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The Aztecs: the Lost People of Mesoamerica

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Throughout history we find many different kingdoms, civilizations and peoples and each of them are unique in their own way. By considering the varying degrees of sophistication, different lifestyles , religion and agriculture individuals can examine these peoples and come to understand their way of life and what aspects of their lifestyles made them so different . In an era of conquest and exploring the new world, Christopher Columbus discovered a land of promise and opportunity, riches and resources and perhaps most importantly gold and slaves. In the early 1500 the Spanish set out to colonize the Americas in hopes of finding similar treasures like Columbus. Among these potential colonies was the Aztec Empire of Mesoamerica. The Spanish invasion of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan began around 1519. The invasion began in February 1519 and was led by Hernán Cortés. “In November 1519, the band of 250 Spanish adventurers stood above Lake Texcoco” # gazing down on the city they wished to conquer but the Aztecs were strong people as well. At first there was no immediate clash between the Spanish and the Aztec and the Aztecs did not suspect that the Spanish were there to capture them. Montezuma II , the ruler of the Aztecs at the time, treated the Spaniards like guests and also gave them gifts.

The Aztecs were sophisticated and civilized people with a unique identity. They had a rich culture and a well developed religion. They had also manipulated their surroundings to provide food for the people by utilizing the highlands and lowlands. However the Aztecs lost their identity when the Spanish conquest occurred as it changed many different aspects of the Aztec life .The Spanish Conquest severely damaged the physical and cultural environment of Tenochtitlan and the Aztecs,stripping them of their cultural and religious identity and changing the world in which they lived. By examining the structure of Tenochtitlan and the culture and religion of the Aztecs, it can be seen how drastically the Spaniards changed these aspects.

The Aztec Empire was composed of many small conquered states and city states. The Aztec religion was closely tied with the government and it was the driving force that led to the Aztec expansion and conquering of neighbouring states. “The Aztec Empire, was really a mosaic of smaller principalities that had been subdued and forced to pay tribute.” # The Aztec government was a theocracy and religion played a big part in the daily lives of the Aztecs. Closely related to the religion, the capital Tenochtitlan was built based on 4 religious directions with the heart of the city housing the leader, nobles and the temple where all sacrificial ceremonies were held. The Aztec culture, religion and city structure were all closely tied together to provide the Aztec people a unique identity. The capital of the Aztec Empire was a city called Tenochtitlan and it was located in current day mexico city . The capital was a carefully planned city. #The aztecs had used sophisticated methods of architect with big buildings, wide bridges connecting Tenochtitlan and a double water pipeline.Tenochtitlan was an artificial island built off the shore of lake Texcoco and was expanded until “it covered more than five square miles.” # The Aztecs had a well developed transportation system to connect different parts of the island with each other.

The Aztecs constructed “ six major canals [that] ran through the metropolis, with many smaller ones crisscrossing the entire city, making it possible to travel virtually anywhere by boat.” # This one city housed thousands of people.“Scholars estimate that between 200,000 and 250,000 people lived in Tenochtitlan in 1500.” # When the Spanish first arrived in Tenochtitlan they were mesmerized by the architecture and buildings. Bernal Diaz, conquistador, wrote about the awe of Tenochtitlan stating when they ( him and his men) “ saw so many cities built both on water and on dry land” with straight causeways, high towers , cues and other buildings. # They had never seen anything like Tenochtitlan in all their voyages. These people seemed like savages yet they were capable of constructing such a complex city. There was a balance between urban areas and farmland. The entire city was built based on the 4 religious directions. Unfortunately their awe did not stop the Spanish Conquistadors from severely damaging the city. As the Spanish fought to control Tenochtitlan chaos spread in the city and the Aztecs tried to defend their beloved city.

Majority of the population was killed due to smallpox and others in direct combat with the Spaniards.“Smallpox and other epidemics spread throughout the countryside, subsided and recurred, subsided and recurred, until, eventually, of a total population of perhaps 25 million, as many as 22 million died.” # The Aztecs had a balance between farmland and urban areas, enough resources to provide basic food for the people. The Spanish altered this balance of resources and population. They changed the Aztec physical environment by cutting “ down huge quantities of timber for building material and fuel. Their plows cut more deeply into the earth than the Indian digging stick and their cattle and sheep cropped the land bare.” # Charles Gibson, author of The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule states that no changes in the relation of natural environment to human population could match the changes wrought by Spanish exploitation. # The farmers suffered as the Spanish controlled the irrigation system .“The Pre-Columbian city was totally destroyed during the siege of 1521 and the Spanish colonists founded their own capital, Mexico City, on the ruins”# Tenochtitlan was completely destroyed, changed from the glorious Aztec capital that it used to be.

