure 6.7. Childhood punishments and tasks, ages 11–14. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 60r.)

the ethnohistoric record, there are also indications that parents highly valued and protected their offspring. For instance, a child in the womb was called “the precious greenstone, the precious quetzal feather,” and during the New Fire ceremony every fifty-two years “children were nudged and pinched to be kept awake: should they sleep they could turn into mice” (Clendinnen 1991: 180).


Aztec Society and Culture

202 Case 6.4 The Exemplary Life

What did it take to behave as a proper Aztec? What moral codes were taught to children and expected of adults? Because of its elite nature, our documentation tells us more about nobles than commoners, but some of these codes of conduct for the “exemplary life” are so broad that they probably applied generally to any Aztec (except for the noble admonishment not to behave like a commoner).A noble son was exhorted by his father to be obedient, respectful, and humble. Specifically, he should: always be moderate and prudent in food and drink; be peaceful and non-vindictive toward others; go about tranquilly, not jumping about; speak slowly and deliberately; always be alert to someone’s bidding; not stare at someone; not gossip; not dress vainly or sloppily; not sleep excessively and not waste time. (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 6, 87–92, 121–124) Some of these expectations appear to be at variance with actual adult noble behavior. While surely no self-respecting noble would appear in public in sloppy dress, he most certainly did not hesitate to be flamboyant and extravagant in his appearance. A ruler’s daughter was advised of these same values, as they applied to her social roles. She was to: protect her noble lineage and not bring dishonor upon herself or her noble ancestry; take care with her womanly tasks: spinning, weaving, and cooking; be devout to the gods; arise early and work diligently; not lower herself, behaving like a commoner. (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 6, 93–98)

The last admonishment is significant. Since a noblewoman would be expected to manage a noble household, she should not bother with “the herbs, the wood, the strands of chile, the cakes of salt, the nitrous soil” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 6, 96). She had plenty of commoner servants and slaves around to take care of those types of chores. Children of both genders and all social levels were trained to contribute economically, politically, and/or religiously to their households and communities. For noble boys, this might include preparation for anticipated political or priestly roles or education in a craft; commoner boys were expected to carry on their family’s occupation, whether farming, fishing, making pottery

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life or a similar product, manufacturing a luxury commodity, or engaging in trade. Military training was mandatory for boys of all social ranks. Girls of every social status mastered spinning and weaving, and commoners at least learned other household skills such as cooking. Some contributed to specialized production activities if they were members of a craft-producing household. In keeping with the “good” characteristics of noblewomen (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 45–50), noble girls would have had to master the ­management of complex households and their attendant interpersonal conflicts and idiosyncrasies. Expectations of children’s duties and responsibilities increased with age, and children of both genders diversified their contributions each year. The Codex Mendoza (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. III, folios 58r–60r) documents this year-by-year growth for commoner boys and girls in a lakeside setting.13 Beginning at age 4 boys carried water and subsequently helped their fathers carry loads (age 5), attend the market (age 6), and fish (age 7). By age 13 they were capable of plying a canoe, and by 14 they could adeptly fish from a canoe. From age 4 to 7 a girl learned to spin fibers. By age 12 she could sweep the house, by 13 she was a capable cook, and by 14 she had mastered the art of weaving (see Figure 6.7; Case 1.3). Depending on the household occupation, other commoner children might have learned to farm or produce a craft.14 Not all education took place in the home. Noble boys attended a priestly school (calmecac) from perhaps an early age, but at least by age 15.15 These schools were attached to temples, and studies included history, calendrics, songs, orations, and hieroglyphic writing, which was said to serve as the basis for mastering the mechanical, military, astrological, religious, and legal curriculum (Durán 1971: 293).16 Additionally, martial arts were emphasized in the calmecac, as all Aztec men were expected to be valiant and committed warriors. Also by age 15, commoner boys attended telpochcalli (youth’s house) attached to their calpolli, where the emphasis was on military training. For both noble and commoner youth, this military training included some on-the-job experience: “And then they took him to the wars. . . . And they taught him well how to guard himself with a shield; how one fought; how a spear was fended off with a shield. And when a battle was joined . . . they taught him well and made him see how he might take a captive” (Sahagún, 1950–1982: book 8, 72). In addition, instruction in proper religious observances was given to youthful Aztecs, all of whom were required to attend a cuicacalli, or “house of song,” reportedly between the ages of 12 and 15. There, they learned to sing, dance, and play musical instruments that were integral to the endless round of religious ceremonies: “Not only were song and dance essential to the proper performance of most religious rituals and ceremonies, but a vast amount of information was contained in the songs themselves” as they praised the gods, recounted tales of creation, and explained life, death, and the relationships and obligations between mortals and gods (Berdan 2005: 95).



Aztec Society and Culture

Figure 6.8.  A young couple tying the knot in marriage. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 61r.)

Early on, children were integrated into the social, economic, and religious realms of Aztec life. They not only prepared for their futures; but as both children and youths they also directly served their families and communities. In calmecac and telpochcalli, young men were required to maintain the schools themselves, offer penance (to maintain good relations with the gods), and, especially in the telpochcalli, provide community service by working fields, building walls, and maintaining canals. Some infant girls were dedicated to service in a temple where they later served as young maidens, then leaving to wed and raise families (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 2, 246). Children and youths had essential roles in specific ceremonies. During the month of Atl caualo, for instance, children were ritually sacrificed to the rain god Tlaloc to ensure rain. Perhaps related

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life to such a ceremony, a minimum of forty children’s skeletons were buried in an offering (no. 48) at the Tenochtitlan Templo Mayor, mute evidence of their sacrifice (López Luján 2005: 148–157). The children ranged in age between 2 and 7, with twenty-two males, six females, and the remaining of undetermined sex. The interpretation of this excavated offering is not entirely straightforward. It may not represent a monthly ceremonial offering, since ethnohistoric statements of child sacrifice mention far fewer victims; López Luján (2005: 155) offers the interesting suggestion that these individuals were sacrificed to propitiate Tlaloc during the great mid-fifteenth-century drought and hence represent a special-purpose sacrifice. Furthermore, many of the children suffered malnutrition and various illnesses in life, and perhaps that influenced their selection. Children and youth were instrumental in other ceremonies as well,17 especially performing as central actors during the month of Izcalli, when they were essentially initiated into ritual life, forced to drink pulque, and “stretched” to ensure their robust growth into adulthood (see Chapter 7).

adulthood: men and women in complementary r o l e s It was considered that girls at around age 15 and boys around age 20 were prepared to assume adult roles and responsibilities. In short, they were ready to wed, form their own families, and undertake their life’s work and duties. Weddings were complex affairs, involving a cast of characters that included not only the bride and groom, but also matchmakers, astrologers, and a wide array of relatives from both sides.18 There was a considerable amount of consulting, feasting, gift giving, drinking, and dancing involving both families, accentuating the ties to be forged between these groups. The elaborateness of these events and festivities varied with the wealth of the household, those of nobles including copious amounts of cacao, flowers, tobacco, and food. Elderly relatives took center stage in these ceremonies: they did not spare in offering very, very lengthy speeches and admonitions to both bride and groom about their future obligations. The couple and their households became linked: in a manner reminiscent of “bride capture,” the young woman was carried by the groom’s female relatives to his house, where matchmakers literally tied the knot, binding their garments together (Figure 6.8). Symbolically and socially bound, the young couple began the next phase of their lives: establishing a family (often within an existing family), rearing children, and devoting themselves to myriad household and community responsibilities. In many societies men and women play more or less significant roles in different settings, with men predominating in “public” spheres and women in “private” (or household) spheres of life. On the surface this appears to have been largely the case with the Aztecs, especially in terms of gender-based division of labor.Yet as in other aspects of Aztec life, this was far from cut-and-dried. These were not exclusive spheres of life; indeed, the overlap and parallelism of male and female roles were such that it is worth questioning the “public”



Aztec Society and Culture and “private” distinction (see Brumfiel 1991b: 224–225; Burkhart 1997: 52). Both men and women reared children at home, contributed to craft production, bought and sold in the marketplaces, sang and danced at community and household ceremonies, were candidates for sacrifices, and held positions of community-wide authority. The hallmarks of the male–female division of labor were highlighted at a child’s birth, as seen earlier in the chapter, as both male and female infants were given miniature symbols of their future work. Women bore and raised children, spun and wove cloth, cooked, and cleaned the dwelling (or managed the cooking and cleaning, if they were noblewomen).19 These were largely house-bound tasks. Men were, among other things, farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, scribes, merchants, teachers, priests, and political administrators. The activities associated with these roles tended to take them from their homes, although this is an oversimplification: chinampa farmers worked fields very close to home, craftsmen often worked in their household patios and rooms, and a ruler often conducted business in his own palace, albeit in nondomestic areas of his sprawling dwelling. Women’s activities were more diversified than at first appears, since they also participated in farming, trading, teaching, and politics, some becoming exalted rulers in their own right20 (see Chapter 5). Some women became priestesses and teachers, and some reached important heights in the pochteca, or merchant, hierarchy (Kellogg 1997: 127–132).Women made significant contributions to craft-producing households (see Case 4.2), and women were midwives, curers, and matchmakers. On the basis of archaeological evidence, Elizabeth Brumfiel argues that women in some Postclassic Basin of Mexico communities shuffled their activities to include more farming and less weaving (1991b: 234–236). This suggests flexibility in women’s activities and routines, something of premium value in a society where men were often called to military service and hence gone from the home front for potentially long periods of time, leaving their wives to manage all aspects of their households (Kellogg 1997: 129).21 Rather than dividing the Aztec world into public and private spheres, it is more useful to employ the concept of gender parallelism: men and women undertook many of their daily activities in a parallel and complementary fashion, reinforcing each other’s obligations and contributing to common overall goals (Burkhart 1997; Kellogg 1997). We have already seen that the bilateral kinship structure reinforced gender complementarity: the backgrounds of both father and mother were instrumental in determining a child’s birthright, and both men and women could inherit and pass on property. In a broader sense, gender complementarity was consistent with the general philosophical orientation of the culture, expressing “parallel structures of thought, language, and action in which males and females were conceived of and played different yet parallel and equally necessary roles” (Kellogg 1997: 125). This complementarity applied not only to mere mortals but also to semidivine

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life rulers (as “the father, the mother” of their domains) as well as the ultimate creator god(s), a celestial pairing of male and female. It especially permeated the military ethos of the Aztec world. While men fought wars on battlefields, women fought their own battles in giving birth – in military terms, a successful birth was described as taking a prisoner, a woman’s death in childbirth equated to being captured and killed. Men who died on the battlefield or under the sacrificial knife accompanied the sun from its rising in the east to its zenith; women who died in childbirth also enjoyed the solar journey, from the sun’s zenith to its setting in the west. And while men fought in distant parts, their wives helped them at home by diligently conducting rituals and sweeping to purify their house. Her sweeping and rituals at home were inextricably linked to his success on a distant field of battle (Burkhart 1997: 33–41): “As her broom conquered dirt, would his sword conquer enemy soldiers?” (Burkhart 1997: 37). Some female deities (e.g., Toci, Tlazolteotl, Cihuacoatl, and Ilamatecuhtli; see Chapter 7) carried shields and brooms or weaving battens as integral parts of their symbolic paraphernalia. Mortal women also wielded brooms and battens as analogies of their husband’s weapons. In a 1473 real-world conflict already mentioned,Tlatelolcan women threw brooms and general filth at Mexica warriors and taunted them with their weaving battens, their symbolic weapons of choice. Noble women’s names could also be militaristic in meaning, as with Yaocihuatl (Enemy Woman) and Chimalmantzin (Revered Shield Offerer) (Schroeder 1992: 58, 61). Both men and women, therefore, contributed practically and symbolically to the militaristic goals of the Empire. Men and women shared obligations in other arenas as well. Both contributed materially to household production and tribute demands (with the massive payments in textiles produced by women); both participated in obligatory religious rituals at home and in the altepetl at large; both served as specialists for essential economic, social, political, and religious needs. Therefore, both men and women throughout their adult lives engaged in diverse activities and fulfilled necessary obligations that provided for their own contentment (or not) and contributed to their world’s overall well-being, from household to empire to the realm of the supernatural. Some individuals outlasted the greatest threats to Aztec life. A fortunate man escaped death or capture on the battlefield; a fortunate woman survived the dangers of childbearing. People of both genders recovered from illnesses, accidents, or wounds. For all of them, the life of an elderly person, with its special duties and benefits, awaited. Elderly men and women played defined roles in Aztec society: most importantly, they were frequently called upon to transmit their knowledge and wisdom to younger generations, often at life cycle events. Expected to set admirable examples, the revered old man “relates ancient lore; he leads an exemplary life,” while the revered old woman was “a manager, a shelter” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 11). Conversely, aged persons who did not fulfill these expectations were described as liars and deceivers. A respected



Aztec Society and Culture older person was also honored by his or her descendants as “the originator of good progeny” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 5). Such elder individuals, reaching age 70, were accorded special privileges, particularly the right to be served copious quantities of pulque (to the point of intoxication) by their younger relatives (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 3, folio 71). For well-lived Aztecs, with age came respect and freedom from at least this social restriction.

life, death, and the afterlife The Aztecs believed that life and death were intimately and endlessly intertwined. On one level, humans lived courtesy of divine intervention. After the creation of the fifth sun (see Case 7.1), the god Quetzalcoatl descended into the underworld to retrieve the bones of a prior humanity that had been lost in the monstrous flood that ended the fourth world. Presiding over the underworld (Mictlan) were Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl, Lord and Lady of the Underworld. Quetzalcoatl negotiated with Mictlantecuhtli for the human bones, for he and the other gods wished to see the new earth inhabited. The Lord of the Underworld tried various deceits (such as offering the bones if Quetzalcoatl could sound a conch horn, but the conch shell had no holes and thus was silent; Quetzalcoatl enlisted worms to drill a hole and bees to produce sound in the shell). Realizing that the underworld god had no intention of releasing the bones, Quetzalcoatl stole them, and in his hasty retreat he tripped and broke them (resulting in people of different sizes) but finally managed to escape from Mictlan. He carried the bones to the paradise of Tamoanchan, where the goddess Cihuacoatl ground them up and placed them in a jade bowl. Then the other gods performed a sacrifice by shedding their blood over the ground-up bones and thus endowing them with life. Humans were forever indebted to the gods for life itself, and in payment of this debt they offered their own sacrifices in abundance (see Chapter 7). On another level, human life was sustained by three primary animistic entities:22 the tonalli residing in the head, the teyolia (or yolia) in the heart, and the ihiyotl in the liver. An individual Aztec was created on any one of the nine celestial levels (see Chapter  7), with the tonalli breathed into the person before birth (López Austin 1988: vol. 1, 209). A person’s tonalli  “constitutes his  temperament, gives him valor, and conditions his fate” (López Austin 1988: vol. 1, 211). This was the most rational of the animistic entities, consisting of several scattered bits and embodying one’s fate, reputation, and name – it was no accident that the days in the ritual calendar were called tonalli. The teyolia was the animistic entity most closely linked to the Spanish Christian soul and was believed to survive after death. Located in the heart, it was associated with knowledge, vitality, feeling, and affection. The ihiyotl, centered in the liver, embodied passions; it provided the “good” person with positive vigor and burdened the “bad” person with hate and insanity (López Austin 1988: vol. 1, 192).

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life Upon death, the several parts of the tonalli had to be reintegrated, and the teyolia needed to be helped on its afterlife journey. The fate of the ihiyotl is not as clear, although it appeared to leave the deceased and “haunt” the living, rather in the manner of a malicious ghost. The afterlife awaiting an Aztec individual was determined by the manner of his or her death. An infant not yet weaned was simply returned to the heavenly layers to be “recycled.” Others were destined for one of three afterlives. Mictlan, or the underworld, was the destination of persons dying an ordinary death; the journey was long and arduous, entailed nine levels, and required four years.The Sky of the Sun (Tonatiuh Ilhuicatl) was the glorious afterlife for those perishing on the battlefield or sacrificed to the sun, as well as for women dying in childbirth; this journey required eighty days.23 The third resting place, Tlalocan, was a verdant paradise awaiting those who died from water-related causes (López Austin 1988: vol. 1, 318–321; 1997). Beyond the manner of death, social status may have played a role in a person’s funerary and afterlife situation. It was the teyolia that embarked on these journeys, and living persons engaged in elaborate funerary rituals to ensure that these afterlives were successfully achieved. Historical sources describe these rites in some detail. For journeys to Mictlan, a deceased noble24 was laid out in his home for four days, at the end of which a precious stone was inserted in his mouth and a lock of hair cut from his head, the hair boxed with other cut hairs from earlier in his life (Chávez Balderas 2007: 83–84). His body was then wrapped in a cotton shroud, his face covered with a mask, and the entire bundle adorned with symbols of the temple where he would be buried. The bundle was then burned on a fiery pyre at the base of the temple. Sacrificed servants, slaves, and a dog, to accompany and assist the noble in his upcoming journey, were burned on an adjacent pyre.25 Other offerings, intended to ease the deceased’s journey, included tobacco, flowers, pulque, paper, and cacao, and perhaps other rich possessions (Figure 6.3).26 When the fire cooled, priests collected the ashes, bones, and precious stone and placed them in the box with the deceased’s hair. This container was then buried, and the noble’s survivors continued to make offerings for four years for the journey to Mictlan. If a warrior died on the battlefield, his body was not returned home. For the rite, an image of him was crafted, burned, and presented with offerings to assist in his journey to accompany the sun, an eighty-day journey that required continual offerings. Fire, through cremation, provided the transformative energy to send the teyolia on its way to either Mictlan or the Sun (López Luján 2005: 177). If Tlalocan was the destination, the body was buried rather than cremated: “The very act of depositing them in the earth was a direct delivery of the body to the lords of vegetation and of rain” (López Austin 1988: vol. 1, 321). Women who died in childbirth were also buried, after the requisite waiting period of four days. During these four days the woman’s family diligently protected the corpse, since some of her body parts were coveted by warriors and thieves alike;



Aztec Society and Culture warriors sought hair and a middle finger for strength in battle, and thieves sought the woman’s left arm as a magical device to incapacitate their victims. These women were buried in the patio of the Cihuapipiltin temple (Chávez Balderas 2007: 77–79, 324). Archaeological remains at Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor and nearby sites indicate that the funerary rites were more complex and varied than suggested in the historical record (Chávez Balderas 2007: 325). Several burials have been uncovered in Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor precinct, concentrated at or near Huitzilopochtli’s temple. In light of the wealth buried with them, the individuals cremated and then buried at or near Huitzilopochtli’s temple were only of the highest rank.27 All but one of these were cremated remains, which were enclosed in a variety of containers, from ceramic urn or pots to a basalt box (López Luján 2005: 173). Beyond the expected greenstone beads, bone and stone perforators were commonly included with the ashes, along with a variety of high-status luxuries.The one buried individual was an enigmatic young woman, perhaps a sacrifice (Chávez Balderas 2007: 323–324). In addition, the Tenochtitlan House of the Eagles (on the Tlaloc side of the Templo Mayor) housed a funerary offering of a high-ranking noble who died of ordinary causes, assisted in his journey to Mictlan by a dog and a piece of greenstone as well as other luxuries (Román Berrelleza and López Luján 1999). There remains the question of the role of social status in afterlife treatments. The documentary sources are equivocal on this matter. López Austin (1988: vol. 1, 328–329) suggests that a tlatoani or other high-ranking leader, possessing a divine force, may have received preferential funerary treatment. The funerals of rulers were indeed grand ceremonial and public affairs. Yet reportedly merchants and warriors who died in distant lands were treated with similar funerary rites at home. Reflecting less economic affluence, deceased commoners were accompanied by fewer goods, with an emphasis on food.28 Fortunately, the archaeological record at the Templo Mayor contributes substantively to this issue. Exhaustively studying the Templo Mayor funerary remains, Chávez Balderas (2007: 207) and López Luján (2005: 181– 183) conclude that burial locations were indeed tied to social status and that preferential location of a burial and the value of accompanying goods would have readily distinguished nobles from commoners. This should come as no surprise, given the gulf between nobles and commoners in life. Still, even high-ranking nobles went to the depths of Mictlan, although they traveled in style. Conscientious care of the dead by the living was an important attribute of Aztec culture. Those who strayed from “the exemplary life” risked forfeiting that care, hence experiencing an unprotected and hazardous afterlife journey. Thus everyday behavior and pressures to conform were linked to one’s perceived eternal future.

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life

Crime and Punishment Not all persons strove for or achieved “the exemplary life”: some men fell into drunkenness, thievery, and gambling; some women ventured into the same vices, along with prostitution. Some persons committed adultery or homicide. Some noblemen in positions of power were dishonest or accepted bribes. There were many levels of malfeasance, affecting individual households, the state, and the gods. Some antisocial behaviors disrupted domestic life.These especially included nonconformance to the strict moral codes, disorderly conduct, adultery, and drunkenness. As already mentioned, children received moral instruction in their homes, where reportedly high standards of work and lofty expectations of virtuous behavior were strictly enforced (see Figure 6.7). Children’s behavior reflected on their families; a ruler impressed on his daughter the need to “in no way blacken, dirty, discredit the lineage” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 6, 93), a consideration especially important to nobles. Apart from those who committed ethical transgressions, some individuals were persistent troublemakers, and the women of Aztec households were charged with peacemaking and maintaining order. In some cases, the troublemaking was too disruptive, and offending individuals left their households and became vagabonds (see Berdan 2009a: 26), creating problems for the society at large since these persons then sought alternative means of survival. Adultery was especially damaging to the household social fabric and involved men and women, nobles and commoners, old and young (the last case exemplified by a story of two elderly women, with hair like snow, who committed adultery with two young priests – they explained that their husbands were less than satisfactory; Sahagún 1950–1982: book 6, 118). Drunkenness was especially problematic on the domestic scene, not so much in and of itself, but because of its secondary consequences. These included adultery and thievery. Drunkenness, adultery, and theft apparently also threatened the larger society, since they were all adjudicated at the city-state level. Other crimes handled at that level included homicide, treachery, embezzlement, fraud, and bribery, as well as “cheating” on the battlefield. Stealing was carried out by petty thieves as well as by sophisticated sorcerers.29 Homicidal acts involved persons described as “murderers, highwaymen or transforming shamans,” all dangerous and feared individuals (Berdan 2009a: 27).30 True, Aztec society had a strong component of physical violence as expressed in warfare and human sacrifice. But those activities were institutionalized and ritualized and were considered to support the state; homicide was disorderly and chaotic, tearing at the social fabric. Honesty was a virtue, so it comes as no surprise that individuals engaging in embezzlement, fraud, and bribery were strongly sanctioned. For commoners, this usually meant cheating and fraud in the marketplace, where measures could be compromised, consumables could be tainted, and cacao beans



Aztec Society and Culture counterfeited. For instance, the “bad” bean vendor lied and mixed infested beans with good ones, and the “bad” maize seller placed good grains over spoiled ones in order to deceive the customer (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 66). At a higher level, professional merchants were accused often enough of overpricing and swindling, and disreputable tax collectors faced charges of extorting excessive tributes from city-state or imperial subjects. Some judges and attorneys accepted bribes. On the battlefield, a warrior might wrongfully claim another’s captive, confounding the system of social rewards associated with such captures. All of these created problems for the administration and legitimacy of the state (see Berdan 1999). Other malfeasances challenged the social hierarchy. Sumptuary rules solidified the elites’ lofty social station, and commoners displaying these overt trappings would have defied the visual messages of hierarchy, generating social disarray. These were destructive offenses indeed. This does not mean that commoners (especially wealthy merchants) did not possess or have access to objects of wealth, if they had the wherewithal to do so (see Chapter  4; Case 8.2). They did. Yet, to the point, wealthy traveling pochteca snuck back into Tenochtitlan after successful commercial ventures and went about town in unadorned clothing, surely efforts to maintain tolerable and perhaps even amicable relations with the established nobility. The socially reverse situation was also problematic: a noblewoman who behaved “like a commoner . . . like a field worker” was labeled “bad” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 46, 49). Both nobles and commoners were pressured to maintain established social distinctions. Still other wrongdoings could offend the gods. Especially insulting was the nonobservance of proper rituals. Such infractions challenged the omnipotence of the deities and the harmony of the universe, so it was left to the gods to punish the offenders. Since individuals could not be threatened with unpleasant afterlives for their worldly deeds, they were punished during their lifetimes, especially with diseases or deformities. For instance, if someone broke the rule of sexual abstinence during fasting, the god Macuilxochitl (Five Flower) would visit that person with boils, piles, hemorrhoids, and venereal diseases; if one provoked the ire of the Tepictoton (Little Molded Ones), one risked trembling feet, eyes, or lips, or lame and misshapen limbs (Berdan 2005: 103). Worldly sanctions by mortal judges likewise were severe, and justice was swift (Figure 6.9). Given the acutely physical nature of childhood punishments, it comes as no surprise that sanctions for crimes by supposedly responsible adults were likewise harsh.They were also typically very public.The death penalty was common: convicted adulterers were usually stoned to death, thieves of farmers’ crops had their heads crushed, traitors were dismembered, and most murderers, extortionate tribute collectors, thieves, violators of sumptuary rules, sellers of stolen goods, and persons tinkering with land rights (like moving boundaries) faced execution. Drunken nobles and priests were strangled, while drunken

Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life


Figure 6.9.  Judges meting out punishments to offenders. (From Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, illus. 66. Courtesy University of Utah Press. Reproduced with permission.)

commoners faced that fate only on their second offense (the first time around they were shorn, enslaved, and/or lost their homes; Berdan 2009a: 31). Some practical variations of punishments were also instituted. In lieu of the death penalty for murder or theft, a person might be enslaved to the victim or victim’s family to replace the lost person or property. Enslavement also befell the thief of crops from palace or temple lands. Judges accepting bribes were warned and, if the behavior persisted, were shorn and removed from office. In all of this, there were distinct differences between nobles and commoners. The bribery sanction excepted, nobles tended to face harsher punishments than commoners for similar crimes. Nobles occupied pivotal political and religious offices and were expected to be models of behavior; offenses (from drunkenness to theft) by such august persons carried weighty consequences. Indeed, nobles and commoners were tried in separate courts. There was also some variation by city-state, such as differences in penalties for selling stolen goods: execution in Tenochtitlan and enslavement in Texcoco. The extent of this variation is not clear. The magnitude of deviance and crime generally in the society is also unknown. We might conjecture that it would be difficult for any given Aztec to adhere consistently to this society’s strict moral and behavioral codes. In the first place, each person lived in a personal milieu of crisscrossed roles and expectations that conspired to create conflicting loyalties and uncertain behaviors. Should one behave according to one’s ethnicity or one’s polity? One’s occupational guild or one’s altepetl ruler? Should the strapped farmer allocate his few resources to feed his family or honor the gods? Should the newly advanced warrior be humble or haughty? Should the local ruler’s decisions favor his own ambitions, his subjects, or his imperial overlord? These sometimes conflicting strands of obligations and expectations were confounded by


Aztec Society and Culture an individual’s predicted fate. According to the Aztec astrological tonalpohualli, or “count of days,” a person’s ritual birth date was a predictor of his or her future. Birth on a problematic day, for instance One House, could result in irrepressible leanings toward gambling. If born on the unfortunate day Two Rabbit, a person was all but doomed to a life of drunkenness with all its attendant difficulties. Birth on One Jaguar fated a person to commit adultery; born on One Flower, a woman would become a harlot, and born on One Motion, a vagabond (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 4, 5, 11, 25, 85, 93–94). While an individual’s parents could select a neighboring day name, and the individual could engage in behaviors to mute the predicted future, did these fates still operate to some extent as self-fulfilling prophecies, inordinately influencing some individuals? Given these pressures and the specificity of sanctions, infractions and crimes were certainly well entrenched and must have been common enough. The imposition of sanctions and penalties also provides us with an idea of those aspects of life held dear by the Aztecs: moral propriety, orderly conduct, properly performing one’s duties (at home or on the battlefield), respecting another’s personal rights and property (including land rights), maintaining social status boundaries, and diligently propitiating the gods. These gods are the subject of the next chapter.

C hap t e r   7 R eli g i o n, S cience , and t h e A rts

This day of nine dogs [Nine Dog] was dedicated to sorcerers, who were those who transformed themselves into other things like animals or snakes and other similar things. And for this reason on this day they were very fearful and shut themselves up in their homes in order not to see these things, that is, not to see men like that walking through the town. Codex Telleriano-Remensis, folio 22r; originally composed by 1563; translation in Quiñones Keber 1995: 268

It is difficult to disentangle religion, science, and the arts in the Aztec world. Indeed, it is unlikely that it would have occurred to any worthy Aztec to do so, as these realms of life were closely interconnected and meshed together almost seamlessly. To wit, art served state religion and politics as well as individual household rituals, and corporal ills were attributed to both supernatural and natural causes. The visible world of humans and nature lay suspended between supernatural levels above and below. The Aztecs were at once keen observers and experimenters of the world around them and staunch believers in the supernatural foundation and control of that world. Understanding Aztec religion, science, and intellectual life is a daunting task. The most detailed and vivid accounts of these spheres of life are found in the early Spanish chronicles (especially those of Sahagún and Durán), in Nahua legends such as the Legend of the Suns (Bierhorst 1992), and in native-style pictorial codices (see Chapter 1 for an assessment of these types of data). Recently, important archaeological discoveries have significantly boosted our grasp of religious beliefs and ritual behavior (Smith in press a, in press b). The most extensive of these discoveries are those associated with Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor, which have revealed not only the dual temple itself, but also other structures (or portions of them) and thousands of ritually deposited artifacts in more than 162 offerings (to date) (Matos Moctezuma 1995; López Luján 2005, 2006). Beyond this political and religious center of the Empire, other places have yielded archaeological remains that pertain to ritual behavior and offer 215

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a sense of ritual diversity (e.g., Elson and Smith 2001; Brumfiel 2001; López Luján and Urcid 2002; Smith 2002; Guilliem Arroyo 1999, 2008a, 2008b). Additionally, ritual objects in museum collections are undergoing new scientific analyses and iconographic interpretations (e.g., Boone 1999; McEwan et al. 2006; Martínez del Campo Lanz 2010; Umberger 1996, 2008;Taube 2000; Olivier 2003). Works of art have a physical presence but do not necessarily speak clearly to the modern-day researcher, often leaving multiple interpretations in their wake. They also frequently have little personal history to provide them with even the smallest context. Interpretive disagreements are fairly common among scholars, from the identity of the central figure in the famous Sun Stone to the meaning of skull and crossbone motifs on altars and textiles (see Nicholson 1993; Klein 2000; Smith in press a, in press b). Despite the often fragmentary, biased, and disputed nature of our information, reconstructions of Aztec religious and intellectual life forge ahead. In some areas, a measure of agreement has been reached among scholars, as with Nicholson’s (1971) classification of deities which is generally accepted and followed here. Still, our ideas about beliefs, symbolism, and ritual are in considerable flux, especially due to the ongoing excavations in Mexico City that are continually revealing to us new and often enigmatic ritual materials (e.g., Chávez et al. 2010). Calendrics and Fate

The Aztecs’ ceremonial life was based on specific constructions of calendrical time. Their calendars were of considerable antiquity and shared widely in Mesoamerica, although specific calendrical dates and their meanings could vary from city-state to city-state and regionally. Regardless of the specific calculations, the calendars addressed the timing of major agricultural and ceremonial events and gave substance to the Aztec preoccupation (or so it seems) with fate. Aztec time was cyclical and repetitive. The Aztecs, like their forebears in Mesoamerica, ordered their temporal world into two interrelated calendars. The solar calendar consisted of 365 days: eighteen months of twenty days each, with five very uneasy, indeed dangerous, days at the end. It is not known how they dealt with the extra quarter of a day each year, but they must have, since monthly ceremonies were associated with rainy/dry seasons and agricultural cycles (see Table  7.4). Other signal ceremonies were celebrated every eight years and, most significantly, every fifty-two years.1 Markets were also linked to this calendar, many held every five days (one Aztec “week”) and others, great fairs, held once every twenty days (see Chapter 4). The solar calendar was astronomically based. In addition to observing the solar cycle, the Aztecs drew on long-standing traditions in observing and

Religion, Science, and the Arts table  7.1. 

