Friday, March 2, 2012

Who Were the Aztecs?


The Mexicans, or Aztecs, subjugated by Cortez, were themselves invaders, whose extended dominion was probably less than two hundred and fifty years old, although they had been much longer in the Valley of Mexico. There were important portions of the country, especially at the south, to which their rule had not been extended. In several districts besides those of the Mayas and the Quichés the natives still maintained independent governments. The Aztec conquest of the central region, between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, was completed only a few years previous to the arrival of the Spaniards, and the conquest of this region had not been fully secured at some points, as appeared in the readiness of the Tlascalans and others to act in alliance with Cortez. But the Aztecs did not come from abroad. They belonged in the country, and seem to have been originally an obscure and somewhat rude branch of the native race.
It is very probable that the Colhuas and Nahuas or Toltecs of the old books and traditions, together with the Aztecs, were all substantially the same people. They established in the country three distinct family groups of language, it is said, but the actual significance of this difference in speech has not been clearly determined. These unlike groups of language have not been sufficiently analyzed and studied to justify us in assuming that they did not all come from the same original source, or that there is a more radical difference between them than between the Sclavonic, Teutonic, and Scandinavian groups in Europe. These ancient Americans were distinct from each other at the time of the Conquest, but not so distinct as to show much difference in their religious ideas, their mythology, their ceremonies of worship, their methods of building, or in the general character of their civilization.
If the Toltecs and our Mound-Builders were the same people, they probably went from Mexico and Central America to the Valley of the Mississippi at a very remote period, as Colhuan colonies, and after a long residence there returned so much changed in speech and in other respects as to seem a distinct people. The Aztecs appear to have dwelt obscurely in the south before they rose to power. They must have been at first much less advanced in civilization than their predecessors, but ready to adopt the superior knowledge and methods of the country they invaded.


It has sometimes been assumed that the Aztecs came to Mexico from the north, but there is nothing to warrant this assumption, nothing to make it probable, nothing even to explain the fact that some persons have entertained it. People of the ancient Mexican and Central American race are not found farther north than New Mexico and Arizona, where they are known as Pueblos,[218] or Village Indians. In the old times that was a frontier region, and the Pueblos seem to represent ancient settlers who went there from the south. There was the border line between the Mexican race and the wild Indians, and the distinction between the Pueblos and the savage tribes is every way so uniform and so great that it is well-nigh impossible to believe they all belong to the same race. In fact, no people really like our wild Indians of North America have ever been found in Mexico, Central America, or South America.
Investigation has made it probable that the Mexicans or Aztecs went to the Valley of Mexico from the south. Mr. Squier says: “The hypothesis of a migration from Nicaragua and Cuscutlan to Anahuac is altogether more consonant with probabilities and with tradition than that which derives the Mexicans from the north; and it is a significant fact, that in the map of their migrations presented by Gemelli, the place of the origin of the Aztecs is designated by the sign of water (atl standing for Aztlan), a pyramidal temple with grades, and near these a palm-tree.” Humboldt thought this indicated a southern origin.
Communities of Aztecs still exist as far south as Nicaragua and Costa Rica, with some variations in their speech, but not so great, probably, as to make them unintelligible to each other. The Spanish historian, Oviedo, called attention to the fact that an isolated community of Aztecs was found occupying the territory between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific. They were called Niquirans, and Mr. Squier seems to have verified this[219] fact. The result of his investigation is that the people of the district specified are Aztecs, and that, “from the comparative lateness of the separation or some other cause,” their distinguishing features were easily recognized, their speech being nearly identical with the native speech heard in the Valley of Mexico. Oviedo said of them: “The Niquirans who speak the Mexican language have the same manners and appearance as the people of New Spain (Mexico).” In the neighboring districts, communities closely related to the Mayas are found, and others that appear to belong to the Toltec family. Aztecs are found still farther south, and there appear to be conclusive reasons for believing that Montezuma’s people went from the south to Anahuac or Mexico.
According to the native histories as reported by Clavigero, the Aztecs began their migration northward from Aztlan about the year 1160 A.D., and founded the more important of their first settlements in the Valley of Mexico about the year 1216 A.D., a little over three hundred years previous to the Spanish invasion. Another result of investigation adds a century to this estimate. This result is reached as follows: the Mexicans stated constantly that their calendar was reformed some time after they left Aztlan, and that in the year 1519 eight cycles of fifty-two years each and thirteen years of a ninth cycle had passed since that reform was made. This carries back the beginning of their migration considerably beyond the year 1090 A.D.
Their sway seems to have been confined for a long time to Anahuac. They grew to supremacy in part prob[220]ably by the arrival of new immigrants, but chiefly by conquest of the small states into which the country was divided. They could learn from their more cultivated neighbors to reform their calendar, compute time with greater accuracy, and make important improvements in other respects. They must also have modified their religious system to some extent, for it does not appear that they had adopted the worship of Kukulcan (whose name they transformed into Quetzalcohuatl) before they came to Mexico. But they brought with them an effective political organization, and very likely they were better fitted than most of their new neighbors for the rude work of war.
Before the city of Mexico was built, the seat of their government was at Tezcuco. The character of their civilization after they rose to pre-eminence was shown in their organization, in their skill as builders, in the varied forms of their industry, and in the development of their religious ceremonies. It is manifest that they adopted all the astronomical knowledge and appliances found in the neighboring states which they subjugated. Their measure of the solar year and their numbering of the months were precisely like what had long existed in this part of the country; and they had the same astronomical implements or contrivances. One of these contrivances, found at Chapultepec, is described as follows:
“On the horizontal plane of a large, carefully-worked stone, three arrows were cut in relief, so that the shaft ends came together and made equal angles in the centre. The points were directed eastward, the two outside show[221]ing the two solstitial points, and that in the centre the equinoctial. A line on the carved band holding them together was in range with holes in two stones which stood exactly north and south. A cord drawn tightly through the holes in these two stones would, at the moment of noon, cast its shadow on the line drawn across the band. It was a perfect instrument for ascertaining east and west with precision, and for determining the exact time by the rising and setting of the sun at the equinoxes and solstices. This stone has now been broken up and used to construct a furnace.”
These Aztecs were manifestly something very different from “Mexican savages.” At the same time, they were less advanced in many things than their predecessors. Their skill in architecture and architectural ornamentation did not enable them to build such cities as Mitla and Palenque, and their “picture writing” was a much ruder form of the graphic art than the phonetic system of the Mayas and Quichés. It does not appear that they ever went so far in literary improvement as to adopt this simpler and more complete system for any purpose whatever. If the country had never, in the previous ages, felt the influence of a higher culture than that of the Aztecs, it would not have now, and never could have had, ruined cities like Mitla, Copan, and Palenque. Not only was the system of writing shown by the countless inscriptions quite beyond the attainments of Aztec art, but also the abundant sculptures and the whole system of decoration found in the old ruins.