Of the various ancient civilizations in the entire world, the Aztecs are one of the most fascinating yet disturbing ones out there. Though they may have come after the Mayans, who lived further south along with the Incan Empire, Aztec culture is still unique in of itself much like the Romans in relation to the Ancient Greeks. For instance, the Aztecs’ system of government was centralized and class-based unlike the Mayans which consisted of city-states that were run almost separately from one another with a unifying religion. While the Aztecs also had a unified religion, they did have a lot of similar deities and religious practices to the Mayans.
Some examples include Quetzalcoatl, one of the most well-known deities from both the Aztec and Mayan mythologies, and the aspect of sacrifice in their religion. To them, it was a necessity to appease their gods in order to ensure things like good harvests and success in wars with neighboring groups that weren’t willing to pay tribute to them. But from the perspective of outsiders, such as the Spaniards who conquered the regions of Central and South America where these groups thrived, it was viewed as barbaric. Regardless of how one feels, here are some discoveries made about the Aztecs that are interesting but also unsettling.
25 Cuicuilco - Possible Inspiration for Teotihuacan Pyramids
Existing around the same time as Teotihuacan, Cuicuilco was another ancient city that thrived. Unfortunately, this one met a sudden end as a volcano erupted near it. As a result, “The scattered survivors fled out into the wilderness in search of a new home” Listverse says and eventually “They made their way to Teotihuacan”. At the time, Teotihuacan was just starting to grow in size which only doubled once the refugees from Cuicuilco arrived. There’s also a possibility that the distinct pyramids of Teotihuacan may have been “Built to imitate the volcano” historian Esther Pasztory claims as quoted on Listverse.
24 Teotihuacan - Unknown Founders
Located near Mexico City, this ancient city has a complex and mysterious history behind it. According to Listverse, “It had stood for 1,000 years before the Aztecs and 500 years before the Maya ever came to Mexico”. To this day, no one really knows the people who actually founded this place. What we do know, though, is the reason behind its foundation. Back in 400 BC, Teotihuacan was nothing more than a cave which was believed to be “A holy spot” Listverse says. So the city’s original inhabitants built a temple over this cave, followed by other settlements and buildings.
23 Pyramid of the Sun - Home of Buried Secrets
As the animal remains seem to indicate, the people of Teotihuacan practiced religious sacrifices in their temples. However, this may not apply to all of them such as the Temple of the Sun. Originally “Built over the sacred cave that started the city,” according to Listverse, it was “The place they believed the Sun was born”. So the Temple of the Sun was very important in the Teotihuacanos’ religion, yet archeologists aren’t really sure what kind of rituals were performed in there. The only clue is jade masks, like the one in the above picture, found in the elites' homes.
22 Masks - A Special Fate
Much like the jade masks worn by the elite in Teotihuacan, it would seem Tenochtitlan had its own equivalent in the form of skull masks like the one above. Discovered in a temple “Over three decades ago,” Forbes states, no one’s been able to give a definite answer in regard to their purpose or where they came from. That is, until recently. In 2016, several anthropologists carefully examined the skulls in order to determine their origin as well as how they were made. What they determined was they were possibly from “Slain warriors and other elite members” according to Forbes.
21 Sealed Tunnels - Right Underneath the Temples
Once the digital map was finished, Gómez and his team found an entrance to the underground tunnel they found beneath the Temple of the Plumed Serpent which seemed to be “Intentionally sealed with large boulders nearly 2,000 years ago” as stated by Forbes. Not long after this discovery, they dug through the entrance and made their way further into the tunnel with help from two robots called Tlaloque (as mentioned earlier) and its matching counterpart Tláloc II. What they uncovered was an entire chamber full of various objects that were “Deposited deliberately and pointedly, as if in offering” Forbes describes.
20 Templo Mayor - The Center of Tenochtitlan
Though the Aztecs may have taken over the city of Teotihuacan after its original inhabitants disappeared, it was just one of many cities they controlled at the height of their empire. Their capital, though, was Tenochtitlan which stood “On an island in the Valley of Mexico” according to Forbes. Like Teotihuacan, this place also had its fair share of temples built though the most important one was Templo Mayor. Here, they worshipped “Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and the sun” Forbes states. Thus, the Templo Mayor served the same purpose as the Temple of the Plumed Serpent in Teotihuacan.
19 Mexico City - Has Aztec Temples Reused as Cathedrals
Following the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, they naturally occupied many of their cities and built on top of them with structures of their own such as cathedrals. Yet there’s considerable evidence that the Spanish reused Aztec temples for their cathedrals, as exemplified by the discovery of a tomb within “The first cathedral of Mexico City” built on “The stucco floor of what appears to have been an Aztec temple” according to The Washington Post. Having occurred three years ago, this discovery does make one wonder whether the Spanish reused Aztec temples for symbolic or practical reasons or possibly both.