The 260-Day Ritual Calendar


Aztec Society and Culture


Figure 7.1.  A priestly astronomer. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 63r.)

recording comets, meteor showers, constellations, and eclipses. They placed their own cultural stamp on these celestial phenomena: our Big Dipper was seen as Tezcatlipoca, the Pleiades was their “Marketplace,” and part of our Taurus was seen as a “Fire Drill.” Eclipses were desperately feared: during the darkest moments of these celestial events, the people made blood sacrifices, played musical instruments, and shouted loudly, making a great commotion in order to stave off the possible arrival of dreaded celestial monsters. The Aztecs’ intense interest in heavenly bodies can be seen in their commitment to methodical observation techniques. Nezahualpilli, ruler of Texcoco from 1472 to 1515, would personally “study the stars, and he would go on the roof of his palace, and from there he would watch the stars, and he would discuss problems with [knowledgeable men]” (Torquemada 1969: vol. I, 188; translation in León-Portilla 1963: 142). Most often, these knowledgeable men were priests who could use the elevated summits of their temples as practical and accessible observation posts “where pairs of crossed sticks could be lined up as lines of sight to celestial phenomena” (Berdan 2005: 155; see Aveni 2001) (Figure 7.1). The Aztecs recognized a 260-day ritual calendar in conjunction with the solar calendar. This ritual calendar was akin to an astrological device, where the days carried heavy burdens – some good, some bad, fewer neutral. It was formed by the meshing of the numbers 1–13 with twenty distinct day names, yielding 260 unique number–day combinations such as Ome Ehecatl (Two Wind) or Nahui Cuetzpallin (Four Lizard) (see Table 7.1). This tonalpohualli, or “count of days,” was recorded in tonalamatl (books of days). The days were divided into groups of twenty, each headed by one of the twenty day names beginning with the number 1. Thus, in Table 7.1, the first group is headed by One Alligator (Cipactli) and contains the days through Thirteen Reed (Acatl); the second group begins with One Jaguar (Ocelotl) and finishes with Thirteen

Religion, Science, and the Arts Death (Mizquitl); and so on. Each grouping was presided over by a patron deity – for example, Quetzalcoatl ruled the One Wind grouping, and Tlaloc reigned over the One Rain sequence. The patron deities imbued “their” days with qualities particular to their own powers (as described later). The reading of the tonalamatl was a complex matter, for these ritual almanacs not only contained the sequence of day names, but also depicted thirteen lords of the day, nine lords of the night, and a butterfly or thirteen birds (from hummingbirds to turkeys). Specialists (most likely priests) schooled in the reading of these signs used the calendar to predict the fate of individuals and determine propitious (and unpropitious) moments for important events. Readers were consulted at critical moments in a person’s life cycle (especially birth; see Chapter 6), prior to important events such as the best date for merchants to begin a long journey, and during state crises. Predictably, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin consulted his “soothsayers” when omens foretelling disaster (the Spanish arrival) began to appear (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 12, 3, 26). A calendar round was created by combining the solar and ritual calendars, yielding units of 18,980 unique days, or fifty-two solar years. For instance, the Spaniards recorded August 13, 1521, as the day Tenochtitlan fell into their hands. To the Aztecs, that same day was Ome Xocotl uetzi Ce Coatl (Two Xocotl uetzi, One Snake) (Caso 1971: 343). The same combination of days would next appear in exactly fifty-two Aztec solar years. Each of the fifty-two years was designated by combining the numbers 1–13 with four of the day names: Rabbit, Reed, Flint Knife, and House. Thus the year of Cortés’s arrival on Mexican soil, 1519 in the Christian calendar, was Ce Acatl (One Reed) in the Aztec scheme. This was followed by Two Flint Knife, Three House, Four Rabbit, Five Reed, Six Flint Knife, and so on. Extraordinary events that happened in certain years were well remembered – for instance, the Rabbit years were ever feared after the great famine that occurred during a Rabbit year in the mid-1400s. The Aztec conception and calculation of time was central to their fundamental beliefs about the structure and dynamics of the universe, the multitudinous deities, and the extravagant ceremonies performed by humans to ensure their survival in this uncertain yet repetitive world. Dynamics and Structure of the Cosmic World

The Aztec universe was a vigorous and lively place: it had a tumultuous past, an unstable present, and an uncertain future. These dynamics were embedded in a rich mythological repertoire that embodied the Aztecs’ most significant cosmic principles (Table 7.2). These myths and principles were not so abstract that they affected only the lives of priests and philosophers – on the contrary, every Aztec person was entwined in these fundaments. In other words, beliefs


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220 table 7.2. Cosmic principles in the Aztec worldview Cosmic principle

Representative beliefs and myths

Everyday reality: some examples

Dualities: complementary opposites

Ometeotl as creator god; Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl as collaborators; life and death Huitzilopochtli vs. Coyolxauhqui; Tezcatlipoca vs. Quetzalcoatl at Tula World creations and destructions; creation of the fifth sun Tezcatlipoca/Mixcoatl and the creation of fire; Toci embodying fertility and warfare

Male/female complementary roles; life from death through sacrifices

Perpetual divine struggles

Cosmic cycles Juxtaposition of Chichimec and agricultural religious beliefs and customs Universe ordered on vertical and horizontal dimensions

Creation of cosmic trees; importance of axis mundi; qualities of worldly quadrants

Sacrifice; warfare; reenactments at Templo Mayor Cyclical time; calendrical celebrations; New Fire ceremony Templo Mayor capped by Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc; rituals combining warfare and fertility themes Afterlife concepts and funerary practices; possible urban layouts

were not just distant abstract ideas, and myths were not disembodied stories; rather, they had very real meanings in an Aztec’s daily life. The prominent principle of duality was expressed in complementary opposites such as order/chaos, male/female, sky/earth, zenith/nadir, day/night, sun/ moon, flint/obsidian, fire/water, and life/death (Miller and Taube 1993: 81; Olivier 2003). For instance, the ultimate creator god(s), Ometeotl (Two God), was represented either as a single deity with male and female aspects or as two separate interacting male and female deities (Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl). This complex deity presided over the celestial Place of Duality (Omeyocan)2 and was the progenitor of the other gods.Two of their divine children, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, were paired as collaborators and opponents, depending on the circumstances. In one myth, these two deities combined their considerable divine powers to tear apart the enormous primeval earth monster, a caiman or alligator (cipactli), to create the earth and its rugged topographical features.This monstrous creature was also known as Tlaltecuhtli (Earth Lord) (Figure 7.2), and like the creator deity also combined male and female attributes. Similarly, the divine rulers of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl (Lord and Lady of the Underworld), were a male and female pair. Another primary exemplar of the duality principle was life and death, understood as generation

Religion, Science, and the Arts Case 7.1 The Creation of the Fifth Sun, According to the Florentine Codex The world had been cast into darkness. The prior world, presided over by the goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, had been completely destroyed by a great flood. That was the fourth in repeated cycles of worlds. But how would the fifth be created, and who would preside? To solve this rather serious problem, the gods assembled at Teotihuacan. Their task was to create a fifth sun, a fifth world. One of them must leap into a great fire, transforming himself into the new sun. This honor was to belong to the lofty and arrogant Tecuciztecatl, who bravely volunteered. Also “volunteered” was the humble and scabby Nanahuatzin, who gladly accepted the challenge. Both gods fasted and performed acts of penance for four days and nights,Tecuciztecatl with quetzal feathers, gold balls, greenstone spines, and the finest incense; Nanahuatzin with simple reeds and maguey spines and incense made from the scabs on his own body.* Finished with their acts of penance, the two honorees were arrayed by the gods, Tecuciztecatl with a heron feather headdress and priestly jacket, Nanahuatzin with a paper headdress and loincloth. Precisely at midnight, these two faced a blazing hearth (that had been burning for four days) surrounded by all the gods. The next moment belonged to Tecuciztecatl, who was to leap courageously into the fire. However, his courage abandoned him. Four times he tried to muster the fortitude to make the divine leap. Four times he failed. Frustrated, the gods called on Nanahuatzin, who leaped unhesitatingly into the blazing fire. An embarrassed Tecuciztecatl leaped in after him. Not to be outdone, an eagle and a jaguar also jumped into the slowly dying fire, singeing the eagle’s feathers and leaving the jaguar spotted. The gods now waited. The tension mounted. Finally, light appeared all around them, such that it was impossible to tell where Nanahuatzin would actually arise. After much speculation, they saw it – in the east – at first a bright red, then brighter and brighter, as the fully born sun revealed itself in all its godly glory. It was Nanahuatzin, and he had accomplished what Tecuciztecatl could not. As Nanahuatzin rose higher in the sky, an equally bright second sun, as Tecuciztecatl, appeared behind him in the east. But the gods instantly realized that two suns would overwhelm the new world, so one of the gods grabbed a rabbit and hurled it into the second sun, muting its brilliance and creating the moon (the rabbit can be clearly seen today). But the sun and moon sat rigid in the sky, without motion. It was left to the gods to sacrifice themselves to provide energy for the sun and moon to move purposefully across the sky. Ehecatl (god of wind) slew the gods as a sacrifice. But the new sun and moon still did not budge until he turned his fierce wind on them. The sun and moon moved separately, the sun doing its work during the day, the moon dominating the night sky.This was the world of Nahui Ollin, Four Movement, presided over by the sun, Tonatiuh.† This myth, like other Aztec myths, was more than an enthralling story. Its impact on an Aztec’s life was considerable. First, the sacrifices of the gods set the stage for sacrificial obligations on the part of mortals, who must likewise keep the sun in motion with their blood offerings. In the words of Karl Taube



Aztec Society and Culture (2004: 173), “The Aztecs replicated the original sacrifice of the gods with the ritual offering of human hearts to the sun.” Second, eagles and jaguars, also offering themselves to the fire, were symbols of Tenochtitlan’s most courageous and accomplished warriors who fought battles and died for sun and state. The eagles predominated, as the eagle was the first to cast itself into the fire. Third, fire was recognized as an agent of transformation in the common practice of funerary cremations. And fourth, the major ceremonies of Xocotl huetzi and the New Fire “evoked the mythic birth of the sun at Teotihuacan through the fire sacrifice of warriors” (Taube 2000: 327). In these contexts, cosmic myth and everyday realities blended together and reinforced one another. * Taube (2000) locates these penitential sites at the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, and the location of the fiery hearth at the now-called Ciudadela. † Sahagún 1950–1982, Book 7, 3–8. The Legend of the Suns (Bierhorst 1992: 147–149) provides a less-detailed and slightly variant version of these same cosmic events.

and destruction. Just as male and female were sometimes seen as two essential aspects of a single deity, life and death were not separate elements but intertwined parts of a single endless process of rejuvenation. Life derived from death, as exemplified by the sacrifices of the gods themselves at the creation of the fifth and present sun (Case 7.1). Humans were enmeshed in complementary opposites in their everyday lives: most importantly, they established social male/female relationships with well-defined divisions of labor, followed cycles of day and night, and were surrounded by sacrificial offerings linking death and the regeneration of life. While gods sometimes collaborated, they also became embroiled in desperate supernatural conflicts – hence, our second major cosmic principle of perpetual divine struggles. Numerous myths exemplify this principle. In one, we return to Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, who joined forces to create the surface of the earth, but later, in more recent time, became determined opponents in the legendary city of Tula. Ultimately Tezcatlipoca, as a crafty sorcerer, deceived Quetzalcoatl, who, defeated, departed from the city, journeyed to the east, and either traveled out to sea or immolated himself and emerged as Venus.3 In another myth, the Mexica patron deity, Huitzilopochtli, was born in conflict. His godly mother, Coatlicue, was sweeping one day and placed a feather tuft in her breast, becoming immediately pregnant. She had already given birth to a daughter (Coyolxauhqui, or the moon) and the Centzon Huitznahua (four hundred, i.e., innumerable sons or stars), who were outraged (or perhaps threatened) by their mother’s condition. As Coatlicue stood on the mountain of Coatepec, near Tula, her celestial children descended from the heavens and decapitated her. At that moment, Huitzilopochtli emerged fully armed with a powerful fire serpent (xiuhcoatl), destroying the stars and dismembering his sister, casting her off the mountaintop. Every day any resident of Tenochtitlan might gaze on the mythic Coatepec, re-created as the

Religion, Science, and the Arts Huitzilopochtli side of the Templo Mayor, and marvel at the dismembered body of Coyolxauhqui in a massive monument at the base of that temple. Not only were these monuments prominently visible, but the sacrifices performed frequently at Huitzilopochtli’s temple reenacted this story. Just as the sun defeated the moon and stars every dawn, so Huitzilopochtli as the sun defeated Coyolxauhqui and sent his sacrifice tumbling down the temple steps to land on the sculpted defeated body of the goddess. The third of these principles was that of repeated cosmic cycles. This principle stressed the cyclical nature of time and events, the basis for the Aztecs’ flamboyant annual ceremonial celebrations. At the highest symbolic levels, cosmic cycles were vividly represented by the five creations and four destructions of the universe. Each of the first four creations was presided over by a specific deity, inhabited by different types of humans, and, in one version, destroyed successively by jaguars, hurricanes, fiery rain, and a great flood (Table 7.3). We find Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl again as adversaries in these cosmic struggles, as each subsequently defeated the other to create a new world (see Olivier 2003: 94). The fifth and current world, or sun, was also doomed to destruction, this time by earthquakes (Case 7.1). Living in this fifth, fated world, the Aztecs were keenly aware of the progression of time as it approached the end of calendrical cycles, when the universe was especially vulnerable to destruction. They became particularly edgy at the end of a fifty-two-year cycle. At that critical and stressful time, all the fires of the realm were extinguished and household pots broken (ritual dumps at some sites in the Basin of Mexico and Morelos very likely contain debris from these ceremonies; Elson and Smith 2001). Pregnant women hid and commoners protected their faces with blue masks. Deep into the night at cycle’s end, a solemn priestly procession mounted Citlaltepec (Hill of the Star),4 where the priests waited tensely for the Pleiades5 to cross the zenith at midnight, signaling the continuation of the world for the next fifty-two-year cycle. If the stars cooperated, an individual was sacrificed by heart extraction and a new fire lit in his gaping chest cavity. This fire was then carried from community to community, household to household, until all the fires of the land were lit anew. Fifty-two reeds were bundled up and burned, and new pots were fashioned for renewed household use (a boon to the pottery industry). If the ritual failed, it was believed that fearsome tzitzimime, as celestial monsters, would descend from the sky and destroy humanity, thus ending the world of the fifth sun. Needless to say, these momentous events, although deriving from the highest cosmic levels, affected every individual, from loftiest noble to humblest commoner. The Aztecs’ religious life reflected a complicated history, juxtaposing features from their Chichimec heritage with the agricultural demands of their new homeland. After settling in the Basin of Mexico, the Mexica and their Chichimec associates continued to revere their traditional deities and celebrate their militant and hunting heritage. Indeed, their patron deity, Huitzilopochtli,


Aztec Society and Culture

224 Table 7.3. Tenochtitlan sequence of the five ages, or “Suns” Name of sun

Presiding deity

Human population

Fate of humanity

Type of destruction

Naui Ocelotl (Four Jaguar)


Eaten by jaguars


Naui Ehecatl (Four Wind)


Transformed into monkeys


Naui Quiahuitl (Four Rain)


Transformed into dogs, turkeys, butterflies

Fiery rain

Naui Atl (Four Water)


Transformed into fish

Great flood

Naui Ollin (Four Movement)


Giants subsisting on acorns Humans subsisting on piñon nuts (acocentli) Humans subsisting on an aquatic seed (acecentli) Humans subsisting on wild seeds (probably teocentli, wild ancestor of maize) Humans subsisting on maize

To be devoured by tzitzimeme (celestial monsters)


possibly displaced the Chichimec hunting and war god, Mixcoatl (Cloud Serpent),6 although Mixcoatl was associated with stars and Huitzilopochtli was a sun deity (Miller and Taube 1993: 115–116). And Tezcatlipoca, a major Mesoamerican god with many attributes (including fertility; see Olivier 2003: 99), assumed the name of Mixcoatl to provide fire for humans, lighting it with flintstones (Olivier 2003: 111–112).7 Alongside themes of war and hunting were those of fertility and rain, exemplified by the primary rain god, Tlaloc (Figure 7.3), and a multitude of earth deities. Eleven of the eighteen spectacular monthly ceremonies celebrated rain and fertility (see Table 7.4). This emphasis on agriculture is also seen in the preponderance of offerings associated with the Tlaloc side of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan (López Luján 2005). It is understandable that so many ceremonies and offerings would be geared to an agricultural populace where droughts and famines were frequent enough

Religion, Science, and the Arts (see Case 3.2). In a visual statement of the juxtaposition of warfare and fertility, the Templo Mayor was surmounted by two sanctuaries; the one dedicated to Huitzilopochtli represented warfare, military conquest, and tribute, while the one housing Tlaloc represented agriculture and water (Matos Moctezuma 1988). In some cases, a single deity embodied both warfare and fertility. For instance, the goddess Toci, one of several fertility goddesses, also served as the patroness of midwives. If a woman died in childbirth, midwives joined her burial party, carrying shields and shouting war cries, staving off young warriors who sought the dead woman’s middle finger as a battle charm (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 6, 161–162). Similarly, the monthly feast of Ochpaniztli, honoring Toci, featured mock combat participants wielding weapons and shields, along with brooms (Durán 1971: 234). These events reinforced, on a regular and persistent basis, the juxtaposition and sometimes meshing of warfare and fertility concepts, dual underpinnings of the Aztec worldview. Despite the turbulent and seemingly chaotic relations among their gods, the Aztecs’ universe was laid out in a quite orderly fashion. Its vertical dimension consisted of thirteen heavenly levels and nine tiers in the underworld, separated by tlalticpac, the surface of the earth inhabited by humanity. This intermediate level was also called cemanahuac (land surrounded by water) in recognition that the caiman or earth monster was encircled by water. After dismembering that supernatural creature to form the terrestrial level,Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl still needed to separate the earth from the multilayered heavens. To accomplish this, they transformed themselves into two enormous trees and hoisted the heavens above tlalticpac, so that the earth was at the same time separated from the heavenly levels and connected to them. The underworld was also linked to the realm of humans, primarily through caves.8 These vertical domains were fundamentally different from their Christian counterparts of heaven and hell. As Townsend (2009a: 121) points out, “[T]here was no juxtaposition of heaven vs. hell in this cosmological schema, for the levels of the sky and those of the lower world carried no hierarchical moral value.” The horizontal dimension of supernatural space was divided into quadrants, each associated with a specific deity, tree, quality, year sign, color, and bird or animal. A fifth dimension was at the all-important center, or axis mundi. The northern quadrant was considered the “Region of the Underworld,” being dry and barren, presided over by a fire deity, and associated with red or black colors. East was the fortunate and fertile “Place of Dawn,” west the rainy but fruitless “Region of Women” or “Region of the Sun’s Death,” and south the rather uncertain “Region of Thorns.”9 These defined supernatural spaces had distinct impacts on Aztec behavior. For example, if an “evil man” died, he was buried facing north: “This was done . . . because of the terrible cold there, they wrapped him in those thick blankets to give him warmth. With him was buried food for him to eat, since the place was sterile” (Durán 1971: 392). It has been proposed that Tenochtitlan’s city planning recognized all five



table 7.4. Ceremonies of the monthly calendar Month

Literal meaning


Most important deities worshipped

Primary religious themes

1. Atl caualo

Ceasing of Water

Feb. 13–Mar. 4

Tlaloque, ChaIchiuhtlicue

2. Tlacaxipehualiztli

Flaying of Men

Mar. 5– Mar. 24

Rain/moisture/ agricultural fertility Rain/moisture/ agricultural fertility

3. Toçoztontli

Little Vigil

Mar. 25–Apr. 13

4. Uey toçoztli

Great Vigil

Apr. 14–May 3

5. Toxcatl

Our Drought

May 4–May 23

6. EtzaIcualiztli

Eating of Etzallib

May 24–June 12

Sample of ritual activities

Papers hung on poles, fasting for rain, tamales offered, dancing, children sacrificed Xipe Totec Dancing, vigils, feasting; human sacrifices (including gladiatorial sacrifice with flaying, child sacrifices); rewards presented to outstanding warriors Tlaloque, Centeotl, Rain/moisture/ Planting rituals (in fields); flowers, ChaIchiuhtlicue, agricultural snakes, and tamales offered; Chicomecoatl fertility children’s rituals and sacrifices Centeotl, Chicomecoatl, Rain/moisture/ Fasting, offerings, mock battles Tlaloque, agricultural between youths and maidens; QuetzaIcoatl fertility seed maize blessed; children’s rituals and sacrifices; deity impersonator sacrificed Tezcatlipoca, Celestial creativity/ Sacrifice of deity impersonators; Huitzilopochtli divine dancing; feasting; incense, food, paternalism; war/ and quail offered; children’s sacrifice rituals Tlaloc, ChaIchiuhtlicue, Rain/moisture/ Fasting for rain; etzalli offering Quetzalcoatl agricultural and eating; offerings made fertility to agricultural tools; deity impersonators sacrificed

7. Tecuilhuitontli

Little Feast Day of the Lords

June 13–July 2

Xochipilli, Huixtochihuatl

8. Uey tecuilhuitl

Great Feast Day of the Lords

July 3–July 22

Xilonen, Cihuacoatl

9. Tlaxochimaco

Offering of Flowers

July 23–Aug. 11

Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca, all gods in general

10. Xocotl uetzi

Fall of Xocotl

Aug. 12–Aug. 31

11. Ochpaniztli

Sweeping of the Road

Sept. 1–Sept. 20

12. Teotl eco

The God Arrives

Sept. 21–Oct. 10

13. Tepeilhuitl

Mountain Feast Day

Oct. 11–Oct. 30

Rain/moisture/ agricultural fertility Rain/moisture/ agricultural fertility

Singing, dancing, human sacrifices; nobles sponsor feast for commoners Nobles feast commoners; singing and dancing of warriors and prostitutes; deity impersonators sacrificed Flowers offered and idols decorated; singing, dancing, human sacrifices, honoring of dead


War/sacrifice; celestial creativity/divine paternalism Xiuhtecutli, Xocotl, Celestial creativity/ Fire sacrifice; impersonator of Yacatecutli (patron of divine Yacatecutli sacrificed; ceremony the merchants) paternalism of Xocotl pole: boys strive to climb pole and retrieve image; honoring of dead Teteoinnan, Rain/moisture/ Harvest events: fasting, singing, Toci, Centeotl, agricultural dancing, offerings, feasting; deity Chicomecoatl fertility impersonators sacrificed; mock battles; overall cleaning and repairing of houses, temples, and public structures; rewards presented to outstanding warriors Tezcatlipoca, Celestial creativity/ Celebration of the return of the Huitzilopochtli, divine gods (including singing, dancing, Xiuhtecutli,Yacatecutli, paternalism; war/ offerings, feasting); fire sacrifices all gods in general sacrifice Tlaloque, Xochiquetzal, Rain/moisture/ Rain and pulque deities venerated pulque gods agricultural with offerings and human fertility sacrifices; rituals on hilltops for Tlaloque



table 7.4. (cont.) Month

Literal meaning


Most important deities worshipped

Primary religious themes

14. Quecholli

Precious Feather

Oct. 31–Nov. 19



15. Panquetzaliztli

Raising of Banners Nov. 20–Dec. 9

Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca

16. Atemoztli

The Falling of Water

Dec. 10–Dec. 29


17. Tititl


Dec. 30–Jan. 18

Cihuacoatl, all gods in general

18. Izcalli

Growth, Rebirth

Jan. 19–Feb. 7



Barren or Useless Days

Feb. 8–Feb. 12

Sample of ritual activities

Fashioning of hunting gear; hunting of animals; rewards and feasting for successful hunters; deity impersonators sacrificed War/sacrifice; Large-scale fasting, dancing celestial of warriors and prostitutes, creativity/divine processions, large-scale human paternalism sacrifices, feasting Rain/moisture/ Fasting, fashioning of Tlaloque agricultural images, offerings to Tlaloque; fertility children sacrificed Rain/moisture/ Procession; deity impersonator agricultural sacrificed; women ritually fertility harassed Celestial creativity/ Feasting, fashioning of deity images, divine offerings; children raised by neck paternalism to ensure their growth; new fire ignited Evil days, fasting, penance; most usual behavior curbed (quarreling held to be particularly bad at this time)

Dates are from Caso 1971: 341.


Etzalli was a porridge consisting of maize and beans. Source: Compiled from Sahagún 1950–1982: book 2; Durán 1971; Nicholson 1971: table 4. The most detailed information is in Sahagún; a similar, more comprehensive chart appears in Nicholson 1971. b

Religion, Science, and the Arts horizontal dimensions, with the Templo Mayor as the “heart of the city.”10 Davíd Carrasco (1999: 36–39) argues that the urban layout of Tenochtitlan reflected cosmological spatial arrangements, with its four major quarters radiating from that axis mundi (also see Figure C1.1).11 Yet the extent to which urban planning was related to these beliefs is a contentious issue. Michael Smith (2008), most notably, takes issue with the idea that Tenochtitlan represented a formal sacred place beyond its Templo Mayor. In his words (2008: 140), “[T]here is no way to determine whether the layout of Tenochtitlan, or any other Aztec city, had specific high-level meanings to their inhabitants.” In light of Smith’s (2008: 141)  observation that “there currently is no way to confirm or deny” cosmological symbolism as a basis for widescale urban planning, we may continue to ask: To what extent was the built environment of the terrestrial world, in which people lived their lives, based on their perceived cosmological arrangement of space? Deities and Their Earthly Retinues

The Idea of Divinity Aztec religion was polytheistic. Its multitude of deities presided over everything in the terrestrial world, the celestial realms above, and the dark regions below. Deities often were represented in diverse guises, resulting in a seemingly confusing array of gods and goddesses, sometimes with shared insignia. The confusion ebbs when one realizes that individual Aztec deities were multifunctional and were capable of dramatic transformations emphasizing some of their qualities at specific times and in specific situations: “Quetzalcoatl becomes Ehecatl with the specific qualities of wind, or Tlahuizcalpantecutli, with those of dawn” (López Austin 1993: 126). Because their circumstances changed, so too did their garments and adornments, proclaiming their role and powers at particular times. Deities also could unite to enhance their shared powers or divide to form more than one deity (see López Austin 2001: 270–271). As an example of the first case, we have seen that Tezcatlipoca took the name (and hence the powers) of Mixcoatl to provide fire for humanity. In the second case, Tlaloc, for instance, is usually represented singly but also appears in dual and even quadripartite forms (Olivier 2009). Deities appear to have been anthropomorphic, although Smith (in press a) disagrees with this assertion.12 They had human-like torsos and limbs, and faces with human-like features (Figures 7.2 and 7.3). They are shown standing, sitting, and in action: Huitzilopochtli wields his deadly fire serpent; Tlazolteotl grimaces in childbirth. They also possess “reason, will, passions, and faculties of communication among themselves and with humans” (López Austin 2001: 270).


Aztec Society and Culture


Gods were intimately linked with calendrical time. A different deity presided over each of the 13-day periods (trecenas) in the 260-day ritual calendar. For instance,Tlaloc ruled over the 13-day sequence beginning with the day Ce Quiauitl (One Rain), and Tezcatlipoca presided over the Ce Miquiztli (One Death) period. The powerful forces associated with the presiding deities were particularly potent during each god’s designated calendrical period, at which time one should attend to that god’s needs with particular diligence. The idea of divinity extended beyond named images. The word for deity, teotl, sometimes modified other terms, whether they be material objects (such as teoxihuitl, “precious turquoise,” or teocuitlatl, “divine excrement or gold”), acts (such as teotlatolli, “divine speech”), or people (such as teochichimeca, “true Chichimecs”). This suggests that the Aztecs “regarded the things of their world – both transitory or permanent – as inherently charged to a greater or lesser degree with vital force or power” (Townsend 2009a: 120). It is, therefore, understandable to hear of Aztec priests making offerings to natural objects and features such as flowing waters and exceptional rocks (see Case 5.2; Durán 1994: 367–370).

The Deities All of this said, a pantheon of deities was recognized in Aztec religion, and we can conveniently group these into thematic categories (after Nicholson 1971, with a nice summary in Townsend 2009a: 116–117). These groupings encompass domains of celestial creativity/divine paternalism, rain/moisture/agricultural fertility, war/sacrifice/nourishment of the sun and earth, and, perhaps befitting his signal importance, a category devoted to the god Quetzalcoatl. The most overarching, distant deities were connected to celestial creativity and divine paternalism, notably Ometeotl (the dual creator god), Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror), and Xiuhtecuhtli (Turquoise Lord, god of fire). Ometeotl resided in the highest (thirteenth) heavenly level; this dual deity was embedded in deep mythical time and had only the most distant relations with mortals. In contrast, Tezcatlipoca possessed omnipotent power and had a strong presence in Aztec daily life; he offered humans happiness and riches but also visited them with plagues and grief (Olivier 2003). Since he was a capricious sorcerer and young warrior, and “could see all that took place in the world” with his mirrors, his patronage was sought by humans in numerous life contexts (Durán 1971: 99). Worship of Tezcatlipoca was especially widespread in central Mexico during the Late Postclassic, being also prominent in Tlaxcallan, where he was worshipped in the form of the god Camaxtli (Fargher et al. 2010). In Tenochtitlan he was especially venerated during the public ceremonies of the month of Toxcatl, but does not appear to have been a subject of domestic-level worship (Smith in press b). And we are reminded that Tezcatlipoca figures in several mythic accounts, either in collusion or in conflict with other major

Religion, Science, and the Arts

Figure 7.2.  A recently excavated monolith of the earth deity Tlaltecuhtli, unearthed near the Templo Mayor in Mexico City. (Photograph by Leonardo López Luján. Reproducción Autorizada por el Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.)

deities. Xiuhtecuhtli, also depicted as the Old God (Huehueteotl), was a creator god associated with fire, an element of great importance both physically and symbolically: hearths were central to domestic life, temple fires were perpetually maintained, and the Aztecs’ most stressful ritual occurred every fiftytwo years as the New Fire ceremony. Deities representing rain/moisture/agricultural fertility enjoyed the greatest share of human ritual attention, understandable in a land where rain and agricultural fertility were daily concerns and there was a history of failures on these fronts. Most of the monthly ceremonies were devoted to deities representing this theme, and the vast majority of the buried offerings at Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor appear on the Tlaloc side of the dual temple, being dedicated to that god. The deep significance of these deities in Aztec life is also attested by the presence of ceramic figurines of at least Xochiquetzal, Chalchiuhtlicue, Xochipilli/Macuilxochitl, Quetzalcoatl, and Xolotl in domestic settings (Smith 2002). These deities represent human and agricultural fertility, curing, and renewal. In tune with this theme, the most common animal figurine encountered in domestic contexts is the opossum, also associated with fertility (Smith 2002: 107; López Austin 1993). The rain god Tlaloc (Earth Embodiment, Figure 7.3) was the primary god in this cluster, accompanied by his numerous little minions (Tlaloque), who carried water in jugs from high mountains and dumped it on humans and crops. As with Tezcatlipoca, his impact could be both good (with nourishing showers)



Aztec Society and Culture

Figure 7.3. Tlaloc, god of rain. (From Nuttall 1903: folio 34r.)

and bad (with excessive amounts of water that could drown people and flood crops) (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 1, 17).Tlaloc’s female consort, Chalchiuhtlicue (Jade Her Skirt), presided over fresh waters. A collection of other female deities, as “mother goddesses,” symbolically represented the general idea of fertility and more specifically presided over everyday matters of pregnancy and childbirth, pleasure and feasting, and sexual desire. These included Teteoinan (Mother of the Gods), Coatlicue (Serpent Skirt, the mother of Huitzilopochtli), Toci (Our Grandmother), Cihuacoatl (Woman Serpent, who was a special patroness of midwives), and Tonantzin (Our Revered Mother, who later became fused with the Virgin Mary). Klein (2000) argues persuasively that these powerful deities embodied creative powers and were tzitzimime.While tzitzimime were typically described in colonial texts as destructive male celestial monsters, in pre-Spanish times they were primarily female deities with the ability to prevent and cure diseases. Stone platforms with skull and crossbone designs (apologies to the Jolly Roger) were nearly ubiquitous in Aztec urban landscapes and were perhaps used by curers and midwives in their beneficent rituals directed to these goddesses (Klein 2000; Smith in press a). These were the major overarching deities of the fertility complex, but there were also many gods and goddesses who presided over more specific

Religion, Science, and the Arts


Figure 7.4.  Macuilxochitl presiding over the game of patolli. (From Nuttall 1903: folio 60r.)

realms of fertility: Xilonen (Tender Maize) was the deity of the young maize, Centeotl (Sacred Maize) represented mature maize, and Chicomecoatl (Seven Serpent) was the embodiment of seed corn. Mayahuel (Maguey) was goddess of maguey; she nurtured four hundred children (rabbits) who presided over the maguey’s premier product, octli or pulque. Three major flower deities (Xochiquetzal [Flower Quetzal], Macuilxochitl [Five Flower], and Xochipilli [Flower Prince]) also watched over song, dance, and feasting. Xochiquetzal served as patroness of young mothers, weavers, embroiderers, and featherworkers; Macuilxochitl was patron of the palace folk and of gambling and the game of patolli (see Figure  7.4); and Xochipilli was the patron of painters and games. Xipe Totec (Our Lord the Flayed One) represented the germination of seeds and therefore agricultural renewal, and he was celebrated during the month of Tlacaxipehualiztli, appropriately during early spring. The essential characteristics of the demanding gods in the war/sacrifice/ nourishment of the sun and earth category were their military emphasis and need for human blood. They dominated realms of warfare, death, and sacrifice, and represented powerful celestial bodies and the underworld. Primary among these was the sun god Tonatiuh – all warriors were dedicated to serving the sun “with the blood of their captives; and if they themselves died serving the sun, they accompanied Tonatiuh on his daily journey from dawn to noon” (Berdan 2005: 135). Huitzilopochtli (Hummingbird on the Left) likewise represented the sun and demanded similar sacrifices on the part of his Mexica warriors. Other celestial phenomena also fell into this supernatural theme: Mixcoatl/ Camaxtli (Cloud Serpent/Lord of the Chase) was associated with the Milky

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Way, and Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (Dawn Lord) was Venus as the morning star; both were highly militaristic deities. The underworld (under the supernatural rulership of Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of Mictlan) also falls within this formidable group – a cluster of rather overwhelming gods who demanded the ultimate sacrifice of their faithful. In contrast to these aggressive and ravenous deities was Quetzalcoatl (Plumed Serpent), provider of human sustenance and patron of the fine arts.Veneration of this beneficent deity was ancient and widespread in Mesoamerica. He was part creator, part fertility granter, and part Venus, and therefore embodied aspects of all of the other three deity clusters. As Ehecatl (Wind), he presaged the rains, and the numerous circular temples found throughout central Mexico were dedicated to Quetzalcoatl in this guise. This god is also confounded with a culture hero from Tula, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, perhaps the god’s mortal representative on earth. Although Quetzalcoatl was widely popular, Cholula held the distinction as a special place for his worship, indeed as a renowned pilgrimage site. Some Aztec deities served as patrons of ethnic, altepetl, calpolli, and occupational groups. For example, Huitzilopochtli was the famous Mexica patron deity, and Camaxtli looked after the Mexica’s archenemies, the Tlaxcallans. Yacatecuhtli was patron of the entrepreneurial pochteca, regardless of their home city-state, and Xipe Totec was worshipped by the goldsmiths. Toci was especially revered by midwives and curers, wherever they lived. A group’s identity was closely linked to its patron deity: the first act of a newly arrived group was to erect a temple in honor of its patron deity, and its conquest was symbolized by the burning of that temple by an invading force. The Aztec pantheon was a dynamic one. As a conquering state, the Mexica and their allies not only acquired subjects and resources, but also assimilated their conquered subjects’ deities into their ever-enlarging pantheon.That pantheon was served by a great many priests and priestesses.

Priests and Priestesses Every deity had its temple, every temple its own cadre of priests and sometimes priestesses and a bevy of lay assistants.13 Novice priests were trained by veteran priests in calmecac schools – the several calmecac were associated with different temples, and it is probable that the education in each school was tailored to the specific demands of each god and temple. Boys apparently entered the priesthood at the behest of their parents, working their way up the priestly hierarchy from tlamacazton (little giver of things) to tlamacazqui (young giver of things) as they gained years, experience, and training. Some advanced to the rank of tlenamacac (fire giver), priests assigned the formidable task of performing human sacrifices. The most dedicated and devout advanced to that rank and were eligible for election to the supreme priestly ranks of Quetzalcoatl

Religion, Science, and the Arts totec tlamacazqui (high priest of Huitzilopochtli’s temple) and Quetzalcoatl tlaloc tlamacazqui (high priest of Tlaloc’s temple). Girls could be dedicated to the priesthood by parental vows. The girl was committed to a temple as an infant, her parents repeatedly reaffirming their vow until she was older (although that age eludes us). Despite these formal arrangements, a girl apparently could enter this vocation voluntarily (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 2, 246). Most girls spent only a short time as priestesses, leaving the temples with parental and calpolli permission to marry and create families. Some, however, did make this a lifelong specialty, supervising and training the young neophytes as well as providing temple and ritual services. Priestly duties depended on age, experience, rank, and gender. The youngest priests performed menial tasks around the temples; the highest-ranking priests performed human sacrifices and oversaw the great public ceremonies. Priestesses wove and embroidered cloth for the deities’ images. A great deal of time and effort was expended in maintaining temples and their godly images and sacred paraphernalia: daily sweeping, decorating, fire maintenance, and the offering of incense, not to mention temple repair and the upgrading of images. These godly servants also engaged in an endless round of daily prayers, penance, and offerings, including bloodletting. Head priests were entrusted with the responsibility of training and punishing novices. Beyond the insular life of the temple itself, priestly duties extended to the larger society. Priests were central actors in the often-complicated, multifaceted, and flamboyant monthly ceremonies; they taught noble youths in the several calmecac, served as warriors on the battlefield (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 3, folios 62–63, 65), made astronomical observations (Figure  7.1), and offered advice to rulers. The unity of religion and politics meant that priestly and political offices often overlapped in theory as well as in the enactment of actual ceremonies (see Chapter 5). Priests also interpreted (and probably supervised the writing of) sacred books, linking the will of the gods and the duties of humans in the larger, dynamic universe. The innumerable priests and their acolytes were supported by state tributes, temple offerings and gifts, alms, possibly dedicated lands and even the ability to steal from the general public on certain ceremonial occasions. Temples had “keepers” who managed their resource needs, also probably acquiring goods in the marketplaces when necessary (Berdan 2007: 253, 256). Religion commanded a large share of Aztec monumental architecture, highly trained specialists, and the commitment of substantial daily and periodic resources. If Juan de Torquemada (a known exaggerator) can be believed, Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor engaged five thousand servants (Caso 1958: 188– 189). If the priestly and lay cadres of the multitude of lesser temples throughout the Empire were also considered, the human commitment to religious affairs was indeed enormous. And priests were not the only sacred servants – masons


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Figure 7.5.  (a) A priest offering incense. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 63r). (b) A ceramic censer. (Photograph by Jennifer Berdan. Courtesy National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, no. 033758.)


built temples and sculptors decorated them, farmers collected copal incense and potters manufactured censers, stoneworkers fashioned sacrificial knives and featherworkers devised fancy banners, and everyone paid tribute and participated in obligatory ritual events (Figure 7.5). The Aztec supernatural world was at once threatening and benevolent  – and always demanding of its human occupants. The gods and their earthly representatives made rigorous personal, institutional, and resource demands on every Aztec individual. Daily life in practical matters was difficult enough, but how did an individual Aztec deal with intense and relentless spiritual demands and cosmological uncertainties? Gods and Humans: Rituals and Ceremonies

Gods were creators. Humans were created. This important difference served as the basis of deity–human relations, which stressed hierarchy, reciprocity, and debt payment. To recognize and celebrate their deities, the Aztecs represented and revered them on earth through their images or effigies, specific adornments, sacred bundles, dedicated rituals, material offerings, and human sacrifices.

Religion, Science, and the Arts

Adorned Images and Sacred Bundles Deities are depicted in pre-conquest and post-conquest codices, and their physical images were housed in their designated temples and sometimes removed for ceremonial processions. They were fashioned of stone, wood, or dough (of which amaranth was a major ingredient).While their basic form was important, special adornments and accoutrements gave these images their personalities and powers. For instance, specific skirt designs (especially skulls and crossbones with occasional stars and knives) embodied the “essence and powers” of creator goddesses (Klein 2000: 19). Since the deities appeared in various guises, their “garments and emblems constitute a code. Gods do not always wear the same emblems and garments, because their position, acts, and circumstances in this world change constantly” (López Austin 1993: 126). Smith (in press a) suggests that godly forces or spirits “took material form when adorned with key elements of their costume.”The meaningful coded information would have resided with the priests, who were responsible for properly adorning the godly images. This task was not only delicate, but also expensive: their symbolic adornments were of the finest materials. Huitzilopochtli’s entire image, for instance, was bedecked with precious stones and gold, and he wore a necklace of golden faces and silver hearts and precious blue stones (Díaz del Castillo 1963: 236). As religion and state were intimately intertwined, one suspects that much of this wealth was supplied by the state’s coffers and statesponsored offerings. Indeed, for the 1487 Templo Mayor dedication, Durán (1994: 336)  states that “everything that the priests requested for the cult to the gods and for the present ceremonies was provided” by tributes. In addition, a type of priestly female dress given in tribute was specifically “worn by the young women and the old women who served in the temples” (Durán 1994: 204). Godly paraphernalia also included sacred bundles, entrusted to high-ranking priests. These bundles contained deity-specific relics wrapped in cloth – Tezcatlipoca’s reputedly enveloped a mirror and his leg bone; Huitzilopochtli’s contained his bones and a loincloth. According to Olivier (2010, 58), divine forces were embedded in these sacred objects.The same author (2010, 56) suggests that the people venerated these bundles more than they did the godly images. Humans revered sacred bundles as means of communication with their special (especially patron) deities. Huitzilopochtli, for instance, conveyed his peregrination orders to the migrating Mexica through his bundle, which was carried by an important priest. Sacred bundles also served as symbols of group identity and played a significant role in the coronation of Mexica rulers, as the ruler-initiate was awash in his patron deity’s symbolism expressed in his sacred bundle. Whether as adorned image or sacred bundle, the many deities of the Aztec world were worshipped frequently and extravagantly  – sometimes publicly


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and sometimes in homes. Ceremonies, although they varied from city-state to city-state across regions, nonetheless conformed to established calendrical cycles and followed prescribed formulas.

