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The Aztecs: Barbarians, or Brilliant?Submitted byJohn NonomenEl Centro CollegeClass 1301, Section 52245, Winter Term 2016Total Word Count: 2252The term “Aztec” refers to the American Indian empire that dominated central Mexico (also known as Mesoamerica) when Hernán Cortés arrived on the shores of the Yucatán peninsula in 1519. Whenever we hear the term “Aztec” many people usually imagine a culture that was extremely violent and militaristic, a culture full of human sacrifice and cannibalism. The idea of the Aztecs as cannibals, savages, and generally uncivilized peoples has its origins with the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortés and Spanish colonists in the sixteenth century, who used such allegations as justifications for conquest and colonization. But a careful examination of Aztec history and society reveals another side to their civilization. Their accomplishments in mathematics, together with their techniques for measuring time and surveying land use, as well as their interest in astrology, enriches our understanding of Aztec society. They were far more sophisticated than a simple “civilized/uncivilized” binary opposite, even by modern standards. Thus, the central tenet of this essay is that the Aztecs were more than barbarians and in fact were quite sophisticated, especially in the areas of mathematics, their techniques for measuring time and surveying land use, and because of their interest in astrology (Cartwright, 2014,; Bernal, 1963, pp 10-11).The Aztecs, according to their own legends, pinpoint their origin to the place called “Aztlan”which is located in northern Mexico or the modern-day American Southwest. Many of their own origin stories reference supernatural realms and locations that anthropologist are still trying to locate in geographic terms. In the twelfth century CE before they rose to dominance in central Mexico, the Aztecs lived on the margins of civilized Mesoamerica (central Mexico). By the thirteenth century the Aztecs had embarked on a period of wandering and settled in the Valley of Mexico. Later on, they continually fought with the small city-states which also resulted in shifting alliances. Afterwards, they took refuge on small islands in Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. In 1325 they founded the town of Tenochtitlán (modern-day Mexico City). The story of how the Aztec empire rose to dominance in the Valley of Mexico during the 1300s is filled with intrigue, violence, and bloodshed (Knight, 2002, pp 132-134; Bernal, 1963, pp 12-15).After the fall of the Toltec empire, which dominated the Valley of Mexico, the region’s politics were overshadowed by the external neighboring powers and their successor states. “By the thirteenth century, the Chichimec [Aztec] migrants were establishing new territories in the valley.” The dominant power in the Valley was the Tepanecas based out of the city-state of Azcapotzalco. In their migration the Aztecs had gradually transitioned from being nomadic hunters and gathers to learning how to farm corn. Throughout their journey south to the Valley of Mexico, which they had taken via Coatepec and Tula, they periodically paused to farm. They also became familiar with the rudiments of Mesoamerican civilization such as military politics and human sacrifice. Additionally, during their journey south the Aztecs had developed a strong belief in a Toltec deity named Huitzilopochtli, who eventually became the top-ranking deity in their pantheon (Knight, 2002, pp 132-134; Bernal, 1963, pp 16-18).When the Aztecs were newly arrived in the Valley of Mexico, they occupied a low position in regional politics and prestige. As their number increased, they eventually established themselves through military skill. Later on, in 1319, they were attacked by the Tepanecas because the Tepanecas were engaged in the struggle to dominate the valley and they disdained outsiders. As a result the Aztecs moved to the rocky, snake infested island of Tizzapan on Lake Texcoco (where today stands the central campus of UNAM, Mexico’s national university system). On the island the Aztecs survived by eating snakes. Little by little the Aztecs on Tizzapan began building homes, temples, and other structures out of rocks and soil. They also began serving as mercenaries in the wars between city-states in the Valley (Knight, 2002, pp 137-138).One colorful story related by the Aztecs tells how their war-like nature set them apart from the other, agricultural groups inhabiting the Valley. After helping the city-state of Culhucan win several important victories, the Culhua ruler named Achitometl offered his beautiful daughter to the Aztecs as a marriage gift. The Aztecs priests flayed her and used her skin to drape an Aztec priest. This resulted in a war between the two groups. According