For ages, the mysterious Aztecs have captured the curiosity and fascination of people worldwide. Also known as the Mexica, they built a flourishing society that thrived in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Their hunger for dominance drove them to conquer rivals and forge strategic alliances, expanding their empire across a large part of Mexico. In fact, the very name “Aztec” means “someone who comes from an unknown location in Mexico.”
Are you intrigued by the ancient civilization and its impact on the modern-day country of Mexico? These interesting facts about Aztecs will give you a glimpse into their fascinating lives.
19 Interesting Facts About Aztecs
Without any further ado, let’s dive into 19 interesting Aztec facts you might not know.
1. The Aztec Empire Only Lasted Around 200 Years
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The Aztec Empire had a relatively short but impactful run. It was established in the 1300s and showed great promise, but its destiny quickly took a turn. In 1519, the Spanish conquistadors entered the region, marking the beginning of the end for the Aztec empire. By 1521, their empire had collapsed.
Although their reign was brief, the Aztecs left a lasting legacy in Mesoamerican history. They quickly rose to become one of the greatest civilizations of their time, leaving a lasting mark on Mexican culture. Their achievements in art, architecture, agriculture, and religious practices continue to influence modern-day Mexico.
2. More Aztecs Died From Disease Than War
The Aztec Empire faced a devastating enemy that proved deadlier than the conquistadors: disease. While the Spanish invaders had military advantages, introducing diseases such as mumps, measles, and smallpox had the most catastrophic impact on the Mexica population.
The Mexica had no immunity to these foreign diseases, and the lack of natural defenses made them incredibly vulnerable. The epidemics spread rapidly, causing widespread death and suffering. Historians estimate that within five years of the invasion, over 20 million people succumbed to these illnesses.
The loss of such a significant portion of the population weakened the Aztec civilization, making it easier for the Spanish to conquer them ultimately.
3. The Empire’s Capital Became Mexico City
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The Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlan, was a remarkable and grand metropolis. It boasted an estimated population of between 200,000 and 300,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the world during its time.
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Tenochtitlan, they couldn’t believe what they saw. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of the conquistadores, described their disbelief, stating that some soldiers questioned whether what they saw was a dream.
The city left a lasting impression on the Spanish invaders with its impressive architecture, bustling markets, and intricate canal system.
Present-day Mexico City was built on the same grounds where the ancient capital of Tenochtitlan once stood. It is a remarkable reminder of the grandeur and cultural heritage that once thrived in the heart of Mexico.
4. The Mexican Flag Is Inspired by the Aztecs
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The choice of the location for Tenochtitlan was guided by a specific method rooted in Aztec mythology. According to legend, the wandering Mexica people were instructed by their gods to settle in a place where they would find an eagle perched on a cactus plant, devouring a snake.
The Mexica people searched for this sacred symbol and eventually discovered it on a small island in Lake Texcoco. They settled there and founded Tenochtitlan, which would later become one of the most influential cities in Mesoamerica.
The significance of this legend is reflected in the coat of arms on the modern Mexican flag. The national flag features an eagle perched on a cactus, gripping a snake in its beak, as a homage to the Aztec belief and their connection to their ancestral land.
5. The Aztecs Worshiped Many Gods
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Aztec religion believed in a complex network of gods and goddesses, each possessing distinct domains and attributes. These gods represented various natural elements, forces, and aspects of life.
The main deity was Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and war and considered the Aztec people’s protector. Other important gods included Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent associated with wisdom and creation, and Tlaloc, the rain god who brought fertility to the land.
You might enjoy my article on interesting facts about Zeus.
6. Human Sacrifice Was Part of Their Religious Beliefs
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Human sacrifice played a significant role in the religious practices of the Aztecs. They believed that sacrificing captives from warfare was necessary to keep the world balanced and ensure everything ran smoothly. According to their worldview, the gods created the universe, and performing rituals and sacrifices was their way of pleasing these powerful beings.
While human sacrifice was a common practice in the region, the exact extent of its prevalence among the Aztecs is still uncertain. The Spanish accounts from that time tend to exaggerate the numbers and details of these sacrifices.
7. The Aztecs Discovered Chocolate
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Did you know that we have the Aztecs to thank for introducing chocolate to the world? Chocolate, known as xocolatl, was seen as a sacred gift from Quetzalcoatl, their god of wisdom.
The Aztecs used chocolate in religious rituals, as a refreshing beverage, as an aphrodisiac, and even in preparation for war. They prepared chocolate by crushing cacao seeds and mixing them with spices to create a frothy, bitter drink. This beverage was enjoyed mainly by the upper class, although the lower classes would savor it on special occasions like weddings.
8. The Aztecs Had a National Sport
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The Aztecs had a unique and intense national sport called ullamaliztli. It involved a 16-pound rubber ball and required players to pass the ball using only their torso, with no hands or feet allowed. The objective was to smash the ball through a small stone ring without letting it touch the ground.
The game was challenging, but there were significant stakes for the players. In fact, some evidence suggests that if a team lost the game, their captain would often be beheaded.
9. They Made Unusual Fashion Statements
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The Aztecs had a unique sense of style that spoke volumes about who they were. Their clothes, jewelry, and body art were a means of self-expression and displaying social status.