Public Ceremonies and Offerings Public ceremonies reinforced religious beliefs through overt and communal enactments that were repeated, predictable, and scripted: they translated cosmology into visible action. They also were often reenactments of the society’s signal myths. In some cases they were enlisted as instruments of the state, exalting and demonstrating city-state and imperial power and dominion. The most spectacular regular ceremonies were those performed each month (see Table 7.4). Each of these public ceremonies was characterized by its particular goal, sequenced activities, participants, and ritual paraphernalia. Despite these variations, the ceremonies typically began with fasting14 and a vigil by the participants (especially priests), followed by processions, singing, dancing, and music performed with drums, conch shells, rattles, bone rasps, and whistles or flutes (Figure 7.6). These colorful events often culminated in the offering of animals (usually quail), incense, and gifts (typically food) and/or human sacrifices. In contrast to the initial fasting, these ceremonies frequently finished with lavish feasting (Nicholson 1971: 431–433). Offerings were given in the spirit of reciprocity, with the expectation of some advantage, favor, or even military victory in exchange. Before going to war, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin ritually offered cloaks, jewels, feathers, and quail to the gods in anticipation that they would grant him success on the battlefield (Durán 1994: 475). Other offerings were made through tribute demands on conquered peoples; for instance, Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina required his “friendly rulers” (read “subjects”) to provide precious stones and jewels to be offered during a Templo Mayor renovation (Durán 1994: 227).The vast number, fine quality, and exotic sources of the offerings surrounding the Templo Mayor suggest that these materials arrived through special tribute assessments, longdistance trade, and acquisitions in marketplaces (Berdan 2007: 259). Other offerings, smaller ones of flowers and food, were delivered by local residents during specified ceremonial events, especially those connected to the solar calendar. As already mentioned, the majority (eleven) of these flamboyant ceremonies were geared toward ensuring rain and fertility. Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca commanded four other monthly ceremonies; in other communities, other patron deities would have assumed center stage. Other calendrically based ceremonies included rituals added at the end of every four years (dedicated to the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli); a ceremony called Atamalcualiztli (The Eating of Water Tamales),15 which was celebrated every eight years by fasting, elaborate dancing by costumed impersonators,16 and feasting on fruit tamales; and the anxiety-laden New Fire ceremony every fifty-two years.

Religion, Science, and the Arts

Figure 7.6.  A whistle or flute. Musical instruments were ubiquitous at Aztec ­ceremonies. (Photograph by Jennifer Berdan. Courtesy Field Museum, catalogue no. 241014.)

Certain more specialized rituals, with at least some public visibility, were geared to the 260-day calendar and required the participation of persons of particular status or occupation. For instance, maguey cultivators and traders celebrated on the day One Rabbit (a pulque day), seamstresses and painters took the day Seven Flower as their own, and merchants unabashedly displayed their wealth on Four Wind. On One Flower, the ruler was expected to bestow gifts on singers, warriors, and palace workers. And on that same day, as well as on One Reed and One Death, nobles enjoyed displaying their finery while dancing, singing, feasting, and making ritual offerings. Prisoners condemned to death did not look forward to One Rain and Four Wind, for those days were slated for executions. Beyond these scheduled religious spectacles and more specialized observances, special events meshing civic and religious goals and activities occurred sporadically. Coronations, royal funerals, the dedication of a major temple, and returning troops all served as appropriate reasons for a public extravaganza. Many of these required human sacrifices.

Ritual Human Sacrifice and Cannibalism No other aspect of Aztec culture fascinated and shocked sixteenth-century Europeans like the practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism. Perhaps it was



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Figure 7.7.  A human heart sacrifice. (From Nuttall 1903: folio 70r.)

the style of sacrifice that caught their attention, as the Europeans of the time were not squeamish about eviscerating their enemies or displaying their heads on pikes. The practice of human sacrifice, along with the worship of idols, also provided the Spaniards with a justification for conquest, both military and spiritual (López Austin and López Luján 2010). These customs were deeply embedded in Mesoamerican cultures, with a long history and broad distribution.17 Human sacrifice was enacted in a variety of ways. Most common was autosacrifice, in which penitents (frequently priests but occasionally the entire populace) pierced fleshy parts of their bodies with maguey spines or other sharp objects with the intent to draw and offer blood to a deity. Blood was considered divine, and hence a potent sacred offering. Many ceremonies also required the ultimate sacrifice – that of human life. Among these, the most common method was heart extraction (Figure  7.7). But particular ceremonies had their own styles: the fire god was honored with a fire sacrifice during which victims were cast into a fire before having their hearts extracted; rituals during the month of Ochpaniztli were punctuated by victims being shot with arrows; and children were drowned to propitiate Tlaloc, their abundant tears viewed as a favorable omen. During Tlacaxipehualiztli, the bravest captive warriors, armed only with feather-bladed cudgels, were pitted against fully armed Aztec eagle and jaguar knights, and ultimately defeated and sacrificed. Human sacrifices had three primary ceremonial contexts: those that offered deity impersonators, those that were designed to fulfill an individual or group vow, and those that carried undisguised political messages.A deity impersonator

Religion, Science, and the Arts took on the persona of a deity and at the moment of sacrifice was, in essence, deified. In one of the most remarkable of these, an unblemished young man was chosen to impersonate the god Tezcatlipoca. For a full year prior to his sacrifice he displayed his godly attire and went about playing a flute. One month before his sacrifice he was wed to four women representing goddesses, the five of them then going about singing and dancing.Yet on the appointed day he ascended the temple steps alone. His heart was extracted and offered to the sun, and he was decapitated and his head added to the prominent tzompantli, or skull rack (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 2, 68). Other sacrifices were ceremonially presented as offerings by persons or groups making a vow (and covering the expenses). In the most notable of these, an upwardly mobile, ambitious, and wealthy merchant (pochteca) would purchase a slave (man or woman), especially one skilled in song and dance. Following a complicated sequence of display, feasting, and offerings, the merchant consulted a soothsayer for a favorable sacrificial day, on which he displayed and offered his bathed, well-treated, and beautifully adorned slave. This, in essence, provided the merchant with a stage for parading his wealth and his ability to ultimately dispose of, indeed destroy, that wealth (see Berdan 2005: 120–121). This activity has a certain resemblance to a potlatch,18 in that the merchant exchanged wealth for social status. As the Empire expanded, sacrificial events became more and more spectacular, involving increasingly large numbers of sacrifices. It was customary for a newly selected ruler to mount a military campaign in order to bring back numerous sacrificial victims for his coronation ceremony. Other wars yielded captive warriors who were sacrificed en masse, and the dedication of a temple provided ample motivation for the capture of enemy warriors for large-scale sacrifices. Enemy, allied, and conquered rulers attended these displays of power, certainly designed to intimidate those who still opposed the Empire and those who might consider rebellion (see Chapter 5). It is primarily with respect to these politically motivated sacrificial spectacles that the controversial question of the extent of human sacrifice has arisen. The largest numbers recorded are for the dedication of the Templo Mayor in 1487: Durán (1994: 339) reports the astonishing figure of 80,400 captives sacrificed over four days, Torquemada (1969: vol. 1, 186) follows with 72,344, and the Codex Telleriano-Remenses (Quiñones Keber 1995: folio 39r) depicts 20,000 warrior sacrifices. All of these figures are extraordinary, and almost certainly inflated, simply given the practical limitations of such large numbers of sacrificial offerings, all still ritually performed. Michael Harner (1977) suggests that some 250,000 persons were sacrificed annually in fifteenth-century central Mexico (based on unpublished figures of Woodrow Borah) – an extraordinary figure. Usual estimates are closer to 20,000 annual sacrifices, still probably high (Berdan 2005: 124).Yet we remain adrift with this issue of scale, and archaeological excavations, while they do verify the practice of human sacrifice with



Aztec Society and Culture osteological and material remains, do not aid in determining its extent (see López Austin and López Luján 2010; Smith in press a). Why did the Aztecs, along with their predecessors and neighbors, make human sacrifice such an integral and intensive part of their ceremonial and political lives? There are both native and scholarly explanations for this practice. If the Aztecs themselves could be asked, they would first mention the necessity of debt payments to the gods, for the gods sacrificed themselves in the creation of the mortals’ fifth sun (see Case 7.1). The reenactment of signal myths reinforced this relationship with the gods; Huitzilopochtli as the sun, for example, required nourishment in the form of human blood to continually repeat his successful battle against the forces of the night and bring light and heat to the earth. The Aztecs also recognized a close relationship between life and death; human sacrificial deaths generated life in this endless cycle. In all of this, humans were obligated to offer their most precious possession: human blood, considered sacred and worthy of payment. These beliefs necessitated and perpetuated the practice of human sacrifice. But some modern scholars have looked for other explanations. A materialist explanation arose in the 1970s, propounded by Michael Harner (1977) and Marvin Harris (2011 [1977]). This approach, based on a search for natural causes, proposes that the Aztecs’ lack of herbivores for protein necessitated their practice of cannibalism and of human sacrifice to provide the bodies for these nutrients. Harner asserts that rapid Postclassic population growth reduced the amount of wild game available as sources of protein, leading to an increase in cannibalism. I and other Aztec scholars believe this approach to be misinformed and misguided.To be acceptable, this proposal must establish links among “(1) protein- and fat-deficient diet, (2) cannibalism to alleviate this problem, and (3) human sacrifice as the means to provide the general population with food” (Berdan 2005: 123–124). The existing evidence on Aztec human sacrifice and cannibalism does not support these links. First, the Aztec diet lacked neither protein nor fats. In the sixteenth century, thirty-two different types of edible fowl are recorded by one source alone and described as both abundant and very fatty (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 11, 25–39, 53–54). Edible fish, larvae, lacustrine animals, and domesticated turkeys and dogs were also abundant. Probably most significant was the easily stored maize–beans complex, which served as an excellent source of protein. It is highly unlikely that the Aztec diet was protein-deficient. As to the second point, if one follows the Harner–Harris position that cannibalism served to augment a proteindeficient diet, one must also conclude that this strategy would have been rather inefficient, since most cannibalism coincided with the harvests, when maize and beans were fresh and plentiful.The eating of human flesh was also selective in that only the limbs were consumed.The heads were displayed on skull racks, and the bodies (torsos) as well as dogs were fed to carnivores in the royal zoos (Díaz del Castillo 1963: 229). If protein was in such short supply for human

Religion, Science, and the Arts consumption, one wonders about this disposition. And in the last hours of the Spanish siege of Tenochtitlan, starving residents resorted to eating adobe and leather rather than consuming the many human bodies lying about (Ortiz de Montellano 1978: 613). Furthermore, Harner recognizes that the elite engaged in the greatest amount of cannibalism.Yet people on this rung of society also had access to the most protein-rich foods generally. How, then, might cannibalism solve a protein problem for commoners, the vast majority of the population, when these people participated rarely in cannibalism (see González Torres 1985: 81–82)? As to the third issue, the relationship between human sacrifice and cannibalism, there is no consensus on the extent of human sacrifice (as previously discussed), yet we can say that of those sacrificed, not all were consumed. In sum, “If cannibalism were causally tied to protein deficiency in the central Mexican population, it would have been at best a limited remedy for the least needful segment of the population” (Berdan 2005: 124). Human sacrifice, more than cannibalism, was demographically, economically, and politically significant. The demographic impact of human sacrifice lay mostly in its disproportionate targeting of adult males, therefore reducing at least temporarily the ability of a newly conquered city-state to mount a rebellion. In this vein, the massive sacrificial spectacles drew on captive warriors from areas beyond the Basin of Mexico, thus having a greater impact on those regions than on the Basin itself. It is worth noting that the increasing scale of human sacrifice coincided generally with the most energetic and successful militaristic efforts of the Aztec Empire. Whatever the motivations, human sacrifices were ritual offerings presented at the numerous temples during the innumerable public ceremonies. Other rituals, quite a bit tamer, abounded within every household of the realm, and with the exception of these ultimate sacrifices, they mirrored in many ways the public spectacles.

Domestic Rituals and More Offerings A great deal of ritual activity took place within the confines of individual homes, from ruler’s palace to farmer’s hut. Whether urban or rural, these domestic rituals were designed to ensure the well-being of the household residents and satisfy their particular needs. By looking at these rituals as “little traditions” (in the recently revived great tradition/little tradition framework; see McAnany 2002), we can appreciate their local goals while also recognizing their links to more encompassing state ceremonies. Virtually all of the grand, public ceremonies had one or more domestic components, being preceded or followed by household visiting, feasting, and ceremonial offerings. I see a continuum of ritual activities in these ceremonies, relying on prescribed events taking place in both household and statelevel contexts; household rituals were adapted to, were coordinated with, and



Aztec Society and Culture mirrored the broader ceremonial world. For instance, archaeological excavations of Aztec houses in Morelos have revealed ceramic censers similar to those found in temple contexts (see López Luján 2005: 105, 159–60, 185, 200), suggesting that the offering of incense in household rituals may have been common, resembling such offerings at the larger ceremonies (Smith 2002: 98–102). These censers may have been used on a daily basis at the household’s altar, especially early in the morning (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 2, 194–195; Motolinía 1971: 315), much as priests offered incense to deity images at the many temples. The idea of reciprocity predominated in households, just as it did on the more public ceremonial stage. Householders, usually mutual residents of a calpolli, exchanged among themselves everything from flowers and food to clothing and jewels, in expectation and reinforcement of bonds of mutual aid and support. On another plane, farmers would offer incense, pulque, food, and speeches to their agricultural tools, recognizing the help these implements gave the farmers in their work in, again, a ritual of reciprocity (Durán 1971: 431–432). Ethnohistoric sources (especially Sahagún and Durán) provide an enlightening look at a few individual monthly ceremonies with their public and domestic components. During the fourth monthly ceremony of Huey toçoztli, people began the celebrations by collecting maize stalks, fasting, and performing self-sacrifice in their own homes: “There, nobleman or commoner spent the day; this was done everywhere in their houses” (Sahagún 1997: 58). These activities were followed by public processions, temple ceremonies, and offerings. During Tlacaxipehualiztli (second month), the body of a captive who was publicly sacrificed was taken to his captor’s home for display and consumption. And in the ninth month, Tlaxochimaco, commoners gathered together and strung flowers, made tamales, and stayed up all night – all in their homes. At daybreak, they went out and adorned the deities with flowers. This was followed by feasting in homes and then by public singing and dancing, featuring achieved warriors and “women of the night.” At day’s end, everyone went home and continued to sing for the gods. In this month, public and household events were interspersed during the overall ceremony, back and forth, resulting in a rather seamless continuity of religious activity. There is a scholarly tendency to analytically separate these two types of ritual (public/state and domestic); I would agree that the Aztecs recognized the different arenas in the performance of these grand ceremonies but doubt that they made sharp distinctions in terms of ritual input and outcomes. It has yet to be ascertained to what extent the state imposed its dominant ideology and rituals on its populace, or to what extent the household ceremonies were locally developed traditions or innovations (see Brumfiel 1996; Smith 2002). On a somewhat different plane, we have seen that life cycle events were highly ritualized and were played out within household contexts. In addition to these activities, much household ritual revolved around divination, magic, and sorcery.

Religion, Science, and the Arts

Divination, Magic, and Curing Earlier, we asked how an individual Aztec person coped, day to day, in the face of distant, demanding, and sometimes capricious deities, coupled with the rigors and uncertainties of daily life. Some measure of comfort and sense of control derived from beliefs and rituals centered on divination, magic, and curing. These activities engaged the individual in proactive rituals, often through solicitation of the services of various specialized shamans. Seler (1991) specifies four types of Aztec magicians: fortune tellers (diviners), doctors and medicine men (shamans), magicians or sorcerers generally, and jugglers or conjurers. The Aztecs were very interested in foreseeing the future (who isn’t?), and this provided employment for a variety of skilled diviners or fortune tellers. Some cast maize kernels and beans on a mat, their arrangement yielding positive or negative signs (often to ascertain the course of an illness but also to locate a lost or stolen object). Another trained diviner tied and loosed knots; others interpreted dreams and visions; while still others read patterns of wind, water, and fire or the behavior of a snake (Seler 1991: 43–45; Durán 1994: 492–493). The activities of diviners often overlapped with those of doctors and shamans. These specialists aided invalids by casting lots, magically sucking out offending objects (such as an obsidian knife or pine splinter), or drawing out a worm from a person’s teeth. Another doctor might require a sick child to look into a special mirror or a bowl of water, the resulting vision providing a prognostication of the extent of the child’s illness (especially soul loss). Magicians such as these generally provided beneficial services. Others, sorcerers, were malevolent and antisocial. It was believed that some individuals, those born on the days One Wind and One Rain, were particularly disposed to a life of sorcery. If born on One Rain, for instance, individuals could transform themselves into other creatures.19 They were called tlacatecolotl (man owl) and would “assume the guise of an animal,” being “a destroyer of people; an implanter of sickness” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 31). Soul loss and the intrusion of a foreign object were believed to derive from the activities of these muchfeared sorcerers, and other magical specialists made a living by countering these malevolent forces; much to the point, a despised enemy might be disposed of through these means. Birth on the day One Wind also inclined a man to become a sorcerer, this time as a “dancer with the dead woman’s forearm” (the woman having died in first childbirth), which had strong magical powers. A female born on the same day could achieve the same results by disarticulating such a deceased woman’s foot bones (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 4, 101). Other sorcerers pursued their nefarious ways by making a person’s flesh fall off or by hypnotizing their victims. Jugglers or conjurers operated mostly by suggestion, with the Huaxteca especially skilled in these sleight-of-hand tricks. They were able to simulate,



Aztec Society and Culture for instance, a cottage afire, “a spring to appear to be filled with fish, and that they could actually cut themselves into pieces” (Seler 1991: 46). Others (not Huaxteca) could, for example, place maize kernels on a cloth and make them swell up, burst, and pop as though they were being properly roasted. These sorts of tricks were captivating, but they appear to have had few ramifications beyond payments to the performers and amusements for the audience. Most divinatory, magical, and curing activities were enacted at the household level, whether headed by a commoner farmer or an imperial ruler. So the second Motecuhzoma consulted “magicians, seers, and sorcerers” to help him through his fear of the newly arrived Spaniards. They were to ascertain the future especially through visions or dreams, but also by studying the heavenly bodies; divining by water, fire or wind; and casting maize kernels (Durán 1994: 492–493). In humbler homes, apparently most such rituals were in the hands of women as curers, midwives, and general household managers. Many of their efforts seem to have been directed toward female fertility deities, given the profusion of ceramic figurines representing these goddesses uncovered in domestic excavations (Smith 2002, in press a). Some such manipulative rituals, however, also apparently were enacted at special altars in public places. These relatively small stone platforms, decorated with skull and crossed bone motifs, were probably scenes where female curing specialists performed rituals aimed at the tzitzimime. In their more constructive moments, these deities (feared as celestial monsters during desperate times) were associated with fertility goddesses such as Cihuacoatl, Coatlicue, and Tlaltecuhtli (Klein 2000; Smith in press a). Also on the larger religious scene, distant Ometecuhtli resided as an original magician,Toci was celebrated publicly as the patroness of diviners and curers, Tezcatlipoca was a serious sorcerer (who saw all through his obsidian mirrors), and specialized shamans were enlisted to circumvent an overzealous or inattentive Tlaloc, holding hailstorms at bay or summoning rains. All of these efforts at influencing and manipulating powerful supernatural forces were only part of the Aztec formulas for coping with life’s uncertainties. These people also were keen observers of the natural world, practical implementers of their extensive knowledge, and, it seems, clever and successful scientific experimenters. Medicine as Empirical and Applied Science

Drawing heavily on both their Chichimec and agricultural experiences, the Aztecs displayed a detailed understanding of the structure and dynamics of the diverse natural world around them (see especially Cases 3.4, 4.1, and 4.2).They had a practical eye on the world, whether it be the movements of heavenly bodies, the growth of plants, the behaviors of animals, or the workings and maladies of the human body and mind.

Religion, Science, and the Arts


Figure 7.8.  Doctoring a head wound. (From Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, illus. 178. Courtesy University of Utah Press. Reproduced with permission.)

As expected, these understandings were filtered through their cultural lens. The Aztecs saw cultural analogies with nature through their metaphors, adages, omens, and riddles: a poor person was considered to be humble like a turtledove, an esteemed ruler provided protection like a cypress or silk cotton tree, a wanderer or fugitive had become like a rabbit or a deer, and a liar was likened to a coyote. If a weasel crossed one’s path it meant danger loomed. A rabbit entering one’s house foretold the loss of the house or the departure of the householder (running like a rabbit), while a skunk in one’s house presaged the resident’s death. And a riddle asked, “What is it that is a small blue gourd bowl filled with popcorn?” The answer: “One can see from our little riddle that it is the heavens” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 5, 165–171; book 6, 228, 252, 253, 232, 237). The Aztecs’ acute observations allowed them not only such clever sayings, but also provided them with a large repertoire of practical and useful knowledge – from familiarity with the heavens to geology to biology. We have a particularly rich record of their knowledge of the human body, health, and medicine. Medicine embraced both ritual and practical curing techniques. Some illnesses and injuries were attributed to the ire of the gods, others to the nefarious acts of sorcerers, and still others to natural causes (Román Berrelleza 2008; Ortiz de Montellano 1990). These were not cut-and-dried categories, as the same physical malady could have religious, magical, and natural causes, and cures from all three areas (Ortiz de Montellano 1990: 161). In the first two instances, supernatural appeasements and counter-sorcery measures were sought for remedies. On the practical dimension, illnesses attributed to natural causes were tackled by medicine, a form of applied science, in which the Aztecs used their astute observation and experimental skills to prevent diseases, cure ills, and heal injuries (Ortiz de Montellano 1990: 181). This empirical/ scientific dimension of curing recognized physical realities. The Aztecs and their neighbors faced a variety of medical issues, most notably wounds (primarily from military combat) (Figure 7.8), diseases such as arthritis and tuberculosis, ailments such as fevers and stomachaches, difficult childbirth, compromised mental states, and miscellaneous matters such as hair loss and insomnia (see Case 7.2). Large-scale epidemic diseases such as smallpox, measles, and typhus arrived with the Europeans. The highland peoples especially faced respiratory and gastrointestinal afflictions, while tropical lowlanders suffered disproportionately from parasites. Arthritis and

Aztec Society and Culture

248 Case 7.2  Medical Issues and Cures: A Sampler

The Aztecs were extremely well informed about their environment and enjoyed the benefits of an abundant pharmacopoeia to cure their ills and heal their wounds. The following table provides a small sampling of some of these natural remedies and procedures (please do not try these at home). I add two caveats: (1) only a few maladies are listed, for illustrative purposes, and (2) each of the remedies listed does not exhaust the range of cures known to Aztec medical practitioners for the specified ailment. For instance, just a brief scan of Hernández’s Historia natural (1959) reveals numerous additional remedies for fevers, respiratory ailments, and intestinal complaints. Medical Issue

Natural Material(s)


Head wound, puncture wound

Urine, maguey leaf sap, chipili leaves, egg. white

Broken skull

Maguey leaf sap

Broken leg or arm

Çacacili root, acocotli root, nopal root, liquidambar, maguey [root], [lime]

Loss of nose (severed)

Salt, bee honey

Snake bites, insect bites, scorpion stings


(1) Wash wound with urine; (2) apply hot maguey leaf sap; (3) if festers, add other ingredients. (1) Join the break with a bone awl; (2) apply maguey sap or grated green maguey leaf to wound. (1) Limb joined; (2) poultice of çacacili root applied; (3) wooden splints bound on; [or] (1) acocotli root and nopal root combined and placed on break; (2) limb bandaged with cloth; (3) limbs tightly bound on four sides with cords; (4) untied in 20 days; (5) then poultice of liquidambar, maguey [root] and lime applied; (6) hot bath taken when healed. (1) Sew nose back on with hair; (2) wash with salted bee honey; (3) if nose is lost, a new nose is made of something else [unspecified] (1) Cut into the site; (2) suck out the poison; (3) rub tobacco on the wound.

Religion, Science, and the Arts


Medical Issue

Natural Material(s)


Chest ailments, cough, shortness of breath

Chichicpatli bark from chichicquauitl tree, chile seeds, squash seeds, ezpatli herb, honey, tlacoxiloxochitl (root)


Chichipilli root, alum, acid water, sand tomato root, tacanalquilitl root, maize kernels, aitztoli root, marigolds

Skin sores

Pine resin, black beetles, tlatlamatl root, atlepatli leaves, itzcuinpatli leaves, urine, tlaquilin shoots, tlatlanquaye, quetzalylin shrub, aquahuitl trees

Intestinal parasites

Avocado, epazotl (epazote), squash seeds Maguey sap, yellow chile, gourd seeds

(1) Grind and cook first two herbs; (2) drink concoction 2–3 times, warm or in pulque; [or] consume a warm infusion of the next three ingredients; [or] peel and grind up final ingredient, boil it, and sip its juice with honey; whichever, (3) eat slowly. (1) Drink infusion of chichipilli root, alum, and acid water; (2) drink infusion of sand tomato root and tacanalquilitl root mixed with five maize kernels; (3) drink an infusion of aitztoli root and acid water, [or] marigold flowers and leaves taken as an infusion or with pulque. (1) Small sore removed with a poultice of pine resin and squashed black beetles; (2) later tlatlamatl root and pine resin, or atlepatli leaves applied (external use only); (3) take a hot bath with an infusion of itzcuinpatli leaves to lower body temperature, [or] wash sores with urine and then apply a plaster from the remaining four ingredients. These ingredients were taken in an infusion. (1) Drink mixture of maguey sap, one yellow chile, and shelled gourd seeds; (2) take a sweatbath.


Sources: Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 140–141, 145–146, 151, 153, 157, 159–162; book 11, 77, 87–94, 131, 133, 135, 144, 174–175, 179, 193, 199; Hernández 1959: vol. 2, 11–12, 58, 154, 165, 170, 376, 386–388; Gates 1939: 37, 75–76, 83, 84; Bye and Linares 1999: 8, 12–13; Parrilla Alvarez 2003: 67, 95, 116, 154. Additional information on the specific plants, as well as alternative modes of curing, can be found in these sources.

Aztec Society and Culture


Figure 7.9. Herbal medicines for sale in a twentieth-century Mexican marketplace. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.)

rheumatism affected people over the age of 30–35, while young children most often succumbed to dysentery and diarrhea (Ortiz de Montellano 2001: 216). All of these and more are recorded in ethnohistoric documents. In addition, recent analyses of admittedly small samples of skeletal remains indicate that at least some children suffered from iron-deficiency anemia caused by dietary deficiencies or intestinal parasites, as well as from dental problems deriving from poor hygiene or infections. Adults experienced similar dental issues but also, beginning by age 30, were beset with joint deterioration (such as arthritis) and bone degeneration caused by, for instance, tuberculosis. The skulls and limbs of adult males, exhibiting dislocations, fractures, and infected wounds, stand as mute evidence of participation in a warrior society (Román Berrelleza 2008: 61–65). Prevention was a part of practical medicine, and practical life.The first line of defense was an adequate diet, resulting in a relatively low incidence of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer (Ortiz de Montellano 1990: 121;  2001: 215). The Aztecs also emphasized hygiene, bathing frequently, providing clean drinking water, and implementing effective waste disposal systems.20 However, it appears that assumed levels of nutrition and hygiene were not necessarily always maintained; malnutrition and illnesses did occur, as evidenced by the skeletal and dental remains of children and adults. So while detailed procedures existed for dental care (including washing with urine, wormwood, salt, chile, and various roots and tree barks; rubbing with charcoal, white ashes, and white honey; and scraping), physical remains reveal problems from excessive tartar to cavities (Gates 1939: 27; Román Berrelleza 2008). Beyond diet and hygiene, preventative measures were taken to avoid specific medical problems, involving (and sometimes combining) magical, behavioral, and practical measures. For example, childhood stammering and lisping were avoided by weaning children early, avocado seeds were employed to prevent hair loss, chewing gum

Religion, Science, and the Arts maintained clean teeth, and pregnant women enlisted the services of experienced midwives and were cleansed in sweatbaths to ensure successful births. Nursing mothers were advised to shun avocados lest their infants become ill (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 146–147, 151; Bye and Linares 1999: 8). And tobacco was smoked at the end of a feast, as a digestive aid. In another vein, a rank-and-file warrior (the vast majority of troops were rank and file) entering the battlefield went protected with a shield and quilted cotton armor covering only his torso, while his more achieved colleague wore additional limbenclosing protection and a headdress along with a shield (see Case 8.1). Still, this provided only partial defense against enemy weaponry, and severe wounds from these violent encounters most commonly were suffered on the head and limbs and included bashes, gashes, and puncture wounds. The selection of a cure was based at least in part on notions of “hot” and “cold” and the balance or equilibrium between the two.21 The selection of particular cures may have had an empirical base – that is, a curative herb was seen to be “cold” because it was effective against a “hot” malady, the label determined by “habit, experience, and custom” (Chevalier and Sánchez Bain 2003: 7–8). Therefore, doctors, midwives, and other medical practitioners selected their curative potions and methods on the basis of extensive training, personal experience, and available pharmacological materials (especially plants). The knowledge of these specialists is impressive, especially considering that a given plant could often relieve more than one ailment and a given ailment could often be relieved by more than one curative treatment.22 Some of these remedies are sold today in Mexican marketplaces (Figure 7.9). The efficacy of several of these curative elements has been verified scientifically. According to Bye and Linares (1999: 5), of 118 plants with ethnohistorically recorded curative properties, 85 percent have been shown in the modern era to be medically efficacious. For instance, the Aztecs used white zapote fruit (Casimiroa edulis) as a sleep aid, and the seeds of this fruit have indeed been shown to contain compounds with sedative qualities.23 Guayaba (Psidium guajava) leaves have been scientifically shown to relieve diarrhea and other abdominal maladies, as claimed by the Aztecs. Tepescohuite (Mimosa tenuiflora), used to relieve skin burns and wounds, contains chemical compounds that provide antibiotics and promote cell regeneration (Rivera Arce 1999: 57–59). Maguey leaves were commonly used in healing wounds: for a broken skull or stab wound, the Aztecs applied hot maguey leaf sap (with or without salt), several times if the wound festered (e.g., Hernández 1959: vol. 1, 349; Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 140–141, 161–162). Maguey leaf sap has been shown to effectively inhibit the growth of several bacteria commonly associated with wounds (Viesca Treviño 1999: 34–35; Ortiz de Montellano 1990: 182–185). This was convenient, considering the frequent ritual use of maguey thorns in bloodletting rituals.


Aztec Society and Culture


Arts in the Service of Religion and the State

A great deal of artistic and intellectual energy was expended in supporting, bolstering, and reinforcing state and religious goals. Pictorial books, oral narratives, and monumental stone sculptures contributed to maintaining state institutions, promoting imperial values, exalting rulers, recording histories, recounting myths, invigorating religious beliefs and rituals, and reinforcing ethnic traditions.

Books and Writing In Aztec society, as elsewhere worldwide, books provided a means of recording, storing, and transmitting information in a specific and visible form. Aztec scribes recorded tributes; censuses; maps; local and imperial histories; rulers’ genealogies; and religious, calendrical, and astrological information. These painted books, now called codices, were maintained in temples and impressive royal libraries, and were also possessed by noble families and calpolli leaders (Boone 2000a: 22). They were constructed as tiras, or screenfolds (long continuous accounts spreading over several pieces of paper or animal hide, glued together, and then rolled or folded accordion-style), in separate sheets (convenient for tribute records and maps), or as lienzos (large rectangular records, often of community histories and land rights, painted on pounded maguey fiber or cotton). The most common book material, amatl (amate) paper, was fashioned from the inner bark of amaquauitl, or fig (Ficus sp.), trees. Strips of soaked bark were laid out, grid-style, and pounded so that the fibers would mesh together (much as in the manufacture of papyrus) (see Figure  1.8). These sheets were then dried and treated with various materials to yield a firm and uniform writing surface. Paintings were usually outlined in black and embellished with a kaleidoscope of colors, primarily red, green, blue, and yellow. It is no surprise that pictorial writing itself was called in tlilli in tlapalli, “the black, the red.” Whatever their specific materials or content, books recorded and stored information central to royal and religious concerns and enterprises, and “embodied imperial ideology” (Boone 1996: 181). Genealogies affirmed and reaffirmed rulers’ rights and legitimacy. Local and imperial histories validated and solidified a group’s heritage and entitlements.Tribute accounts tallied local and state wealth. Maps defined territories and identified specific physical features (often serving as a base for recounting historical events) or documented the lay of distant lands for military purposes. Censuses accounted for human resources and aided in the allocation of labor to community and state projects. And religious, calendrical, and astrological records provided a foundation for ritual events. In a broad sense, books stored knowledge: they “provided the model, the standard, the example” for culture and civilization (Boone 2000a:

Religion, Science, and the Arts






Figure 7.10.  Aztec glyphs: (a) cave, (b) palace, (c) deer’s foot, (d) the name Atonal. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992, vol. 4, folios 24v, 5v, 42r, 7v.)

21). Books were elite records produced for elite purposes.They were also controlled by the elite. As a case in point, Itzcoatl (r. 1426–1440) reportedly burned existing books when he came to power, effectively erasing his predecessors’ legacy and history (a political strategy well known in world history) (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 191). Aztec writing was nonalphabetic, using pictorial elements in three distinct ways: pictographic,24 ideographic, and phonetic. Pictographs were used as straightforward depictions of things, people, and events that closely resembled their referents. So a jaguar or its head indicated a jaguar, a rabbit a rabbit, and a griddle a griddle (see Figures C5.3 and 6.7). A warrior grasping a foe by his hair represented a battlefield capture, and a burning and toppling temple indicated conquest – both of these events were replicated in real life (see Figure  5.3). Much as they were depictions of reality, pictographs still conformed to the culture’s perceptions and stylistic conventions: a cave was as much an underworld entryway as a physical feature, and the standardized decoration identifying a palace was readily seen “on the ground” (Figure 7.10 a, b). Images were also used more abstractly, as ideographs, representing a particularly notable feature or essential quality of the whole. For instance, a picture of the sun could signify heat or light, a shield with arrows indicated war or conquest (Figure 5.3), and a noble’s headband stood for the noble himself (Figure  7.10b). Some ideographic glyphs were more arbitrary: a deer’s foot represented flight, and four connected dots provided the concept of “day” (Figure 7.10c, d). Ideographic glyphs could also be used to convey metaphors; the water-fire stream on the feathered coyote shield (Figure C4.2) stands for in atl in tlachinolli, “water, burned field,” a metaphor for war. Writing was further enhanced by the use of a limited number of phonetic glyphs. Phoneticism took the form of rebus writing, relying on homonyms. For instance, in the toponym for Tochpan, a banner (pantli) is drawn to stand for the sound pan and its alternative meaning, “on,” yielding “On the Rabbit” (Figure C5.3, upper left]. The curve (col-) on a mountaintop prompts the sound “col,” identifying the town as Colhuacan (Figure C4.1). The sound “a” was frequently indicated by the symbol for water (atl), and the sound “o” was expressed by one or more footprints, from ohtli, “road.”

Aztec Society and Culture






Figure C7.3. Glyphic versions of the name Moquihuix: (a) from Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 19r; (b) from Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, illus. 21, courtesy University of Utah Press, reproduced with permission; (c) from Codex Telleriano-Remensis, folio 36v, drawing by Jennifer Berdan; (d) from Dibble 1981: vol. 1, 22, courtesy University of Utah Press, reproduced with permission.

