Aztec culture was largely derived from that of the Toltecs, Mayas, and other early peoples of Mexico. The Aztecs had an accurate calendar, paper made from fig-tree bark, and a system of hieroglyphics (picture writing). Skilled craftsmen made pottery, wove, carved stone sculptures, cut gems, worked metals, and created intricate designs on clothes and banners by tying feathers into fabrics during weaving. Master architects designed aqueducts, dikes, and huge stone pyramids topped by temples. City planners laid out the streets and canals of the capital in an orderly grid pattern.
Most boys attended local schools where they studied history, religion, and crafts and received military training. Some boys and girls attended special religious schools, studying to be priests and priestesses.
Like earlier Mexican peoples, the Aztecs never made use of the wheel (except on children's toys) and did not use animals to pull or carry loads. Their only domesticated animals were dogs, turkeys, and perhaps ducks, geese, and quail. Trade was by barter. Sometimes cacao beans were used as "small change" in major transactions to balance the exchange. Most tools and weapons were made of stone or wood. Gold, silver, and copper were used mainly for ornaments, along with jade, turquoise, emeralds, and shells.
At the time of the Spanish invasion in 1519, the Aztecs dominated an area extending east to the Gulf of Mexico, southwest to the Pacific Ocean and southeast to the present Mexico-Guatemala border. The northern boundary ran approximately through the present cities of Tampico and Guadalajara. The population of the Aztec Empire is estimated to have been 5,000,000 to 11,000,000. The Aztec Empire was a loose organization of independent towns rather than a united kingdom. Subject cities were allowed to rule themselves and retain their own gods and customs. Every six months, tax collectors from the capital gathered tribute in clothing, precious stones, cotton, rubber, chocolate, food, and feathers.
Tenochtitlán, was built on an island in Lake Texcoco, one of five small lakes in the hollow of the Valley of Mexico. Its population probably was at least several hundred thousand. The city had few streets or open spaces, but was crisscrossed by hundreds of canals generally crowded with canoes bringing goods from other cities on the lake. Three causeways led from the mainland to the central plaza of the capital. Here were the largest public buildings, temples, and palaces. Nearby were a ball court (used for a ceremonial ball game that had religious significance), a rack for the skulls of sacrificial victims, and one of the city's five markets. Two aqueducts built on earth dikes brought freshwater to the plaza from springs on the mainland.
Surrounding the central square were the adobe homes of well-to-do Aztecs, each with an inner courtyard. At the outskirts of the city were the thatched huts of the farmers. The island was fringed with chinampas (floating gardens); these were artificial islands, built by piling earth on woven rafts. Here farmers grew corn, beans, peppers, squash, and tomatoes. Women ground the corn into meal for tortillas (flat cakes of unleavened bread), the principal food.
Aztec society was composed of 20 groups called calpullis, which were something like clans or extended families. Land was owned by the calpullis rather than by individuals. Calpulli representatives formed a council that selected two men as rulers. The emperor, the "chief of men," was responsible for external affairs, such as wars and alliances. The vice-emperor, who was called Snake Woman after a goddess, supervised internal affairs. Both also had religious duties.
Aztec society was divided into a number of classes. Although people could advance to a higher level, most often by distinguishing themselves in battle, the usual pattern was for individuals to live out their lives in the class into which they had been born. At the top of the social order were government officials and priests. Next came traders and craftsmen. A special group of traders called pochteca brought luxuries such as gold, gems, and exotic feathers from distant areas and served as military spies. Below these groups were the farmers, who composed most of the population. Lowest in society were the slaves. Some slaves were captives or criminals, but most of the slaves were poor people who gave up their freedom in exchange for food, shelter, and clothing. They usually served as slaves for only a short period of time and were well treated.
The Aztecs worshiped many gods. The most important were Tezcatlipoca, the god of warriors and the night; Huitzilopochtli (Hummingbird-on-the-Left), a god of war and the sun; and Tlaloc, the rain god. There were shrines to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc in the Great Temple in Tenochtitlán.
The Aztecs believed that the gods needed human hearts and blood for nourishment, so human sacrifice was an important part of Aztec religion. Priests generally sacrificed victims by cutting open their chests and pulling out their hearts. The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice on a massive scale; in 1487, at the dedication of the Great Temple in Tenochtitlán, tens of thousands of people were put to death. To get captives for sacrifices, the Aztecs waged war almost continuously. Every man served in the army and considered it a sacred duty to capture enemies, rather than to kill them.
Worship was regulated by two calendars. Daily worship was determined by a calendar of 260 days, divided into 20 weeks of 13 days. Each hour, day, and week was ruled by a certain god. The great religious ceremonies and festivals were regulated by a calendar of 365 days. It was composed of 18 months of 20 days and an additional five-day period, which was considered an unlucky time. Each month was dedicated to a major god. Both calendars began on the same day once every 52 years. To mark this occasion the Aztecs extinguished all fires and destroyed their furniture. In the open chest of a sacrificial victim, priests kindled a new fire that runners carried on torches to the hearths and altars of the empire.