Thanks to a marvelous book sale at Hudson’s Dirt Cheap, I purchased 15 educational books for Max at the lovely price of $1.49 per book. One of these books, Projects About the Ancient Aztecs, by David King, inspired us to begin our very own unit study on Aztec civilization. A basic list of sections for this Unit Study is included below, followed by an informal presentation of our meanderings.
- Introduction to the Aztecs
- Aztec civilization and agriculture
- Aztec cities
- Aztec calendars
- Aztec food
- Active learning- This section includes a list of activities, projects, worksheets, and online explorations which offer an active learning component to various sections of the unit study.
INTRODUCTION TO THE AZTECS
Mythology tells that the Aztecs began as wandering tribes in the north or northwest part of Mexico. This territory, called Aztlan, is the source of the name Aztec. Today we refer to the people as Aztecs, but they called themselves Mexica or Tenochca.
The ancient tribes wandered for many years. In the 1200s they began to settle in the Valley of Mexico, which is in the central part of the country. The area rises about 7,500 feet above sea level. It is surround by tropical rain forests, but the high altitude gave the region a mild climate.
Nahuatl was the language spoken by the Aztecs. Many words we use today came from this ancient language. Aztec words include Acapulco, Mexico, avocado, chocolate, and tomato. The Aztecs developed a form of picture writing. Some pictures represented ideas; other pictures stood for sounds. They did not develop an alphabet, so their writing was limited in what it could express.
Aztec civilization flourished for around 200 years between 1300 and 1520 CE. Through conquest and trade, the Aztecs came to rule over much of the land that is now Mexico.
AZTEC CIVILIZATION AND AGRICULTURE
The key to the success of this civilization- the particularity which allowed the Aztecs to build amazing cities- lay in new farming techniques and a skilled agriculture. Through the creative use of new farming techniques, the Aztecs were able to grow an abundance of food. In fact, they had a large enough surplus of some crops, like corn, that they could trade for farm products that did not do well in their valley, like cotton and tropical fruits.
Aztec agriculture involved the following methods and techniques:
- Chinampas- Chinampa is a method of farming that used small, rectangular areas to grow crops on the shallow lake beds in the Mexican valley. Chinampas were essentially artificial islands created for the crops. An area was staked out in the lake bed, usually about thirty by two and a half meters. Once the area was fenced off, the farmers layered it with mud, sediment, and decaying vegetation until it was above the level of the lake. Trees were also often planted in the corners to help secure the area. These islands then provided rich soil for crops with easy access to water. The farmers used channels between the islands to get to each area by canoe.
- Crop rotation – The Aztecs rotated their crops to keep the soil from becoming depleted. Such good stewardship of their land ensured land could be relied upon in the future.
- Terracing- The Aztec farmers practiced terracing to provide more usable land. In terracing, walls of stone were created in hillsides, then filled in to create deeper soil that could be used, even if the land wasn’t flat.
- Irrigation canals – Although the climate was dry, Aztecs tapped into a supply of small, shallow lakes by building irrigation canals to spread the water to their farm fields.
- Family gardens- People also often created their own gardens to grow fruits and vegetables for their families, although commoners were expected to give tributes to the nobles of their land, according to the societal hierarchy
- Play Wheeler Dealer simulation game to explore how Aztecs traded.
The fact that agriculture ensured a reliable food supply for the Aztecs allowed them ample leisure time to construct remarkable cities and temples.
The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was built on an island in the Lake Texcoco. Today, this is the sire of Mexico City, the modern capital of Mexico. The Aztec Indians had already built one of the most advanced civilizations in the western hemisphere by. the time Columbus made his first voyage to the Americas. Archaeologists believe that the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan may have had a population of over 200,000. This was larger than any city in Spain or England during the same time.
How did the Aztecs, a wandering peoples, find a place to settle, farm, and create magnificent cities? The Aztecs believed they were born in the bowels of the earth and entered the world through seven caves. At first, they settled in Aztlan, a still undiscovered city that archaeologists believe was somewhere along Mexico’s northwest coast. About 1100, however, the Aztecs left Aztlan and headed south, settling for short periods in various cities ruled by their neighbors. By the 1300s, they had reached the marshy shores of Lake Texacoco in the broad Valley of Mexico. They found the best land already occupied by more powerful immigrants who had arrived earlier. So they settled for an empty island in the middle of the lake, serving as mercenaries for more powerful tribes for more than 50 years and learning how to coax food from the wet soils. To survive, they even harvested algae and dried it into cakes.
Eventually, however, the servant Aztecs rebelled against their masters, and seized power themselves. Acting on a tribal prophecy, they began building a city on the island after seeing an eagle perched on a cactus. The city, called Tenochtitlan, soon became the capital of a vast empire that blossomed in the early 1300s. It boasted grand canals, enormous market squares, and gaudy temples, and was inhabited and fueled by a wealthy class of priests, warriors, traders, and tax collectors, who directed a highly organized society. More than 300,000 people lived in the city alone.
- Take an online field trip to Teotihuacan, the ancient city of the Aztecs which now lies beneath Mexico City.
- Watch an online film about Aztec cities and architecture.
