The story of Aztecs rise from a nomadic tribe of Nahuatl-speaking Indians to become the conquerors of the Valley of Mexico and the proud possessors of one of the New World's three indigenous civilizations is an important segment of a vast American epic: the arrival of the first man on the American continent and his progress, and that of his successors, in creating a culture and ultimately a highly developed civilization. Part of the Aztec story belongs to pre-history and part of it to relatively modern history.
Some time in the dim past the most accurate estimates place it anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five thousand years ago men of the Mongoloid race, in search of food, made their way across the frozen Bering Strait from Asia to the North American continent. Hunting and fishing in small bands, they spread out over North America, pushing their way down into Central America, and farther down into South America until they occupied both continents in varying degrees of population density.
By the time the white man arrived in the New World, he found a wide variety of social patterns and customs in evidence among these peoples, whom he mistakenly called Indians. These patterns ranged from crude, primitive societies to those capable of observing the movements of the heavenly bodies with more precision than the Europeans who came to these shores.
But it was not until relatively recent times that anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians began to talk of Indian civilizations. Men like Means, Morley, Kidder, Vaillant, Thompson, Spinden, Maudslay, Caso, and a host of other eminent scientists and scholars have accumulated a vast amount of knowledge from excavations and studies, especially the accounts of the early Spanish missionaries in the New World.
From this body of knowledge a pattern emerged, and historians and philosophers began to speak of the Aztec civilization, the Maya civilization, and the Inca civilization. Historians and philosophers could no longer ignore America and its three indigenous world outlooks, as Hegel had done.
What made it possible for these three great civilizations to emerge the Aztec in the Valley of Mexico, the Maya in Guatemala, Honduras and Yukatan, and Inca in Peru and Bolivia? In each case the domestication of a staple food supply seems to have been a deciding factor; among the Aztec and Mayas it was maize or corn and among the Incas the white potato.
The scene of the Aztec triumph was the Central Valley of Mexico. Several centuries before Christ, agricultural tribes had already settled here, and by the time of Christ had established their great religious center at Teotihuacan. Archeologists place the advent, rise, and fall of this great civilization roughly from the second century to the tenth century A.D. About this time a new group moved into the Valley and settled in Tula, Hidalgo. They are known to us as the Toltecs. These Indians belonged to Nahua group and seem to have come from the north or northwest into the Valley. Soon their culture and artistry spread to many parts of Mexico, reaching even as far as Yucatan and other Maya areas, However, as early as the eleventh century A.D., another related tribal group, the Chichimecs, were already in contact with the Toltecs, and by the thirteenth century they had gradually replaced the Toltecs as the dominant tribal group in the Valley.
The Aztecs were among the last of the tribes to enter the Valley. They, too, were of the Nahua group. The tribal records of the Tenochca Aztecs indicate that they began their wanderings in A.D. 1168, coming down from their legendary home in Aztlan, referred to as the "Seven Caves," or the "Place of Reeds." Evidence seems to indicate that the Aztecs, "the Crane People." migrated from the north and northwest, passing through Michoacan. Linguistically speaking, they were allied to the North American Shoshonis and to the Michoacan Tarascans. They arrived in the central valley and asked for permission to settle at Chapultepec in 1248. For some years they appear to have been almost enslaved by other tribes of the Nahua race. By the fourteenth century they had made two settlements on the islands in the lakes, one at Tenochtitlan. now called Mexico City, whose traditional founding date is given as 1325, and another at Tlaltetalco. By the fifteenth century, Tenochtitlan had become the center of Aztec growth, conquest, and expansion. The great struggle for prisoners of war had heen initiated.
As early as the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, dominated all other cities and had reached the height of its power and magnificence.
In 1519, the first white men, the Spaniards, under the leadership of Hernan Cortes pushed their way into the Valley of Mexico and looked with wonder and amazement upon the Aztec capital as it glittered in the high, thin mountain air. The date was November 8, 1519, according to one of Cortes Lieutenants, Bernar Diaz del Castillo. Old Bernal Diaz, some forty years later, recorded his impressions of the first view of the approach to the city:
During the morning, we arrived at a broad causeway and continued our march toward Iztapalapa, and when we saw so many cities and villages built into the water and other great towns on dry land and that straight and level causeway going toward Mexico, we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments they tell us of in ihe legend of Amadis, on account of the great towers and cues and buildings arising from the water and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things we saw were not a dream. [Bernar Diaz del Castillo, Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, New York, Farrar, Strauss & Cudahy, 1956.]
The amazement of the Spaniards increased as they entered the city and were received with true regal splendor by the Emperor Moctezuma in full regalia. But it was a sad event, for the Aztecs way of life was no longer to follow its own course. An alien world had come to impose its views upon these people and their civilization. Had the Aztec destiny run its course? The answer belongs to speculation, not to history. But the dominance of these people in the Valley of Mexico was henceforth delimited by the dates 1325 and 1519.
What was the implementing force that drove these Indians to become the masters of a threat part of Central America, to develop a civilization sui generis, unique among the peoples of the world? One word may best answer the question-religion. It was a profound knowledge of the Aztecs chat prompted Alfonso Caso to entitle his first version of El pueblo del Sol, "La religion de los aztecas."
Religion touched the daily life of every man. woman, and child in the Aztec world. It drove them to conquest and expansion,to build great temples, to compute and measure time, to offer hundreds of thousands. in bloody sacrificial rites to their gods. It was, as Caso points out in the book, both the impetus and nemesis of their civilization.
Today there are perhaps a million Aztec-Nahua-speaking residents of Mexico, the descendants of the great empire which Cortes and his Lieutenants first saw 490 years ago. They and their ancestors have given many words and phrases not only to modern Spanish but to English as well. While Aztec art, architecture, engineering, astronomy, and perhaps even concepts of war were not original with these peoples, they came to be, as Alfred L. Kroeber said, the "administrators, legatees, dominators and disseminators" of this culture. We are fortunate to be enabled to look deeply into religion and way of life which lay behind all their achievements, as developed by one of the master scholars of aboriginal life in the Americas.