to the Aztecs, Huitzilopochtli spoke to the Aztec priests in visions and dreams, advising, “Go from here calmly and cautiously.” Again, they resumed their travels. In another part of the Valley their priests had another vision. Here, they beheld Huitzilopochtili’s prophecy signaling the place to build a permanent settlement: an eagle perched on a cactus, devouring a snake. On this spot the Aztecs began building Tenochtitlan, which would became a city on the lake and later the Aztec capital and location of Aztec advances in mathematics, time measurement, and religion (Knight, 2002, pp 137-139; Bernal, 1963 pp 18-20).The mathematical accomplishment of the Aztecs is concerned with their number system and their notation of area. Unlike today’s mathematics, “they followed a vigesimal system.” In that system, their counting was based on the units of twenty, and they also used subsets of units of five. We can also observe this in the Nahuatl number where the word for “six” actually means “five plus one.” Additionally, to refer to large number such as 400 (20×20), they called it tzontliwhich means hair or growth of garden herbs. Likewise, for 8000 (20x20x20), they referred it as xiquipilli or bag of cocao beans. Furthermore, their vigesimal system used number words for numbers. For example, One-Ce, Two-Ome, Three-Ei or Yei, Four- Macuilli and so forth. Additionally, “the Aztec’s notation system was different than the present [western] notation system.” We write the numbers in the horizontal fashion whereas the Aztecs wrote in the vertical fashion. The value of that symbol was determined by the location of the number in that vertical stack or fashion (Van Tuerenhout, 2005, pp 225-226).An Aztec manuscript titled the Matricula de Tributos in Spanish (the counting of tribute), which details the taxes and other tribute collected from neighboring city-states in the sixteenth century, provides examples of this different notation system. For example, a dot represented one, a representation of flag represented ‘twenty’, and a rough symbol of feather represented ‘400’ and so forth. The Matricula de Tributos also shows symbol used to refer to area. They used to draw picture of mantle to represent area. Sometimes, they also added another set of symbol to it which represented the size of mantle. For example, they put two finger on the top to signal that the size of mantle requested is twice. Those fingers represented two brazas which was a measurement of distance and its metric equivalence is still unknown. Two colonial-era documents (i.e., written after 1519), the Codice de Santa Maria Asunción and the Codex Vergara, relate that “the standard unit of measurement was called Quahuitl which is approximately equivalent to 2.5m.” They used dots and the lines to represent the width and length of the fields in Quahuitl. A dot was considered to be valued as “20” and a line was considered “1.” Archeologists and modern scholars, working with the notion of Quahuitl, have found that the Aztecs used a quantity similar to our hectare (Van Tuerenhout, 2005, pp 226-227).The Aztecs, who relied on the complex system of measurement to calculate celestial data, also used these data to structure their daily lives. As a result they had a sophisticated calendar system. The Aztec calendar consists of two cycles. One cycle consisted of 260 days which they called Tonalpohualli. The other consisted of 365 days and was called Xihuitl. The term Tonalpohualli meant “counting of the days.” This calendar was comprised of 260 days obtained by combining 13-day names with 20-day signs. Some of the examples of the 20-day signs in this calendar were Cipactli (alligator), Ehecatl (Wind), Calli (House), Cuetzapalin (Lizard) and so forth. The major purpose of the Tonalpohualli calendar was to organize festivals for their patron deities. Other Mesoamerican civilization used aspects of the Tonalpohualli calendar. Unlike the Tonalpohualli calendar, the “Xihuitl consisted of 365 days.” It was made up of 18 units, and each unit contained 20 days in them. The Aztecs added extra 5 days to complete 365 days, and those five days were called as nemontemi. In our calendar, we refer to specific years by assigning numbers to them. However, the Aztecs identified their calendar years by the day name on which they began. The months were named in the honor of gods and the each month were associated with belief system such as when to start war, when to sow crops, when to harvest them and so forth. The examples of Aztec months are Atlcahualo (sacrifice of children for rain), Tlacaxipeualitzili (slaves and war captives were sacrificed), Tozoztontli (children were sacrificed), Huei Tozoztli (self-sacrifice to impress goddess of corn) and so forth (Van Tuerenhout, 2005, pp 227-228).Moreover, there was one more calendar known as Xiuhmolpilli, which combined the