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Who Were the Aztecs?

By Jane Harmon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican people who lived in what is now Mexico City and the surrounding territory beginning in the 14th century. They established a broad empire that lasted roughly 200 years and which was based on tributes and military conquests. Their society was one of the most advanced of its time, although it contained some practices such as ritual human sacrifices that, by modern standards, would be considered bizarre and uncivilized. It was not until the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s that these people lost their power.

Origins and Migration

According to legend, the Aztecs were born inside the Earth, coming out through caves. Their first settlement was Aztlan, thought to have been somewhere in northwest Mexico. Experts aren't sure if this city was real or mythical, because they have yet to discover archeological evidence for it, but the story goes that, from this settlement, the Aztecs moved southward.

The early Aztecs, who referred to themselves as Mexica, looked for ideal lands in which to settle as they migrated. Other tribes already had control of many areas, and at times, the Mexica served and learned from these indigenous groups. By the middle 13th century, they arrived in the Valley of Mexico. Their sun god, Huitzilopochtli, reportedly told them that they should build a city where they saw an eagle on a cactus eating a snake. This came to pass on an empty island in Lake Texcoco, so even though the land was swampy and had been passed over by others, in 1325, they founded a city called Tenochtitlan, which is now modern-day Mexico City.

Development of the Empire

The area around Tenochtitlan was occupied by other tribes that did not always welcome the Mexica. The Toltecs, for example, thought they were barbaric. Even so, they quickly assimilated much of their neighbors' culture, and the strength of the surrounding tribes helped protect the city from other invading groups. They grew in power and eventually took control of the area, an event somewhat propelled by conflicts that the Tepanec people had with other tribes. As the Tepanec tribe lost power, the Mexica forged a partnership with people from Texcoco and Tlacopan, forming what is known as the Triple Alliance.

Through conquest, trade and intermarriage, the Mexica created an empire based more on the payment of tribute than actual loyalty and common administration. Texcoco and Tlacopan slowly faded in strength, leaving the Mexica to rule the empire alone. It peaked in 1519, just prior to the arrival of Hernan Cortes, having an estimated 500 states and as many as 5 to 6 million people. With those in these regions sharing a common culture and language, they collectively were called the Aztecs, harkening back to the legend of Aztlan, although many tribes did not use this term themselves.

Social Structure

The Aztec society was divided roughly into two groups. The first was made up of the elite or nobility, called pipiltin, while commoners, or macehualli, made up the second category. Peasants and serfs worked the land or hunted to support themselves and the nobility. Slavery was common, but was not hereditary or necessarily life-long, and slaves could own other slaves. Within this system were priests, warriors, actors and other entertainers, writers of prose and poetry, teachers, traveling merchants, and other workers of many other trades, making up one of the most advanced civilizations of the period.


People who lived under the Aztec empire put a high value on education, with parents being expected to participate in teaching their children until about age 14 or 15. They had two major schools, one for teaching military techniques and practical skills, and another for more academic subjects such as astronomy, science, religion, politics, and writing. The writings became especially important, because in the 15th century, Aztec emperor Montezuma I burned many books, rewriting much of the people's religion and history. The prose and poetry that came after the period of his reign is thought to provide a more accurate picture of the Aztec origins, culture, and life than the new documents that the emperor approved. Although schools were mainly for boys, girls still received some education at home in preparation for marriage.


The study of astronomy helped the Mexica and those under their rule to establish a formal, detailed calendar, made up of two individual systems. The xiuhpohualli, which covered 365 days, was based on agriculture and the movement of the sun and, therefore, is thought to be the "year" version. The tonalpohualli, which totaled 260 days, outlined rituals and sacred events. Together, these made up a "century" of 52 years, also known as the "calendar round."