Case 7.3  How to Write a Ruler’s Name: Moquihuix of Tlatelolco Moquihuix (Drunk Face or Drunken Lord) ruled Tlatelolco from 1467 to 1473. He unwisely warred with the Mexica of neighboring Tenochtitlan and died plummeting from atop his city’s central temple. He appears in several pictorial documents, each time his name rendered by a different glyph or constellation of glyphs. All of these documents, with the likely exception of the Matrícula de Tributos, date from Spanish colonial times. I provide here a few examples of these name glyphs, with the intention of exemplifying variation, flexibility, and fluidity in scribal repertoires and usages (Figure C7.3). 1.  The Codex Mendoza (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 3, folios 10r, 19r)and the related Matrícula de Tributos (1980: folio 2r) show Moquihuix and his name a total of three times. His glyphic name in all of these depictions consists of his face, partly painted red, with a curved nose ornament and numerous dots in place of hair. His name can be translated from this complex glyph as “Drunk Face”: mocuiqui (he who is ill from too much drinking) is represented by the dots representing octli or pulque, and ixtli (face) provides the name’s final syllable (-ix). The noseplug, associated with the octli god Ometochtli (Two Rabbit), reinforces the interpretation of the dots as this fermented beverage. The Codex Azcatitlan (1995: folio 36) depicts Moquihuix’s fatal fall, and Boone (2000a: 226) suggests that a vomiting face attached to Tlatelolco’s place name sign represents Moquihuix (again mocuiqui and -ix). In this variant, drunkenness is represented by vomiting rather than by the octli imagery. 2.  Sahagún’s Florentine Codex (1950–1982: book 8, illus. 21) illustrates this ruler with an even simpler glyph: an eye.The eye (ixtelolotli) is used frequently to represent the sound -ix- (for “face”), and in this case the scribe must have felt it sufficiently informative to abbreviate this ruler’s longer name to its final syllable.

Religion, Science, and the Arts 3.  Codex Telleriano-Remensis (Quiñones Keber 1995: folio 36v, drawing by Jennifer Berdan) follows a different strategy, identifying Moquihuix with a bowl of bubbling octli, writing the first part of his name but omitting the last. 4.  Codex en Cruz (Dibble 1981: vol. 1, 22)  shows Moquihuix’s name as a combination of mousetrap, montli (for mo-) and eye (-ix), a homonym for face (ixtli). In this case, the scribe phonetically highlighted the first and final syllables of his name. Each of these variants selected one or more phonetic portion of Moquihuix’s name to represent glyphically. Disambiguating these glyphs required extensive prior knowledge on the part of the reader, as well as an ability to understand and interpret context.

All of these devices were used together to enrich visual communication, whether rendered on paper, cloth, stone objects, walls, feather mosaics, or some other medium. The trained and experienced reader generally used the written images as mnemonic devices to expand description or narrative. These readings may not have been terribly uniform or standardized: the writing system’s nonalphabetic character often enough resulted in variable interpretations.25 As just one example, a footprint could be read at least as a road, a bridge, travel, the sound “o,” or the direction in which to read the codex itself, and different readers may well have interpreted this symbol differently (Berdan 1992a: 100). Indeed, Prem (2004: 42) suggests that imprecise or multiple readings of pictures and glyphs were the rule rather than the exception. Variation, flexibility, and fluidity were hallmarks of this writing system (see Case 7.3).

Oral Expression and Philosophy Pictorial and oral expression were inextricably intertwined (Boone 2000a: 21). Indeed,“the written and visual narratives that have survived to this day were only complete when they were performed together with their corresponding oral traditions” (Navarrete 2011: 176). These oral discourses included poetry, songs, sacred chants, religious dance-dramas, historical renditions, and huehuetlatolli (words of the ancients or words of the elders; simply put, advice).They enhanced the veracity, authenticity, and solemnity of visual texts by usually being performed in sacred contexts and by their ability to supersede defacement or destruction, the not uncommon fate of monuments or texts (see Navarrete 2011: 191). Performers and narrators could come from all walks of life, depending on their participation in particular events. Some ceremonies required singing and dancing by a large number of people, who learned these performances in the cuicacalli. Others drew on professional singers who, like celebrated orators, exhibited clear voices, keen memories, and creativity (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 29).The most renowned of these performers were employed by rulers



Aztec Society and Culture to laud “their feats, victories, conquests, genealogies, and their extraordinary wealth” (Durán 1971: 299), a common means of self-promotion by leaders throughout history. Other singers glorified the gods by composing, teaching, and caring for sacred songs at the many temples. Additional oral genres drew on the skills of well-trained narrators. Exquisite oral expression was highly regarded in Aztec culture – recall that a ruler was called tlatoani, or “speaker.” The “good narrator” offered “pleasing words, joyful words, he has flowers on his lips. . . . His speech overflows with advice . . . from him come noble language and careful sentences” (León-Portilla 1969: 27). He was the oral version of the fine featherworker. He was also certainly trained in a calmecac and most often came from a noble household. Songs, music, dances, and recitations were combined in major religious ceremonies, some of which featured spectacular dramatic productions and performers disguised as deities, eagles, jaguars, monkeys, birds, butterflies, enigmatic Huaxtecs, and other personas. Some of these were serious and highly religious, reinforcing the people’s relations with their deities. Others had a humorous tint: one featured a “simpleton . . . who pretended to understand all his master’s words backward, turning around his words” (Durán 1971: 297). These dramas, transformed by Christian themes, continued to be both popular and extravagant after the Spanish conquest (Burkhart 2011; Chapter 8). Among the Aztecs’ richest oral traditions was poetry, which was closely related to songs and chants popular in religious rituals. But while songs and chants had to conform to formal ritual dictates and the specific demands of deities, poetry (especially lyric poetry)26 allowed the composer and narrator more freedom of expression. Some poems were created by renowned rulers such as Nezahualcoyotl and his son Nezahualpilli of Texcoco. These and other Aztec philosopher-poets were introspective thinkers, and they grappled with profound matters of life and death and the very nature of human existence. So the poet Cuauhtencoztli asked: Are men perhaps real? Soon our song will not be real. What is standing? What will come about? (León-Portilla and Shorris 2001: 86)

Poets also dealt with more everyday matters, such as the fleeting joy of friendship and love, the glory of war, and the illustriousness of their own history: We have come up like the spring grass; It sprouts, it revives our heart; Our bodies are flowers, Some blossom, then wither . . . (León-Portilla and Shorris 2001: 99)

Although Aztec culture provided its people with well-defined guidelines for living and a powerful religious doctrine focused on fate, some intellectuals

Religion, Science, and the Arts nonetheless expressed doubt, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and hope through their oral creations.

Monumental Sculpture Much as writing and recitations gave pictorial and oral life to Aztec history and beliefs, sculptures presented many of the same themes in stone: like books and narrations, sculptures focused on the achievements of powerful rulers and the glory of the gods. And the sculptors themselves were no less skilled in their craft; the good stonecutter was “of skilled hands . . . accomplished . . . labors with dexterity, with dexterous judgment” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 27–28). Conversely, the inept stoneworker did not conform to these high standards and had a “lame, feeble arm” and was “a crooked cutter” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, 28). Teamwork was evident: in producing the most monumental works, several sculptors were required.27 They were capable of designing and executing well-integrated sculptures by the application of highly standardized techniques and styles. These techniques and styles, according to Umberger (1996: 166), were developed in concert with the growth of the Empire itself. The sculptors worked basalt, diorite, andesite, and greenstone with a variety of tools, primary among which were saws, blades, chisels, wedges, hammers, drills, and various abrasive materials. Monumental sculptures were also fashioned of wood (as documented for idols) and ceramics (such as the remarkable eagle warriors, more than 5½ feet tall, encountered in the House of Eagles beside Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor). The most prominent sculptural themes revolved around religion and politics (see Cases 1.2 and 5.2). Freestanding religious sculptures depicted deities, masks, scaled-down temples, time, and the cosmos (Figure C1.2), symbolic animals (such as snakes and frogs), and ritual objects (such as a carved year bundle). Some served as receptacles for human hearts in sacrificial rituals. Reliefs also portrayed deities, myths, skulls, the cosmos, and ritual events (see Figure 7.2). Monumental sculptures also served state goals. A ruler was memorialized in stone, significant royal deeds and transitions were commemorated in reliefs, battles were recounted, warriors honored, and human standard-bearers stood at the ready in the central precinct. In a world where politics and religion were mutually supportive, a single object readily served both masters. For example, enormous sacrificial stones provided the stage for ritual sacrifices, celebrating the strength of the Empire as battlefield captives were offered upon them. And stylized bowls (quauhxicalli, literally “eagle gourd bowl”) received human hearts for the gods while exalting the power of the militaristic Empire. More mundane subjects, most still laden with symbolism, were also portrayed in sculptures, albeit not on such a colossal scale. Common subjects were human beings (including commoners), animals, plants, and various objects such as drums and shields. One could argue that most of these also carried



Aztec Society and Culture religious and/or political meanings: a scorpion, bat, spider, and owl carved on a stone box were frightful denizens of the night (Pasztory 1983: 245); jaguars, eagles, and coyotes symbolized elite warrior cadres; frogs and toads were associated with earth and agricultural fertility; dogs played an important role in a deceased’s underworld journey; monkey was a day name in the 260-day ritual calendar; grasshopper was part of a place name – but a flea, fish, gourd, and a man holding a cacao pod are a bit harder to explain symbolically, and it is not clear how these might have been used or displayed. Perhaps the sculptors of these and similar objects were rather like the lyric poets, flexing their creative muscles. Religious, scientific, intellectual, and artistic activities were central to the Aztec way of life. Much as they were intertwined, they also played significant roles in other aspects of this dynamic civilization. The final chapter of this book highlights these broader connections, especially in the context of a rapidly changing world both before and after the Spanish conquest.

C hap t e r   8 T h e A z te c Wo r l d : A n I n te g rated V iew

The sick person said . . . And a feathered cloak of mine, with duck feathers, will also be sold . . . and two very fine cotton cloaks will be sold . . . one of them of yellow cotton, and one with a basket-flower design.. . . And the shield with 200 quetzal plumes, let it be as it is; it is to be in the keeping of Diego and Bautista, and a coyote’s head (headdress) with crest device will also be so kept . . . and the monkey [of feathers] with the pheasant’s head (device). Testament [will] of don Julián de la Rosa,Tlaxcallan, 1566; in Anderson et al. 1976: 44–53

Throughout, this book has stressed the complexity and interconnectedness of the many facets of the Aztec world: demography both required and supported complex polities, economic production and distribution underwrote imperial bureaucracies, trade and markets extended standards of living and the Empire itself, social statuses were reinforced by political policy, and religious dictates, politics, and religion reinforced one another in symbol and ceremony – the list of connections goes on and on. And these were not static conditions. Rather, the Aztec world was an intensely dynamic one, with dramatic changes discernible even within the short life span of the Empire. Although these complex and dynamic relationships can be readily seen throughout the book, I would like to place particular emphasis on them by presenting here, in the book’s final chapter, three extended case studies, each revolving around a particular theoretical concept. The first focuses on military regalia, expanding on this small arena to illustrate the manner in which various dimensions of Aztec life were interwoven via the theme of inalienable wealth. The second considers the Aztec scene as a world system, viewing the imperial realm and beyond in interrelated geographic, economic, linguistic, political, social, and symbolic terms. These relations were not entirely one-way or one-sided; indeed, the Empire itself was influenced by external areas while it was extending its own political and economic hegemony.The third takes a close look at Aztec culture 259


Aztec Society and Culture under the stress of a conquest by outsiders. Having become accustomed to their position as conquerors, how did Aztecs, as individuals and as a collectivity, respond and adjust to being the conquered? How did they adapt to the new rulers of the land with their different culture, explicit demands, and unfamiliar technology and ideas? Emblems of Prestige and Wealth: Aztec Warrior Regalia as Inalienable Wealth

The concept of inalienable wealth consists of several dimensions. Briefly stated, inalienable possessions serve as symbolic and historic repositories; they legitimate authority and identities, encourage heterogeneity and differences, and exhibit absolute value. Whatever their individual economic history, these objects maintain connections with the identity of the original owner. If given away, they continue to carry ties to that original owner, setting up symbolic and practical obligations between donor and receiver (see Weiner 1985, 1992). Recall that Aztec society was highly militaristic. There were no standing forces, but the Triple Alliance was capable of mobilizing vast armies, drawing on its own reserves as well as those of earlier conquered and obligated peoples. Organized into a multitude of variously sized city-states, the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, their allies, and their adversaries met frequently on the battlefield. If the imperial armies were victorious, they carried away spoils of war, prisoners for sacrifice, and promises of sustained tribute payments; their vanquished enemies were obligated to pay those tributes, surrender many of their fine warriors, aid in further Triple Alliance wars, and maintain a generally subservient stance relative to the imperial powers. On a personal level, battlefield engagements were quite individual, and hand-to-hand combat was expected. Young men, nobles, and commoners were all trained in the martial arts and were expected to demonstrate courage, aggressiveness, and energy on the battlefield. The incentive to exert individual effort was provided primarily in the form of public renown and military advancement; these were established and sealed through the bestowing of specifically designed cloaks and military regalia by the ruler in recognition of courageous achievements in the polity’s battles. On ceremonial occasions, these awards publicly announced the warrior’s exploits. In practice, specifically designed clothing, costumes, and devices corresponded to the number of enemy captives a warrior secured and offered for ritual sacrifice (Case 8.1). He wore his résumé into battle and during special ceremonies. To what extent, and in what ways, does this warrior apparel belong to the world of inalienable possessions and wealth? How might the dimensions of inalienable wealth shed light on the role of warrior regalia in the Aztec world and, by extension, on other aspects of Aztec life?

The Aztec World: An Integrated View

Figure C8.1.  Rewards in cloaks and military devices earned by courageous warriors. (From Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 64r.)


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262 Case 8.1 The Value of Things 2: Rewards for Warriors

Aztec warrior insignia consisted of a feathered warrior suit (tlahuiztli) or skirted suit (ehuatl), along with a headdress and/or back device and a shield. These devices entered the imperial ruler’s coffers as periodic tribute to be redistributed by him to deserving warriors and high-ranking military officers (Berdan and Anawalt 1992; vol. 3, folio 64r; Alvarado Tezozomoc 1975a: 549). Worn in military and ceremonial contexts, each style represented a specific achievement (number of battlefield captures), as follows (see Figure C8.1): For capturing one enemy on the battlefield, the warrior is awarded a flowerdesigned cape. For capturing two enemies on the battlefield, the warrior is awarded an orange cape with a red border, and a cuextecatl (Huaxtec) warrior costume. For capturing three enemies on the battlefield, the warrior is awarded a “jewel of Ehecatl” cape and a papalotl (butterfly) back device. For capturing four enemies on the battlefield, the warrior is awarded a cloak with a diagonal division in black and orange, and an ocelotl (jaguar) warrior costume. For capturing five enemies on the battlefield, the warrior is awarded an Otomí style warrior costume and back device, and titled Otomí. For capturing six enemies (especially those of Huexotzinco) on the battlefield, the warrior is awarded a warrior costume and pamitl (banner) back device, along with the title Quachic. (The Codex Mendoza [Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4, folio 64r])

Symbolic and Historic Repositories Inalienable properties serve as symbolic repositories of past histories, whether they be cosmological, dynastic, genealogical, or ethnic. Essentially, inalienable properties document meaningful social and temporal connections (Weiner 1985: 210). Aztec warriors displayed their martial regalia on military and ceremonial occasions. Worn on the battlefield, martial insignia heralded the achievements of the wearer who, “well armed and dressed in spectacular war attire, with many colored feathers over the quilted cotton armor . . . went into the field” (Durán 1994: 184). The officers took the lead, displaying splendid devices and providing a rallying point for their forces.1 Beyond this, these costumes embodied an entire constellation of historical and cultural potencies, “making people and things more than they are” (Weiner 1985: 224). Wearing these devices enhanced the warriors’ perceived power over their enemies, who, of course, were likewise attired and should have felt equally empowered. Some fear surely accompanied these beliefs: prior to a major battle, a captain addressed his Aztec forces by saying, “Consider also that you will not be fighting jaguars or pumas or demons, nor do they have

The Aztec World: An Integrated View mouths so large that they will swallow you. They are men of flesh and bones, as we are” (Durán 1994: 163). And yet the Aztecs were quite content to feel empowered by their own devices  – they wore these “to inspire fear in the enemies” (Alvarado Tezozomoc 1975a: 335; Seler 1992: 57). In Seler’s words (1992: 58), these insignia were “clearly intended to cause the wearer to appear as a frightful character, or to endow him with the power of a dreaded being.” Some of this power derived from the historical and cosmological symbolism attached to these regalia. This symbolism was not an Aztec innovation, but rather derived from earlier times deeply respected by the Aztec latecomers. For instance, coyote, jaguar, and eagle symbolism were prominent at Teotihuacan, a city of immense historical and cosmological significance to the Aztecs (Pasztory 1997; Olko 2005: 252–253). Butterfly symbolism also harked back to Teotihuacan and to Tula (Taube 2000, 2011; Olko 2005: 259). Beyond such mythical/historical connections, Aztec martial insignia also embodied frequent allusions to specific supernaturals. For instance, tzitzimitl insignia represented fearful stellar demons and “must have been intended to bring a terrifying effect on the enemy” (Olko 2005: 256). Butterfly (papalotl) devices were associated with the goddesses Xochiquetzal and Chantico, Cuextecatl insignia with the goddess Teteo inan (and the Huaxtecs), quaxolotl array with the deity Xolotl, and the “starry sky” insignia with Quetzalcoatl and the morning or evening stars (Seler 1992: 35–36, 50–54; Olko 2005: 252–257). These were potent companions indeed to carry into battle. Capture of martial regalia in battle was a notable feat. During pochteca and oztomeca military encounters along the southern Pacific coast, these aggressive Basin of Mexico merchants managed to capture three specific types of military devices from their enemies, temporarily wearing them in battle themselves and vanquishing their foes (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, 6). Impressively, they defeated powerful enemy eagle and jaguar warriors in these engagements. Following the war, the successful merchants presented the captured devices to the Mexica ruler Ahuitzotl. This event suggests a decrease in the power of the conquered group as symbolized by the seizure and use of these devices by the victorious merchants and a transfer of control of these symbols to the Aztec emperor.2 Similarly, the ruler Axayacatl reportedly received Cuextecatl (Huaxtec) warrior regalia from defeated Huaxtecs and then incorporated them into the Mexica martial repertoire (Olko 2005: 254; Seler 1992: 51). And Ahuitzotl’s later forays into Huaxacac landed him a nice variety of named warrior insignia by virtue of conquest (Alvarado Tezozomoc 1975a: 548–549).3 The capture and rather freewheeling adoption of enemy regalia may have been a long-standing and fairly common practice, since the same styles were broadly distributed among many different groups throughout central Mexico by the time of the Spanish arrival (Olko 2005: 286). Aztec warriors later wearing captured insignia on the battlefield made a powerful and intimidating statement of the extent of their domination (Kenneth Hirth, personal communication 2012).



Aztec Society and Culture Symbolically laden warrior devices were also displayed on specific ceremonial occasions, at least in Tenochtitlan. For instance, eagle and jaguar warriors attacked scantily armored opponents in well-scripted gladiatorial sacrifices during the month of Tlacaxipehualiztli (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 2, 47–56; Durán 1971: 177–180), and accomplished warriors wearing butterfly military devices offered their captives in a fire sacrifice during the month of Xocotl huetzi (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 2, 113).4 In these examples, public recognition was granted brave warriors during major religious ceremonies. That recognition entailed the warriors’ performance of pivotal ritual activities – they took center stage in their dazzling warrior array, boasting their achievements, and proclaiming godly qualities. Religion and politics intertwined.

Symbolic and Practical Obligations between Donor and Receiver, Encouraging Heterogeneity and Legitimating Authority and Identities The concept of inalienable wealth also involves the authentication and maintenance of hierarchical relations. It “authenticates difference,” sustains social hierarchies, and proclaims control over others (Weiner 1985: 224). Apparently only a ruler had the prerogative to bestow and distribute warrior insignia to deserving individuals. Gifts of martial attire, therefore, were decidedly one-way: they signaled and reinforced the hierarchical relations between giver and receiver. In bestowing these insignia, the Aztec ruler drew on ancient and revered symbolism to enhance his own position and motivate his subjects. These were personal bestowals, as “the king himself presented [the warrior] with a shield and a cuirass of fine featherwork” (Durán 1971: 198). With each gift, the ruler reinforced his exalted position and control over others. Reminiscent of this idea, in the quote at the beginning of this chapter, the military devices owned by don Julián were to be “kept,” not sold. Martial regalia were bestowed on brave warriors, high-ranking military officers, and allied rulers before, during, and after military engagements.While still in Tenochtitlan, the Mexica ruler summoned his mayordomo and the mayordomos of subject city-states and ordered them to deliver to him “all the costly devices” housed in his storehouses (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 51, 65). The ruler himself then adorned the warriors who had already proved themselves. The ruler’s mayordomos carried additional devices directly to the battlefield, where the ruler bestowed them on other brave warriors as well as on allied or conquered rulers.5 And then once again, following a successful battle, the ruler granted insignia to his high-ranking officers and distinguished warriors (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 53; Alvarado Tezozomoc 1975a: 549). These were immediate, one-way symbolic-material rewards that nonetheless entailed clearly understood obligations of future loyalty and service on the part of the recipient. On one battlefield occasion, the awardees “were highly pleased and impressed by this action [the granting of insignia] and everyone

The Aztec World: An Integrated View swore allegiance to the king . . . if necessary [they] could die in his service during that war” (Durán 1994: 377). Martial attire was also granted during ceremonial events. Valiant warriors, those who had secured captives on the battlefield, were publicly and ceremonially awarded their insignia by the ruler during the monthly ceremonies of Ochpaniztli and Tlacaxipehualiztli. And courageous warriors were granted yellow cotton armor and designed shields by the ruler during the month of Panquetzaliztli (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 2, 123, 124; Durán 1971: 183). Aztec society was extremely status-conscious, and this little realm involving martial insignia was no exception. However accomplished they were in battle, nobles and commoners were treated differently in the matter of rewards. Durán (1971: 195–200) states that this difference was signaled by separate titles, bestowal ceremonies, and specific attire. For instance, nobles reportedly were granted costumes of featherwork, while achieved commoners received attire made of animal skins (Durán 1971: 200). This is questionable, as it appears that military costumes and devices were customarily constructed of feathers; perhaps more likely is the possibility that commoner attire was made of “ordinary” rather than “precious” feathers (see Codex Mendoza [Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 4]). Whether in military or ceremonial contexts, these acts of gift giving highlighted and cemented essential yet lopsided links between the ruler and his elite military cadre and achieved commoner warriors. The actual military devices and insignia served as specific physical authentications of these ties, responsibilities, power relations, and social distinctions.6

Maintaining Connections with the Identity of the Original Owner A further dimension of inalienable properties is that “they are perceived to belong in an inherent way to their original owners” (Weiner 1985: 210). This dimension of inalienable wealth is the most weakly demonstrated in the Aztec case. Granted, the ruler personally and publicly bestowed military honors, and the insignia were laden with responsibilities to the ruler on the part of the recipients. But the insignia themselves appear to have been tied not to a particular ruler, but rather to dynasties, city-states, or even ethnic groups such as Huaxtec, Otomí, or Totonac (see especially Olko 2005: 466–468). However, there are some enticing suggestions of more personal connections. For instance, when a warrior prepared his battlefield captive for sacrifice at an unspecified ceremony, “Moctezuma presented the captor a device [with] quetzal feather cups so that possessing it he might slay him as a sacrifice. It did not belong to him; but having it he slew the victim, and he danced with it” (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 8, 84).7 More specifically, during the month of Tlacaxipehualiztli, a captor wearing his warrior insignia offered his captive for sacrifice, “[a]nd when he had gone everywhere . . . then he left the insignia at


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the palace (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 2, 54). It appears to have been the property of the ruler and on loan for the event, in contrast to those devices gifted to achieved warriors as rewards.8 On balance, connections of bestowed warrior regalia with a particular ruler seem rather tenuous. More significantly, the regalia were replete with ancient tradition and cosmological symbolism. They were much older and grander than the domain of a single ruler.

The Matter of Heritability and Transferability The concept of inalienable wealth includes some latitude in the extent to which such objects may be transferred or circulated. There is recognition that “such possessions, from time to time, are exchanged, lost in warfare, destroyed by rivals, sold, or are unclaimed” (Weiner 1992: 37). According to Weiner (1985: 219), the ultimate expression of inalienability is the complete removal of such objects from circulation – there is no inheritance, no exchange, no regifting. This appears to be largely the case with Aztec military regalia presented to deserving warriors. Rulers obtained warrior costumes and insignia as tribute imposed on conquered city-states, through production at the royal palaces, and as prizes gained in warfare. This was a continual process of acquisition, for once given, these insignia became the singular property of the recipient and did not recirculate. Deserving warriors might receive more than one such device, but “all of these can be used by them always, and by no others” (Durán 1994: 235). They were not transferable, although they could be lost in the heat of battle. Nor do they appear to have been inherited, as the records suggest that they were most likely burned and buried with their deceased owners (e.g., Alvarado Tezozomoc 1975a: 614; Boone 1983: folios 67r, 69r; Durán 1994: 149–152; Olko 2005: 466). This may have been the ideal; the survival of some warrior insignia as personal possessions well past the Spanish conquest suggests either that this was not always the case or that the heritability of these devices changed under Spanish rule, as in the quote initiating this chapter (e.g., Lockhart et al. 2006: 45; Anderson et al. 1976).

Absolute versus Commercial Value Considering their symbolic and social attributes, the value of inalienable objects derives from the circumstances that keep them out of circulation (Weiner 1985: 210), or at least confine them to a limited area – “their unique, subjective identity gives them absolute value placing them above the exchangeability of one thing for another” (Weiner 1992: 33). It is their accumulated symbolic and historical baggage, and their social entailments, that determine their value, not their perceived material worth in a commercial sense.

The Aztec World: An Integrated View How do Aztec warrior regalia measure up on this dimension? These military devices were produced throughout the Empire and entered the imperial ruler’s coffers through political avenues: tribute, palace-centered production, and captured booty.9 It is interesting that they do not appear in the documentary record as commercial goods carried to or from the ruler or sold privately by professional merchants (pochteca).10 They appear ambiguously as commodities in the Tlatelolco marketplace11 or as gifts from other rulers to the dominant Mexica emperor. And while the ruler enjoyed gambling with all manner of precious goods, warrior costumes and insignia were not among them (Sahagún 1950–82: book 8, 58). These insignia may have been more prevalent in the markets in the earlier years of the Empire. During the reign of the first Motecuhzoma (r. 1440–1468), the Mexica second-in-command, Tlacaelel, eloquently stated that brave warriors no longer needed to purchase elegant attire and adornments (including insignia and shields) in the marketplaces; rather, the ruler would bestow them “as payment and prize for heroic feats, for memorable deeds . . . so that he can display these as proof of his worth” (Durán 1994: 234). This suggests that there may have been a significant change in policy as the Empire embarked on major expansionist efforts. Previously alienable goods became inalienable.

Warrior Regalia Embedded in the Aztec Economic, Social, Political, and Symbolic World Economically, the production of elaborate warrior insignia required skilled hands, meticulous procedures, and valuable raw materials. The level of specialization and effort suggests high valuation, yet these objects did not enter the economy as commercial goods. Rather, they served as political and social capital. Indeed, in the Aztec imperial world (commercial as it was), it is likely that the value of these objects was even further enhanced by their virtual removal from the commercial sector: this considerable economic investment targeted political, social, and ceremonial priorities. Used and displayed in these contexts, the warrior regalia proclaimed the power of the ruler, increasing his ability to control economic production and exchange in general. It appears to have been a sound and advantageous investment strategy. In addition, the frequent redistribution of these objects and their systematic removal from use and circulation resulted in the need for continuous production efforts on the part of highly skilled artisans. Objects transferred as inalienable property linked donor and receiver in functionally useful and symbolically meaningful relationships. In this case, warrior attire affirmed and sealed specific social and political distinctions. Transfers of these objects stressed differences in social position and acknowledged relations of dominance and subordination: distribution of the objects was the prerogative of the ruler and the ruler alone.


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The symbolism associated with warrior regalia was decidedly cosmological, mythical, and historical. It proclaimed links to powerful gods and a revered past. Adorned with these deified images and ancient symbols, a warrior facing his enemy on the battlefield or displaying his achievements in public ceremonies carried powers and traditions beyond his mere mortal self. It is understandable why such empowerment was associated with warfare, as so much of Aztec life converged on warfare and conquest. The symbolism was esoteric, but at the same time it was practical and consistent with Aztec cultural priorities. A World System

World systems theory was initially developed by Immanuel Wallerstein (1974) to explain the development of our post-medieval global economy. He proposed the notion of world systems as “composed of multiple sociocultural systems bound through a single division of labor that transcends cultural and political boundaries” (Kepecs and Kohl 2003: 14). These systems are achieved through a network of dependencies whereby a “core” dominates “peripheries,” these linkages sometimes mediated by “semiperipheries.” The relationships among these areas (or nations) are asymmetrical, with the core exploiting peripheries and maintaining their dominance through the “development of underdevelopment” (Frank 1966). In this theory, the economies characterizing these interrelationships are based on the production and distribution of bulk goods, most notably food and fuels. Wallerstein gave pride of place to the economy in the modern capitalist world system, contending that smaller pre-modern world systems were bound politically rather than economically (Kepecs and Kohl 2003: 15). As might be expected, this theory stimulated almost immediate responses from scholars of both modern and ancient systems. Pertinent to the ancient scene, scholars saw several problems with Wallerstein’s theory, especially (1) the simplification of cores and peripheries, which failed to take into account the vast variety of these societies/regions and their myriad relationships; (2) the disconnect between the theory and empirical cases that showed that many areas defined as peripheries were far from underdeveloped and often exerted profound influences on cores; (3) the focus on bulk goods and lack of consideration of the significance of luxuries in these relationships; and (4) the emphasis on political integration in pre-modern world systems and diminished importance given to nonpolitical economic factors such as markets (e.g., Schneider 1977; Blanton and Feinman 1984; Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997; Kepecs and Kohl 2003; Smith and Berdan 2003c). These issues have been confronted by scholars of late Postclassic Mesoamerica, resulting in significant alterations to the original theory and yielding an empirically supported understanding of the dynamic world system experienced by the Aztecs during their brief, century-long imperial period

The Aztec World: An Integrated View (Blanton and Feinman 1984; Smith and Berdan 2003c). This short time frame saw important transformations and developments throughout Mesoamerica: an explosive population growth, a proliferation of small polities, an increase in the volume of long-distance trade, an increase in the diversity of trade goods at all levels, greater commercialization of the economy, new forms of iconography and writing, and new patterns of symbolic and stylistic interaction, all yielding higher degrees of cultural integration and uniformity than was present in earlier periods (Smith and Berdan 2003a: 6–9). This section of Chapter 8 characterizes this complex world system, taking the four issues just enumerated as a springboard.

The Nature of Cores and Peripheries For Aztec-period Mesoamerica, Wallerstein’s framework of core–periphery– semiperiphery is too simplistic. In the first place, while the Aztecs built an impressive empire from their home base of Tenochtitlan, this oversized city (and the Basin of Mexico generally) was not the only core in Mesoamerica during the imperial period. Other cores dominated their own regions and competed, often successfully, with Aztec expansionism. Primary among these were Cholula/Tlaxcallan to the east, the Lake Patzcuaro Basin (Tarascan Empire) to the west, and, somewhat more weakly, the Mixteca/Valley of Oaxaca region (Smith and Berdan 2003b). The first two, especially, stood as bulwarks against the formidable Aztec armies, with Cholula also a magnet for trade goods and pilgrims. The presence of these additional cores in the Aztec world meant that all roads did not always or necessarily lead to Tenochtitlan – Aztec rulers could not rest on their predecessors’ laurels, but needed to constantly reassert their dominance through expensive feasting, diplomacy, the establishment of frontier forts and garrisons, impressive military campaigns, and serious reprisals for those who rebelled. The other cores, for their part, not only resisted and repelled Aztec expansion but also created nagging problems for imperial coherence. Maintaining client states and a network of forts and garrisons along the Aztec–Tarascan frontier was costly to the Aztecs, and Aztec rulers needed to be ever on the alert to the political intrigues of the Tlaxcallans in their frontier regions (see Chapter 5). During the last couple of decades before the Spanish arrival, the Mixteca/Valley of Oaxaca was a hotbed of rebellions and commanded disproportionate military attention from Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin. Second, the peripheries attached to these cores were far from uniform as described in the traditional world systems model, and they were not necessarily areas politically and militarily incorporated into the imperial thrall.The dynamics of the Aztec world system are more revealing when four types of peripheral regions are differentiated.“Affluent production zones” are regions of high economic production and wealth but lacking the same degree of urbanization and


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political centralization as found in cores. Areas such as Morelos, the Valley of Oaxaca, coastal Veracruz, northern Yucatán, and highland Guatemala all exhibited affluence based on reliable staple resource production supplemented by other local resources that were often geared toward export.The term “resource extraction zones” identifies areas of highly specialized raw material production such as the procurement of metals, obsidian, greenstones, and salt. By virtue of their specializations, they were linked commercially to other regions. “Unspecialized peripheral zones” are actually only vaguely defined, being areas of lower, unspecialized production with relatively small populations. They are, unfortunately, also areas with relatively little historical or archaeological documentation. “Contact peripheries,” such as the Greater Southwest and lower Central America, lie just beyond the bounds of the world system. These areas had less contact with the defined world system but were nonetheless bound to it; a significant case in point is the abundant and symbolically important turquoise obtained from the Greater Southwest (Smith and Berdan 2003b). None of these categories, or the areas included within them, is set in concrete. For instance, Carmack and Salgado González (2006) argue for the inclusion of portions of lower Central America into the Mesoamerican world system.

The Mutual Relations among Cores and Peripheries Core zones were characterized by urbanization, large populations, and a concentration of political power. However, in the Aztec world, cores did not necessarily dominate peripheries as completely as proposed in the classic world systems model. The relationships between cores and these various peripheries were highly variable, and the forces generating interaction and change did not always emanate from the cores.This is not to minimize the fact that the Aztecs were still the conquerors and did command a share of their subjects’ labor and production through tribute and other special demands. The Aztecs were not shy about exercising and expressing their military dominance over others  – nowhere was this more conspicuous than in the practice of large-scale human sacrifices of captured enemies. Yet peripheries were unique and innovative in their own right and in some cases exerted an influence on their cores. This can be seen, for instance, in regional designs of textiles and warrior costumes. Much of the clothing tribute received by the imperial powers carried designs characteristic of distant regions and represented specific ethnicities; rather than imposing imperial clothing designs on their conquered peoples, the Aztecs often accepted and incorporated others’ designs into their own repertoires (see Anawalt 1981). Even some warrior costume styles were adopted by the overlords: a specific case in point is the Cuextecatl warrior costume, characteristic of the eastern Huaxtecs yet a style awarded to Aztec warriors who had succeeded in capturing their second enemy (Berdan 1992b).12 Some peripheral areas developed innovative artistic

The Aztec World: An Integrated View and writing styles that gained widespread acceptance across political borders.13 This was the case with the well-known Mixteca-Puebla style, which “became a crucial component in the systems of regional and long-distance communication and exchange among diverse polities and languages in Mesoamerica” (Smith and Berdan 2003a: 8). The Aztecs were receptive not only to external styles, but also to more fundamental cultural features; for instance, the adoption of other groups’ deities was a well-established Mesoamerican pattern that continued after the Spanish conquest (as discussed later). The innovative character of peripheries has been generally underestimated by modern scholars; Galaty (2011: 15) argues persuasively that “agentive action is at its most vigorous in such [frontier] zones” and “world-systemic change stems from border regions.” With multiple cores at work, peripheries became not only areas to be exploited, but also areas to be enlisted in strengthening one core against another. As a case in point, recall that the Tlaxcallans more than once enticed the eastern Aztec province of Cuetlaxtlan into rebellion to strengthen their own position vis-à-vis the Aztec Empire (see Chapter 5). People in peripheries were equally capable of enlisting the aid of more powerful groups (cores) to their own advantage: again, recall the case of Coatlan, whose people rebelled against their own ruler and requested Mexica aid in their internal rebellion (Chapter 5). These relationships were complex and volatile. Core–core, core–periphery, and periphery–periphery relations were subject to change at a moment’s notice, and it often took very little to shift from friend to foe and vice versa. For instance, Cholula was an on-again, off-again ally of the Aztecs, these relations fluctuating almost annually during the last years of the Empire. Cholula’s proximity to the Aztecs’ archenemy, the Tlaxcallans, undoubtedly placed it in an especially awkward position. People of nearby Huexotzinco, a citystate frequently allied with Tlaxcallan against the Aztecs, at one time fell out with Tlaxcallan and sought asylum at Tenochtitlan. This was granted, and the Huexotzincos resided there for some time before returning home (Durán 1994: 446–451). In peripheral areas, competing city-states often clashed, with less powerful centers sometimes caught in the cross fire. So in the Oaxaca region, the city-state of Ixtepexi reportedly paid tribute to both the Mexica and the Mixtecs, while at the same time carrying on wars with other polities in the region (Berdan et al. 1996: 281). Apparently serving more than one master was a workable strategy, if only temporarily.

