Origins of Mexico

Ancient Native American civilizations--including those of the MAYA, OLMEC, ZAPOTEC, MIXTEC, TOLTEC, and AZTEC--flourished there for centuries before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. The Pyramid of the Sun, built in the 2nd century AD, dominates the landscape of the ancient city of Teotihuacan in Mexico. Teotihuacan was the first true city in Mesoamerica, at its peak (AD c.600) it housed more than 100,000 people.

After the Maya, after the Toltec, came the Aztec. The Aztecs emerged in the Valley of Mexico, or Anahuac as it was called by its peoples, around the 14th century. Aztec legends tell of seven Nahua tribes who pillaged and plundered a divided Mexico after the Mayan civilization had all but faded, dispossessing and enslaving the previous inhabitants. These tribes were known as the Chichimecas by the natives, a word originally meaning barbarians.

The Valley soon became crowded, and the Nahua waged many years of petty tribal warfare against each other. One tribe, called the Acolhuas of Texcoco, eventually emerged above all the rest. The tribe's chieftains ruled over the Valley, building palaces and carefully preserving what remained of the Toltec culture and knowledge. Yet early in the 15th century, the Acolhuas were, in turn, conquered by the Tepanec, a rival Nahua tribe. This reign proved to be so tyrannous, however, that the other tribes were forced to combine their strengths to defeat the Tepanec. The Acolhuas took advantage of the power vacuum thus created, and once more gained power in Anahuac. Yet this victory was short lived.

After having wandered as outcasts and mercenaries through the territories in the southwestern corner of the Valley, the Aztecs, the last of the seven tribes to enter Anahuac, finally found a home on two islands in the middle of Lake Texcoco. There, in 1325, they built the city of Tenochtitlan. They had been guided to this spot by their deity, Huitzilopochtli, who had told them to settle where they should find an eagle standing on a nopal and devouring a serpent.

After the war between the Acolhuas and the Tepanec, the Aztec gained their independence. They then swept in and conquered the other tribes of the Valley, asserting their authority through their considerable military ability and strength. The tribe began to expand its domain in every direction, making sacrificial victims of the peoples they conquered. By the end of the 15th century, the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan had become very rich and had grown to a population of around one hundred thousand.

Main staples consisted of beans, rice, maize-cakes, pimentos, and tomatoes. Rarely was there meat or poultry. Water was usually the only drink. Nobility ate well and often most of the food prepared was exquisite. All sorts of meats and vegetables were eaten. Maize was revered as the bringer of life. They also used sage and alcohol for ceremonies.

Alcoholism was non-existent until after fall of empire. Severe penalties for the over consumption of alcohol. Alcohol did have religious significance in certain rituals. Those whose active lives were basically over were allowed to drink, however young and middle aged men were impaired by strict social barriers against drinking.

Homes were made of sun-dried bricks. Number of rooms increase with wealth of family. People slept on woven mats. There were not many chairs, tables, or desks. Hearths in center of home symbolized the fire god.

The Aztecs were great admirers of flowers. They had gardens surrounding the house for aesthetic purposes. Men wore loin cloths, sandals and cloaks. Women were fashion conscious. Staining of the teeth red or black was popular. Tattoos were used to improve the look of the lower class. Noble women used cleanliness for attraction. It was also desirable to have yellow skin, so women used the reason of the axin tree to change their color.

Most of the working class went barefoot. Women wore earring, necklaces and bracelets on their arms and ankles. The men also had pierced their septum and placed gold hoops or metal jewels as well as piercing their lips and ornamenting it likewise. Cotton and other textiles obtained from the surrounding fauna was used to acquire clothing materials. Jewels were used as a sort of caste marker Some jewels could be used to raise a person almost to a state of godliness. Coupled with feathers, the jewels were highly important in the Aztec social structure.

Indigenous Peoples' Literature Return to Indigenous Peoples' Literature
Compiled by: Glenn Welker

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