Early Aztec History
The precise origins of the Aztec people are uncertain, but they are believed to have started as a northern tribe of hunter-gatherers whose name originated from that of their homeland, Aztlan (White Land). They were also known as the Tenochca (their capital city Tenochtitlan) or the Mexica (the name of the city that would replace Tenochtitlan). The Aztecs came to Mesoamerica (the south-central region of pre-Columbian Mexico) early in the 13th century. Their arrival came soon after, or possibly helped bring about, the fall of the formerly dominant Mesoamerican civilization, the Toltecs.
When the Aztecs observed an eagle settled on a cactus on the marshy land close to the southwest border of Lake Texcoco, they took it as a sign that they should build their settlement there. The swampy land was drained, they constructed artificial islands where they could plant gardens and created the foundations of Tenochtitlan, their capital city, in 1325 A.D. Common Aztec crops included maize, avocadoes, tomatoes, potatoes, squashes and beans; they also sustained themselves through hunting local animals such as wild turkey, coyotes, snakes, armadillos and rabbits, as well as through fishing. Their comparatively sophisticated system of agriculture and a powerful military tradition would allow the Aztec people to establish a successful state, and later empire.
The Aztec Empire
Under their leader Itzcoatl, in 1428, the Aztecs established a three-way alliance with the Tacubans and Texcocans to conquer their most powerful rivals for influence in the region, and defeat their capital of Azcapotzalco. Montezuma (Moctezuma), Itzcoatl’s successor, took power in 1440 and was a great warrior who was remembered as the father of the Aztec empire. The Aztecs ruled over 500 small states and about 5 to 6 million people, either by commerce or conquest, by the early 16th century. At its height, Tenochtitlan had 140,000 people living there, and was the most densely populated city in Mesoamerica.
The Aztec economy was driven by bustling markets visited by about 50,000 on major market days. The Aztecs were also highly developed artistically, intellectually and socially. It was a very structured society with a strict caste system: at the bottom were indentured servants, slaves and serfs, while at the top were nobles. In the great cities of the Aztec empire, spectacular statues, plazas, palaces and temples embodied the Aztec civilization’s unfaltering devotion to the many Aztec gods. Common in much of Mesoamerica, the Aztec calendar was based on a solar cycle of 365 days as well as a ritual cycle of 260 days; this calendar played a key role in the rituals and religion of the Aztecs.
Fall of the Aztecs
Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba was the first European to visit Mexican territory and arrived in the Yucatan from Cuba with about 100 men and three ships early in 1517. Cordoba’s reports when he returned to Cuba persuaded Diego Velasquez, the Spanish governor there, to send a bigger force back to Mexico under Hernan Cortes’ command. Due to instability within the Aztec empire, Cortes could form alliances with other native peoples.
Cortes and his men arrived in Tenochtitlan in November 1519. Although the Aztecs had larger numbers, their weapons were inferior, and Cortes took Montezuma and his lords hostage, gaining control of Tenochtitlan. Thousands of Aztec nobles were murdered by the Spaniards during a ritual dance ceremony, and Montezuma perished while in custody. His young nephew Cuauhtemoc took over as emperor and the Spaniards were driven out of the city. However, with the assistance of the Aztecs’ native rivals, Cortes launched an offensive against Tenochtitlan and defeated the resistance on August 13, 1521. About 240,00 people are believed to have died in the conquest, which ended the Aztec civilization.