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Highly accomplished in agriculture and trade , the last of the great Mesoamerican civilizations was also noted for its art and architecture which ranks amongst the finest ever produced on the continent. The Aztec state is actually the most well-documented Mesoamerican civilization with sources including archaeology , native books codices and lengthy and detailed accounts from their Spanish conquerors - both by military men and Christian clergy.

These latter sources may not always be reliable but the picture we have of the Aztecs, their institutions, religious practices, Aztec warfare and daily life is a rich one and it continues to be constantly expanded with details being added through the endeavours of 21st-century CE archaeologists and scholars. Sometime around CE the city -states or altepetl which were spread over central Mexico began to compete with each other for local resources and regional dominance.

Each state had its own ruler or tlatoani who led a council of nobles but these small urban centres surrounded by farmland soon sought to expand their wealth and influence so that by c. Dominant amongst these were Texcoco , capital of the Acholhua region, and Azcapotzalco, capital of the Tepenec. These two empires came face to face in CE with the Tepanec War. The Azcapotzalco forces were defeated by an alliance of Texcoco, Tenochtitlan the capital of the Mexica and several other smaller cities.

A campaign of territorial expansion began where the spoils of war - usually in the form of tributes from the conquered - were shared between these three great cities. Over time Tenochtitlan came to dominate the Alliance, its ruler became the supreme ruler - the huey tlatoque 'high king' - and the city established itself as the capital of the Aztec empire. The empire continued to expand from CE and the Aztec military - bolstered by conscription of all adult males, men supplied from allied and conquered states, and such elite groups as the Eagle and Jaguar warriors - swept aside their rivals.


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Aztec warriors wore padded cotton armour, carried a wooden or reed shield covered in hide, and wielded weapons such as a super sharp obsidian sword-club macuahuitl , a spear or dart thrower atlatl , and bow and arrows. Elite warriors also wore spectacular feathered and animal skin costumes and headdresses to signify their rank. Battles were concentrated in or around major cities and when these fell the victors claimed the whole surrounding territory.

Regular tributes were extracted and captives were taken back to Tenochtitlan for ritual sacrifice. In this way, the Aztec empire came to cover most of northern Mexico, an area of some , square kilometres.

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The empire was kept together through the appointment of officials from the Aztec heartland, inter-marriages, gift-giving, invitations to important ceremonies, the building of monuments and artworks which promoted Aztec imperial ideology, and most importantly of all, the ever-present threat of military intervention. Some states were integrated more than others whilst those on the extremities of the empire became useful buffer zones against more hostile neighbours, notably the Tarascan civilization.

The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan on the western shore of Lake Texcoco flourished so that the city could boast at least , inhabitants by the early 16th century CE, making it the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas. These inhabitants were divided into several social strata. At the top were local rulers teteuhctin , then came nobles pipiltin , commoners macehualtin , serfs mayeque , and finally slaves tlacohtin. The strata seem to have been relatively fixed but there is some evidence of movement between them, especially in the lower classes.

The Spanish invaders were hugely impressed by the city's splendour and magnificent architecture and artwork, especially the Templo Mayor pyramid and massive stone sculptures.

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Dominating the city was the huge Sacred Precinct with its temples and monumental ball court. Tenochtitlan's water management was also impressive with large canals crisscrossing the city which was itself surrounded by chinampas - raised and flooded fields - which greatly increased the agricultural capacity of the Aztecs. There were also anti-flood dykes, artificial reservoirs for fresh water, and wonderful flower gardens dotted around the city. The whole city was designed to inspire awe in the people, especially visiting nobles who, entertained with lavish ceremonies, could see that the Mexica Aztecs truly were:.

Masters of the world, their empire so wide and abundant that they had conquered all the nations and that all were their vassals. The guests, seeing such wealth and opulence and such authority and power, were filled with terror. Mythology and religion, as with most ancient cultures, were closely intertwined for the Aztecs. They had been shown the way by their god Huitzilopochtli who had sent an eagle sitting on a cactus to indicate exactly where these migrants should build their new home.

The god also gave these people their name, the Mexica, who along with other ethnic groups, who similarly spoke Nahuatl, collectively made up the peoples now generally known as the Aztecs. The Aztec pantheon included a mix of older Mesoamerian gods and specifically Mexica deities. The two principal gods worshipped were Huitzilopochtli the war and sun god and Tlaloc the rain god and both had a temple on top of the Templo Mayor pyramid at the heart of Tenochtitlan.

Other important gods were Quetzalcoatl the feathered serpent god common to many Mesoamerican cultures , Tezcatlipoca supreme god at Texcoco , Xipe Totec god of Spring and agriculture , Xiuhtecuhtli god of fire , Xochipilli god of summertime and flowers , Ometeotl the creator god , Mictlantecuhtli god of the dead and Coatlicue the earth-mother goddess. This sometimes bewildering array of gods presided over every aspect of the human condition. The timing of ceremonies in honour of these deities was dictated by a variety of calendars.