18 Teposcolula-Jucunda - The Tell-Tale Teeth
In the southwestern region of Mexico near the coast lies the village of Teposcolula-Yucundaa. Once occupied by Mixtecs, it dates back to the Sixteenth century according to Archeology Magazine. Though it doesn’t offer much in terms of artifacts, it’s become an important site for archaeologists due to the remains that have been found here. Following careful analysis of the teeth inside the skeletons, the investigating archeologists discovered 10 of them were carrying a particular disease. According to National Post, “Their hypothesis is the disease was introduced to the indigenous population by European contact, but the finding is not conclusive”.
17 Veracruz - Where Ceramics Came From
Like most of the empires that have existed in the history of mankind, the Aztecs expanded their influence through a mixture of trade and conquering. Though sometimes, the two would go hand-in-hand. So if another group submitted to the Aztec Empire either willingly or by force, they had to give away something valuable in order to stay in the Aztecs’ good graces. Such was the case for native groups living in the region that would become Veracruz, whose uniquely designed ceramics became part of “Several heavily trafficked trade routes” leading to the city of Teotihuacan the Smithsonian says.
16 Turquoise - Traded between Mesoamerica and Southwest
Though it is typically associated with the Southwest region of the United States, turquoise was also cultivated in Mesoamerica. A general term used to describe Central and South America in ancient times, Mesoamerica’s inhabitants included the Aztec Empire who used turquoise to make a variety of things. But if the native people in Mesoamerica and the Southwest region of America were both using turquoise, then where did it originally come from? For years, archeologists pondered this question until last year when new evidence came up claiming “There was extensive contact” between the two regions according to The New York Times.
15 Pachuca - Home of Obsidian Quarries
Much like Veracruz, the region where the city of Pachuca currently exists was also conquered and taken advantage of by the Aztec Empire. But whereas the natives of Veracruz were mainly exploited for their crops while their ceramics were traded to places like Teotihuacan, the city of Pachuca's main draw was its obsidian quarries. Because the mineral is useful for crafting important tools such as arrowheads, it attracted not just the region’s original inhabitants but also the Aztec Empire who quickly set to work on exploiting the quarries to meet their increasing demands for materials. This continued even when the Spaniards took over.
14 Tlaloque - Inspired the Names for a Pair of Robots
While the above figure may look odd with its goggle-shaped eyes and enormous fangs, this was how the Rain God Tlaloc was portrayed. Seen as benevolent and destructive, he was one of the most important deities in Aztecs' pantheon. With that said, there have been similar deities which were also called "Tlaloc" causing considerable debate among archaeologists on whether they’re the same deity or not. Hence, these have been collectively called the “Tlaloque” which is the name for one of the two robots donated by “A university in Mexico City” according to the Smithsonian to assist in excavating Teotihuacan.
13 Codex Mendoza - Passed Through a Lot of Hands
Until the Spaniards arrived, the Aztecs mainly kept track of their history through a writing system that primarily consisted of pictures to represent different words and ideas much like the hieroglyphs in Ancient Egypt. But while many of these records were burned, a few have survived. One example is the Codex Mendoza, which was “An Aztec record of their history” according to Forbes magazine. Commissioned by a Spanish viceroy, this record passed through a variety of hands over the centuries after initially getting lost in an attack by the French out at sea. Eventually, it wound up at Oxford University.
12 Mayans Mixtecs and Zapotecs - All Lived in Teotihuacan
Given our modern sensibilities when it comes to refugees from other countries, let alone cities, how did people from ancient times handle such situations? Well, in the case of the refugees from Cuicuilco they were apparently allowed into Teotihuacan with no resistance whatsoever. This is further supported by evidence that, “Each part of the city seems to have been divided up into cultural areas” as stated by Listverse. Though the main groups that lived in Teotihuacan before the Aztecs showed up were: Mayans, Mixtecs, and Zapotecs. While Mixtecs specialized in goldsmithing, the Zapotecs were mainly known for their jewelry.
11 Aztecs - Inheritors of a Deserted City
While Teotihuacan’s founders were mysterious, so was their demise. Because “By the time the Aztecs had come to Mesoamerica and found Teotihuacan, the city was in ruins” Listverse states. On top of that, all the city’s original inhabitants were gone including those who had migrated there such as the Mayans Mixtecs and Zapotecs. Since then, a number of theories have been proposed regarding what happened. Of these, the one most archeologists seem to agree with is that there was an uprising by the city’s commoners (who were living in poverty compared to the elite) in wake of a bad drought.
10 Temple of the Moon - Full of Animals
Because Teotihuacan was originally a place where religious pilgrimages were taken, many sacred temples were built here by the city’s original inhabitants which are now called Teotihuacanos according to the Smithsonian. Like the Mayans and the Aztecs, their influence expanded beyond just Teotihuacan as they did establish trade with places like Veracruz before the Aztec Empire took it over many years later. They also practiced a similar religion to these other groups which included practices that are seen as controversial. For instance, wild animal remains were found underneath the Temple of the Moon, one of the larger pyramids in Teotihuacan.