Agriculture and Economy

Experts estimate that as much as 20% of the Aztec population was involved directly with farming and agriculture. The main crop people used for food was corn, also called maize. Sweet potatoes, squash, beans, chilis, and fruits were also key parts of the standard diet. Game, including coyote, turkey, and rabbit, provided some meat. The nobility and commoners had different arrangements for growing or collecting crops, including sharecropping, serfdom, and renting land, but generally, every family had its own garden for personal use.

Part of what made agriculture work in the empire was that people figured out several ways to make the swampy land more conducive to farming techniques. They used both rainfall cultivation and terracing, for example, and they developed raised plots of land called chinampas that were fertile enough to produce several crops each year. Most impressive, however, was their irrigation system, which included a complex network of canals and dams.

In the market, people used crops to trade, but the main "money" was the cacao or chocolate bean. Individuals imported these and used them to buy everything from food to sexual slaves. People also relied heavily on tributes to get what they needed. Leaders from Tenochtitlan used the tribute system to stay in power, leaving groups from different areas to themselves as long as they sent items to the city.

Religion, Sacrifice, and War

Under Montezuma I, the Aztecs believed that their gods required human blood, in payment for divine blood spilled to create mankind, for instance, or to make sure that the sun continued to move in the sky. The sun god Huitzilopochtli was the focus of most sacrificial rites, although other Aztec gods were also paid such tributes. Sacrifices took place during the 18 annual festivals and also at other important times, and they typically consisted of forcing people to climb the steps to the top of the temple pyramid, where priests held the victims and cut out their hearts. The bodies were tumbled back down the stairs, while the hearts were burned as the sacrifice.

War and religion went hand in hand for the Aztecs, who did not usually sacrifice their own people, but instead would use captives. To keep the supply of sacrifices going, they had to go to war often, which is one reason why they gained a reputation for being aggressive. The use of the captives for ritual practices meant they had trade value, and warriors gained status by the number of individuals they acquired, not by how many enemies they killed. In this context, religion and sacrifice were a major strain on the economy, because people at war could not help at home, and because so many resources went toward battle supplies.


Anthropologists disagree on the topic of cannibalism among the Aztecs. Some experts, notably Marvin Harris, claim that they routinely butchered bodies of sacrificial victims and parceled them out for the elite to eat. This practice supposedly made up for a diet low in protein, which was due to the overhunting of large game in the area. Others claim the evidence for cannibalism was either invented or exaggerated by the Spanish conquerors of the area as justification for their intervention.

Decline and Fall

The Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica just as the empire was at its highest point. Hernan Cortes arrived on 8 November 1519, and in 1521, he laid siege to Tenochtitlan, helped by the Tlaxcalans, enemies of the Mexica and the tribes they ruled. The military force of the Spanish, combined with the diseases — such as smallpox — that they brought, quickly toppled the Aztecs.

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Discussion Comments

By anon349930 — On Sep 30, 2013

Mexico is so interesting!

By anon335034 — On May 17, 2013

Were the Aztecs related to Mexicans who lived in Mexico?

By anon303625 — On Nov 15, 2012

I think they didn't do animal sacrifice, just human, because they thought the gods would like younger, beautiful women.

By anon296139 — On Oct 09, 2012

Did the Aztecs do animal sacrifices as well as human?

By anon295852 — On Oct 08, 2012

I really need to know how technologically advanced were the Aztec tribes?

By anon277388 — On Jun 29, 2012

The Aztecs are actually my tribe-- well, kind of. I know their language. Many people find it difficult but it's not. Aztecs are great people if I do say so myself

By anon211777 — On Sep 03, 2011

aztecs are good people and they had a very organized life.

By anon12678 — On May 12, 2008

The Aztec Culture only lasted 2 centuries. They were a group of vicious of American-Indians.

By bookworm — On May 03, 2008

Aztecs have had very strict laws. All the offenses were severely punished, either with corporal punishment, or in most cases with death.

Women were expected to have high moral standards, and were subordinated to men. They were not able to attend school, nor hold any government or religious positions.

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