There were many different motivations for the colonization of Tenochtitlan but one of the key aspects was the religious conversion of the Aztec people. Catholic expansion was closely related to the colonization of the new world as the Aztecs would becomes the subjects of the King of Spain and would have to accept not only the religion of their new king but also the Spanish Catholic way of life #. The Catholic and Aztec religion have very different sets of values and beliefs. Catholicism believes in the good and evil of all actions and that only Christ can save an individual after a sin has been committed. Whereas the Aztec religion was based on idols created by the priest and revolved around sacrifices to keep the universe in balance. Both religions also had different concepts of the afterlife and hell. The conquest stripped the Aztecs of their religion and forced Catholicism on them. The priest that used to be the involved in all aspects of life were deemed lower than commoners. “The abolition of the priestly caste destroyed the exceptional powers claimed by the chiefs. The substitution of the Christian hierarchy for the native priests proved a basic blow to all native social organization.” # The Aztec priests opposed the idea of this new religion and predicted a wrath from their gods but the Spanish crushed all revolts against Catholicism.

The Aztecs were treated as an inferior sub-human class regardless of their previous societal status. Even if a native converted to catholicism, he was not considered equal to the Spanish subjects. The Aztecs served as slaves to the Spanish and it was only in the 1600’s when the natives were considered equal to Spanish catholics in some regards. The Church regarded them as equals and accepted the responsibility for the religious salvation of their soul but even then they were assigned the inferior status of wards under guardianship. # The once respected nobles and priests lost all societal power and status as the conquest continued to change the basics of Aztec society. Aztec culture and societal traditions were also altered. One example is the Aztec family structure where the men had multiple wives but Catholicism only allowed for monogamy #. The Aztecs has a complex societal structure where everyone had a niche in society and any interference would severely affect the balance of the Cosmos. Each individual had their place in society and “ the social unit, the family and tribe, had been the vehicle and repository of destiny.” # However this societal structure of the Aztecs was also altered with the introduction of Catholicism. There was no prospect of Cosmic balance and individual actions effecting others in society.

“It was the freedom of the individual soul and not family solidarity which was paramount.”# in Catholicism, in a concept very different from the Aztec religion. All that was unique to the Aztec society was morphed into Catholicism and key aspects of the Aztec society ceased to exist. The Aztecs went from being feared warriors in a balanced society to being subjects of the Spanish Church living a lifestyle that was spanish and had no individuality or identity that separated them from the foreign Spaniards that had encroached their home. Today there are still reminders of the Aztec culture and traditions but even those artifacts European roots are evident. The native language , Nahuatl, has barely survived over the centuries, being extremely affected by the colonization and decrease in native population. And even what traces of the language remain have been altered by contact with the Spanish. # The Aztecs were very unique people and their identity was robbed by the Spanish conquest.

Today what society holds as one of its key values, freedom of expression, was lost when the Spanish forced their own religion, culture and traditions on the Aztecs. What remains of the Aztec culture today is just a shadow of what their society used to be before the conquest in 1519. It can be argued that the Aztecs received some benefits through the conquest but what they lost was much more than what they received in exchange. As Charles Gibson states, “ the spanish conquest destroyed the aztec nationalism.”# The Aztec people were powerful warriors and Tenochtitlan had a very big population compared to major cities of Spain and even though “ relatively few Spaniards ever were able to cross the ocean to the New World, they succeeded in impressing their culture on an enormously larger number of Amerindians.” The Aztecs may have seemed inhumane with their tradition of sacrifices but the Spanish conquest changed much more than a tradition, and that change of culture, traditions, societal structure and physical environment contributed to the endangerment of the existence of the Aztec people and what they used to be.


Davies, Nigel . The ancient kingdoms of Mexico. London: A. Lane, 1982.

Gibson, Charles. , The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule . Stanford, California : Stanford University Press , 1964

Karttunen, Frances.“ After the Conquest: The Survival of Indigenous Patterns of Life and Beliefs,” Journal Of World History, Vol. 3, No. 2 ( Fall 1992), 239-259

Lamb, Ursula. “ Religious Conflicts in the Conquest of Mexico,” Journal of History Ideas Vol. 17, No. 4 (Oct., 1956), 526-539

Mee, Charles L. Jr. “That fateful moment when two civilizations came face to face ,” Smithsonian 23.7 (Oct. 1992) 56

Pohl, John M.D “The Pre-Columbian city was totally destroyed during the siege of 1521 and the Spanish colonists founded their own capital, Mexico City, on the ruins”. History Today 52.12 (Dec. 2002) 10

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