9 Temple of the Plumed Serpent - Dedicated to War
While the rituals performed inside the Temple of the Sun may be uncertain, except that the city’s wealthiest members went in wearing jade masks, there’s no debate about what happened inside the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. Distinguished from the other pyramids with sculptured heads like the kind shown above, this place was “Dedicated to the celebration of war” Listverse states. Thus, it is implied the Teotihuacanos may have gotten into conflicts with neighboring groups who refused to submit to them. This is further indicated by pits near the temple being full of “People from other cities” according to Listverse.
8 The Ciudadela - Connects to a Series of Tunnels
Apart from the temples themselves, further secrets to Teotihuacan have been uncovered in unexpected places. For instance, “A narrow tunnel” was found “Underneath the Temple of the Sun” according to Forbes which was revealed in 2003 during severe storms. So an archaeologist named Sergio Gómez theorized the possibility of a similar tunnel underneath the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. After doing a digital map of the Ciudadela courtyard where the temple’s located, he discovered there was indeed an underground tunnel that, “Ran approximately 330 feet from the Ciudadela to the center of the Temple of the Plumed Serpent” Forbes states.
7 Quetzalcoatl - The Aztecs’ Version of the Plumed Serpent
As mentioned previously, the deity known as Quetzalcoatl shows up in several different pantheons in Mesoamerica. Yet his origins may date back to Teotihuacan, which worshipped a figure called the Feathered Serpent. Associated with the renewal of vegetation and war, hence the Temple of the Plumed Serpent, some of these same features appear in Quetzalcoatl who is depicted as a dragon-like being that transcends physical boundaries. Thus, “It’s believed that the Aztecs took their religion from the beliefs left behind in Teotihuacan” Listverse says. Again, this is no different from the Romans borrowing mythological elements from the Ancient Greeks.
6 Pozole - Comes with a Special Ingredient
An ancient dish from before the Spaniards arrived, this was eaten by various native groups in Mexico including the Aztecs. Consisting of cooked corn and broth that comes in different colors depending on the type of salsa and meats used, it also comes with different garnishes. According to Surviving Mexico, there was even a ceremonial version of this soup that was made for “The highest level priests and the emperor” in the days of the Aztec Empire. Now the reason this particular type of Pozole was special was the inclusion of meat from what was left of the religious sacrifices.
5 Ceramic Braziers - Have a Heart
Though the brazier in the above picture may seem ordinary, albeit uniquely decorated, it was an important tool used in the rituals that the Aztec priests performed. This even includes rituals that required a sacrifice, such as the New Fire Ceremony. Like the Mayans, the Aztecs also had a calendar of their own called the Aztec Solar Year or Xiuhmolpilli according to Ancient History Encyclopedia. On the 52nd year in November after one Solar Year was when the New Fire Ceremony would be performed, which required any form of light to be extinguished apart from the remains of the sacrifice.
4 Tzompantli - Racks of Skulls
If it wasn’t enough that the Aztecs performed certain sacrificial rituals to serve different religious purposes, or buried their slain enemies in massive pits next to their temples, they also had Tzompantli on display. Essentially, these were wooden racks containing skulls from those who were either sacrificed or slain after being captured in a war-related situation. Though this was not just practiced by the Aztecs, as Tzompantli are present at “Templo Mayor and beyond” according to Forbes. There’s even artistic representations of Tzompantli as seen in the above picture with its cement skulls arranged in a rack-like fashion.
3 Cocoliztli - Epidemic of the Aztecs
While the Spanish may have had superior technology over the natives of Mesoamerica, the main reason they conquered the region so effectively was something they introduced: Old World diseases. Just like the natives of North America, the Aztecs Mayans and others couldn’t handle these infections they weren’t familiar with physically and thus perished as a result. But one of the worse ones they had to deal with was known as “Cocoliztli” or “Great pestilence” in the Aztecs’ native language Nahuatl according to Archeology Magazine. However, archeologists haven’t been able to identify exactly what Cocoliztli is despite recent studies on it.
2 Chinampa - Harvesting Crops on a Lake
In the area of what would eventually become the country of Mexico, there is a valley that contains multiple lakes. Though most of them don’t exist anymore due to significant evaporation and urban development, there’s still enough water in some of these lakes for agriculture to be done through Chinampas. Dating back to before the Aztecs, though they were the ones who used it for mass production, a Chinampa is a technique that allows one to harvest foods like “Beans, avocados, peppers and squash on fields raised in the middle of shallow lakes and swampland” according to the Smithsonian magazine.
1 Extremely grateful: Cacao - Origin of Coffee and chocolate
For those who’ve ever wondered where coffee comes from, look no further than South America. At its root, coffee is essentially made up of dry cocoa beans that are grounded into powder and soaked in hot water. Now where do cocoa beans come from? They’re harvested from the plant in the above picture which is known as the Cacao/Cocoa Tree with the beans being nothing more than its dried up seeds. But what’s really interesting is that these beans were used to make beverages that are similar to coffee thousands of years ago as far back as the Mayans. This bean gave us both coffee and chocolate, and for that, we are grateful!
Resources: listverse.com, smithsonianmag.com, forbes.com, washingtonpost.com, survivingmexico.com, nytimes.com, nationalpost.com, ancient.eu, archaeology.org