THE discovery of America placed the European nations in contact with three major civilizations, the Aztec in the Mexican plateau, the Maya in the Yucatan peninsula, and the Inca in the Peruvian Andes. The Mayas had been settled for centuries in the same area and developed a civilization with high cultural manifestations, whereas the Aztecs and Incas, inspite of their political power and strong resistance to the Spanish conquest, were actually cultural parvenues among pre-Columbian people.
The Aztecs were the most powerful among Mexican nations at the time of Cortés’s arrival, and after a long migration from the north, they had settled in Chapultepec— on the shores of the Lake of Texcoco—around AiX 1267. Historical sources make it possible totrace the evolution of the Aztecs before the European arrival; nevertheless the field of Mexican archaeology is expanding considerably and many ideas are still sufficiently fluid to be subject to correction, as Krickeberg (1961) has pointed out. On the other hand, there is at present a much more critical attitude in the study of American archaeology and its medical aspects.
AZTEC ARCHAEOLOGYThe earliest Mexican civilization to leave traces in the central plateau around 955 B.C. was the Olinec. However, most of the Aztec cultural achievements were inherited from the Toltecs who arrived at Colhuacan in AD. 908 and founded their capital Tula in 977. The Toltecs left a deep impression not only on other Nahuatls peaking tribes but even on the Maya territories which they invaded around999. The Toltecs were remarkable for city planning, a solid architecture with use of caryatids; the introduction of bow and arrow for hunting and combat; the adaptation of nets for individual transport of goods in the absence of beasts of burden; the beg inning of copper metallurgy and a variety of other contributions, from the ring used in the Mexican ball game to the warriors’ fraternities. TheToltecs were overrun in the Valley of Mexico about A.D. 1172 by the more nomadic and aggressive Chichimecs, and it was after that date that a number of Mexican tribes around the Texcoco Lake, each representing the original migrating stocks, increased their cultural intercourse.
The Aztec legends assert that their people came from a mythical place, Aztlan, or, like other Nahuatl-speaking tribes,from the seven caves in the north, Chicomoztoc. Only after a migration lasting ninety-nine years were the Aztecs able to reach, in 1267, the Lake of Texcoco; however, it was not until 1325 that their capital Tenochtitlan was built, known after the Spanish conquest as Mexico City. The Aztecs remained all those years subject to the Atzcapozalco tribe until their city Tenochtitlan joined in a leaguewith the nearby cities of Texcoco of Chichimec and Tiacopan of Acoihuac stock, obtaining their independence under the leadership of Iztcoatl in 1427. After the death of their leader in 1440, the Aztecs elected King Moctezuma I, a monarch who should not be confused with Emperor Moctezuma II, elected in 1503, and who died during the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519. Excellent monographs on the Aztecshave been published by Caso (1959) Vaillant (1947) and Soustelle (1961).
The Aztec area in the Valley of Mexico combined the semi-arid lands of the high plateau surrounded by volcanoes and exposed to extreme variations in temperature, with the agricultural lowlands of the lake shores. Their land was divided in hereditary tribal lots calpulli, and the cultivation surface was enlarged by floatingin the lake artificial plots or chinampas. Beasts of burden and the plough were unknown, a long wooden stick coa was used instead for breaking the ground and planting; burning the brush was also used to clear the ground for the milpa. Their economy was based on the agriculture of temperate climates supplemented by the produce of tropical lowlands such as cotton cloth, feather, gold, cocoa...