Aztecs used two calendars– one for farming and another for religious ceremonies and festivals. The farming calendar divided the year into 365 days and told farmers when exactly to plant each crop. This calendar was known as the xiuhpohualli, the counting of years. This was a 365 day year, of course very helpful for planning your farming and predicting the weather. There were 18 months, each 20 days long, or 4 (5 day) weeks. Then to bring the year up to 365 days there were 5 “unlucky” days added. Each year would also be divided into 4 seasons.
The religious calendar, known as the tonalpohualli, divided the year into 260 days. Priests used this calendar to keep track of religious ceremonies and rituals which the Aztecs believed determined the good fortune they would have in the coming year. The rituals were all divided up among the gods, which the Aztecs thought was important because a balance needed to be maintained among the gods. Aztecs believed that problems, including droughts, storms, forest fires, etc, to be a result of imbalance in nature’s forces.
There were 20 signs, and 13 numbers. Like a gear within a gear, each of the 20 signs would be assigned each of the 13 numbers. 13×20=260, the total number of days in the “sacred year”. The 13 day period is a kind of Aztec week. Not only was every day ruled by a god, each of the weeks were also ruled by a god – the one associated with the first day.
To keep track of these two calendar cycles, one giving directions to farming families and the other planning palace events, a huge calendar stone was constructed in the Great Temple. That stone measured 12 feet in diameter and weighed 24 tons.
These two cycles together formed a 52 year “century”, sometimes called the Calendar Round.The calendric year began with the first appearance of the Pleiades asterism in the east immediately before the dawn light.
Every month had its name, and the days of the month were numbered from one to twenty. The days of the last month, Nemontemi, were numbered from one to five. The box at the top of the stone contains the stone’s year of creation, in this case 1479 CE. The Aztecs constructed this stone from potter’s clay.
- Find out how your birthday, and the birthdays of your parents and friends, might be represented on an Aztec calendar.
- Make your own model stone calendar using home-made dough and paints.
The Aztecs are credited with domesticating the wild turkey. In fact, corn and turkey were the two main foods used for religious purposes in sacred festivals.
Of the various crops grown by the Aztecs, maize (or corn) was by far the most important. Aztec diets centered around it. Maize was grown across the entire empire, in the highland terraces, valley farms and also on the chinampas.
Women ground maize into a coarse meal by rubbing it with a grinding stone called a mano against a flat stone called a metate. The Aztecs made tortillas from the corn meal.
Other crops that the Aztecs relied upon were avocados, beans, squashes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, chia, amaranth and chilies. These crops were also grown everywhere. Crops that were specific to the lowland regions were cotton, fruits, cacao beans and rubber trees.
- Make your own tortillas.
- Drink a cup of hot cocoa in honor of the Aztecs.
AZTEC PICTOGRAMS AND WRITINGS
The Aztecs did not have a written language in the modern sense. However, they did have a means of writing that used pictures.
An ideogram is a character or symbol that represents an idea or thing without expressing the pronunciation of a particular word or words for it. Another word for an ideogram is an ideograph. For example, a circle or disk can represent the sun. If an open eye were drawn inside the circle, its meaning changes. Because the open eye represents being awake, the ideogram represents the concept of day.
A few examples of ideograms in our environment include traffic signs, walk/don’t walk signs, school crossing signs, and lodging signs (image of person lying on a bed). Can you think of any more ideograms in our world?
After you are satisfied that students have grasped the concept of ideograms, let them create original ideograms. First, brainstorm a list of words (start with nouns and verbs) that can be easily represented by pictures and symbols. Give students paper and pencils and let them sketch many different ideas.
Next, ask each student to pick one ideogram to recreate in color. Give students time to share their work. Make the conclusion of this activity into a game in which students have to figure out what each ideogram represents. Bind the pictures into a book, or mount them into an Aztec-style codex.
This glyph signified the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan.
The following ideograms and glyphs include important objects to the Aztecs, as well as place names:
- Pursue a deeper knowledge of ancient Aztec scripts and writing.
- Print and color this depiction of an Aztec conquest. Then add your own subheadings and translations beneath each image.
- Create your own ideograms. First make a list of words and then draw pictures to represent each one. Keep your key on hand as you create a letter to a family member using your ideograms. Then see if they can understand your letter without using the key.
ACTIVE LEARNING AND ADDITIONAL RESOURCES
- Create your own Aztec timeline using your notes and online resources, including an Aztec Timeline, a timeline of Aztec emperors, and the history of Mexico.
- Explore the archaeological digs and discoveries of the Aztec city, Yautepec, online.
- Journey with PBS through the lives of Aztecs, Fierce Wanderers.
- Listen to the Aztec Requiem.
- Watch a video of various Aztec cultural artifacts, historical events, and visual aspects of Aztec culture.
- Take an online field trip to the Museo del Templo Mayor, a museum in Mexico City which includes archaelogical findings and ruins from Aztec cities.
- Aztec Mythology Unit for 4th and 5th graders.
- Aztec Folk Literature Lesson Plan (PDF).
- The Conquest of Aztec Civilization Lesson Plan (PDF).
- Mexico Lessons focusing on Aztec history.
- Try the Amazing Aztecs Cyberhunt.