The Significance of Luxuries Although Wallerstein focused on bulk goods in his world systems model, persuasive arguments have been made supporting the significant role played by luxuries in those systems (see Schneider 1977; Blanton and Feinman 1984; Kepecs and Kohl 2003; Smith and Berdan 2003c).There is no question that the


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provisioning of staple foodstuffs was central to the maintenance of the surging Aztec-period populations. Nonetheless, alongside the production and distribution of bulk foodstuffs14 were the acquisition and manufacture of luxuries, themselves contributing to the vitality of social, political, and religious institutions. Socially, these luxuries served as the Aztecs’ most conspicuous status markers, identifying a person’s specific niche in the complex social order. Politically, these fine goods cemented alliances through feasting and gift giving, and reinforced relations between a ruler and his subjects through bestowals at designated ceremonial occasions. Additionally, when a ruler or high-ranking noble appeared in public, exquisitely adorned from head to foot, his very appearance instilled awe and proclaimed extraordinary power. Precious goods also served religious ends, for only the finest luxuries were fit as godly displays and offerings, and they were necessary to ensure good relations with the supernatural world (see Chapter 7). The contents of the numerous caches surrounding Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor serve as mute evidence of this cultural priority. Luxuries in the Aztec world not only operated as prestige goods (controlled by the nobility), but also, by Aztec times, had been transformed into commercial luxury goods. For instance, while some featherworkers were directly employed by the ruler, others worked independently and sold their wares in the marketplaces. Similarly, long-distance professional merchants (pochteca) brought precious stones, metals, feathers, shells, and other fine raw and finished materials directly to the Aztec emperor. They also operated as independent entrepreneurs, using the same types of goods to accumulate considerable personal wealth. While the upper echelons of Aztec society consumed by far the greatest share of these fancy and expensive goods, commoners could and did possess them in spite of stated laws prohibiting their display by those people (see Cases 6.1 and 8.2). Bottom line: these were not just prestige goods controlled by elites, but also luxury commodities bought and sold in the numerous marketplaces. The trajectory of imperial expansion appears to have responded, at least in part, to an increasing need for luxuries on the part of an expanding and demanding elite in the Aztec core. Other elites, living in the various peripheral regions, also required luxuries to flaunt their political and social supremacy. All of this lent increasing importance to (and competition over) affluent production and resource extraction zones, reinforcing the roles of these areas within the overall world system. While there were always political overtones, these relations became more and more commercialized as the Mesoamerican Postclassic period progressed.

The Defining and Dynamic Roles of Trade and Markets The Postclassic economy was a commercialized economy (Blanton et al. 1993; Smith and Berdan 2003c). Markets were central to every city-state of any size,

The Aztec World: An Integrated View


Case 8.2  Foreign Goods and What They Tell Us In the Postclassic Mesoamerican world, goods, people, and ideas moved about, crossing political borders and enriching people’s lives throughout that known world. Commoners as well as rulers enjoyed goods from beyond their immediate areas, and merchants particularly benefited from the widespread movement of luxury and utilitarian wares. A glimpse of some foreign goods in the palace and on the person of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, in a commoner household in Aztec-period Morelos, and in a trading canoe along the coast of present-day Honduras (Bay Islands) provides a sense of the extent of world system impacts on people occupying different rungs of the social ladder.

Figure C8.2.  (above and on next two pages) Maps of world systems commodities and their movements. (Drawings by Jennifer Berdan.)

Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin in Tenochtitlan: A Selection (Figure C8.2a) Material/Object


Polychrome pottery Turquoise (diadem) Tropical feathers (headdress) Greenstones (jewelry) Cotton (clothing) Gold (ornaments) Jaguar skins (seat, sandals) Amber (labret) Chocolate Rubber (balls, drum hammers)

Cholula Southwest U.S., northern Mexico Tropical regions, tributary provinces Southern Mesoamerica Temperate and tropical zones Oaxaca region Southern Mesoamerica Chiapas Tropical zones Lowlands, Gulf coast

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Exotic goods found their way into ruler’s palace and one-room commoner house alike. There is no surprise in finding such goods in a noble establishment. It is more surprising to find polychrome pottery and jade jewelry in a commoner’s dwelling.Yet it was apparently possible for non-nobles to possess these fine and expensive goods, some with sumptuary associations. The emphasis was, perhaps, more strictly on display than on possession. If one could afford polychrome pottery, then one could have it, and some commoners were clearly more prosperous than others (Smith 1977: 61). Bottom line: even from our small current sample, one can see the commercial market system energetically at work. A ruler may have acquired a great many of his foreign goods through tribute (the tribute-paying province sometimes obtaining these goods from outside its own boundaries; see Chapter 5). But commoners had no such option, looking to the market for their products, provisions, and manufactured goods.

Figure C8.2. (continued)

A Commoner Household in a Community in Morelos (Smith 1997) (Figure C8.2b) Material/Object


Decorated pots Obsidian blades Bronze needles Salt Polychrome pottery Jade jewelry

Basin of Mexico 100 km away Western Mexico Basin of Mexico Cholula Southern Mexico / Guatemala

The Aztec World: An Integrated View


In Aztec-period Mexico, merchants traded long-distance and down-the-line, often acquiring goods at stops along their established trade routes.The commodities seen in this particular trading canoe came from throughout Mesoamerica. While these Mayan merchants may have acquired the cacao and textiles from actual producers, it is less likely that they dealt directly with the obsidian and bronze artifact producers. Rather, they more likely obtained these goods from other traveling merchants or from market vendors who acquired the distant goods as they changed hands from market to market. Bottom line: the Mesoamerican world system was sufficiently integrated to allow for locally and regionally produced goods to cross political and cultural borders while still retaining their utilitarian and prestige values. Mechanisms were available for goods (and the people who carried them) to move about throughout the world system, affording similar material experiences for people far and wide.

Figure C8.2. (continued)

A Mayan Trading Canoe off the Coast of Honduras (Smith and Berdan 1996: 3) (Figure C8.2c) Material/Object


Obsidian knives and swords Cacao beans Bronze axes and bells Crucibles for smelting copper Cotton (fancy textiles)

Highland Mexico Tropical lowlands Western Mexico Unknown Temperate and tropical zones


Aztec Society and Culture and the famous Tlatelolco marketplace was a throbbing hub of exchange (not to mention transmission of news and rumor). At this high-end marketplace, vendors ranged from local producers of small surpluses to local and regional artisans of utilitarian and luxury goods, to long-distance merchants carrying expensive exotic goods from distant regions. Their customers were even more diverse. Other marketplaces were more regional or local in scale, some only occasionally receiving visits from the widely traveled merchants, but virtually all of them enjoying the offerings of regional merchants. Whatever the scale, these markets served as venues for the buying and selling of commodities through the use of barter and money, and they welcomed entrepreneurs (even though outsiders were often accused of cheating). The impact of traveling merchants on the integration of the economy should not be underestimated  – they were vigorous agents of change and integration. Highland goods from central Mexico (such as obsidian and gold) became part of lowland material culture. Lowland goods (such as cacao, fine salt, and colorful bird feathers) became essential elements of highland daily life (especially among elites). Merchants characteristically traveled across city-state and imperial boundaries. Using marketplaces to serve their entrepreneurial goals, regional and long-distance merchants moved large quantities of valuable goods from region to region throughout the world system, making these commodities widely available. In addition, many luxuries, at first exotic, became transformed into necessities by high-ranking persons. It is easy to speak of this economy as an international economy. Particularly pertinent to the economic integration of Aztec-period Mesoamerica as a world system were the myriad international trade centers (Gasco and Berdan 2003). These should be distinguished from the earlier notion of “ports of trade” (Chapman 1957), which were conceived as essentially neutral trading zones serving political purposes. Recent reevaluations of this model reveal that these same venues were highly commercialized locales serving primarily economic purposes (Berdan 1978; Gasco and Berdan 2003). There were a great many of them in Late Postclassic Mesoamerica. The proliferation of these centers suggests a vigorous commercial economy and entrepreneurial culture. They generally were established in strategic locations between polities or environmental zones, exhibited sustained commercial activity, and served as centers where international, regional, and local trade networks intersected: they “not only provided practical facilities and profitable interactions for long-distance merchants, but also were hotbeds for more-local and regional economic exchange activities” (Gasco and Berdan 2003: 115–116). In other words, these flourishing commercial centers stimulated economic activity at all levels. Although safe and relatively neutral, international trading centers typically also displayed a political side. For instance, Cholula was politically ambiguous and volatile in its alliances and wars; it also drew pilgrims. Tlatelolco was located at the heart of imperial

The Aztec World: An Integrated View administration. Xicalanco on the southern Gulf coast welcomed highland and lowland merchants, albeit with an Aztec political presence (Gasco and Berdan 2003). Nonetheless, the politics must have been sufficiently muted to attract a wide variety of merchants with entrepreneurial intents. It can be argued that the Aztec commercial economy was an expanding economy. Some of the stimulus for this growth was profit-oriented, while some was politically and religiously generated. An increased demand for status-linked luxuries responded to an increase in the number of elite persons and the intensity of competition among them. Demand for battlefield weaponry and equipment increased as warfare itself increased. For example, the relatively easy destruction of obsidian weapons in combat generated a continual demand for those stones and the artisans who shaped them. Since obsidian is barely seen on tribute lists, these high-demand materials and items had to be obtained commercially, and the high demand heightened the importance of their resource extraction zones. Furthermore, goods were constantly being taken out of circulation through general breakage, personal burials, and multitudes of ritual offerings. Anthropologists and historians emphasize the rapid and traumatic changes to indigenous life after the Spanish conquest. And rightly so.Yet we have seen that the culturally diverse people of the politically and economically dynamic Aztec world also underwent marked transformations during the century prior to Spanish arrival.The people from across the sea that the Mesoamerican people encountered in the early sixteenth century were unexpected and unfamiliar, and creative and determined responses were necessary to ensure survival under the newly imposed regime. A Culture under Duress: Aztec Responses to Spanish Pressure

The Mexica, as leaders of the Aztec Empire, had faced defeat before. Most notably, they had been severely trounced by the Tarascans and had routinely suffered heavy losses in their unsuccessful incursions against the Tlaxcallans (see Case 8.3). For the Mexica, these and other setbacks had taken place on neutral or enemy ground, not in Tenochtitlan. Only once had their enemies come close to wreaking havoc in the Mexica capital: during the reign of the second Motecuhzoma, enemy Huexotzincas burned the temple of Toci (along with its wooden sacrificial scaffold) on the outskirts of the city. This daring outrage was considered an “enormous sacrilege” and threw the city into “a state of confusion and terror” (Durán 1994: 457–458). Now, suddenly, war had come to Tenochtitlan. The arrival of a determined group of Spanish conquistadores, supported by a multitude of disaffected native imperial subjects and enemies, created an entirely new experience for the Mexica: war on their own turf. This story has been told many times and will not be reiterated in detail here.15 Whichever side a native person or group


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278 Case 8.3  Desperate Rivals and the Fate of a World

When the Spanish forces moved inland in the late summer of 1519, they were led by their new Cempoallan allies to the powerful realm of Tlaxcallan. But their ultimate goal was not Tlaxcallan, but rather the domain of the famous and feared Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, tlatoani of the Mexica and head of the empire under the Triple Alliance. Nonetheless, the Cempoallans insisted that the newcomers would need the support of Tlaxcallan, which remained independent of the militarily expansionistic Triple Alliance. But why had the powerful Aztec Triple Alliance not already conquered Tlaxcallan? The “official script” of the Mexica explained this shortcoming: The Mexica second-in-command, Tlacaelel, announced that “these cities [Tlaxcallan and its neighbors] are near, they are accessible. No sooner will our soldiers have gone there than they will be returning with captives. . . . And this must not be a real war: we must not destroy those people but they must be left standing so that each time our god wishes to enjoy himself and eat warm tortillas [enemy captives], we can go to those cities” (Durán 1994: 232). Thus the idea of the ritualized, inconclusive “flowery wars.” Whether this was reasoning or excuse, it is clear that the battles between these two states (complicated by the on-again, off-again participation by nearby Huexotzinco and Cholula) were conducted more and more in earnest as the Empire matured. One of the primary agendas of the second Motecuhzoma was the conquest of this pesky realm (see Berdan 2009b, 2009c). Indeed, Tlaxcallan was beginning to feel the strangling effects of imperial conquests around its borders, effectively isolating it from the resources and potential aid of its neighbors. So they met on intermediate fields of battle, to draws, with Tlaxcallan often inflicting the greater damage. This begs the nagging question: How could the smaller and nearly surrounded Tlaxcallan withstand the aggression of this mighty and well-equipped empire? Fargher et al. (2010) suggest that the key lies in the political style adopted by Tlaxcallan, a style that contrasted with the ruler-centered governments of the Basin of Mexico. They propose that the archaeological and ethnohistoric evidence points to a relatively egalitarian political structure in Tlaxcallan. The archaeological site of Tlaxcallan consists of at least twenty separate, relatively equal neighborhoods-with-plazas rather than a single monumental and urbanized center (Fargher et al. 2011b), and the ethnohistoric evidence for “kings” in Tlaxcallan is slim at best. While certain individuals (usually four of them) were seen as dominant leaders at the time of the Spanish arrival, it appears that the fundamental governmental power lay with a meritorious council. This system resulted in “a flexible and adaptive governing system in which governing elites were recruited based on achievement” (Fargher et  al. 2010: 233). Therefore, elite status, control of noble houses, and prominent military positions were based on accomplishment rather than heredity. This spread political obligations and rewards broadly across the social and ethnic spectrum and ensured a distinguished level of military leadership. It also encouraged commitment, patriotism, and loyalty, especially among immigrant Otomí, who significantly

The Aztec World: An Integrated View augmented Tlaxcallan’s fighting force. Tlaxcallan’s emphasis on broadly based political opportunities and constant military readiness was supported ideologically by worship of their patron deity, Tezcatlipoca (as Camaxtli), lord of the young warriors whose ideology was consistent with collective and egalitarian principles. Both politically and ideologically, then, commoners were effectively motivated and integrated into the goals of an independent Tlaxcallan. Fargher et al. (2010: 244) suggest that with this relatively egalitarian style, “the Tlaxcaltecas were better able to repel imperial conquest.” The ramifications of this stalemate were, of course, immense. Tlaxcallan’s independence and subsequent support were instrumental in the Spanish conquest of the Mexica (who became increasingly isolated from their own allies). They offered the Spaniards an impressive fighting force, strategic advice, and sanctuary during the turbulent events of the conquest (see especially Thomas 1993). As a reward, they gained a privileged status under the new Spanish colonial regime, and their town council functioned into the seventeenth century (see Lockhart et al. 1986; Gibson 1952).

chose in the war, the ultimate result was conquest and incorporation into a new imperial regime, one from overseas and with unfamiliar technologies, codes of conduct, priorities, and beliefs. It might be asserted that a society often reveals its most basic organization and innermost core values as well as its strengths and weaknesses when under stress. In this case, what do native responses to their new dramatic and traumatic situation tell us about their society and culture? This was a new world in which the Empire disintegrated but the many altepetl survived and even flourished. The native elite struggled to retain their traditional dynastic rights over native commoners, juggling the demands of new political and social overlords. Some commoners pursued creative means to take advantage of and incorporate themselves into their new circumstances, especially in the economic realm. New technologies and consumption demands not only required native adjustments, but also offered new opportunities for economic livelihoods and social advancement. And a different religion arrived, demanding adjustments to new styles of worship.Through all of this, the Aztecs demonstrated their tenacity and creativity in accepting, rejecting, or, more often, blending the old and the new.

What Happened to the Aztec Empire? It did not take Hernán Cortés long to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the Aztec Empire he faced. He first learned that a Mexica named Motecuhzoma was the most feared and powerful lord of the land, head of an extensive empire. Yet shortly after landing on Mexican shores in 1519, he and his conquistadores



Aztec Society and Culture also realized the willingness of the ruler of the city-state of Cempoallan to join him in overthrowing the rule of this powerful Motecuhzoma and his domination. Cortés found this “divide and conquer” strategy extremely effective as he brought more and more disaffected Aztec subjects and even allies to his side, at the same time enlisting long-term Aztec enemies, especially the Tlaxcallans. At one point he held Motecuhzoma captive but perhaps did not completely comprehend that political rule did not fully reside in this one man. While the loose and fragmented structure of the Empire was a weakness in the face of the Spanish threat, Mexica politics proved to be stronger: Motecuhzoma was replaced by more unyielding rulers and factions who mounted a strong resistance to the Spanish incursion, at least for a short while. Tenochtitlan finally fell into Spanish hands with the capture of Cuauhtemoc on August 13, 1521. Even during the war of conquest, the indigenous people were already feeling the effects of a looming new world order: the disintegration of the Empire, the destruction of the great city of Tenochtitlan, and an enormous loss of life.16 Their world was to be transformed in the century to come, although much that was familiar endured. The Aztec Empire was dissolved and replaced by New Spain, Spain’s colonial jurisdiction encompassing most of present-day Mexico. Nonetheless, the basic building blocks of community life persisted, as they had well before the construction of the pre-Columbian empire. These were the tenacious altepetl and their constituent calpolli or tlaxilacalli. Before the formation of the Aztec Empire and under its hegemony, the many altepetl constituted a fragmented and competitive landscape. Now that empire was gone, replaced by the new Spanish imperial administration, and each altepetl reasserted itself as the nucleus of native life. These communities were well accustomed to volatile relations with others: from time to time they had been conquered and paid tribute to overlords, from time to time they had enjoyed political autonomy, and from time to time they had fought violent wars or forged alliances with their neighbors. Now they were ruled by a new administrative order that was in some ways familiar, in other ways novel to the indigenous inhabitants. In the realm of the familiar, they once again paid tribute to an overlord, although some of the actual content of those demands changed under Spanish rule: coinage was commonly assessed, but so too were indigenous items such as textiles, cacao, and pottery, as well as turkeys, salt, and firewood to maintain the Spanish noble’s household.17 In addition, some pre-Hispanic relationships among altepetl continued, albeit in altered form: violent wars and alliances were recast in the form of conflicts over land and labor rights that were widely litigated under Spanish rule. Altepetl also continued, at least to some extent, to be associated with ethnicities (Berdan et al. 2008). Some of these community-based ethnic identities continue today in areas of concentrated native populations.18 Recognition of these changes, especially the dissolution of the Aztec Empire, has prompted modern scholars to adjust

The Aztec World: An Integrated View ethnic labels; the term “Nahua” has become the accepted designation of Nahuatl-speakers after the Spanish conquest. In the realm of the unfamiliar, these tenacious altepetl became, in a rough sense, the bases for Spanish encomienda grants, parish jurisdictions, and the establishment of Spanish municipal councils, or cabildos. These typically consisted of elected officials, including a governor, alcaldes, and regidores, along with a notary and various other functionaries. Early on, the city-state’s tlatoani typically was elected as governor (often repeatedly),19 although this dynastic connection became less and less common within a few generations after the conquest. As the dynastic ruler’s powers waned, his rights and responsibilities were transferred to the cabildo: tax assessments, the formation of labor drafts, oversight of public construction projects, and the maintenance of order (Lockhart 1992; Lockhart et al. 1986: 1). In general, during the first hundred years following the conquest, “the cabildo came to assume the powers and functions of the dynastic rulership while at the same time maintaining and reinforcing the integrity of the individual altepetl” (Berdan 1993: 181). Not only did the overarching imperial structure dissolve, but the very people who occupied that extensive domain became disastrously diminished. Shockingly, unfamiliar diseases wreaked havoc on a vulnerable population lacking immunity to epidemic diseases such as smallpox, measles, influenza, and perhaps typhus. People perished on an unprecedented scale: the first epidemic hit Tenochtitlan during its siege (claiming, among others, the Mexica tlatoani Cuitlahuac) and then in successive waves from 1545 to 1547, 1576 to 1581, and 1629 to 1631. Modern estimates of population loss in the Basin of Mexico range from one-half to five-sixths within fifty years after the conquest (Gibson 1964: 138); the Nahuatl-speaking population may have numbered a mere 200,000 people by the end of the 1576–1581 epidemic (Smith 2003d: 281).20 A population decline of roughly two-thirds is estimated for the Cholula-Puebla region to the east, and a more disastrous 75–80 percent loss in the Morelos area just to the south of the Basin of Mexico (Sanders 1992: 130–131).The humid lowlands generally fared even more poorly, in some cases losing entire communities.21 These were staggering losses. Beyond their personal and emotional impact, the scale of these deaths tore at the very fabric of native social, economic, political, and religious life. Some of the heavy losses encouraged the Spanish policy of congregación, or the dislocation and moving of surviving people from small settlements into more concentrated communities. Even apart from this policy, some survivors left their traditional lands and communities, compromising their ethnic identity and community loyalties. Others faced famine as the demands of sick relatives and neighbors placed strains on their ability to plant fields and reap harvests. Some specializations were at risk as their well-trained and skilled practitioners died off. In some cases, the rights and lands of titled and entitled nobles were lost as these dynastic lines died out. Those nobles


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who did survive sometimes had difficulty keeping their lands productive; for instance, “In Tetzcoco in 1589, a noble widow complained that her late husband’s scattered lands could no longer be cultivated because none of the dependents who worked them were left; all had died” (Lockhart 1992: 113). Aside from highland–lowland distinctions, the epidemics were brutally nonselective: it mattered not at all that the Tlaxcallans and others were Spanish allies during the war of conquest or that elites enjoyed a more elevated lifestyle than commoners.

What Happened to the Aztec Elite? The Spanish conquest imposed new lords on the land. This did not mean, however, that indigenous nobles immediately or totally lost their traditional rights or that they could no longer pursue their favored lifestyle. These rights were, of course, now granted under Spanish auspices, but they included many familiar perquisites: traditional titles, land grants, rights to commoner tributes, commoners’ support of the nobles’ households, and sumptuary symbols. Within these familiar contours, nobles were assimilated into the new colonial order. A tlatoani now usually became governor of his altepetl (as already seen), control of labor was institutionalized in Spanish encomiendas (also held by native nobles), and new status symbols appeared. At an especially exalted level, in 1526 Tecuichpo, a daughter of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, was awarded Tlacopan (today’s Tacuba) and some surrounding lands in encomienda; “by the late sixteenth century this was the largest surviving encomienda in the Valley of Mexico” (Thomas 1993: 594).22 In his 1566 will, don Julián de la Rosa, a nobleman of Tlaxcallan, bequeathed several plots of cultivated lands (some with houses); he also passed on rights to the production of his dependent commoners, including “one turkey cock each, 200 cacao beans, and tamales, chiles, wood” on four Christian holidays and “two turkey cocks, 200 cacao beans and tamales, wood, chile” on a fifth holiday (Anderson et al. 1976: 51). These examples suggest control of a considerable amount of native land and labor by indigenous nobility, at least into the latter half of the sixteenth century. Additionally, some high-ranking nobles were granted rights to “carry swords or firearms, to wear Spanish clothing, to ride horses or mules with saddles and bridles” (Gibson 1964: 155). This same don Julián, in this chapter’s opening quote, in 1566 still possessed several pre-Spanish symbols of his status, but also a horse (and some of his goods were sold for Christian masses and the purchase of candles). In 1579 Cuernavaca governor don Juan Jiménez possessed a horse, tackle, and eight saddles, but also four feathered headdresses, two wooden drums, three dancing shields, and four big parrots (Haskett 1991: 163). In this same region (old Cuauhnahuac), native nobles obtained licenses (or not) to ride horses, carry swords and daggers, and dress in Spanish clothing.

The Aztec World: An Integrated View In the mid-1600s, one Nahua governor “resembled a Spaniard, dressed like a Spaniard down to a pair of leather shoes with shiny buckles, and carried a knife, sword, and musket” (Haskett 1991: 162). Other introduced possessions prized by nobles included tables, chairs, European paper, serving spoons, and religious images (such as crucifixes and paintings of saints) (Haskett 1991: 163–165). These adoptions were neither complete nor simplistic, as already seen with don Julián de la Rosa and don Juan Jiménez. Indigenous men continued to wear their familiar capes late into the sixteenth century, although now draped over Spanish-style shirts and trousers (Figure 8.1a);23 indigenous stone metates and ceramic cooking pots were perched on introduced tables. Nahua and Christian names were combined, as in Pedro Tochtli (Peter Rabbit; see Anderson et al. 1976: 85).The adoption of certain Spanish surnames proclaimed elevated social status (Lockhart 1992: 118–127). Acquisition of these status-laden Spanish goods and symbols was generally tightly controlled by the Spaniards.24 To possess them signaled high status in a manner reminiscent of the display of feathered adornments and jadeite ornaments in pre-Spanish times. The colonial use of these sumptuary objects also replicated another preconquest pattern: that of elite emulation discussed in Chapter 5. Much as many outlying nobles copied the styles of their Mexica allies or conquerors, so now the indigenous elite incorporated Spanish styles in the same spirit of emulation, adopting the clothing, accoutrements, and living styles of their new overlords. Elite emulation of Spanish styles was therefore a continuation of pre-Spanish patterns. In this new world, indigenous hereditary nobles were worried – and for good reason. As the sixteenth century wore on, their rights and perquisites were more and more eroded, from above by the Spaniards and from below by the native commoners, their traditional subjects. Dynastic lines died out, and lands and labor became appropriated by individual Spaniards and by Christian and administrative bodies. In the face of Spanish pressure on their elevated status, the native elites did not necessarily form a united front. For instance, in Chiapa, indigenous elite became divided into factions, some allying with the Dominican friars and others with powerful Spanish patrons (Megged 1991: 500).Whether fragmented or unified, over time the nobility lost its favored footing and was eventually compressed into the encompassing category of “indios and macehualtin” (commoners). However, as an important caveat, James Lockhart (1992: 117)  argues adroitly that while the social gap between nobles and commoners narrowed during colonial times, it nonetheless persisted to some extent, and in newly devised ways. The question then becomes: How long did the native nobility maintain its elevated position? There is little agreement on this answer among modern scholars, some arguing for an erosion of native elite perquisites and authority by the mid-­seventeenth century, others seeing maintenance of those rights for much longer (Haskett 1991: 133). Many of these disagreements may stem from real-world regional variations. But wherever it was found, among the


Aztec Society and Culture




Figure 8.1.  (a) An indigenous tailor wearing a cape over Spanish clothes in colonial times. (From Sahagún 1950–1982: book 10, illus. 55. Courtesy University of Utah Press. Reproduced with permission.). (b) A modern Nahua woman sewing trousers for her husband. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.)

contributors to the deterioration of elite positions were the actions of native commoners under the new Spanish regime.

What the Commoners Did Under the Aztec Empire, commoners could pursue culturally accepted avenues for achieving well-being and advanced status. Among these were battlefield exploits, craft skills, trade acumen, and to a lesser extent commitment to the priesthood. We have also seen that commoners could (and did) rise up in opposition to their rulers (Chapter 5). Now, the presence of new lords of the land presented new opportunities and restrictions for commoners, even as some traditional opportunities and restrictions continued. New opportunities emerged primarily in economic arenas, especially in specialized production and commerce. Some Aztec-period commodities (such as turquoise diadems and feathered shields) went out of use under Spanish rule, and to survive artisans needed to retool. Featherworkers continued their craft using well-honed techniques, only now producing feather mosaic objects conforming to new iconographies and styles, especially Christian themes and European objects such as triptychs for sacred displays. Other crafts such as carpentry, pottery making, masonry, and canoe making thrived. Introduced proficiencies, such as tailoring, blacksmithing, saddle and shoe making, and the manufacture of Spanish-style musical instruments, were readily undertaken by native commoners (Figure 8.1) (Motolinía 1950: 241–242). Trade in indigenous goods continued to be lively and energetic and remained in the hands of native merchants. However, disengaged from royal support and no longer transporting Aztec prestige goods, full-time high-end merchants now operated more fully as private entrepreneurs and concentrated on cacao and other bulk

The Aztec World: An Integrated View luxuries like salt and cotton. Local and regional tianquiztli continued to attract all kinds of trade and traders, indeed to the present day. Life in Europe exerted some important influences on the lives of native colonial commoners. For instance, cochineal dye became a high-demand commodity in Europe, and some indigenous commoners became prosperous by concentrating on its production. Along with that prosperity came attitudes considered the special province of native elites. In Tlaxcallan in 1553, “he who belonged to someone no longer respects whoever was his lord and master, because he is seen to have gold and cacao. That makes them proud and swells them up” (Lockhart et al. 1986: 81). In that same time and place, nobles accused these ambitious commoners of insulting them by pouring watery chocolate drinks on the ground, thinking themselves “very grand” (Lockhart et al. 1986: 82).25 It appears that commoners were also beginning to acquire land, sold to them by nobles: the minutes of the Tlaxcallan cabildo record an action forbidding nobles to sell their land to commoners. This suggests that commoners had the means to make such purchases, that nobles were stressed economically, and that nobles felt collectively threatened by this erosion of their essential economic base. Commoners also devised strategies to avoid traditional tribute duties; in 1550 Tlaxcallan, nobles were worried that “all over Tlaxcala everyone is falsely claiming nobility,” living in idleness and avoiding tribute obligations (Lockhart et al. 1986: 72–73). Some accomplished this by moving about – they could dodge tribute and other duties by leaving their home community and moving into a larger center, which did not quite know what to do with the newcomers. There were other, regionally specific opportunities. For instance, in Chiapa “[t]hose who spoke Spanish, even macehuales, were to be allowed to wear a cloak, until then restricted to Spaniards and Hispanicized Indians only, to mount horses, and to own mules.” Apparently also the holding of community offices was potentially extended to commoners who learned the Spanish language (Megged 1991: 499). These Spanish policies of assimilation afforded commoners unprecedented opportunities. Alongside these new opportunities, some avenues for livelihoods and advancement were lost to commoners. Battlefield prowess and elevation in the priesthood were all but eliminated from their traditional avenues for advancement. Formal restrictions on their advancement continued, some newly imposed. For example, they were officially not allowed the sumptuary symbols boasted by the native elite. And for the most part (as described earlier) they were prohibited from voting in community elections and from holding offices in community councils, even though these were elected positions. These examples of opportunities and restrictions demonstrate that, in spite of their low position in the socioeconomic hierarchy, indigenous commoners were not always passive recipients of the new order but also behaved as


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proactive agents. I do not intend to paint an overly rosy picture of commoner life in New Spain. Indeed, for the great majority of these people, work was strenuous and the standard of living was humble. Several persons and offices competed for and tugged at commoners’ labor and production: Spanish encomenderos, native nobles, the altepetl, the Spanish government, and friars and other church officials. Native persons also faced conversion to an alien religion, the possibility of physical relocation, and the threat of severe epidemics. It is no wonder that at least some commoners sought advantageous and profitable avenues for survival and advancement. In the course of those adaptations, commoners competed not only in a newly imposed Spanish world, but also with the elite of their old world.

Old and New Material Things The Aztecs (along with their predecessors and contemporaries) built their civilizations with stone, sweat, and ingenuity. No metal tools or weapons. No use of the wheel for transport, spinning, or pottery making.26 No large domesticated animals. And for that matter, no distillation.27 All of these, as well as other material objects and novel crops, were introduced into their lives by the Spaniards, and their introduction resulted in significant changes in their lives. Along with the arrival of new materials, foods, and technologies came the shifting of economic control and priorities. Among these, Spaniards appropriated lands for Spanish-style cultivation, subjects paid tribute in Spanish coin, and Spanish mining enterprises reoriented native labor. New objects such as beds, Spanish-style clothing, machetes, and metal-tipped digging sticks appeared in native homes. Even before the fall of Tenochtitlan, indigenous individuals had taken to introduced Spanish tools and objects. Ashore only a short time, the Spaniards taught coastal peoples how to make candles from native beeswax; the beeswax was familiar, the candles novel. Candles became popular, being “safer and more efficient” than the customary pine torches (Thomas 1993: 214). Also more efficient were Spanish swords; Figure 8.2 depicts a warrior deftly wielding a steel sword in place of his lost, broken, or discarded macquauitl. Other significant new implements included steel-tipped plows, steel tips added to the traditional digging sticks, steel knives and scissors, and especially the multifunctional machete. The plows required animal power and thus were used mainly on Spanish farmland. Traditional cultivation was somewhat eased with the steeltipped digging sticks, and machetes gained popularity almost immediately. Scissors were a novelty in both material and form, being especially useful in the manufacture of Spanish-style tailored clothing. Yet the Spaniards affected the native textile industry more profoundly than the superficial introduction of new styles and tailoring would suggest. Cloth production had long been in the hands of women, who spun cotton and maguey thread on hand spindles

The Aztec World: An Integrated View


Figure 8.2.  A native warrior wielding a Spanish sword during the war of conquest. (From Sahagún 1950–1982: book 12, illus. 126. Courtesy University of Utah Press. Reproduced with permission.)

and wove cloth on backstrap looms. Now Spaniards introduced textile workshops (obrajes) for spinning wool on spinning wheels and weaving wool on large treadle looms – essentially men’s work. Alongside this new industry, the traditional production of native and introduced fibers continued in full force. Its tenacity is demonstrated by the incorporation of wool into hand spinning and on backstrap looms, a practice that has endured to the present day (Figure 8.3). The addition of the wheel to the colonial Mexican technological repertoire affected not only cloth spinning, but also transport and pottery making. At first (and in some areas for long periods), these introductions were largely peripheral to native life, the indigenous people maintaining skills and behaviors of traditional spinning, coiled and molded pottery, and transport by foot and canoe alongside them. Transport using wheels was made practical with the accompaniment of draft animals. These and other newly arrived domesticated animals included horses, donkeys, mules, cattle, sheep, goats, domesticated pigs, and chickens. Some were working animals, some were eaten, and others were raised for by-products such as wool and milk. Of all of these introduced domesticates, the chicken was most readily adopted by the native people. Its similarity to the indigenous turkey undoubtedly contributed to its becoming a familiar household fixture. Sheep were also fairly popular, being called ichcatl (cotton) for their wool, which was incorporated into the traditional textile technology (Figure 8.3). Working with wool required the presence of sheep, and some individuals and even towns undertook livestock raising. Indeed, in the sixteenth century, the town council of Tlaxcallan owned a considerable flock of sheep. Recognizing their inexperience in raising these animals, they hired a Spaniard to tend to them, continuation of his contract contingent on his performance (Lockhart et al. 1986: 42, 56). Nonetheless, some natives who owed farm labor to a Spanish encomendero might

Aztec Society and Culture


Figure 8.3.  A modern Nahua woman weaving wool on a backstrap loom. (Photograph by Frances Berdan.)

need to work with animals in Spanish-style agriculture, thus requiring that they acquire a new set of skills. These laborers also might be faced with cultivating new crops, notably wheat, sugarcane, grapes, and a variety of fruits. Despite these introductions, the native people continued to prefer their customary diet of maize, beans, squashes, and chiles. The adoption of new materials and technologies operated much as it had in pre-Columbian times. Frequently the new was added to, or meshed with, the known. This resulted in some intriguing material eclecticism. The sixteenth-century will of don Juan Tellez of Colhuacan (in the Basin of Mexico) revealed traditional objects such as old reed mats, gourd bowls, baskets, and colored cloth with rabbit fur, alongside a green glass bottle, an axe, a lock, scissors, leather shoes, and white boots. In 1581 Colhuacan resident Juana Tiacapan left behind thirty-six spindles with yarn, a round basket full of cotton, three metates, tecomates (bowls or jars), twelve wooden beams, two large tamale pots, and a metal-tipped digging stick (Cline and LeónPortilla 1984: 40–43, 106–111). Interesting personal collections. As in other realms of their new lives, the native people “demonstrated an impressive persistence of indigenous inventions, materials, and styles, but also a canny ability to adopt new materials and objects and meld them with existing ones to fit their changing needs” (Berdan 2006a: 18). These styles of adaptation and adoption applied equally well to more abstract realms of thinking and believing.

Old and New Ways of Thinking, Believing, and Communicating During the formation of their empire, the Aztecs were receptive to foreign styles, beliefs, and deities and integrated many of these into their lives. The Aztecs incorporated the deities of other peoples into their ever-expanding pantheon and ritually added externally produced objects to their sacred caches.