Aztec warriors stood out on the battlefield with their striking apparel. They wore headdresses decorated with feathers from various birds, representing their achievements and rank. High-ranking warriors wore special attire, such as jaguar pelts and fierce feline-themed helmets or eagle feathers, symbolizing bravery and a connection to the divine.
Tattoos and body painting were also incredibly popular among the Aztecs. They used natural pigments to create intricate designs on their bodies, visualizing their social status, accomplishments, and religious beliefs.
10. Their Strange Style Extended to Their Teeth
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The Aztecs had a rather unconventional approach to dental aesthetics that may raise a few eyebrows in modern times. One of their unique dental customs involved filing down their teeth to create a distinct, pointy shape. They also decorated their teeth with exquisite stones such as jade or turquoise.
To add even more flair, women would stain a vibrant red tooth using dye extracted from the cochineal beetle. While these dental practices may seem peculiar today, for the Aztecs, they represented a symbol of beauty and indicated high social status.
11. The Aztecs Were Skilled Engineers
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The Aztecs were renowned for their engineering and ability to construct impressive structures. They built temples and pyramids that served as religious and ceremonial centers. The most famous is the Templo Mayor, a massive temple complex in the heart of Tenochtitlan.
They also constructed aqueducts and canals to manage water resources and control floods. These water management systems allowed for efficient agricultural production and ensured a stable water supply for the empire.
12. They Were the First To Celebrate the Day of the Dead
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The Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, has roots that stretch back hundreds of years to the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican civilizations. The Aztecs held complex beliefs about death and the afterlife, greatly influencing the traditions we see today during the Day of the Dead festivities.
The Aztecs had specific rituals and ceremonies to honor the departed and believed they would return to visit during certain times of the year. They created altars decorated with offerings like food, drinks, flowers, and personal items, warmly welcoming the spirits of their loved ones.
13. Nahuatl Is Their Official Language
The Aztecs had their own official language called Nahuatl, which dates back to the 7th century. The Nahuatl language is highly expressive and has a complex grammatical structure. It utilizes agglutination, meaning words are formed by adding prefixes and suffixes to a base root.
Today, Nahuatl is still spoken by around three million people in rural areas of Mexico, although the modern form differs from Classic Nahuatl. Interestingly, many Nahuatl words were borrowed by the Spanish and later absorbed into English, including familiar terms like chili, avocado, chocolate, coyote, and guacamole.
14. They Had Their Own Alphabet
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The Aztecs had their own unique alphabet known as Nahuatl writing, which is believed to have been derived from the Zapotec alphabet. Unlike the Roman alphabet, Nahuatl writing did not have letters for sounds or syllables. Instead, it used pictograms to represent words and concepts.
Unfortunately, due to the destructive impact of the Spanish Conquest, only a limited amount of Nahuatl materials survived. The conquistadors intentionally destroyed government records and written documents as part of their efforts to “civilize” the Aztec population.
15. The Aztecs Were Excellent Farmers
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The Aztecs highly valued agriculture, and they excelled in this field. They cultivated various crops, including maize, beans, squashes, potatoes, tomatoes, and avocados.
The Aztecs implemented advanced agricultural practices, such as the creation of chinampas, floating gardens made by constructing artificial islands. These chinampas allowed them to grow crops on lakes and other bodies of water. Their innovative farming techniques showcased their knowledge of agricultural science and engineering, and their descendants still use chinampas.
16. The Aztecs Didn’t Know About Horses Before the Spanish Conquest
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When the Spanish arrived in the Aztec Empire, they brought something truly remarkable with them: horses. These majestic creatures had never been seen before by the Aztecs or other native tribes in the region.
According to the chronicles of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, an eyewitness to the conquest, the Aztecs were initially bewildered by the sight of Spaniards on horses. They mistook the horse and rider as a single being, believing they saw mythical centaurs.
The sudden appearance of these horses evoked a mixture of astonishment and fear among the Aztecs. The Spanish exploited the panic caused by the horses and used mounted cavalry to their advantage in warfare.
17. The Aztecs Practiced Polygamy
Polygamy was a common practice among the Aztecs, and it held a significant role in their society. Having multiple wives was considered a status symbol, demonstrating a man’s wealth, power, and ability to support a larger household.
While some regulations were surrounding polygamous marriages, such as only celebrating the first wedding publicly, the Aztecs recognized the advantages of having multiple spouses. With each wife came additional resources like land, property, and alliances, further contributing to their wealth and social standing.
18. The Aztecs Introduced Compulsory Schooling
Education was highly valued in Aztec society. They believed that every child, regardless of their social status, deserved a chance to learn and grow. That’s why they introduced compulsory schooling, ensuring every child received an education, whether they were nobles, commoners, or even enslaved.
Noble children attended specialized schools where they studied astronomy, philosophy, and history. Lower caste children focused on practical skills like warfare and trades. Girls’ education was primarily centered around home-care duties.
19. Astronomy Played a Big Role in Their Lives
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The Aztecs were skilled astronomers who studied the movements of celestial bodies and developed a complex calendar system based on their observations.
The planets, stars, sun, and moon movements held great significance in Aztec religious and agricultural practices. They could accurately predict eclipses, solstices, and other significant celestial events, which greatly influenced their rituals and ceremonies.