The Legacy of the Aztecs
The Aztecs have been the origin of innovation in multiple spheres, and some of their discoveries and inventions are still used in the world today
Ancient Mesoamerica is a culture steeped in mystique and poignant tragedy. However, the legacy that its peoples have left behind stands tall to this day, as a proud and somber reminder of this region’s heyday. The Aztecs have been the origin of innovation in multiple spheres, and some of their discoveries and inventions are still used in the world today. However, their defining achievements are undoubtedly their magnificent architecture, and agricultural innovations.
Tenochtitlan is the apex of Aztec architecture and civilization. The entire city was built on top of a swamp, and this fact makes it an engineering marvel to this day. The Spanish conquistadors who destroyed the city were awestruck by its brilliance, going as far as, questioning its very reality.
The ancient capital was home to 1,200,000 inhabitants. Often referred to as the Venice of the ancient world, the city featured navigable canals and floating farms (chinampas)—combined with the city’s swampy foundation, and magnificent temples, the Aztec capital was a surreal floating utopia.
Tenochtitlan had a system of canals and intricate causeways. Aqueducts supplying the city spanned miles, and provided the hundreds of thousands of citizens a constant supply of fresh water. Aztec houses resembled mountains. This style of housing protected the interiors during times of heavy rainfall. Due to the hierarchal nature of Aztec society, only the aristocracy was permitted to have two-storey homes, and any commoner who defied this law was executed.
The Aztecs were deeply religious, and superstitions dominated every aspect of their lives. A majority of the buildings were temples, or ceremonial complexes. The stepped pyramid was a very common Aztec construction. Chief of these was Templo Mayor, dedicated to Huitzilopochtli (The God of Sun and War) and Tlaloc (The God of Rain, Lightning, and Thunder). Templo Mayor stood 90-feet tall, and was made up of two stepped pyramids placed adjacent to each other, seated atop a platform.
Just like every other Aztec pyramid, temples were placed on top. Images of Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc adorned the walls of these temples. Human and animal sacrifice were common occurrences in Aztec rituals, and Templo Mayor was no exception. However, archeological research shows that the temple was used for ceremonial purposes as well. The Aztecs believed that blood (especially human blood) was divine water, and they wanted to appease their gods with a consistent supply of this macabre elixir. In their minds, failing to do so would have cursed them with ruined harvests, and defeat in battles. The worst-case scenario? The Aztecs believed that without sacrifice, the sun would literally stop shining, plunging the world into eternal darkness.
Women and children were not spared from these acts of barbarous appeasement, and were often sacrificed during dances, and to the rain god Tlaloc. Human beings were immolated alive to appease their fire god. In a gruesome twist, the Aztecs consumed the flesh of their sacrificial victims, believing it to be god’s own flesh.
A few high-minded ideologies can also be observed, standing in stark contrast to their barbarous ways. One can witness the foundations of modern democracy in Aztec ideology; education was often restricted to the social elite in a majority of historical societies. However, the Aztecs instated a compulsory and free educational system for their citizens—regardless of rank and status in life.
Interestingly enough, the Aztecs played a game which had a striking similarity to modern football. Participants were allowed to use their hips, knees, and elbows to put a small rubber ball through hoops; these were placed on tall walls which surrounded the playing area.
The game was restricted to the aristocracy and had a few peculiar twists. Teams successful at scoring were permitted to attempt to rob the audience. (Yes, the audience, and not the scoreless team! Weird, right?) The floating gardens of ancient Mexico, chinampas, were simply put, an agricultural wonder. Narrow, square shaped islands 6 to 10 meters wide were built using layers of vegetation, dirt, and mud. Lake Texcoco served as a natural irrigator and fertilizer of these chinampas with its supply of organic waste. Trees were planted around the chinampas, which anchored these floating gardens to the lakebed.
Tenochtitlan is still alive today, in a way. The ruins of this once proud city are located in and around modern-day Mexico City. Teotihuacán stands just outside Mexico City, with various Aztec ruins peppered around the State of Mexico. While the Spanish conquistadors may have destroyed the Aztecs in body, their spirit is alive and well in the form of their proud monuments, and their contributions to the world. Popcorn, chocolate, xocoatl (the precursor to cocoa), and chewing gum (chicle) are just a few of these contributions. Gone, but far from forgotten, the Aztecs are the sons of the Mexico Valley—and one of the crowning achievements of civilization.