The Aztec World: An Integrated View This pattern of willing assimilation of new ideas and things continued into the Spanish colonial period. Among the things introduced by the Spaniards was a different way of writing. Alphabetic writing was more precise than the native hieroglyphics and was quite readily adopted into Nahua literacy. Virtually every community of any size included someone who could read and write Nahuatl in the Spanish style, for the simple reason that the Spanish colonial government required a notary for the town’s council (Burkhart 2011: 9–10).28 Still, literacy remained the domain of noblemen, with few commoners and women of any class able to read and write. Nonetheless, with this new form of literacy, at least some Nahuatl speakers were able to “manage their own affairs with a degree of autonomy during the colonial period.” This also facilitated the continuation of other genres of traditional communication such as the huehuetlatolli (ancient words), annals, histories, songs, and poems. It became a particularly useful and common medium for legal documentation throughout the colonial period (Karttunen 1982: 411, 415). We saw in Chapter 7 that Aztec religion was polytheistic, assimilative, and theatrical. It embodied concepts of duality, cosmic cycles and struggles, sacrifice, multiple afterlife destinations, and supernatural realms above and below the terrestrial world. Some of these concepts, approaches, and ceremonies were strikingly different from those introduced by the Spaniards; others were just similar enough to create considerable confusion and misinterpretation when the two religions collided. Attitudes of assimilation versus conversion and ideas of polytheism versus monotheism seem diametrically opposed and incompatible. Yet these apparently contradictory principles emerged as major players in the process of religious accommodation and meshing as Cortés toppled native idols from temple heights even before the fall of Tenochtitlan.29 With the native propensity to adopt others’ cultural features, the Christian god (Dios) was generally accepted by the Nahua, but in their customary way, as one of many deities. Yet the Spanish clergy intended this adoption to be accompanied by a rejection of the native deities; their proselytizing efforts did not unfold quite as they intended. This posed no particular problem for the Nahuas. The Spanish clergy responded by cracking down more seriously on the worship of native deities. Not to be dissuaded from their beliefs, the Nahuas found a plethora of Catholic saints to pair with their traditional deities, thus preserving something of their pre-conquest religious world. The most significant of these was the meshing of the Virgin Mary with the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin, resulting in the Virgin of Guadalupe. In other instances, Jesus Christ became associated with Tonatiuh (the sun), Saint Anne (as Jesus’s grandmother) was linked to Toci (Our Grandmother), and Saint John the Baptist’s association with water was not lost on the Nahuas; to them it was natural to link him with their ancient rain god (Burkhart 2011: 16–17). In a specific instance of syncretism,



Aztec Society and Culture San Francisco, the present-day patron saint of the village of Tecospa (just south of the Basin of Mexico) miraculously produces rain with “the consent of God and the help of Aztec rain dwarfs” (Madsen 1967: 381). These were fairly straightforward misunderstandings and logical blendings. Other religious concepts were a rather different matter. Some of them seem superficially similar but were in fact frustratingly dissimilar. For instance, the Aztec opposition of order and chaos was used by the Spanish clergy to introduce concepts of good and evil.Yet these were hardly the same, since “Nahua cosmic dualism was not cast in terms of good and evil . . . the opposites [order/ chaos] complement each other. . . . They cannot be reduced to an opposition between positive and negative” (Burkhart 1989: 36–37). In Aztec thought, order came from disorder, light from darkness, life from death. The Spanish clergy’s attempts to cast their idea of good versus evil in terms of the native concept of order/chaos effectively “Nahuatized” this Christian concept: the Nahuas continued to think in term of order/chaos, speaking of it as good versus evil. The Spanish clergy thought they had succeeded in this conceptual conversion. In effect, they had not (Burkhart 1989: 39). A similar process occurred when Christian hell met Aztec underworld.This sort of problem has been phrased by Lockhart (1992: 445) as “double mistaken identity” whereby “Nahua patterns could continue indefinitely in a superficially Hispanic guise.” Ceremonial rhythms and scheduling were central to both religions, as both adhered to a solar calendar of religious celebrations. The flamboyant Aztec public ceremonies, frequently punctuated by human sacrifices, disappeared with the Empire. In their place came Christian ceremonies commemorating events in the Christian calendar. Different times (such as Christmas, Easter, and Corpus Christi) gained ritual importance under the new order. Formal religious ceremonies now included the celebration of mass, colorful processions honoring saints on their special days, and theatrical plays with Christian themes and performed in the Nahuatl language. Indigenous cultural ingredients and nuances permeated the processions and plays. The Aztecs were accustomed to religious processions; these now featured the image of a saint carried along a designated ceremonial route. These saints were often the focal point of an altepetl or professional group’s identity:30 in Mexico City in the 1560s, a pochteca group “decorated a Christian cult object with feathers and displayed a new saint’s image in a procession” (Lockhart 1992: 192). Processions could become quite competitive (Lockhart 1992: 220, 240), and local groups retained some of their indigenous decorative and celebratory flair. The Tlaxcallan town council, in 1550, made a point of prohibiting its residents from dancing with the feathers adorning a Christian processional litter and cross. They must have been doing just that. Christian-themed plays (performed in the Nahuatl language) also served as symbols of community pride. With Nahua performers, they inevitably incorporated native elements of expression, thought, and behavior, often to the

The Aztec World: An Integrated View


Figure 8.4. Modern paper image of the native maize god Chicomexochitl (Seven Flower). (Photograph by and courtesy of Alan R. Sandstrom.)

consternation of the local clergy (Burkhart 2011: 14–15). Nahua translators and performers were notably innovative, often enough interpreting Christian ideas and histories from their own cultural frame of reference. The performers themselves undoubtedly conveyed indigenous subtleties through intonations, gestures, facial expressions, and spontaneous actions or speech (Burkhart 2011: 19).31 Aztec rituals persevered most successfully in local contexts such as individual households and neighborhoods.32 According to David Tavárez (2011), litigation throughout the colonial period points to the continuation of rituals involving concealed images and sacred bundles, accompanied by clandestine rituals (including divination, blood sacrifice, and the offering of copal incense). Also evident are beliefs in nahualli, or powerful shape-changing (and sometimes bloodsucking) sorcerers. Many indigenous religious specialists, variously called “diviners, witches, enchanters, and healers,” thrived in the colonial setting (Klor de Alva 1982: 362; Tavárez 2011). The tonalamatl (ritual calendar) also persisted undercover among some native religious practitioners, along with its likely link with naming patterns and belief in fate (Tavárez (2011: 45, 139; Lockhart 1992: 117–130). There was considerable variation, regionally and individually, in the covert continuation of these indigenous rituals and beliefs (Tavárez 2011). At the same time that indigenous sorcerers and other

Aztec Society and Culture


religious practitioners resisted the new religion, Christianity was making spiritual inroads with other individuals. The rather unusual 1580 will of Miguel García, a notary of Colhuacan, included a book of hours, breviaries, three rosaries, a confessional manual, and “an image of the savior on the cross” (Cline and León-Portilla 1984: 104–105). The process of colonial religious accommodation was both complex and varied. Most household and community ritual in pre-Spanish times focused on curing, human fertility, and life cycle events, although some activities fed into religious ceremonies outside the home (see Chapter  7). These local rituals continued after the conquest and, in some areas, on to the present day.

Cultural Resilience The Aztec Empire and state religious cult collapsed quickly, destroyed early on by the Spanish military and spiritual conquests.33 But the culture that underlay that powerful empire was less easily shattered. Language, material things, ways of making a living, local and household social arrangements, altepetl organizations, and modes of thinking, believing, and expressing oneself did not disappear under the colonial regime, although much was transformed and recast in this new universe. These retentions and adjustments especially occurred with individual families, communities, and professional groups, and not only in outof-the-way rural areas.34 Some of this cultural resilience gained energy through the introduction of Spanish organizations such as cofradías, or religious brotherhoods, and was reinforced by economic, social, and cultural factors such as restricted access to certain elements of Spanish technology, retention of strong community solidarity, Nahuatl literacy, and conceptual near misses of paired ideas such as order–chaos / good–evil and upperworld–underworld / heaven– hell. Nahua ways of behaving, thinking, and believing continued in force into the new colonial world and beyond.35 Looking beyond the sixteenth century to the twenty-first, the resilience of Aztec/Nahua cultural traditions is still clearly in evidence. For instance, in the Nahuatl-speaking Huasteca regions of eastern Mexico (Veracruz and the Sierra Norte de Puebla), indigenous language use, agricultural techniques and scheduling, curing rituals, and religious pilgrimages provide traditional cultural anchors for the daily lives of the Nahua villagers. They follow ancient traditions in producing ritual paper figures and using those images in curing ceremonies and as offerings in pilgrimages. These figures embody ancient as well as more modern stylistic and symbolic elements. For instance, a paper image of Chicomexochitl (Seven Flower) (Figure 8.4) carries ancient imagery and powers associated with solar warmth, flowers, feasting, and pleasure, and today Chicomexochitl is a primary maize spirit in these eastern Nahua regions as “both a provider of sustenance and a nourisher of the human soul” (Sandstrom 1991: 13; see also Sandstrom and Sandstrom 1986: 77, 114; Sandstrom 1991:

The Aztec World: An Integrated View 245–247).36 This paper image embodies ancient concepts, yet it also includes other features from the villagers’ more recent experiences, including shoes and unspecified clothing, and the use of modern paper. The figure represents corn in crop-fertility rituals (Alan Sandstrom, personal communication 2011). In microcosm, this one small figure exemplifies the multitude of instances that demonstrate how the culture derived from the past is transformed and embedded in the culture of the present.


G l o s s a ry


fundamental political unit resembling a city-state; ruled by a tlatoani amantecatl (pl. amanteca) professional featherworker amatl (amate) paper made from the inner bark of fig trees cabecera head town of a province or region during colonial times cabildo municipal council during the colonial period calendar round fifty-two-year calendrical cycle calmecac priest-administered school attended by noble boys and perhaps some commoners calpolli district or neighborhood of a town, city, or altepetl Chichimeca nomadic hunting and gathering peoples of northern desert regions chinamitl (chinampas) cultivated plots of land built up in shallow freshwater lakebeds codex (pl. codices) pictorial book cofradía religious lay brotherhood introduced by the Spaniards cuicacalli “house of song” where children learned songs, dances, and the playing of musical instruments encomienda grant of native labor to a privileged Spaniard Huaxtec ethnic group concentrated in the northern Gulf coast of Mexico huehuetlatolli “ancient words,” or moral teaching of the elders huey tlatoani “great ruler,” or imperial ruler macehualli (pl. macehualtin)   native commoner; normally belonged to a calpolli maguey agave plant with numerous uses, for example, in beverages, as fibers, in medicines, and for fencing maye (pl. mayeque) rural tenant, attached to a noble house; people in similar situations also called tlalmaitl, or “land hands.” Mesoamerica culture area ranging from central Mexico into El Salvador and Honduras; the area of pre-Hispanic high civilizations metlatl (metate) stone for grinding maize Mexica popularly known as Aztecs; late-arriving Chichimeca migrants to the Basin of Mexico; emerged as dominant in the Triple Alliance Nahuatl language of the Aztecs and many of their neighbors during late pre-Hispanic times



Glossary New Spain Spanish colonial jurisdiction encompassing much of today’s Mexico Otomí ethnic group important in the northern Basin of Mexico and in pockets elsewhere in central Mexico oztomecatl (pl. oztomeca) professional merchants often enlisted as spies by their rulers patolli game similar to pachisi pilli (pl. pipiltin) “son of nobles,” or any noble person pochtecatl (pl. pochteca) professional merchant, dealing mainly in luxury goods pulque, octli fermented maguey sap; a popular but restricted alcoholic beverage quachtli large white cotton cloths used as a form of money quauhpilli (pl. quauhpipiltin) “eagle noble,” or a man achieving quasi-noble status through military exploits teccalli noble house, in the eastern Nahua region, encompassing the noble and his household along with associated commoner laborers tecpan, tecpancalli royal or lordly palace tecuhtli (pl. tetecuhtin) high-ranking titled noble and head of a lordly house or palace telpochcalli school for commoners, with a military emphasis temazcalli sweatbath Templo Mayor, Huey Teocalli   Great Temple of Tenochtitlan teotl deity; also used to convey the idea of divinity or an exceptional quality tianquiztli native marketplace, often periodically scheduled tlacohtli (pl. tlacohtin) slave tlanecuilo regional merchant tlatoani (pl. tlatoque) ruler, usually of an altepetl, or city-state tlaxilacalli division of an altepetl; more common term than calpolli tolteccatl (pl. toltecca) luxury artisan tonalamatl “paper of days,” or astrological book recording the days of the ritual calendar tonalpohualli “count of days”; the 260-day ritual calendar Triple Alliance political and military alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan tzitzimime primarily goddesses with the ability to prevent and cure diseases; also described as celestial monsters tzompantli skull rack Xihuitl 365-day solar year

N ot e s

Chapter 1.  Discovering, Uncovering, and Interpreting the Aztec World 1 The essentials of the Mesoamerican ethnohistoric record are compiled and summarized in vols. 12–15 of the Handbook of Middle American Indians. Although the Handbook is dated 1973–1975, the editors did a thorough and thoughtful job of presenting the documentary record, and these volumes remain the “go to” sources for any initial investigation into Mesoamerican ethnohistory. Berdan (2009b) discusses major research themes and the progress of ethnohistory over the past twenty years. 2 The generally accepted number of extant Mesoamerican pre-Columbian codices stands at fifteen (six Mixtec historical and genealogical codices, four Mayan ritual and divinatory codices, and five codices from southeast of the Basin of Mexico, known collectively as the “Borgia Group”). The inclusion of the Matrícula de Tributos, which I and others believe to also be pre-conquest, brings that number to sixteen. 3 Part  1 of the Codex Mendoza is a history of conquests; part  2 is a tribute tally. The tribute tally, if not copied from the Matrícula de Tributos, is at least cognate with it (Berdan 1992; Boone 2007: 5). The Tira de la Peregrinación, or Codex Boturini, has been thought to be preconquest, but recent studies have brought to light Spanish styles and elements (see Johansson 2007: 10–11). 4 It is not clear if Zorita himself used the pictorials directly, but he certainly gained information from them indirectly: he

obtained most of his information from three learned Franciscan friars who “knew aged Indians who could help them, and the picture writings were still sound and whole. They obtained much accurate information from these pictures” (1963: 87). 5 When glyph and gloss disagree, I tend to give preference to the glyph, being the more indigenous form. Consider, for example, the mistake made in the Spanish gloss of the Matrícula de Tributos (1980: folio 13r), which identified two pieces of amber (glossed in Nahuatl as ontetl apozonally: 2  [pieces of] amber) as dos vasos para calentar agua [two vessels for heating water]). 6 Book 9 of the Florentine Codex, in its discussion of featherworkers and their craft, contains no fewer than eighteen distinctive native phonetic glyphs (as single units or composites) over the space of twenty-four separate illustrations (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9). This is the densest use of indigenous phonetic glyphic writing in the entire corpus and may reflect the eruditeness of the scribe, slack Spanish oversight of this section, or simply that these technical matters lent themselves well to the inclusion of native glyphs.Whatever the reason, the glyphs are highly instructive, offering additional information ­ranging from featherworking procedures to the types of feathers used (Berdan n.d.). 7 While this conquistador clearly intended to set the conquest record straight, it was also quite fashionable at the time to write “true” histories, and claim the last word, of just about anything (Mancall 2007: 51).


Notes to pages 10–27

298   8 “Ancient words” or wise lectures of the elders. This and other lost works by Olmos survived in the writings of Zorita, Las Casas, Torquemada, and Mendieta, and perhaps also in those of Motolonía.   9 In those days (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) in Europe there was scant concern for intellectual property rights, as these writers sometimes “borrowed” freely and wholesale from each other’s works. For elucidations of these rather complex relationships see especially Gibson 1975 and Gibson and Glass 1975. 10 His travels and collections had general medicinal objectives and derived from a European preoccupation with finding medical cures, given the ravages of repeated epidemics over the past few centuries in Europe. 11 Agency theory focuses on the behavior, actions, and decisions of individual actors, as these are played out in cultural and institutional contexts. 12  Marketplaces were found in every citystate of any respectability and size. It is, however, frustratingly difficult to identify marketplaces archaeologically, since these periodic events took place in a centrally located open plaza that became, simply, a centrally located open plaza on nonmarket days. The largest market in the realm, at Tlatelolco, was daily and more permanent. It has been tentatively identified on the ground (Carballal Staedtler et al. 2008: 54). 13 As examples, numerous sculptures, ranging from animals to calendrical dates, are embedded in Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor building phases. The adjacent House of the Eagles also contains informative low-relief sculptures (López Luján 2006). Murals have been uncovered there, as well as in Tlatelolco (Guilliem Arroyo 2008a, 2008b). Unless protected from the elements, murals are sadly fragile and few have been recovered from Aztec-period central Mexico. 14 And they were seen and rightfully admired by Oveido de Valdés in Seville and by Peter Martyr and Bartolomé

de las Casas in Valladolid (Saville 1920: 191–202). 15 Granted, deposits do become disrupted either by nature or by human hand: rodents disturb layers, earthquakes shift foundations, and conquerors appropriate finished building stones for their own new structures. 16 Two pieces in Mexico City, three in Vienna, and two in Stuttgart. Arguments have been made that one item in Mexico City (a small mosaic disk) and another in Vienna (a feather fan) are colonial rather than pre-conquest. I disagree. 17 “Moctezuma’s mantle,” housed in the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Brussels, has been convincingly identified as Tupinamba, not Aztec (Sergio Purini, personal communication 2008). A fascinating textile strip woven of cotton, feathers, and rabbit fur in the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York City has only recently been established as Mexican, not South American as previously classified (Phipps and Commoner 2006). 18 Consider the wealth of information (especially identification of raw materials and techniques of manufacture) that astute researchers have gleaned from the nine unprovenienced turquoise mosaics in the British Museum (McEwan et al. 2006). 19 These have been identified as both Native Americans and “others,” including Spaniards, Africans, and perhaps mestizos from the Antilles (Martínez Vargas 2003: 55). 20 Today’s backstrap loom is also used to weave wool, a Spanish introduction; the traditional wood-tipped hoe now is made of steel. And women now frequently take their maize to the mill for grinding rather than perform the backbreaking work with the mano and metate. 21 Once, long ago, when trekking deep into the eastern Sierra, I encountered a Nahua woman in native dress, who proceeded to ask me, in Nahuatl, for vitamins. It was an eye-opener. 22 This region encompassed the Basin of Mexico and neighboring areas of the

Notes to pages 27–53 modern states of Hidalgo, Morelos, and Tlaxcallan-Puebla (see Figure  3.3). Its variety of natural environments provided the stage on which people developed complex civilizations based on “high productivity, dense population, and intensive specialization and exchange” (Sanders et al. 1979: 4). Chapter 2.  The Aztecs as Mesoamericans 1 I use the term “secondary state” in a general sense to refer to states that were not primary or original in their region. The Aztecs had several stately predecessors and may even be considered a fourthgeneration state in the Basin of Mexico (Marcus 1998: 73). Elizabeth Brumfiel (1983) offers the perspective that the Aztecs resembled primary states in their genesis since they were not immediately preceded by, or in direct interaction with, a major state. 2 Umberger (1987) adds Xochicalco to the list of cities revered by the Mexica as “origin centers”; Xochicalco was associated with the birth of the calendar. 3 Aztec cities in the modern state of Morelos, south of Tenochtitlan, more closely mimic Tula’s urban layout (Smith 2008). 4 They were not alone in implementing this strategy. Nearby Tlaxcallan, persistent enemy of the Mexica, also obtained and revered objects from Tula (Umberger 1987: 72). 5 Sahagún is speaking of such peoples at the time of the Spanish conquest, but it is reasonable to envision the Mexica themselves in a similar situation a few centuries earlier. 6 The extent of these networks, the quantities of goods that passed along them, and the nature of the exchanges themselves are matters of some controversy. Lekson and Peregrine (2004: 16)  suggest that most of the Mexican side of the trade originated in western Mexico. Vargas (2001) provides a good summary of these controversies, agreeing with a western Mexican source for the copper bells.

299   7 Mesoamerican-style ballcourts were present among the Hohokam in today’s southern Arizona, and there has been some discussion of the presence of Mesoamerican deities in U.S. Southwestern centers, as well as more abstract symbolic links between the two great culture areas (see, e.g., Taube 2001).   8 The Great Temple at Cholula (62 meters high and 400 meters on a side at the base) and the Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan (69 meters high and 226 meters on a side) were substantially larger than Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor (45 meters high and an average of 82 meters on a side at its base).   9 The famed coatepantli, or serpent wall, has recently been reanalyzed by Leonardo López Luján and Alfredo López Austin (2011), who conclude that it surrounded only the Templo Mayor itself, not the entire ceremonial precinct. 10 This conquistador goes on to add, somewhat ambiguously, that the ruler’s servants cooked more than three hundred plates of food for the ruler and more than a thousand for the guard (Díaz del Castillo 1963: 225). Sahagún (1950–82, Book 8: 39) is even more expansive, stating that the ruler’s steward set out two thousand kinds of foods for the ruler daily. While this was perhaps available to the ruler initially, it appears to have been prepared largely for the ruler’s palace visitors, associates, dependents, and servants. 11 Most notably Tlaxcallan, Huexotzinco, Tliliuhquitepec, and Atlixco. Chapter 3.  Living on the Land 1 The highest point in Mesoamerica is the Pico de Orizaba, or Citlaltepetl. 2 The two most imposing peaks, Popocatepetl (5,465 meters above sea level) and Iztaccihuatl (5,230 meters above sea level), lie at the southeastern fringe of the Basin. 3 Lake Texcoco was a major terminus for migratory waterfowl that arrived in great multitudes during the fall and winter.

Notes to pages 53–70

300   4 The flat terrain generally ends at around 2,600 meters, and the upper limit for agriculture lies at approximately 3,000 meters (Sanders et al. 1979: 87–88).   5 The frost season is usually considered to extend from mid-October to midMarch (Sanders 1981: 154).   6 For a comprehensive listing of plants in today’s ethnobotanical garden in Cuernavaca, Morelos, see Parrilla Alvarez 2003.   7 Sanders (2008: 68)  suggests that the population ranged from more than 100,000 to 200,000; Smith (2003b: 184; 2008: 152)  offers 200,000 and 212,000; Nichols (2004: 271)  suggests 150,000– 200,000; and Matos Moctezuma (2001: 198) settles on 250,000.   8 Díaz del Castillo (1963: 144) reports separate forces of 6,000 and 40,000. He and his commander may have been facing the military forces from different vantage points, resulting in different perceptions.   9 This soldier additionally offers the claim that “most of the persons who have seen it” arrive at this figure (Anonymous Conqueror 1963: 178). 10 The population of Seville, for that time, is estimated at 60,000. 11 Aztec households could consist of either nuclear or joint families, and the sizes of recorded households from the early colonial period range from a low of four members to a high of fifteen. Evans (2005: 204)  provides a useful summary. Also see Chapter 6. 12 Smith and Heath-Smith (1994: 352, 364)  also report rapid Late Postclassic population growth in neighboring Morelos, just to the south of the Basin of Mexico, suggesting that the population may have exceeded its environmental carrying capacity. 13 The availability of such labor forces must have been considerable. Consider the reportedly two thousand people given to serve the daughter of Tenochtitlan’s king Axayacatl upon her marriage to the king of Texcoco (Hicks 1984: 152). The figure may be exaggerated, but even half that number is quite extraordinary.

14 Sanders (2008: 81)  suggests that these urban chinampas were only small kitchen gardens. Calnek (1972: 112, 114)  estimates that urban chinampa households could have filled only about 5–15% of their own subsistence needs. 15 Any ambitious noble would have told you that he absolutely needed exquisite jewelry and personal adornments of fine stones, metals, and feathers. From his perspective, he did. However, here we are concentrating on more basic, lifesupporting materials such as food, shelter, and clothing. 16 The Nahuatl term calli (house) appears to refer most often to these individual rooms; the term ithualli (patio) indicates the patio or patio group, also implying that its human occupants were a social unit (Lockhart 1992: 59–60). 17 Other structures possibly included in these compounds would be a granary (cuexcomatl) and a sweatbath (temazcalli), although these have not been verified archaeologically for commoner households and may have been more usual fixtures in elite houses (Burkhart 1997: 29; Lockhart 1992: 69–70). 18 Evidence for this derives primarily from sixteenth-century documentation, although it is certainly likely that such patterns pertained in pre-Hispanic times and the colonial instances reflect persisting native behaviors. 19 The three Mexica imperial rulers are Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, Axayacatl, and Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin. Dimensions have also been offered for the palace of Texcoco’s ruler Nezahualcoyotl, but its unrealistic size of 843,000 square meters probably encompassed much more than just the royal palace (see Smith 2008: 117). A more recent estimate of 11,400 square meters for this palace’s platform has been proposed (see Fargher et al. 2011a: 312). 20 Salvia hispanica L. The small seeds of this plant were ground into a meal (and sometimes mixed with maize) or were soaked whole and used in nutritious drinks or gruels. It appears in the Aztec tribute lists.

Notes to pages 70–80 21 The fruits, flowers, and pads of the prickly pear cactus were all edible. 22 In the Basin of Mexico, lacustrine resources, including enormous flocks of seasonal migratory birds, were abundantly available. 23 Based on measurements of fourteen cacao cups and three pulque vessels at the Cultural Resource Center of the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, 2009, by Jennifer Berdan. Two pitchers in the same collections contained 1.2 and 2.6 pints, respectively. 24 Frying, in the European sense of the word, was not an option, since lard or sufficient supplies of other animal fats were not available before the arrival of the Spaniards. 25 Oscar Lewis (1951: 62–72) records that, for a family of five in Tepoztlan, the eldest daughter spent an average of five hours daily grinding maize and making tortillas. Maize kernels were soaked overnight in lime water, a process that softened the kernels for grinding and also added calcium and released other nutrients. 26 According to Sahagún (1950–1982: book 5, 184),“[I]f they came upon dried grains of maize lying scattered on the ground, then they quickly gathered them up. They said: ‘Our sustenance sufferth: it lieth weeping. If we should not gather it up, it would accuse us before our lord.”’ 27 Like so much in Aztec society, these clothing categories were not entirely rigid. Some finer maguey or henequen (enequen) fiber clothing was also highly decorated and certainly worn by elites (see Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. III, folios 33r, 34r). 28 As noted in Case 1.3, although backstrap loom weaving is a dying art in Mexico today, my interviews with Nahua weavers make it clear that they also acquired their skills by age 14, having begun at age 5. 29 Today, hand spinning of wool is somewhat analogous to the dying art of maguey spinning. Women can be seen waiting at bus stops or walking about, all the while spinning wool. Cotton spin-

301 ning is, by necessity, a more sedentary activity. 30 In Cihuatecpan, nearly as many whorls were uncovered in the noble house alone as in eight other dwellings combined (fifty-one of sixty; Evans 1988). 31 Evans (1988: 181)  uncovered twentythree small and twenty-eight large spindle whorls in structure 6, interpreted as a noble house. 32 Maguey in central Mexico grows well above elevations of around 1,800 meters. Ceramic spindle whorls less than 11 centimeters in diameter are appropriate for spinning cotton, while larger ones (up to 30 centimeters in diameter) work well for spinning maguey fibers (M. Parsons 1975). Ethnographically, whorls made of wood and bark are also used. 33 The concept of terracing actually yielded quite a bit of variation on the ground, depending on slope and other landscape characteristics, as well as availability of maguey and stone for construction. Smith (2003d: 68) adds cross-channel terraces, which built up cultivable land across stream channels. 34 Since irrigation systems on a large scale long predated the Aztec arrival in the Basin of Mexico, arguments surrounding the role of irrigation in state formation are not addressed here. 35 Most canal irrigation remains today are found along the slopes of the Basin’s mountainous periphery (Doolittle 1990: 115). 36 Ahuitzotl insisted on this aqueduct, even in the face of advice from the Coyoacan ruler that it would result in a disastrous flooding of Tenochtitlan. Ahuitzotl considered the subject ruler’s advice an effrontery and ordered his execution (Durán 1994: 363–365). 37 According to Sanders et al. (1979: 230), this early-planting advantage is a particularly important function of irrigation today. 38 I am indebted to Ken Hirth for the observation that the clever Aztecs may have engineered the lake levels, creating shallow water in areas where it did not exist before. The construction of the great dike across Lake Texcoco, com-

Notes to pages 80–99

302 plete with sluice gates, was designed at least in part to regulate water levels. 39 Chalco paid more than any other single province, even though it contained among the fewest tributary towns (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. II, 97; vol. III, folios 40v–41r). Early colonial chinampas in Culhuacan appear to have emphasized maize and beans over vegetables and herbs (Lockhart 1992: 201). 40 In highland areas, the fallowed plot could be approximately equivalent in size to the currently cultivated plot. In tropical forest areas, where slash-and-burn cultivation was common, the resting period ranged from five to twenty years. 41 The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1963: 233)  mentions public latrines in the city of Tenochtitlan; men in canoes sold the excrement for the manufacture of salt and the curing of hides. He does not mention its use as a fertilizer. 42 Sahagún (1950–1982: book 8, 68) specifically mentions uictli, uitzoctli, and tlate­ coni (digging sticks, pointed oaken poles, and hatchets, respectively) as present in the Tlatelolco market. Díaz del Castillo includes axes made of bronze and copper and tin among the wares of that same market. 43 The Spanish colonials called these coa, and this usage continues today in Mexico. Current styles usually include a steel blade. 44 Sahagún (1950–1982: book 11, 48, 49) also mentions the common house finch and the Moctezuma quail as domesticates. 45 Other aquatic plants described in the ethnohistoric sources seem to have had their greatest value as medicines (e.g., Hernández 1959: vol. II, 11–12, 22). 46 Hernández (1959: vol. II, 392)  says this procedure involved the throwing of “twisted cables” into the lake, to which the eggs adhered; the collectors removed them from the cables and stored them in large vessels. 47 Today dried insects are sold as birdfeed, although the insect eggs are eaten with relish (Parsons 2006: 167). The waterfowl are no longer available in sufficient quantities for collection.

48 In this excavation, the lack of fish and freshwater clams was noted. Fabiola Guzmán and Polaco (2008: 325) suggest that this might be due to the function of the excavated structure or the preferences of its occupants. Chapter 4.  Craft Specialization, Commerce, and Trade   1 While Aztec traditions attribute the skilled crafts of fine featherworking, metalwork, and stoneworking to the revered Toltecs, it is clear that these luxury crafts long predated the rise of the exalted Toltec city of Tula.   2 Research currently under way may reveal additional sources of turquoise deeper within Mesoamerica (see Berdan 2012).   3 Lockhart (1992: 185) stresses the conservative nature of native marketplaces in colonial Mexico.   4 He uses the past tense here, so is presumably referring to pre-colonial times.   5 The reference is to a tzatzachiuhqui, which Anderson et  al. (1976: 138–139) translate as “warping-frame makers.”The backstrap loom is essentially a bundle of sticks; it is not really clear here whether this, or the weavings themselves, was meant (tzaua means “to weave”).Various Spanish introductions are also mentioned for this market, including candles, collars, and probably Spanish garments (Anderson et al. 1976: 138–149).   6 The Spanish version (Durán 1967: vol. II, 477) specifies “oficios mecánicos.”   7 Sufficiently large concentrations of manufacturing debris found at Otompan from maguey fiber, obsidian tool, and lapidary and figurine production led Otis Charlton et al. (1993) to label these workshops.   8 Torquemada (1969: vol. III, 210)  speaks of such a process with regard to colonial featherworking. See also Berdan et al. 2009.   9 This is supported by numerous ethnohistorical references as well as the almost ubiquitous distribution of spindle whorls in archaeological investigations of households (e.g., Smith et  al. 2003;

Notes to pages 99–112 Smith and Heath-Smith 1994; Nichols 1994; Hicks 1994; Evans 1988). 10 According to the Codex Mendoza (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. III, folio 60r), a girl was expected to master spinning and weaving by age 14. She began learning to spin at age 4. The document does not mention at what age she began weaving, but Nahua girls in today’s Sierra Norte de Puebla begin learning at age 5 (Frances Berdan, field notes 1985). 11 Adhesives were derived from several sources, but especially orchids, beeswax, and the resin of copal and pine trees.The initial production of glues from orchids in a rural household could have easily been an auxiliary activity involving children as well as adults and using tools and implements (such as stone knives and grinding bowls) already available in the household (Berdan et  al. 2009). These partially processed gums (as powders) were sold in the market. 12 Frances Berdan, field notes 1991. 13 According to Brumfiel (1987: 107), there did not seem to be a trend toward increasing the intensity of utilitarian craft production as the Late Postclassic progressed. There was greater output but, she suggests, because there were more part-time producers, not because part-timers became full-timers. 14 Hirth (2009a: 18) includes the possibility that commoner households could produce luxury goods. This could occur as long as the household could gain access to the necessary raw materials, knowledge, and skills, and as long as such access was not politically restricted to elites. 15 These city-states are discussed in Blanton and Hodge (1996) and mapped in Blanton (1996: fig.  3–2, p.  51). The maguey-processing locales are centered in the maguey-growing areas in the northern Basin of Mexico, mat makers and basket weavers are located close to the lake, and woodworkers were situated largely toward the piedmont. 16 Monzón (1949: 50–51) localizes metalworkers (including goldworkers), featherworkers, dyers, painters, mat makers, stoneworkers, merchants, pulque makers, and curers/diviners into separate

303 neighborhoods. López Austin (1973: 65–75) reproduces Monzón’s table and adds information on patron deities of several specializations. 17 Damage and breakage were inevitable and extensive in Aztec warfare. While we have no documentation on how repairs were made, it is possible that artisans such as these provided such services in the marketplace. 18 He mentions how the obsidian seller forces off blades with a staff and crosspiece. 19 Other crafting that may have taken place in the marketplaces included sandal making, basket making, reed mat making, mirror stone making, smoking tube making, and spinning and weaving. Aside from the level of detail provided by Sahagún, ethnographic parallels, and the ease of working on these objects in a market setting, there is no direct evidence for these crafting activities in Aztec marketplaces. 20 The artisans were paid clothing, ten loads of squashes; ten loads of beans; two loads each of chiles, cacao, and cotton; and a boatload of maize prior to beginning the work.When they finished, each received two slaves, two loads of cacao, some pottery, salt, and a load of cloth (Alvarado Tezozomoc 1975a: 668–669). These were handsome wages. 21 As non-nobles, these artisans must have been either traditionally esteemed or excellent negotiators (see Berdan 2005: 32). 22 According to Brumfiel and associates (1994: 117), “[C]ross cultural studies of status markers lead us to believe that such artifacts are characterized by difficult production processes that limit their availability to those who control skilled specialists.” 23 Small (cotton) spindle whorls have been found broadly in archaeological contexts from tierra caliente to tierra fria. 24 For instance, Acazacatlan, on the brink between highland and lowland in the eastern Sierra, was well known as a cotton market (Berdan et al. 2003b: 99). 25 A particularly interesting example comes from the southern part of

Notes to pages 112–136

304 the Empire and beyond its boundaries. Teotitlan del Camino (outside the imperial thrall) manufactured women’s cotton tunics (huipilli) and sold them to merchants who transported them to Guatemala, Chiapa, Suchitepeques (again outside the Empire) and Xoconochco (an imperial province). At these distant places, the merchants traded the tunics for cacao (and there the story ends, so we do not know where the cacao went). For their part, the people of Teotitlan del Camino did not grow their own cotton for their weaving enterprises; rather, the raw material was obtained from the distant Tehuantepec region, reportedly 192 kilometers away on a bad road (PNE 1905–1906: vol. IV: 107). 26 While land generally appears to have been politically entailed, there are tantalizing tidbits to the contrary. Hicks (1986: 48–50) summarizes documented instances of the possibility of selling land. While selling land may have been allowed, it was probably a relatively rare occurrence. 27 Marketplaces are frustratingly difficult to identify archaeologically; they usually took place, periodically, in plazas that served other community functions. However, some inroads have been made by chemical analyses in the Mayan area (Dahlin et al. 2007). Hirth’s (1998) “distributional approach” provides the possibility of identifying marketing activities through analyses of the composition of household goods. 28 Translated by Smith (1979: 111). 29 The institution of “markets on wheels” in modern Mexico City serves similar needs: foods and utilitarian objects are sold in different parts of the city on a weekly rotation. In short, the market comes to its consumers one day each week, mirroring pre-Columbian market patterns. 30 The venue for selling slaves was reportedly moved by political order from Cuauhtitlan to Azcapotzalco (see Blanton 1996: 75). 31 Given the tenacity of the indigenous market system under Spanish colonial rule, it is highly probable that these schedules

were carried over from Aztec times (see Gibson 1964: 352–353, 356–357). 32 This assessment is based on the distribution of pottery, a general-use commodity. 33 Many more such marketplaces can be named that were favorably located on major transport arteries. Especially important were Miahuatlan, Coyolapan, Tlachquiauhco, and Coayxtlahuacan in the southern and western parts of the Empire and Tepeacac, Acazacatlan, and Tochtepec to the east. See maps in Berdan et al. 1996. 34 Díaz del Castillo (1963: 233)  mentions three judges, while Cortés (1928: 89), enjoying the same market tour, enumerates ten to twelve. Both also observed additional supervisors or inspectors who wandered about the marketplace ensuring order. 35 Barter has been historically common in Mexican periodic marketplaces; while it still occurs today, money has become the usual medium of exchange. 36 See Anonymous Conqueror 1971: 380–381; Las Casas 1967: vol. I, 309, 361, 364, 368; Motolinía 1971: 216–217, 374; Oviedo y Valdés 1851–1855: vol. III, 536; Torquemada 1969: vol. II: 558, 560; ENE 1939–1942: vol. I: 86; PNE 1905–1906: vol. 6: 164, 321; AGI, Patronato 184, no. 2. 37 This root was popular for cleaning clothes. 38 Only merchants from Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco carried the ruler’s goods, with merchants from the other three city-states traveling as their companions. These companions were all from Tepanec territory, and while it goes unrecorded, they may have served in a similar capacity as agents of the Tlacopan ruler. 39 These are recorded from the city-states of Huexotla, Coatlinchan, Chalco, Huitzilopochco, Mixcoac, Xochimilco, and Otompan (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 9, 48–49). Chapter 5.  City-States and Imperial Rule 1 Hodge (1994: 59)  suggests that “most rural communities were within a few

Notes to pages 136–150 hours walking distance from their political centers.” 2 Smith (2008: 90) estimates that city-states in the Basin of Mexico typically covered an area of 70–100 square kilometers, while those in Morelos usually spanned 50–80 square kilometers. Borders and boundaries were important to the Aztecs (see Hodge 1997: 212). 3 These were the Tepaneca (with primary city-states of Azcapotzalco, Tlacopan, and Coyoacan), Mexica (of Tenochtitlan), Acolhua (of Texcoco and neighboring eastern city-states), Culhua, Xochimilca, Mixquica, Cuitlahuaca, and Chalca (Hodge 1996: 20; Gibson 1964). 4 Chalco was reportedly defeated by the allied armies in 1456, Amecamecan in 1465 (Berdan et al. 1996: 234). 5 Tlacopan had remained relatively neutral during the war with Azcapotzalco. It was undoubtedly in the best interest of Tenochtitlan and Texcoco to include a Tepaneca city in their military alliance, given the large territories and great number of important cities claiming Tepaneca heritage. 6 Hodge (1996: 32)  observes that these composite city-states were all located in the Tenochca, Tepaneca, Cuitlahuaca, and Chalca zones. 7 The sources are frustratingly inconsistent on this matter. At the very least, she seems to have been an essential genealogical link in maintaining the line of legitimate succession (Gillespie 1989: 98–106). 8 For example, Itzcoatl led forces against Azcapotzalco, Axayacatl personally led campaigns against the Tarascans and Matlatzincas, Ahuitzotl fought in Tehuantepec and against the Huaxteca, and the second Motecuhzoma campaigned against Tototepec and Quetzaltepec. That said, they also stayed home during some wars (Durán 1994: 79–80, 265–270, 278–282, 324, 351, 420–424).   9 Autosacrifice typically involved piercing fleshy parts of the body with a sharp object such as a maguey spine. 10 Sahagún (1950–1982: book 8, 39) speaks of 2,000 kinds of food for the ruler daily,

305 and Díaz del Castillo (1963: 226–227) mentions that beyond Motecuhzoma’s meal itself, more than 1,000 plates of food, more than 2,000 jugs of frothy chocolate, and great quantities of fruit were provided for the ruler’s guard and household servants. Someone had to acquire, prepare, and serve all that. Also see Chapter 3 for a sense of the ruler’s lifestyle. 11 These are variously listed as tlillancanqui, ezhuahualcatl, cuauhnochtli, huitznahua­ tlailotlac, pochtecatlailotlac, and tiçocihuacatl (Davies 1987: 107). 12 This concern is voiced repeatedly in Chimalpahin (Anderson and Schroeder 1997: 105, 113, 117)  and Durán (1994: 45, 48). 13 High-ranking nobles and courageous warriors were often allocated such lands within the Basin of Mexico, apparently to avert freewheeling looting and the collection of booty. Such was the overt case in the conquest of Xochimilco by the Mexica, where lands were distributed to distinguished warriors “since they were not allowed to pillage the conquered city” (Durán 1994: 112). In more distant conquests, for example that of Tehuantepec, looting and pillaging were almost uncontrolled, since “only this interest in looting had made them leave their homes, their lands, their wives and children” (Durán 1994: 353). 14 This was clever. Tepeacac bordered enemy Tlaxcallan, Huexotzinco, and Cholula, and Aztec-friendly residence would enhance the Aztec military and political position along this tense border. Also, the ruler of conquered Tepeacac was required to house and support an Aztec governor and to hold a “great marketplace” (Durán 1994: 159) – both of these requirements were less than subtle means of exerting Aztec control. 15 Over in Texcoco, that ruler required lords from several distant conquered city-states to serve in his palace on a rotating basis. 16 This is recorded in detail forTenochtitlan’s temple of Huitzilopochtli. It is not clear how general this practice was.

