The Collapse Of The Aztecs
In 1521 a small force of Spanish soldiers, along with their native American allies, overthrew the vast empire of the Aztecs in central Mexico. The collapse of the Aztec Empire has often been viewed as the opening chapter in the rise of Europeans on the world stage. However, the victory of the Spanish in central Mexico was not typical of the European encounters with civilized peoples in the 16th century. Indeed the victory of Spanish arms may have had less to do with Spanish power and technology than with the weakness of the Aztecs themselves.
The pre-Colombian (before Colombus "discovered" America) governments of Mexico ranged from simple tribal systems to complicated empires like the Aztecs. Likewise, the societies of pre-Colombian Mexico varied from simple extended-family groups to large civilizations rivaling their contemporaries (civilizations existing at the same time) around the world. The Aztecs originally came from either northern Mexico or from what is now Arizona or New Mexico. After a long period of wandering the Aztec people saw an eagle on a cactus with a snake in its mouth. They saw this in the middle of Lake Texcoco. This was the sign that the vision of Huitzilopochtli had told them to look for. It meant that their many years of wandering were over and it was time for the Aztec empire to rise. So, the Aztec began to construct their new capital city of Tenochtitlán in the center of Lake Texcoco.
As it developed in and around Tenochtitlán, Aztec society became more rigidly divided into social classes. Political power and control over the land came to rest in the hands of a few ruling families. Most of the people were farmers. Although the aristocrats (nobles), priests, and rulers could not have survived without the common people, the common people had little to say about just what the Aztec empire would do or even what their lives would be like. Indeed, by 1519 the farmers had declined in status to the level of serfs in medieval Europe. This meant that most people in Aztec society did not own land; instead, they worked land owned by the upper class. Commoners were unable to act without the permission of the land owner and, in fact, did not even own what they produced. Instead, the land owners took most of what the commoners produced for themselves and left only enough for the commoners to survive.
When Hernán Cortés and his men entered Mexico it was almost as if they had stepped back in time to ancient Egypt. In technological terms, the people of Mexico were in the earliest stages of the Bronze Age. Although artisans knew how to use gold, silver, and copper, these metals were used only for ornaments. All tools were made of stone, wood, and bone. By the 16th century, the Mexican peoples had developed sophisticated agricultural technology which included canals for irrigation and advanced planting techniques. Still, the Aztec had only a few domesticated (tamed) animals, including dogs, turkeys, and bees. There were no horses in the Americas, and the people of Mexico had no other beast of burden (animal used to till fields, carry loads, etc.). While the Aztecs, and their predecessors (people who came before them) in Central America, had constructed brilliant and complex civilizations, they had done so with virtually no mechanical help. The Aztecs did not use the wheel for transportation. They had no labor-saving devices such as cranes, watermills, windmills, or pulleys. They generally relied on human muscle power to do work and to transport people and goods. This, in a way, makes their achievements even more impressive.
The Aztec Empire
The Aztec Empire covered much of central Mexico. Around 1400 AD, the Aztecs began to conquer the peoples around them. The Aztec would make alliances (agreements to work together) with weak neighbors against powerful enemies....
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