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There was the day Aztec calendar which was divided into 20 weeks, each of 13 days which carried names such as Crocodile and Wind. There was also a Solar calendar consisting of 18 months, each of 20 days. The day period covering the rise of Venus was also important and there was a year cycle of the sun to be considered.

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The movement of planets and stars were carefully observed albeit not as accurately, though, as the Maya had done and they provided the motive for the specific timing of many religious rites and agricultural practices. The sun, not surprisingly, had great significance for the Aztecs. They believed that the world went through a series of cosmic ages, each had its own sun but finally each world was destroyed and replaced by another until the fifth and final age was reached - the present day for the Aztecs.

This cosmic progression was wonderfully represented in the famous Sun Stone but also crops up in many other places too. The gods were honoured with festivals, banquets, music , dancing, decoration of statues, burning of incense, the ritual burial of precious goods, penances such as blood-letting, and animal sacrifices. Humans, both adults and less often children, were also frequently sacrificed to metaphorically 'feed' the gods and keep them happy lest they become angry and make life difficult for humans by sending storms, droughts etc.

Victims were usually taken from the losing side in wars. Indeed, the so-called 'Flowery Wars' were specifically undertaken to collect sacrificial victims. The most prestigious offerings were those warriors who had shown great bravery in battle. The sacrifice itself could take three main forms: the heart was removed, the victim was decapitated, or the victim was made to fight in a hopelessly one-sided contest against elite warriors.

There were also impersonators who dressed in the regalia of a specific god and at the climax of the ceremony were themselves sacrificed. The Aztecs were themselves appreciative of fine art and they collected pieces from across their empire to be brought back to Tenochtitlan and often ceremonially buried. Aztec art was nothing if not eclectic and ranged from miniature engraved precious objects to massive stone temples.

Monumental sculptures were a particular favourite and could be fearsome monstrosities such as the colossal Coatlicue statue or be very life-like such as the famous sculpture of a seated Xochipilli. Organised in guilds and attached to the main palaces, artisans could specialise in metalwork, wood carving or stone sculpture, with materials used such as amethyst, rock crystal, gold, silver , and exotic feathers.

While sharing a common Olmec heritage, they also displayed many differences. Among these competitors were the Toltecs of Tula , in central Mexico, who held sway from perhaps to the Early Postclassic Period.

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After their decline in the Late Postclassic Period , another interregnum of warring states lasted until , when the Aztec defeated the rival city of Azcapotzalco and emerged as the dominant force in central Mexico. In the Andean area, the threshold of a successful village agricultural economy can be placed at c. The oldest primary food crops there were the lima bean and the potato , which had long histories of domestication in the area, although corn appeared soon after the beginnings of settled village life.

Indications of a more complex sociopolitical order—huge platform mounds and densely populated centres—occurred very soon after this c. This period of regionalization called the Early Intermediate Period saw the florescence of a number of large kingdoms both on the Pacific coast and in the Andean highlands; among them were the Moche , Early Lima, Nazca , Recuay , and Early Tiwanaku.

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The period was brought to an end by the Tiwanaku— Huari horizon Middle Horizon; — , which was generated from the highland cities of Tiwanaku in modern northern Bolivia and Huari in central highland Peru. There is evidence—such as the construction of new centres and cities—that this Tiwanaku—Huari phenomenon, at least in many regions, was a tightly controlled political empire.

The horizon and its influences, as registered in ceramics and textiles, died away rather gradually in the ensuing centuries, and it was replaced by the several regional styles and kingdoms of what has become known as the Late Intermediate Period — The terminal date of the Late Intermediate Period marked the beginning of the Inca horizon and of the Inca conquests, which spread from the Inca capital, Cuzco , in the southern highlands of what is now Peru.


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By , when Francisco Pizarro and his cohorts took over the empire, it extended from what is now the Ecuador — Colombia border to central Chile. The synchroneity of horizon unifications and alternating regionalizations in Mesoamerica and the Andean region is striking and prompts the question of communication between these two areas of pre-Columbian high civilization. Although it is known that there were contacts—with the result that knowledge of food plants, ceramics, and metallurgy was shared between the two areas—it is also highly unlikely that political or religious ideologies were so spread.

Rather, the peoples of each of these major cultural areas appear to have responded to their own internally generated stimuli and to have followed essentially separate courses of development. There are fundamental differences between the two cultural traditions. Thus, in Mesoamerica there was, from early on, a profound interest in hieroglyphic writing and calendar making. Religious ideology , judged from art and iconography , was more highly developed in Mesoamerica than in the Andean region.