The Mayan and Aztec Civilizations

The Aztecs lived over 500 years ago in Central America. At their peak, the Aztecs had an empire that contained Mexico and parts of Central America. They acquired all this land through conquest. How did they get so strong? Let's find out.

The Aztecs originated as hunters in northern Mexico. Eventually they set out to find a new place to live. Following a "vision" from their god Huitzilopochtli, they reached the Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs then founded the city of Tenochtitlan (present day Mexico City) on several marshy islands in the center of Lake Texcoco. By reclaiming land from the lake, they city grew to be one of the largest in the world at the time. After founding the city, the Aztecs started their empire by attacking the strongest people in their area, the Azcapotzalcos. After taking their land, they conquered others.

Aztec society was headed by an emperor, along with a group of advisors. Next in line were the nobles, commoners, and then slaves. Merchants were a separate class. Aztec warriors were very fierce. They were rewarded for victory with slaves, cloth, and land. Rank in the army depended on the amount of prisoners taken from battle. Different ranks wore different costumes.

Aztecs believed they lived in the fifth world, because it had been destroyed four times. Each day began with the gods sacrificing themselves to create the sun. The Aztecs thanked them and helped the sun in its nightly battle with the moon and stars, with sacrifice. The Aztecs captured prisoners for human blood, the most valuable gift. Other things were sacrificed as well.

The Mayans lived in the Yucatan peninsula, southern Mexico, and Guatemala around 1000 BC. They had a highly advanced culture. In 300 AD, the Mayans had developed a writing system using hieroglyphics. They wrote on stone slabs to record their history. Mayan astronomers estimated how long the year was, when solar eclipses occurred, and they could chart the orbit of planets.

Mayans grew crops on land raised in swampy areas and on terraced hillsides. The dug canals and put the fertile mud onto their fields, improving the soil. These crops were used to support the Mayan empire.

Around AD 800, Mayan society fell apart. The cities were deserted. No one knows for sure why this happened. Most scholars think this happened from disease, desecration of one of their sacred temple cities, or war. The Toltecs probably started the war, because they occupied the capital, Chichen Itza, in 930 AD. The Toltecs became the main power in Central America for two more centuries. The Mayans did not die out though. Many people of Mayan descent lived in Central America and Mexico today.

In the 1400s, Central American civilization started to decline. The conquistadores conquered Mexico, Central, and South America. The natives were enslaved and converted to Christianity. Most of the countries in that region are independent once again.