Notes to pages 150–170

306 17 Despite its close association with rulers, this diadem also appears on judges as well (see Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 3, folio 68r). No Mexica rulers prior to the formation of the Empire wore this diadem, and no Mexica ruler after Cuauhtemoc  – under Spanish rule – wore this potent symbol of office (Sahagún 1993: folios 51v, 52r). 18 Smith et  al. (2003) argue convincingly that the fine serving vessels used in such feasts were commodities obtained in markets. 19 Mentioned in Sahagún (1950–1982: book 10, 191). This may not have been an isolated case (Davies 1987: 6). 20 In contrast, Chase et al. (2009) estimate Teotihuacan’s thrall at approximately 20,500 square kilometers (7,915 square miles) and that of Tula at some 8,000 square kilometers (3,089 square miles). 21 Matos Moctezuma’s estimates are based on 86 offerings, López Luján’s on 118. At this writing, 162 ritual deposits have been unearthed in the sacred precinct by the Proyecto Templo Mayor since 1978. No actual count of the artifacts has been made; the 80% estimate is an approximation and refers to “the majority” (Leonardo López Luján, personal communication 2010). López Luján (2005: 104)  observes that most manufactured goods found in the offerings derived from the modern states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Veracruz. 22 While statistics on battlefield casualties are notoriously difficult to find and interpret, there are some historically recorded figures. Among the most dramatic are 21,900 Aztec (and allies) dead vs. an unspecified Tarascan loss; 10,000 Aztec (and allied) dead vs. an unspecified Huexotzinco loss; 8,200 Aztec dead vs. “many” Cholulans dead; 12,000 Matlatzincas captured vs. 1,000 Aztec dead (see Hassig 1988: 301). 23 It did not take much to raise the ire of a ruler. Both Ahuitzotl and Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin ordered vassal rulers killed when neither provided an answer desired by the preeminent rulers (see Durán 1994: 363–365; Bierhorst 1992: 124–125).

24 Enemies were alertly lurking about, seeking to weaken the Empire. Twice the Tlaxcallans incited the rulers of Cuetlaxtlan province to rebel against their Aztec overlords, promising to support them in their rebellion. Twice the Tlaxcallans abandoned them (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 2, 122–123). 25 Quilted cotton armor was used throughout Mesoamerica. It was lightweight, about one and a half to two fingers thick (Hassig 1988: 88), and apparently quite serviceable and a strong protection against projectiles. It was “so thick that an arrow or dart could not penetrate it” (Durán 1994: 205–206). 26 Enterprising people from Misantla in the Gulf coastal region made cotton armor and sold it at battlefields (Relación de Misantla 1962: 17). 27 Coyolapan in the Mixteca. 28 One tributary province, Tepeacac, and a number of strategic provinces were required to deliver war captives from enemy polities. 29 The 80-day periods probably refer to actual periods of 80–100–80–100 days. 30 In the Codex Mendoza. The Matrícula de Tributos clothing payment periods are every 80  days, making a much larger total than that indicated in the Codex Mendoza (Berdan 1976). 31 The Matrícula lists 293,760 pieces of clothing, while the Mendoza totals 147,200.The discrepancy is due largely to differences in tribute collection periods. 32 Tenochtitlan’s preeminence in these matters is evident from the tribute’s being collected there first and then, if relevant, distributed to the two other allies. 33 The chronicler states that all of this came from 150 leagues around (approximately 450 miles). 34 Adding the important point that the imposition of tributes was but one factor involved in these changes. 35 This was a very real threat, as disastrous droughts, floods, and pestilence leading to famines were historically known and feared (see Chapter 3 and Case 3.2). 36 Those goods that we label luxuries were indeed considered essential by

Notes to pages 170–203 the nobility; maintenance of social status through extravagant display was a priority. 37 The Tenochtitlan rulers were especially active in installing these relatives in the western part of the Basin, decimating Tepanec dynasties (Hodge 1996: 36). 38 These documents are at least cognate; they are almost identical in town and tribute listings. For an in-depth comparison of these documents, see Berdan 1976. 39 Documents deriving from nonimperial centers, such as Chimalpahin’s Chalco account and the Anales de Cuauhtitlan, do not use the term “province,” preferring altepetl names or the names of peoples (e.g., Tlapaneca). 40 Control of information and affirmation are also listed by Chance and Stark (2007: 208), but the authors see little documentary or archaeological evidence for these strategies among Aztec subjects. I agree and have not included them in this discussion. Chapter 6.  Living as an Aztec: Social Status and Daily Life   1 Historical codices depict early nobles quite differently from commoners (e.g., in clothing, adornments, seats, and dwellings). However, it is not clear if these depictions are projections from later times when the codices were produced.   2 In the Puebla-Tlaxcallan region, these were common and were called teccalli. In the Basin of Mexico and neighboring areas, they were called tecpan or tecpancalli.   3 Technically, pipiltin referred to nobles of whatever rank.   4 The “good” and “bad” aspects are, at least in part, a product of Sahagún’s questioning format.   5 Sahagún’s informants were primarily aged nobles. This account, therefore, may be tinged by the nobles’ view of commoners’ lifestyles.   6 This community was ultimately included in Miahuatlan strategic province. See Figure 5.5.

307   7 Colonial Spanish writers considered these persons comparable to caballeros pardos (knights of commoner origin) in the sixteenth-century Spanish world (Carrasco 1971: 354).   8 The practice of inherited slavery (ancient servitude: heuhuetlatlacolli) was reportedly abolished in 1505 by Nezahualpilli of Texcoco, whose lead was followed by Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin of Tenochtitlan (see Offner 1983: 85, 308–309).   9 A speaker’s older brothers and sisters carried different terms, although younger siblings were not so distinguished. 10 In another uncomplimentary version of Itzcoatl’s birth, he is the son of a greens seller from Azcapotzalco (Carrasco 1984: 60). In either case, he overcame his humble beginnings with his personal achievements. 11 Schroeder (1992: 65)  observes that the few recorded cases of commoner men marrying noblewomen occurred during the early stages in an altepetl’s development or in times of crisis. 12 Women’s names of Tiacapan (Eldest), Tlaco (Middle), Teiuc (Younger), Xoco (Youngest), and Mocel (Only) are common to the point of confusion in the early colonial Colhuacan wills (Cline and León-Portilla 1984).Their frequency suggests a pre-conquest practice. 13 For both boys and girls, this sequence of ages from 4 to 14 is interrupted to illustrate punishments for boys aged 8–12 and girls aged 8–11. We assume learning of household tasks continued during these difficult years. 14 Young boys in featherworking households were responsible for making glue, while girls were expected to develop a keen eye for feather colors. 15 Zorita (1963: 135)  and Torquemada (1969: vol. 2, 222) mention boys entering the calmecac as young as age 5. The Codex Mendoza (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. III, folio 61r) gives age 15, and Sahagún (1950–1982: book 8, 71) mentions age 10, 12, or 13. There are suggestions that some commoner boys may have been dedicated to calmecac schooling.

Notes to pages 203–223

308 16 Since these schools were attached to temples, and different temples were dedicated to different deities, the curricula varied. For instance, the calmecac associated with Tezcatlipoca emphasized training for the priesthood, while the calmecac attached to Camaxtli’s temple focused on developing skilled hunters. 17 Children were particularly involved in ceremonies performed during the dry season. 18 See Berdan (2005: 97–99) for an extended description of these procedures and events. 19 While spinning and weaving appear to have been exclusively female tasks, even this is unclear: burials in Postclassic Cholula included male retainers interred with spindle whorls (Brumfiel 1991: 247; McCafferty 2001). 20 There remain some questions about female rulers.Were they formally installed as rulers, did they sit on thrones and wear turquoise diadems or other symbols of rulership, and what was the nature of their titles? (Schroeder 1992: 49). 21 This is probably an overstatement: joint families provided something of a buffer against this periodic household gender imbalance. 22 According to López Austin (1988: vol. 1, 236) these were not exclusive to humans. This same author (1988) provides an excellent and thorough discussion of these concepts. 23 Warriors awarded this afterlife accompanied the sun from its rising to its zenith. After four years they returned to earth as precious birds (including hummingbirds) and butterflies (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 3, 49). Women dying in childbirth traveled with the sun from its zenith to its setting in the west. 24 This is phrased in terms of a male, and it is not clear if the same rites pertained to a female noble. 25 The dog helped the deceased overcome difficult obstacles on the journey to Mictlan. A highly decorated canine discovered in offering 125 may have served such a function. 26 Durán (1994: 382–386) discusses the ruler Ahuitzotl’s funeral in detail, describing

the extravagant possessions that accompanied this ruler to the afterworld. 27 It is also clear that these burials were not used to consecrate the temple, as they were deposited below already completed floors. 28 Still, the manner of death was of prime importance: the effigy of a merchant who died a glorious death in distant lands was buried in the calpolli temple, while a merchant who died an ordinary death was cremated and buried at home (for an excellent summary of social status differences in burial customs see Chávez Balderas 2007: 86–97). 29 In their nefarious acts, these sorcerers would steal the forearm of a woman who had died in childbirth and use it to stupefy residents and rob them at will. 30 A tlacatecolotl (man owl) could transform himself into a wild beast and wreak havoc, including murder. Chapter 7.  Religion, Science, and the Arts   1 Calendars are devised by humans and can be manipulated to serve specific agendas. One such instance occurred at the end of a fifty-two-year cycle in the year One Rabbit (1506), which was delayed until the year Two Reed (1507) by Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin in order to avoid unpleasant associations with the prior One Rabbit year (1454), a year of intense famine in central Mexico, or perhaps to exercise his imperial powers (see Diel 2008: 37). As a side note, the Codex Mendoza shows Two Reed as the New Fire date from the 1300s. This may be a case of retrospective history.   2 This was the thirteenth and highest level of the heavens.   3 This story, of course, has great significance for Aztec history, since Quetzalcoatl’s proclamation to return in the year Ce Acatl (One Reed) coincided with the fateful year 1519.   4 This ritual took place at a temple called Huixachtecatl. The temple and hill are on the outskirts of today’s Mexico City.   5 This star grouping was known to the Aztecs as Tianquiztli, or “Marketplace.”

Notes to pages 224–253   6 This god, as Camaxtli, was patron deity of the powerful Tlaxcallans.   7 Tezcatlipoca needed to make this transformation because Mixcoatl was associated with flint and therefore with fire.   8 Caves are ambivalent in Aztec thought, representing both fertility and foreboding (as places of emergence and entrances to the underworld) (Miller and Taube 1993: 56–57). It should be remembered, also, that the Mexica and other Chichimecs traditionally emerged from Chicomoztoc, the “Seven Caves.”   9 The south was associated with the Tochtli (Rabbit) year sign, bringing forth memories of terrible famine (see Chapter 3). These qualities are summarized in Berdan 2005: 131. 10 While Tenochtitlan is unique in many ways, the Mexica considered the central temple of any of their conquests as the city’s heart and soul (my methaphor). The graphic symbol of conquest was a burning temple. 11 D. Carrasco (1999: 42–43) also reiterates Johanna Broda’s (1978) suggestions that the spatial structure of imperial tribute collection, Motecuhzoma’s palace, and that same ruler’s governmental organization (with Motecuhzoma at the apex, counseled by four judges) reflected the center/quadripartite arrangement of the supernatural world. 12 Smith (in press a) states that, rather than being anthropomorphic, deities “were viewed as supernatural spirits or forces that took material form when adorned with key elements of their costume.” Alfredo López Austin (2001: 270)  and Davíd Carrasco (2001: 105)  consider them anthropomorphic. 13 Some individuals dedicated themselves to a temple for one year only, vowing their service in exchange for future health and happiness. Men swept and guarded the temple, and women cooked food for the godly idol (and the priests) (Kubler and Gibson 1951: 29). 14 Fasting was variably defined, sometimes limiting eating to one meal a day, sometimes allowing food but without chiles and salt. Penitents were also expected

309 to refrain from bathing and sexual activities. 15 The purpose of this ceremony, they said, was to allow the hardworking and much-tormented maize to rest (Sahagún 1950–1982: book 2, 178). 16 Dancers impersonated butterflies, hummingbirds, beetles, owls, and even “the poor” and “sleep.” 17 The earliest evidence for Mesoamerican human sacrifice comes from the Tehuacan Valley and dates from 6000 to 4800 BC; the earliest evidence for cannibalism derives from the Basin of Mexico from 700 to 500 BC (López Austin and López Luján 2010). 18 Among Northwest coast Native Americans, potlatches were expensive and extravagant feasts hosted by individuals to achieve or verify a social position and/or title. 19 While the name suggests an owl, they could also transform themselves into other creatures such as dogs, turkeys, or weasels. 20 In general, the Aztec lifestyle generated relatively little waste. Organic wastes were recycled in gardens and fields, excrement was collected for fertilizer, and urine was used as a mordant in dyeing cloth (Ortiz de Montellano 1990). The greatest waste accumulation would have occurred at the end of each fiftytwo-year cycle, as broken household goods were piled up in dumps. 21 Chevalier and Sánchez Bain (2003) argue that the hot–cold dichotomy was a native concept rather than introduced by the Spaniards, and they provide a good summary and critique of the indigenous vs. diffusionist positions. 22 For instance, epazote could be used as a remedy for parasites, stomach inflammation, menstrual problems, and fear; prickly pear fruits were effective as aids in childbirth and in treating a variety of ailments, including digestive difficulties and heart problems (Bye and Linares 1999: 8). 23 Don’t try this at home; Parrilla Alvarez (2003: 243) describes the seeds as toxic. 24 These are also called narrative pictography, depictions, and the iconic mode

Notes to pages 253–267

310 (see Boone 2000a: 33).They all mean the same thing. Boone (2011: 198) describes Postclassic Mexican pictography as consisting of a combination of “figurally iconic images” that typically have no direct relationship with spoken language and phonetic signs. 25 To which must be added regional variations; see Robertson 1994. 26 They also produced epic poetry, recounting their great mythic episodes. 27 In one documented case, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin employed fourteen stoneworkers to carve a statue of himself; in another, a team effort was required to sculpt a massive stone for Huitzilopochtli’s temple (Alvarado Tezozomoc 1975a: 662). Chapter 8.  The Aztec World: An Integrated View   1 This backfired for the Aztecs at the famous battle against the Spaniards at Otompan (today’s Otumba), where Cortés focused his attack on just such an ostentatious leader, captured his device, sent the native troops into disarray, and won the day.   2 Olko (2005: 262)  suggests that these devices existed earlier in central Mexico. Indeed, the quetzalpatzactli device is illustrated in Durán in battles during the reign of the earlier Axayacatl (1994: plates 21–23).   3 These included the “ancient” device tozcocoli cuaxolotl, along with ones called ozelotzimitl, xoxouhqui cuextecatl, and iztac huixtecatl (Alvarado Tezozomoc 1975a: 549).   4 Appropriately, the butterfly insignia was associated with Xochiquetzal and also with Chantico, the Xochimilco fire goddess (Seler 1992: 35).   5 Olko (2005: 468) suggests that the granting of these devices by the imperial ruler “to provincial elites was a kind of permission for them to use imperial status symbols … assuring their cooperation and promoting imperial conventions and values in the conquered provinces.”   6 Consider the story of a Chichimec ruler of the city-state of Cuauhtitlan:

“As a reward for his loyalty, the emperor Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin offered this lord the costume and insignia of a Mexica warrior: the lord refused, instead accepting gifts appropriate to a Chichimec” (Berdan 2008: 122; Hodge 1984: 60). While the Cuauhtitlan ruler may have been making an ethnic statement, he also may have been stating unequivocally that he refused to accept the dominant posture of the Mexica ruler as symbolized by his offer.   7 The “device with cups” (quetzalcomitl) was worn on the warrior’s back. This style does not appear in the imperial tribute tallies, but two back devices whose frames were constructed like earthenware vessels do appear in the Primeros Memoriales (Sahagún 1997: 267, 272).   8 In a similar vein, certain fancy capes (or featherwork) were called “shadow of the kings” since the ruler alone retained the right to grant permission to wear these cloaks; its name suggests an intimate connection with the ruler, or perhaps the rulership (Durán 1994: 167; 1971: 200).   9 While it may be a product of the document itself, it is interesting that in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (Quiñones Keber 1995), Aztec warriors do not consistently wear fancy headgear and back devices until the 1473 conquest of Tlatelolco and thereafter. Tlatelolco was a renowned pochteca and amanteca (featherworker) center.Tenochtitlan control of Tlatelolco implies greater control over the efforts of these specialists. 10 The Codex Magliabechiano (Boone 1983: folio 68)  depicts the burial of a merchant. This wealthy individual is accompanied by his precious wares, which do not include any warrior costumes or shields. 11 Sahagún (1950–1982: book 9, 91–92) states that private featherworkers “specialized exclusively in devices which they made [and] sold: perhaps shields, or shirts [ehuatl] of yellow parrot feathers – whatsoever they made.” This suggests that such devices were available in the marketplace, although the presence of capture-specific warrior regalia is not specifically mentioned. However,

Notes to pages 267–292 this may simply mean that they went unrecorded. 12 In addition, priest-warriors capturing their fourth enemy on the battlefield received this style of warrior costume in reward, although of a different design (Berdan and Anawalt 1992: vol. 3, folio 65r). 13 The most common media were codices, polychrome pottery, and painted murals. These were characteristically part of elite culture. 14 Some goods, such as salt and cacao, not qualifying as staple foodstuffs or as precious luxuries, have been given their own category of “bulk luxuries” (Smith and Berdan 2003c). 15 See Chapter  1 for the most important primary sources. A particularly thorough and thoughtful description and discussion of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs can be found in Thomas 1993. 16 Spanish weaponry and strategies contributed to their success in many ways: much beyond steel swords, firearms, and horses, the Spaniards employed decisive divide-and-conquer strategies and perhaps the most ignominious and unsuspected weapon of all, epidemic diseases. 17 See, e.g., Códice Osuna (1947), Códice Sierra (León 1982), and Pintura de los tributos de los Yndios naturales del pueblo de Cuyuacan (Batalla Rosado 2002). 18 For example, this is evident in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, where native individuals’ villages are readily identified by dialect variations and distinctive styles of clothing (especially blouses and belts). 19 These elections occurred every one to two years. Voters typically consisted of upper-class males (Haskett 1991: 30; but see Megged 1991). 20 The impact on individual communities varied considerably: Xochimilco reportedly dropped from a population of 30,000 to 6,000–7,000, and Otompan (Otumba) lost more than half of its native population in the 1576–1581 epidemic (Gibson 1964: 138; Gerhard 1993: 208). 21 Cuetlaxtlan near the Gulf coast plummeted from an estimated 40,000 families at the time of contact to an estimated 800–900 household heads (tributaries)

311 in 1560, to a minuscule 24 household heads in 1569 (Gerhard 1993: 342). 22 It is worth noting that this remarkable woman married, in succession, three con­ quistadores (Thomas 1993: 594). 23 It is interesting that today’s traje, men’s indigenous costume, consists of Spanishintroduced shirts and trousers. 24 In Chiapa, on the southern fringes of the old Aztec Empire, Spaniards dangled access to prized Spanish goods and community offices as incentives to adopt Spanish language and culture (Megged 1991: 499). 25 Apparently it had been customary for commoners to drink only “watery chocolate,” befitting their status in the pre-Columbian setting. 26 The concept of the wheel was known. The application of wheels in construction, for instance as pulleys, is unattested. 27 When the agua miel (honey water) of the maguey plant is fermented, it yields octli or pulque. When it is distilled, tequila is the result. 28 Karttunen (1982: 400) observes that the position of local notary was sometimes held by members of the same family, for generations. 29 Especially useful and thoughtful studies of this process of religious syncretism can be found in Madsen 1967; Klor de Alva 1982; Tavárez 2011; Lockhart 1992; and Burkhart 1989, 2011. 30 Spanish-introduced cofradías (religious brotherhoods) took on many of these organized religious activities beginning shortly after the conquest. 31 This is speculation, as the surviving scripts provide us no direct information on this. However, it is difficult to imagine a performer without expressive qualities, ones derived from his own, in this case Nahua, experience. 32 The persistence of domestic rituals in the face of the disappearance of the state religion tempts one to look to a revival of the great tradition / little tradition model (see McAnany 2002 and Chapter 7). 33 The term “spiritual conquest” was used by Robert Ricard (1966, originally in

Notes to pages 292–293

312 French in 1933) to emphasize the success of early Christian proselytizing in sixteenth-century New Spain. Klor de Alva (1982) has argued against this emphasis on success, and recent scholarship supports his position. 34 It is usually thought that these retentions were rural phenomena, possible because of their distance from the urban centers of Spanish control. However, cultural retentions were also considerable in sixteenthcentury Mexico City (e.g., Kellogg 1995, 1997). Today, a traditional curing ritual can be seen on the streets of Mexico City as well as in a rural Nahua village.

35 See, e.g., Lockhart 1992; Kellogg 1995; Wood 2003; Schroeder et  al. 1997; Burkhart 1989; Madsen 1967; Tavárez 2011; Berdan 1993, 2006a. 36 This god was closely associated with other maize and pleasure deities, especially Xochipilli (Nicholson 1971: table  3). He was also the spiritual protector of seamstresses and painters, who once each year fasted and offered him quail and incense in order to ensure and enhance their skills (Sahagún 1950–82: book 2, 35–36).

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Acamapichtli (ruler 1372–1391), 177 acculturation, of conquered peoples in Aztec Empire, 174. See also assimilation Acolhua, 38 Acolman, 117 Acosta, José de, 10 Acosta-Saignes, Miguel, 134 adhesives, and craft production, 94, 303n11 afterlife, Aztec beliefs about death and, 208–10, 308n23 age: and duties of priests, 235; life cycle and dynamics of, 199–210. See also children; elderly agency theory, and interpretation of Aztec world, 30, 298n11 agriculture: deities and fertility of, 231; as fundamental economic activity in Basin of Mexico, 52–3; and introduction of domestic animals by Spanish, 288; and Late Postclassic population surge in Basin of Mexico, 42–3, 60, 75; technology of in Late Postclassic Mesoamerica, 74–83. See also chinampas; gardens; irrigation; land; maize Aguilar, Francisco de, 10, 59 Ahuitzotl (ruler 1486–1502), 77, 79, 130, 142–3, 148, 153, 156, 177, 184, 186, 301n36, 305n8, 306n23, 308n26 altepetl. See city-state Alva Ixtlilxochitl, Fernando de, 6, 13, 55, 60, 166, 171 Alvarado Tezozomoc, Fernando, 10, 12 amber, 122, 297n5 Amecamecan (city-state), 138, 305n4 Anderson, Arthur J. O., 109, 282, 302n5 animals: classification of by Aztecs, 84; introduction of domestic by Spanish, 288; and nonagricultural sources of food, 86. See also dogs

Antiquities of Mexico (Lord Kingsborough1831–48), 9 aqueducts, and irrigation, 77, 78–9 archaeology: and sources of information on Aztec world, 15, 20–3; and evidence for marketplaces, 298n12, 304n27; and evidence for ritual behavior, 215–16; and human remains, 22–3; and material objects, 16–20; and political structure of Tlaxcallan, 278–9; and reconstruction of indigenous, pre-Spanish populations, 60–1 architecture, and archaeology as source of information on Aztec world, 15. See also aqueducts; housing and households; monuments; palaces; platforms art: and material objects as archaeological source of information on Aztec world, 16; multiple interpretations of, 216; and murals, 298n13; in service of religion and state, 252–8. See also sculpture artisans: calpolli and households of, 107, 109; intermediate position of in social structure, 185, 186, 188–9; and Motecuzhzoma Xocoyotzin, 109, 183, 189, 310n27; resettlement of near palaces, 108. See also craft production; featherworking; spinning and weaving assimilation: and conquered peoples in Aztec Empire, 174; and Spanish colonial policies, 285, 289 astrological handbook (tonalpohualli), 182–3, 199, 214. See also calendars astronomy, and solar calendar, 218 Atamalcualiztli (ceremony), 238 Atonco (city-state), 130 Atotoztli (possible ruler), 144 Ávila López, Raúl, 80



336 Axayacatl (ruler 1468–1481), 142, 145, 146, 148, 157, 158, 159, 166, 300n13, 305n8 axes, of copper or bronze, 124, 127, 302n42 Ayala, Don Gabriel de, 55 Ayerza, Jr., Ricardo, 71 Azcapotzalco (city-state), 41, 107, 117, 139, 305n5 Aztec(s): agricultural techniques and technology of, 74–83; archaeological record as source of information on, 15–23; and arts in service of religion and state, 252–8; calendars and ceremonial life of, 216–19; city-state in life of, 135–8; commercial exchange and trade by, 113–29; and cosmology, 219–29; and craft production, 90–113; and cultural responses to Spanish pressure, 277–93; and demography at time of Spanish contact, 57–62; and diet, 70–2; and environment of Basin of Mexico, 49–56; ethnography as source of information on, 23; family and daily life of, 191–214; historical documents in Nahuatl as sources of information on, 11–15; historical documents in Spanish as sources of information on, 9–11, 12–15; and houses of commoners and elites, 63–70; hybrid nature of culture, 37–42; and medicine, 246–51; pictorial codices as sources of information on, 5–9; precedents for in Mesoamerica, 33–6, 299n1; regional merchants and trade by, 129–32; religion and gods of, 229–36; religious rituals and ceremonies of, 236–46; response of to challenges of Mesoamerican setting, 42–4; social life of, 177–91; spinning and weaving as domestic activities of, 72–4; theoretical approaches to interpretations of world of, 25–30, 259, 268–77; use of term, xvii, 26; warfare and warrior regalia as form of wealth, 260–8. See also Aztec Empire Aztec Empire: and conquest states, 138; economic relations with groups beyond political borders of, 56; geographic extent of, 28; impact of on conquered peoples, 30; perspective of conquered peoples on, 173–5; political dynamics of, 155–8; trade and expansion of, 133–4; tribute and financing of, 162–73; use of term, xvii, 26; and wars, 158–61. See also Aztec(s); Triple Alliance backstrap looms, 22, 23, 24–5, 298n20, 301n28, 302n5. See also spinning and weaving ballcourts, 299n7

Bandelier, Adolf, 26 Barber, Russell J., 20 bargaining and barter, in marketplaces, 123–8, 304n35 bark beaters, 23 Barlow, Robert, 28 Basin of Mexico: and confederations of city-states, 138; environment of, 50, 52, 53; epidemic diseases and loss of population in, 59, 247, 281–2, 311n16, 311n20–1; market integration in, 118, 120; number of city-states in, 136; and population estimates for 1519, 58; urban specialized marketplaces in, 117–18 Basin of Mexico survey project, 27 beads, stone and shell, 124, 127 beans, and Aztec diet, 70 Benavente, Toribio de. See Motolinía Berdan, Frances F., 20, 21, 29, 33, 44, 45, 111, 179, 181, 184, 198, 203, 211, 218, 233, 243, 271, 276, 281, 288, 297n1, 308n18, 309n9, 310n6 biases, in documentary record, 13 birds. See featherworking; water Blanton, Richard, 27, 120, 303n15 Bodleian Library (Oxford), 9 books, and arts in service of religion and state, 252–5. See also pictorial codices; writing Boone, Elizabeth Hill, 174, 252, 310n24 Broda, Johanna, 309n11 Brumfiel, Elizabeth M., 99, 103, 206, 299n1, 303n13, 303n22 Burkhart, Louise, 207, 290 burials, and funeral rituals, 210, 308n27. See also human remains Bye, Robert, 251 cacao beans: cheating and fraud in marketplace, 211–12; as means of exchange, 124, 125–7, 128; as tribute, 164–5, 169 calendar(s): and Aztec ceremonial life, 216– 19, 226–8, 239, 308n1; and continuation of rituals under Spanish rule, 291; and gods, 230 Calendar Stone, survival of, 16–17 Calixtlahuaca, 68 calmil (house garden), 81 Calnek, Edward E., 80–1, 179, 300n14 calpolli (neighborhoods): and households of artisans, 107, 109; kinship as organizing principle for, 182; and structure of citystate, 136 Camaxtli (god), 184, 233–4, 309n6. See also Mixcoatl canals, and irrigation, 76, 77

Index cannibalism, and human sacrifice, 239–43, 309n17 canoes, and transport, 114 Carmack, Robert M., 270 Carrasco, Davíd, 229, 309n11–12 Carrasco, Pedro, 137, 140, 182, 195 Casas, Bartolomé de las, 298n14 caste, and Aztec social structure, 177, 189 causality, and interpretation of Aztec world, 29–30 caves, and Aztec worldview, 84, 309n8 Cempoallan (province), 173, 175, 278, 280 censers, and incense, 236, 244 Centeotl (god), 233 central Mexico: environment of plateaus, 53, 55, 57; provincial and extra-empire marketplaces in, 120–2; and Triple Alliance, 140 ceremonies: and calendars, 216–19; and children, 308n17; and gods, 236–46; roles of commoners in, 184; and syncretism of Aztec and Spanish religions, 290. See also New Fire ceremony; rituals Chalchiutlicue (goddess), 85, 136, 221, 224, 232 Chalco (province), 60, 138, 140, 170, 302n39, 305n4 Chalco, Lake, 50, 80, 87 Chance, John K., 30, 307n40 Chantico (goddess), 263, 310n4 Chapman, Anne, 134, 276 Chapultepec aqueduct (Tenochtitlan), 78–9 Charles I (King of Spain), 8 Charlton, Thomas H., 111 Chase, Arlen F., 306n20 Chávez Balderas, Ximena, 210, 308n28 Chevalier, Jacques S., 309n21 Chichimec: and Aztec as hybrid culture, 37–42; and Aztec religious life, 223–4; and subjective nature of ethnicity in Aztec culture, 45 Chicomexochitl (god), 291, 292–3 Chiconautla (city-state), 68, 69, 72 children: birth and naming of, 199–200; and ceremonies, 308n17; diet of, 71; and education, 200–5, 211, 307–8n13–16; evidence for health from skeletal and dental remains in archaeological record, 250 chiles, and Aztec diet, 70 Chimalpahin (author), 6, 11, 13, 55, 144 Chimalpopoca (ruler 1415–1426), 145 chinampas, 41, 43, 52, 79–81 Cholula (city-state), 106, 131, 234, 271, 276, 299n8 Cihuacoatl (goddess), 208

337 Cihuatecpan (city-state), 63, 68, 69, 72, 82, 110, 111, 301n30 city-state (altepetl): arts in service of religion and, 252–8; confederations of, 138; and control of land, 147; and craft production, 106–7; and ethnicity in Mesoamerica, 44; and political strategies of empire, 170–1; role of in Aztec life, 135–8; and Spanish imperial administration, 280, 282; and Triple Alliance, 139–41. See also political organization class: and distinction between nobles and commoners, 177; and structure of Aztec society, 185, 189. See also commoners; elites Classical Nahuatl, xix Clavijero, Francisco J., 125 Clendinnen, Inga, 201 climate, and agriculture in Basin of Mexico, 75. See also natural disasters clothing: and cloaks as means of exchange, 124, 127; and cloth production during Spanish colonial period, 286–7; and costumes of gods, 237; and craft specialization, 106; and distinction between nobles and commoners, 72–4, 178, 301n27; and trade in cotton, 304n25; as tribute, 270, 306n30–1. See also spinning and weaving Coatepec (mountain), 222–3 Coates, Wayne, 71 Coatlan (city-state), 174, 184, 271 Coatlicue (goddess), 222 Coayxtlahuacan (city-state), 122 cochineal dye, 285 Codex Azcatitlan, 254 Codex Chimalpopoca, 11, 55 Codex en Cruz, 55, 255 Codex Magliabechiano, 310 Codex Mendoza: and Aztec writing, 254; on conquests of Axayacatl, 157; on diet of children, 71; on education of children, 203, 303n10, 307n15; and provinces, 171; on rewards for warriors, 262; on ritual calendar, 308n1; structure of, 297n3; survival of, 8–9; on tribute, 165, 166, 306n30; on weaving, 25 Codex Telleriano-Remensis, 55, 241, 255, 310n9 Códice Aubin, 55 Códice de Huichapan, 55 Códice de Xicotepec, 13 codices. See pictorial codices; writing Colhuacan (city-state), 38, 41 colonial period: and administrative records as sources of information on Aztec world, 12; Aztec cultural responses to pressures of Spanish rule, 277–93; and estimates of