previous two calendars and consisted of a 52-year period. “This calendar was the combination of Tonalpohualli and Xihuitl, and was integrated to a much larger cycle of 52 years.” In this calendar, the dates were identified by their signed codes. These signed codes were based on the codes used in the previous shorter calendars. The combination codes were designed in such a way that they repeated themselves after every 52 years. From this calendar, we can learn that the Aztecs had planning and schedule for 52 years, similar to the planning based on 100-year periods used in western societies (i.e., the century). The Aztecs believed that unless they celebrated the passing of the 52 with great ceremony and pomp, creation would be placed in jeopardy. The Aztecs had a complex system of religious beliefs that combined celestial calculations with belief in omens (Van Tuerenhout, 2005, p 229; Bernal, 1963, 25-26).Though not scientific in their approach to it, the Aztecs were fascinated with astrology and celestial phenomena. They had a complex understanding of events in the night sky. They went to great lengths to interpret celestial phenomena and weave their understanding of it into significant events affecting Aztec society. According Mexican scholar Leon Miguel-Portilla, in the years leading up to the conquest of Mexico by Spaniards, “there were eight bad omens as described in the original text of Nahuatl of Sahagún’s native informants.” Bernardino de Sahagún was a Spanish priest who trained Aztec scribes to write in Spanish after the conquest. Many of these scribes also wrote in Nahuatl. According to the Nahuatl texts, “the first bad omen appeared in the sky ten years before the Spaniards first came to the valley.” The text mentions that there was “flaming ears of corn” or fiery signals in the sky which seemed to bleed fire. In the fourth omen fire streamed through the sky while the sun was still shining, flashing along the horizon after sunset to where the sun rises. Though they did not understand these celestial events the Aztecs linked inexplicable phenomena to important, historical events affecting their society. This demonstrated the Aztecs’ interest in linking the various complicated components of the everyday world they inhabited, before and after the Spanish conquest in the early sixteenth century (Leon Portilla, 1992, pp 1-4; Bernal, 1963, pp125-126).Considering the Aztecs traditional rule of human sacrifice, we can conclude that their civilization had violent and “barbarous” aspects, according to our present standards. This conclusion is supported by archaeologist Carla M. Sinopoli’s article, in which Sinopoli states that the Aztec empire had a “vast number of human sacrifice in their culture.” Whenever we hear the term “Aztec” many people usually imagine a culture that was extremely violent and militaristic, a culture full of human sacrifice and cannibalism. Instead of a strict “civilized/uncivilized” dichotomy, however, we can appreciate their history and culture which led to intellectual accomplishments in mathematics, techniques for measuring time and surveying land use, and their interest in astrology. These areas demonstrate that the Aztecs were more than barbarians or savages. Who today would argue that nations, such as the United States, China, England, France, and Russia, are not sophisticated, simply because they have enormous military potential? Together these countries have enough nuclear weapons to destroy all life on earth, yet few people would argue that as a result they are uncivilized nations. On the contrary most people would argue these nations lead the world in technological and scientific accomplishments. Similarly, it’s possible to argue that the Aztecs were not only barbarous and violent, according to our standards. They also had many sophisticated intellectual accomplishments, even by our standards (Sinopoli, 1994, pp 159-80).BibliographyBernal, Igancio. (1963). Mexico before Cortez: art, history, and legend.Garden City, New York: Doubleday.In text reference: (Bernal, 1963)Cartwright, Mark. (2014). Aztec civilization. Retrieved from the Ancient History Encyclopedia website: text reference: (Cartwright, 2014)Knight, Alan. (2002). Mexico: from the beginning to the Spanish conquest. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.In text reference: (Knight, 2002)Leon Portilla, Miguel (Ed.). (1992). The broken spears: the Aztec account of the conquest of Mexico. Translated by Lysander Kemp. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.In text reference: (Leon Portilla, 1992)Sinpoli, Carla M. (1994). The archaeology of empires. Annual review of anthropology, 23 (1), 159-180.In text reference: (Sinopoli, 1994)Van Tuerenhout, Dirk R. The Aztecs: new perspectives. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.In text reference: (Van Tuerenhout, 2015)