338 colonial period: and administrative records as sources of information on Aztec world population, 59; and pictorial codices, 6–7. See also New Spain; Spain commoners: clothing of, 72–4, 178, 301n27; depictions of in codices, 307n1; and housing, 63–7; and punishments for crime, 212–13; and social life, 180–4; and Spanish colonial administration, 284–6 complexity, and interpretations of Aztec world, 25–6, 30, 259 concentration, of craft production, 104–8 confederations, of city-states, 138. See also Chalco congregación, Spanish policy of, 281 conjurers, and magic, 245–6 consonants, and Nahuatl pronunciation guide, xx context, and organization of craft production, 108–13 cooking methods, and preparation of food, 71 copper bells, 124, 127, 299n6 core, and world systems theory, 269–71 Cortés, Hernán: on Chapultepec aqueduct, 79; on craft production, 94; and description of Lake Texcoco, 77; and estimates of population, 59; letters of as source of information on Aztec world, 9–10; on marketplaces and trade, 115–16, 126, 304n34; on material objects, 16, 20; and military campaign against Aztec Empire, 279–80, 310n1 cosmology, dynamics and structure of Aztec, 219–29 Costin, Cathy Lynne, 90 cotton: and armor, 306n25–6; and clothing of elites, 72, 74; and craft production, 99, 104, 106, 111–12; markets and trade in, 303–4n24–5. See also clothing; spinning and weaving courtyards: and housing of commoners, 63; and housing of elites, 67 Coyoacan (city-state), 95, 107, 118, 130, 173, 181 Coyolxauhqui (goddess), 38, 39, 222, 223 craft production: concentration of, 104–8; diversity of, 90–7; organization and context of, 108–13; strategies and decisions in, 98–9. See also featherworking; luxury goods; pottery; spinning and weaving crime: and enslavement, 190; punishments for, 211–14 Crónica mexicayotl (Alvarado Tezozomoc), 12

Cuauhnahuac (province), 172 Cuauhtemoc (ruler 1520–1525), 145 Cuauhtencoztli (poet), 256 Cuauhtitlan (city-state), 76–7, 107, 118, 137, 310n6 Cuetlaxtlan (province), 174–5, 271, 311n21 Cuitlahuac (ruler 1520), 145 Culhuacan (city-state), 79 cultural ecological model, 29 culture: and Aztec responses to Spanish pressure in colonial period, 277–93; and definition of Mesoamerica as culture area, 31–2; ethnicity and diversity of in Mesoamerica, 44–6; hybrid nature of Aztec, 37–42 dancing, and religious ceremonies, 255, 256 death: and Aztec beliefs about life and afterlife, 208–10, 308n23; 308n28; ; and death penalty as punishment for crime, 212–13; and duality principle, 220, 222; human sacrifice and cycle between life and, 242. See also sacrifice demography: epidemic diseases and loss of population in Basin of Mexico, 59, 247, 281–2, 311n16, 311n20–1; and estimates of Aztec population at time of Spanish contact, 57–62, 300n7; impact of human sacrifice on, 243; and Late Postclassic population surge in Basin of Mexico, 42–3, 60, 75, 300n12. See also migrations Díaz del Castillo, Bernal, 9–10, 59, 108, 300n8, 302n41–2, 304n34, 305n10 Diel, Lori Boornazian, 140, 154, 174 diet: of commoners and elites, 70–1; and fasting, 309n14; and health, 250; and theories about ritual cannibalism, 242–3. See also agriculture; feasting; food digging sticks (uitzoctlí) , 82–3 diplomacy, and exercise of power by rulers, 154–5 diversity: of craft production, 90–7; as theme in interpretation of Aztec world, 26–8, 30 divination, and magic, 219, 245–6 dogs, 117, 308n25 Doolittle, William E., 76, 79 drainage ditches, and irrigation, 77, 79 dualism: and impact of Spanish on Aztec religion, 289–90; principle of in Aztec cosmology, 220, 222 Durán, Fray Diego: on clothing of priests, 237; on construction of aqueducts, 77; on cosmology, 225; on craft production, 94–5; on funerals, 308n26; and historical documents as sources of information on Aztec world, 10; on human sacrifice, 241;

Index on marketplaces, 117, 121, 123; on military and warfare, 161, 184, 262, 263, 264–5, 266, 267, 278, 305n13, 306n25; on naming of children, 200; on natural disasters in Basin of Mexico, 55; on nature in Aztec worldview, 85; on nobles, 177; on oral expression, 256; and pictorial codices, 5–6; on provinces, 171; on rulers, 149, 150, 153, 264; on Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan, 277; on tribute, 156, 165 Dürer, Albrecht, 16 dynamics: of age in life cycle, 199–210; building of empire and political, 155–75; marriage rules and household, 194–8; as theme in interpretation of Aztec world, 29–30, 259 eclipses, 218 economics: and poverty in Aztec world, 190; tribute and finance of Aztec Empire, 162–73; and warrior regalia as form of wealth, 260–8. See also markets; trade and trade networks Edelmira, Linares, 251 education: of children, 200–5, 303n10, 307–8n13–16; of priests, 234 ego-centered, Aztec kinship relations as, 191–2 Ehecatl (god), 221, 234. See also Quetzalcoatl elderly, defined roles of in Aztec society, 207–8 elites: and clothing, 72–4, 178, 301n27; and control of books, 253; depictions of in codices, 307n1; display and use of precious materials by, 91, 272; and houses in Basin of Mexico, 67–70; and inheritance of titles, 194; marriage and polygyny, 195; and political strategies of Aztec Empire, 171; and punishments for crime, 212–13; roles of in Spanish colonial period, 282–4; and social life, 177–80 encomienda, altepetl as basis for, 281, 282 environment: and features of Aztec world, 49–56; and natural world in Aztec worldview, 84–5, 230, 247; and tribute assessments, 163–4 epidemic diseases, impact of on population of Basin of Mexico, 59, 247, 281–2, 311n16, 311n20–1 ethnicity: and altepetls under Spanish rule, 280–1; and biases in documentary record, 13; and craft specialization, 106; cultural and linguistic diversity in Mesoamerica, 44–6; and provinces, 173 ethnography, as source of information on Aztec world, 23

339 ethnohistory and ethnohistoric research: and diversity of craft production, 91, 94; and domestic rituals, 244; and estimates for population of Basin of Mexico, 58; and health, 250; and political structure of Tlaxcallan, 278–9; and regional variation as theme in Aztec studies, 27–8; and sources of information on Aztec world, 14–15; sources of on Mesoamerica, 297n1. See also history Evans, Susan, 69, 82, 300n11 exotic goods, and world systems theory in Aztec context, 273–5. See also luxury goods Fabiola Guzmán, Ana, 302n48 fallowing, and agricultural techniques, 82, 302n40 family: and inheritance, 193–4; and kinship rules, 191–3; marriage rules and household dynamics, 194–8. See also children Fargher, Lane F., 138, 278, 279 feasting: and exercise of power by rulers, 152, 153, 171; and potlatches of Northwest coast Native Americans, 309n18; and social position of merchants, 187, 188 featherworking, 21, 100–2, 188–9, 307n14 Feinman, Gary M., 90 fertility: religion and deities of, 231, 232–3; and warfare in Aztec worldview, 225 fertilizers, and agricultural techniques, 82 fish, as source of food, 86 Florentine Codex, 7, 13, 254, 297n6. See also Sahagún, Bernardino de flowery wars, 158, 278 food: and military supplies, 160–1; nonagricultural sources of, 83–8. See also agriculture; diet; feasting France (French), and Codex Mendoza, 9 Frank, Andre G., 268 “frontier strategy,” of Aztec Empire, 171 funeral rituals, 209–10, 308n26 Galaty, Michael L., 271 gambling, 190 gardens, and households, 81–2 Garraty, Christopher P., 62, 114, 121, 128 Gasco, Janine, 169, 276 Gelb, I. J., 26 gender: and differences in kin terminologies, 193; and education of children, 202–3, 303n10, 307n14; and naming of children, 199; and roles in adulthood, 205–8. See also women genealogy, of royal family of Tenochtitlan, 145


340 geography, and ecological zones in Aztec world, 51–2 Gibson, Charles, 26, 58, 107, 137, 282 gift giving, by rulers, 153–4, 171, 264–5, 310n6 glottal stop, in Nahuatl, xx greenstone, 122 guayaba (Psidium guajava), 251 guilds: and craft production, 109; and professional merchants, 187 Guzmán, Don Juan de, 108–9 Hakluyt, Richard, 9 Handbook of Middle American Indians (1973–1975), 297n1 Harner, Michael, 241, 242, 243 Harris, Marvin, 242 Harvey, H. R., 28 Haskett, Robert, 283 Hassig, Ross, 114 hearths: and housing of commoners, 65; and religious importance of fire, 231 Heath-Smith, Cynthia, 169, 300n12 Hernández, Francisco, 10, 85, 86, 248, 302n46 heterogeneity, acquisition of food or necessities and theme of, 62 Hicks, Frederic, 62, 189, 304n26 Hirth, Kenneth G., 104, 108, 301n38, 303n14, 304n27 historical documents: and depictions of elites and commoners, 307n1; in Nahuatl as sources of information on Aztec world, 11–15; and natural disasters in Basin of Mexico, 54; in Spanish as sources of information on Aztec world, 9–11, 12–15 history: of Aztec migrations prior to founding of Tenochtitlan, 38–9; ethnicity in Mesoamerica and shared, 44–5; and events leading to Aztec imperial dominance, 40–1; of militarism in Mesoamerica, 156; and religious life of Aztecs, 223–5. See also ethnohistory and ethnohistoric research; historical documents Hodge, Mary G., 137, 303n15, 304–5n1, 305n6 hoes (uictlí), 82–3 Hohokam (Arizona), 299n7 housing and households: of commoners, 63–7; and craft production, 98–9, 102; and distinctions between nobles and commoners, 178, 183; and domestic rituals or offerings, 243–4, 311n32; of elites, 67–70; and gardens, 81–2; Nahuatl terms for, 300n16; size of in early colonial period, 300n11. See also palaces

Huaxacac (city-state), 173 Huaxtepec (province), 172 Huexotla (city-state), 61, 95, 98, 103, 121, 131 Huexotzinco (city-state), 96, 154–5, 175, 271 Huitzilihuitl (ruler 1391–1415), 145 Huitzilopochtli (god), 38, 40, 222, 223, 224, 233, 234, 237 human remains, and archaeological record as source of information on Aztec world, 22–3, 250. See also burials; death; sacrifice Icpatepeque (city-state), 122 ideographs, and Aztec writing, 253 inheritance: and kinship rules, 193–4; of warrior regalia, 266 insects, as source of food, 86–7 intensity, of craft production, 99–104 interactions, and interpretation of Aztec world, 28–9, 30 intermittent crafting, concept of, 104 irrigation, and Aztec agriculture, 76–9, 301n34–7. See also aqueducts; chinampas Itzcoatl (ruler 1426–1440), 140–1, 145, 177, 253, 305n8, 307n10 Itzocan (city-state), 117 Ixtapalapan (city-state), 77 Ixtapaluca Viejo (city-state), 63 Ixtepexi (city-state), 271 Johnson, Matthew, 15 jugglers, and magic, 245–6 Karttunen, Frances, 311n28 Kellogg, Susan, 11, 193, 206 Kepecs, Susan, 268 kinship: family formation and rules of, 191–3; as organizing principle for calpolli, 182; and postmarital residence, 196, 197 Kirchhoff, Paul, 31, 32 Klein, Cecelia F., 232, 237 Klor de Alva, J. Jorge, 312n33 Kohl, Philip, 268 labor: male-female division of, 206; as marketable commodity, 113; rulers and control of, 147–8, 150, 300n13; and tribute in form of service, 168 Laboratory for Ancient Materials Analysis (California State University, San Bernardino), 94 lakes: and chinampas in Basin of Mexico, 8, 80, 301–2n3; and environment of Basin of Mexico, 50, 52. See also Chalco; Texcoco; Zumpango land: and cacao production, 169; control of by rulers, 147–8, 150; and distinctions

Index between nobles and commoners, 183; exclusion of from commercial exchange, 113, 304n26; and inheritance, 193; warfare and allocation of, 305n13 landscapes, and environmental zones of Aztec world, 49 language: ethnicity and diversity of in Mesoamerica, 44–6; and ethnographic sources of information on Aztec world, 23. See also Nahuatl Late Postclassic: and population surge in Basin of Mexico, 42–3; use of term, xviii LeClair, Edward E., 125 Legend of the Suns, 215 Lekson, Stephen H., 299n6 León-Portilla, Miguel, 12, 256 Lewis, Oscar, 301n25 life: and beliefs about death and afterlife, 208–10; and duality principle, 220, 222; human sacrifice and cycle between death and, 242 life cycle, and dynamics of age, 199–210 living standards, and distinction between nobles and commoners, 183 local variation, as theme in Aztec studies, 27 Lockhart, James, xix, 147, 180, 186, 193, 282, 283, 285, 290, 302n3 López Austin, Alfredo, 208, 209, 210, 229, 237, 299n9, 303n16, 308n22, 309n12 López Luján, Leonardo, 18, 205, 210, 299n9, 306n21 luxury goods: control of as symbols by elites and rulers, 150–1, 306–7n36; and craft production, 92–4, 110; trade and imperial expansion, 133; and world systems theory, 271–2. See also amber; artisans; featherworking; greenstone; obsidian; pottery; turquoise macroregional approach, to Mesoamerica as culture area, 32 Macuilxochitl (god), 212, 233 Madsen, William, 290 magic, and divination, 245–6 maguey, 112; and Aztec diet, 70, 72; and clothing of Aztec commoners, 72, 74; and craft production, 104, 110–11, 301n32; as medicinal plant, 251 maize: as basis of Aztec diet, 70–1; and gods, 233; preparation of, 301n25 Malinalxochitl (goddess), 38 manos, 22, 298n20 Manzanilla, Linda, 34 markets and marketplaces: and archaeological record, 298n12, 304n27; cheating and fraud in, 211–12; and craft

341 production in Basin of Mexico, 91, 94–5, 108, 303n19; and slavery, 191, 304n30; and solar calendar, 216; and trade in Aztec world, 114–28, 272–7, 304n33. See also merchants; Tlatelolco; trade and trade networks marriage: and Aztec establishment of political legitimacy in Basin of Mexico, 41; and elite practice of polygyny, 179, 184, 186; and exercise of power by rulers, 154; and family life, 194–8; and political strategies of Aztec Empire, 171; and weddings, 205 material objects: and archaeology as source of information on Aztec world, 16–17, 20; introduction of by Spanish, 286–8; and manufactured objects as tribute, 164. See also luxury goods; tools Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo, 18, 300n7, 306n21 Matrícula de Tributos, 5, 156, 165, 166, 171, 254, 297n2–3, 297n5, 306n30 Maya: merchants and trade with Aztec Empire, 131, 275; relations of with Aztec Empire, 56 Mayahuel (goddess), 233 McAnany, Patricia, 243 medicine, as empirical and applied science in Aztec world, 246–51. See also epidemic diseases; midwives; plants Megged, Amos, 285 Mendieta, Jerónimo de, 10 Mendoza, Antonio, 9 merchants (pochteca): and Aztec imperial expansion, 133–4, 159; and integration of economy, 276; intermediate position of in social structure, 185, 186–7, 188; and prestige goods, 272; and regional trade, 129–32, 304n38; and warrior regalia, 263; See also trade and trade networks Mesoamerica: and calendars, 216; and conquest states before Aztec Empire, 155; cores and peripheries of, 269; as a culture area, 31–3; ethnicity and cultural or linguistic diversity in, 44–6; history of militarism in, 156; and human sacrifice, 240, 309n17; merging of Chichimecs and Toltecs with Mexica, 37–42; and precedents for Aztecs, 33–6; responses of Aztecs to challenges of Late Postclassic period in, 42–4; sources of ethnohistory on, 297n1; use of term, xvii–xviii; world systems theory and integration of, 275; and worship of Quetzalcoatl, 234. See also Basin of Mexico; central Mexico; Pacific coastal regions


342 metates, 23, 298n14 Mexica, use of term, xvii Mexicaltzinco (city-state), 63 Mexico City. See Tenochtitlan microenvironments, in Basin of Mexico, 52–3 Mictecacihuatl (goddess), 208, 220 Mictlan (underworld), 209 Mictlantecuhtli (god), 208, 220, 234 midwives, 199, 225, 251 migrations: of conquered peoples from Aztec Empire, 175; and growth of population in Late Postclassic Basin of Mexico, 60; and historical sources on early history of Mexica, 38–9 Mihuatlan (client state), 130 Millon, René, 124 Minc, Leah D., 118, 120 Mintz, Sidney W., 70 Misantla (city-state), 111 Mixcoatl (god), 224, 233–4, 309n7. See also Camaxtli Mixtecs, and craft production, 106 mnemonic devices, and written images, 255 Molina, Alonso de, 141 money, and marketplaces, 123–8. See also bargaining and barter; cacao beans monuments, and sculpture, 257–8 Monzón, Arturo, 303n16 Moquihuix (ruler of Tlatelolco 1467–1473), 158–9, 254–5 Morelos (modern state): and craft production, 96, 98; and difference between noble and commoner houses, 183; and domestic rituals, 244; environment of, 55; excavations of commoner houses in, 63–4; status of as province, 171–2 Morgan, Lewis Henry, 25–6 Motolinía, 6, 10, 123, 125 Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina (ruler 1440– 1468), 60, 141, 145, 166, 177, 178 Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (ruler 1502–1520): and artisans, 109, 183, 189, 310n27; and control of labor, 149–50; and differences of Aztecs from predecessors, 43–4; and distinction between nobles and commoners, 177; and exercise of power, 154–5, 306n23; genealogy of, 145; personality of, 142, 143; and religious offerings, 238; and ritual calendar, 308n1; and soothsayers, 219; tribute and coronation of, 165; variants in spelling of, xx; and warfare, 305n8, 310n6 mountains, and Aztec worldview, 84 multicrafting, concept of, 104

multicropping, and agricultural techniques, 82 Muñoz Camargo, Diego, 11 Museo Nacional de Antropología (Mexico City), 18, 19 museum collections, ritual objects in, 216 musical instruments, 239. See also dancing; songs nahualli (animal spirit companions), 25 Nahuatl: contemporary speakers of, 23; emulation, appropriation, and assimilation in Aztec Empire, 174; guide to pronunciation of, xix-xx; and historical documents as sources of information on Aztec world, 11–12; and kin terms, 192; and resilience of Aztec/Nahua cultural traditions, 292; and terms for housing, 300n16; and use of term “Nahua” after Spanish conquest, 281 names and naming: of children, 199–200; combination of Nahua and Spanish in colonial period, 283; of women, 307n12 Nanahuatzin (god), 221 Nappa Tecuhtli (god), 184 natural disasters: and drought in central Mexico in mid-1400s, 190; and environment of Basin of Mexico, 52–3, 54–5 natural resources, in Aztec world, 53, 56. See also raw materials nature and natural world, in Aztec worldview, 84–5, 230, 247 Navarrete, Federico, 255 Neale, Walter C., 124 New Fire ceremony, 231, 238, 308n1 New Spain, estimates for population of, 57. See also colonial period Nezahualcoyotl (ruler of Texcoco 1418– 1472), 140–1, 166, 180 Nezahualpilli (ruler of Texcoco 1472–1515), 68, 179–80, 194, 195, 196, 218, 300n19 Nichols, Deborah L., 27, 300n7 Nicholson, H. B., xvii, 9, 216 nobles. See elites obsidian, 103, 104, 277, 303n18 ocean, and Aztec worldview, 84 Offner, Jerome A., 186 Olivier, Guilhem, 237 Olko, Justyna, 263, 310n2, 310n5 Olmos, Andrés de, 10, 298n8 Ometeotl (god), 220, 230 Opochtli (god), 184 oral traditions: and arts in service of religion and state, 255–7; as sources of information

Index on Aztec world, 12. See also history; poetry; songs organization, and context of craft production, 108–13 Otis Charlton, Cynthia, 302n7 Otomí (ethnic group), 13, 106, 200 Otompan (city-state), 72, 95, 96, 98, 104, 109, 110, 111, 117, 120, 311n20 Oviedo de Valdés, Gonzalo Fernández de, 298n14 oztomeca. See merchants; spies Pacific coastal regions, and Aztec Empire, 156 palaces: and housing of elites in Basin of Mexico, 67–70; and land endowments, 148; resettlement of artisans near, 108; and ruler of Texcoco, 300n19; and social status of rulers, 151 Papantla (town), 166, 172 parallelism, and concept of gender in Aztec world, 206–7 Parsons, Jeffrey R., 52, 80, 83, 86, 103, 111 Parsons, Mary H., 111 patronage, and organization of craft production, 108–9 Peacock, D. P. S., 98 Peregrine, Peter, 299n6 peripheries, and world systems theory, 269–71 perishability, of material objects in archaeological record, 21 personalities, of rulers, 142–3 philosophy, and oral expression, 255–7 phoneticism, and Aztec writing, 253 pictorial codices: and Aztec writing, 253, 309–10n24; and backstrap loom, 24; as sources of information on Aztec world, 5–9, 13 plants: classification of by Aztecs, 84; medicinal uses of, 251, 302n45, 309n22; and nonagricultural sources of food, 86. See also cotton; maguey; maize platforms, and elite houses or palaces, 68 plays, with Christian themes, 290–1 pochteca. See merchants poetry: and oral traditions, 256; as sources of information on Aztec world, 12 Polaco, Oscar J., 302n48 political economy, and approaches to interpretation of Aztec world, 29–30 political organization: and challenges in Basin of Mexico in Late Postclassic period, 43–4; and dynamics of empire building, 155–75; and human sacrifice, 241–2; legitimacy of Mexica and

343 ceremonial use or display of legendary and foreign elements, 36; role of merchants in imperial expansion, 133; roles of rulers and emperors, 141–55; and sculptural themes, 257–8; structure of in Tlaxcallan, 278–9; and Triple Alliance, 139–41; use and display of precious materials by state, 91. See also city-state; rulers and rulerships Pomar, Juan Bautista, 11 pottery: and craft specialization, 106; and exotic goods, 273–5; and market integration in Basin of Mexico, 118, 120; production of polychrome in Texcoco, 103 poverty, in Aztec world, 190 power: establishment and maintenance of by rulers, 146–7; exercise of by rulers, 152–5; and social status, 183–4 Prem, Hanns J., 255 prestige goods, and luxuries in Aztec world, 272 prevention, and medicine, 250 priests and priestesses: clothing and costumes of, 237; and gods, 234–6; social status of, 179; use and display of precious materials, 91 Primeros Memoriales, 7 “private” and “public” spheres, and gender, 205–6 processions, religious, 290 production, craft specialization and process of, 110–13 provinces, of Aztec Empire, 171–3 Puebla,Valley of, 55 Purchas, Samuel, 9 Quatlatlauchan (city-state), 173 Quetzalcoatl (god), 85, 177, 208, 219, 220, 222, 223, 224, 225, 234, 263, 308n3 Quetzaltepec (city-state), 159 rain. See climate; Tlaloc raw materials, and tribute assessments, 164; See also natural resources rebellion, by conquered peoples in Aztec Empire, 159, 174, 271 reciprocity, and domestic rituals, 244 regional variation, as theme in Aztec studies, 27 Relaciones geográficas (1578–1585), 10, 59 religion: and arts, 252–8; and crime, 212; and education of children, 203; and gods, 220, 221, 229–36, 309n12; and history of Aztecs, 223–5; impact of Spanish colonialism on, 288–92, 311–12n29–36; rulers and control of sacred world,


344 religion: and arts (cont.) 151–2; scheduling and use of tribute, 165. See also priests and priestesses; rituals; sacrifice; shamans; temples resistance, of conquered peoples in Aztec Empire, 174–5. See also rebellion Ricard, Robert, 311–12n33 rituals: continuation of in local contexts under Spanish rule, 291–2, 311n32; and gods, 236–46; and funerals, 209–10, 308n26; and household, 243–4; and solar calendar, 218–19, 226–8, 230. See also ceremonies; religion; sacrifice rivers: and Aztec worldview, 84; irrigation and diversion of, 76–7; trade and canoe transport, 114 roads, and transport or travel, 114 rulers and rulerships (tlatocayotl): control of and display of symbols of wealth, 150–1; and control of land and labor, 147–50; and control over sacred world, 151–2; establishment of legitimacy and power of, 146–7; and exercise of power, 152–5, 306n23; food and meals of, 305n10; funerals of, 210; and gifts of warrior regalia, 264, 310n6, 310n8; and merchants, 304n38; as political actors, 141–4; and social hierarchy, 179; women as, 144, 308n20 rural communities, and demography of Basin of Mexico, 61–2 sacred bundles, 237–8 sacrifice: of children to rain god Tlaloc, 204– 5; evidence for human in Mesoamerica, 240, 309n17; and human remains in archaeological record, 22–3; public ceremonies and offerings, 238–9; rituals involving human, 239–43 Sahagún, Bernardino de: on agriculture, 82, 83; on behavior of noblewomen, 180, 202, 212; on birth of children, 199; on Chichimeca, 37; on city-state, 136; on craft production, 92, 108, 111; on distinction between nobles and commoners, 183; on domesticated birds, 302n44; on education of children, 200, 203, 211; on elderly, 207, 208; elites as informants of, 307n5; on feasting, 188; on food supplies for military, 160; and historical documents as sources of information on Aztec world, 10; on houses of commoners, 65; on human sacrifice, 244; on maize, 301n26; on marketplaces and trade, 122, 125; on nature in Aztec worldview, 84, 247; on noble houses, 69; and pictorial

codices as sources of information on Aztec world, 6, 7, 13; on poverty, 190; on rulers, 153, 299n10, 305n10; on sculpture, 257; on sorcerers, 245; on tools, 302n42; on warfare and warrior regalia, 265–6, 310–11n11; on waterfowl, 85. See also Florentine Codex Salgado González, Silvia, 270 salt, production of, 85–6 Sánchez Bain, Andrés, 309n21 Sanders, William T., 27, 29, 55, 58, 60–1, 62, 76, 79, 80, 81, 103, 299n22, 300n7, 300n14, 301n37 Sandstrom, Alan R., 45, 292 San Pablito, Puebla (modern village), 103, 105 scale, of craft production, 98–9 Schneider, Harold K., 125 Schortman, Edward, 32 Schroeder, Susan, 307n11 sculpture: and monuments, 257–8; and Templo Mayor, 298n13 seasonality, and Aztec diet, 70 Selden, John, 9 selectivity, of archaeological information, 21 Seler, Eduard, 245, 246, 263 shamans: and divination or magic, 245; and nature in Aztec worldview, 85 shell, and beads, 124, 127 Sierra Madre Occidental, 56 Skoglund, Thanet, 174 Sky of the Sun (Tonatiuh Ilhuicatl), 209 slaves and slavery: and marketplaces, 117–18, 122, 304n30; and punishments for crime, 213; and social class structure, 185, 189–91, 307n8; value of, 127 Smith, Michael, 20–1, 29, 33, 62, 118, 137, 138, 169, 173–4, 229, 237, 271, 300n7, 300n12, 301n33, 305n2, 306n18, 309n12 social life: and commoners, 180–4; family and daily life, 191–214; intermediate positions and achievement in, 184, 186–91; and nobles, 177–80 solar calendar, 216, 218, 219 Solís, Felipe, 18 songs: and arts in service of religion and state, 255–6; as sources of information on Aztec world, 12 sorcerers, and magic, 245, 308n29 Southwest (U.S.), and trade with Aztec Empire, 56, 299n7 Spain: estimates of population in Basin of Mexico by conquistadores, 58–9; and historical documents as sources of information on Aztec world, 9–11; response of Aztec culture to pressures

Index of, 277–93, 311–12n29–36; and warfare, 311n16. See also colonial period specialization: of craft production, 90–113; trade and Aztec imperial expansion, 133–4 spelling rules, variability of in colonial documents written in Nahuatl, xx Spence, Michael W., 103–4 spies, professional merchants as, 131, 133–4 spindle whorls, 72, 73, 111, 301n30–2, 302n9, 303n23 spinning and weaving: in contemporary Mexico, 301n28–9; and craft production in commoner and elite households, 72, 73, 99, 308n19; and education of children, 203, 302n10; in Spanish colonial period, 287. See also backstrap loom; clothing squashes, and Aztec diet, 70 Stark, Barbara L., 30, 128, 307n40 state. See city-state; political organization storage: and agriculture in Basin of Mexico, 71–2; and houses of commoners, 65, 67 sumptuary laws, 177, 178, 211 Sun Stone, 18–19, 216 symbols and symbolism: and distinctions between nobles and commoners, 178; of monumental sculpture, 257–8; rulers and control over, 150–1, 153; of warrior regalia, 262–5, 268, 310–11n1–12 syncretism, and impact of Spanish on Aztec religion, 289–90 Tamime (culture), 37, 39 Tapia, Andrés de, 10 Tarascan Empire, 56, 171 Tarschys, Daniel, 163 Taube, Karl A., 221–2 Tavárez, David, 291 tax, and use of term “tribute,” 163 technology: and Aztec food-growing systems, 83; and ethnographic sources of information on Aztec world, 23. See also tools Tecuantepec (city-state), 159 Tecuciztecatl (god), 221 Tecuichpo (daughter of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin), 282 temples, burning of as symbol of conquest, 158. See also Templo Mayor Templo Mayor (Tenochtitlan), 3, 21, 22–3, 39, 165, 210, 215, 238, 298n13, 299n8–9 Tenochtitlan: and artisans attached to royal palace, 108; and Calendar Stone, 19; and Chapultepec aqueduct, 78–9; and commoner houses, 63; and commoner lands, 183; cosmology and spatial arrangements of, 225, 229; differences

345 of from preceding cities in Basin of Mexico, 43; and elite houses or palaces, 68; estimates for urban population of, 57, 61; founding of, 38, 41; and merchants, 130; Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin and replacement of sacrificial stone, 149–50; Spanish destruction of, 277, 280; Teotihuacan and architectural and artistic styles of, 35–6; and Triple Alliance, 139–41, 306n32, 307n37. See also Templo Mayor Teochichimeca (culture), 37 Teotihuacan (city), 33–6, 95, 103, 263, 299n8 Teotitlan del Camino (city-state), 304n25 teotl (deity), 230 Tepaneca (people), 38, 305n5 Tepeacac (province), 132, 148, 305n14, 306n28 Tepeapulco (city-state), 95, 117, 120, 121, 122 tepescohuite (Mimosa tenuiflora), 251 Tepexic (city-state), 173 terracing, and agriculture, 75–6, 301n33 Tetela (province), 171 Teteo Inan (goddess), 184, 263 Tetzcotzinco (pleasure garden), 77 Texcoco (city-state), 61, 95, 103, 106, 107, 117, 139–41, 164, 183, 300n19, 305n15 Texcoco, Lake, 50, 52, 77, 80, 87, 114, 299n3, 301–2n38 Tezcatlipoca (god), 220, 222, 223, 224, 225, 230–1, 309n7 Tezozomoc (nobleman), 145 Thevet, André, 9 Thomas, Hugh, 282, 286, 311n15 Thompson, J. Eric, 125 tierra caliente, 51, 56 tierra fría, 50, 51–2, 54, 55, 56 tierra templada, 51, 56 time, cyclical and repetitive nature of Aztec, 216–19. See also calendars Tizoc (ruler 1481–1486), 142, 145, 166 Tlacaelel (political leader), 278 Tlacopan (city-state), 139–41, 282, 305n5 Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (god), 234 Tlaloc (rain god), 152, 204, 219, 224, 231–2 Tlalocan (afterlife), 209 Tlaltecuhtli (god), 220, 231 Tlapa-Tlachinollan (city-state), 174 Tlatelolco (city): Aztec conquest of, 158–9; craft production and marketplace of, 91, 94, 107, 109, 298n12; and human remains, 22, 23; political strategy and Aztec rule of, 170; trade and marketplace of, 115–17, 120, 122, 123, 128, 132, 267, 276; and Triple Alliance, 140 tlatoani (ruler, speaker), 144, 281, 282


346 Tlaxcallan (city-state), 158, 175, 271, 278–9, 306n24 Tlaxiaco (city-state), 122 Tochpan (province), 121, 122, 164, 166–8, 172 Tochtepec (city-state), 164 Toci (goddess), 225, 234, 289 Tollan (semimythical), 33–4 Tollocan (city-state), 159 Toltecs: and Aztec as hybrid culture, 37–42; and subjective nature of ethnicity in Aztec culture, 45. See also Tula Toluca,Valley of, 55, 159 Tonantzin (goddess), 289 Tonatiuh (god), 224, 289 tools: and Aztec agriculture, 82–3, 302n42–3; ethnography and use of traditional, 23; for featherworking, 101; introduction of Spanish, 286, 311n26 Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl (culture hero), 234 Torquemada, Juan de, 6, 10, 55, 115, 218, 235, 241, 302n8, 307n15 Tototepec (city-state), 159 Tovar, Juan de, 10 Townsend, Richard F., 225, 230 trade and trade networks: beyond political borders of Aztec Empire, 56, 299n6; and Chichimecs, 39; and commercial exchange in Late Postclassic, 113–29; and expansion of Aztec Empire, 133–4; in indigenous goods under Spanish rule, 284–5; and regional merchants, 129–32; and world systems theory in Aztec context, 272–7. See also markets and marketplaces; merchants transportation: and commercial exchange in Aztec world, 113–14; and introduction of animals by Spanish, 287–8; of tribute payments, 164 tree-ring data, and natural disasters in Basin of Mexico, 55 tribute: and design of clothing in peripheral areas, 270; and diversity of craft production, 96–7; and inheritance, 194; and labor duties, 148, 150; and marketplaces in central Mexico, 121–2; and political dynamics of empire, 156, 162–75, 306n28–34; and sources of precious materials, 91; and Spanish imperial administration, 280, 285 Triple Alliance: and city-states, 138–41; formation of in 1428–1430, 43; and use of term Aztec Empire, xvii. See also Aztec Empire tuberculosis, 250 Tula (city), 33, 34, 36, 234, 299n4. See also Toltecs

Tulancinco (city-state), 121 turquoise, 93, 122, 152, 298n18 Tzicoac (city-state), 121 tzitzimime (goddesses), 232 Umberger, Emily, 36, 42, 257, 299n2 universe, and Aztec cosmology, 220, 225 Urban, Patricia, 32 urban communities, and demography of Basin of Mexico, 61–2. See also city-states urban development: and cosmology, 225, 228; and establishment of Aztecs in Basin of Mexico, 41. See also Tenochtitlan values, and Aztec concept of exemplary life, 202, 210, 211 Vargas,Victoria D., 299n6 variation, as theme in interpretation of Aztec world, 26–8 Virgin of Guadalupe, 289 Von Humboldt, Alexander, xvii vowels, and Nahuatl pronunciation guide, xix–xx Wallerstein, Immanuel, 271 warfare: and commoners, 181, 184; conquest and control of lands, 147–8; damage to and repair of weapons, 303n17; and cotton armor, 306n25–6; and eagle nobles (quauhpipiltin), 186; and ethnicity in Mesoamerica, 45; and fertility concepts in Aztec worldview, 225; and gods, 233–4; health and injuries in, 247, 250, 251; and history of militarism in Mesoamerica, 156; and human sacrifice, 241; military service and control of labor, 148; and political dynamics of empire, 158–61; preceding cultures in Basin of Mexico and early Aztecs as mercenaries, 41; and Spanish, 311n16; and training, 160, 203; and warrior regalia, 260–8, 310–11n1–12. See also flowery wars; rebellion Warren, J. Benedict, 10 water: Aztec preoccupation with control of, 15; and “waterfolk” specialists, 86; and waterfowl as source of food, 85. See also aqueducts; chinampas; irrigation; lakes; rivers weaving. See spinning and weaving Weiner, Annette B., 262, 264, 265, 266 Wells, E. Christian, 30 white zapote fruit (Casimiroa edulis), 251 Whitmore, Thomas M., 58 Wolf, Eric, 55 women: flexibility in activities and routines of, 206; names of, 307n12; as priestesses,



235, 237; as rulers, 144, 308n20; standards of behavior for noble, 180, 202, 212. See also gender workshops, and craft production, 103–4 world systems model: and interpretation of Aztec world, 29, 259, 268–77; and Mesoamerica as culture area, 32–3 worldview, role of nature in Aztec, 84–5, 230, 247 writing: and books in Aztec society, 252–5; and earliest alphabetic records for Nahuatl language, xix; and glyphs in codices, 297n5–6; introduction of alphabetic by Spanish, 289. See also pictorial codices

Xiuhtecuhtli (god), 152, 230, 231 Xochicalco (city), 108, 299n2 Xochimilco (city-state), 50, 80, 103, 106, 107, 159, 305n13, 311n20 Xochipilli (god), 233, 312n36 Xochiquetzal (goddess), 184, 233, 263, 310n4 Xoconochco (province), 56, 122, 131, 133, 159, 164

Xaltocan (city-state), 50, 87, 106 Xicalanco (trading center), 131, 277 Xilonen (god), 233 Xipe Totec (god), 233, 234

Zorita, Alonso de, 6, 10, 153, 194, 297n4, 307n15 Zultepec (city-state), 23 Zumpango, Lake, 50

Yacatecuhtli (god), 184, 234 Yoaltepec (province), 173 Yoffee, Norman, 30, 151 Young, Allen M., 125