Good morning. Today I will be sharing my findings based on my investigation of the Aztec empire, a sophisticated society that dominated the central plateau of Mexico for over 1,500 years (Easton et. al,2017). With a focus on societal progress through engineering and agriculture, human sacrifice, warfare and the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan, I investigated the causes and consequences of change within this region. After background reading on the Aztec society, I drafted a hypothesis, which you can see up here:
(Change slide) The Aztecs were an advanced society that, to a high extent, instigated both internal change and experienced change from external forces. Societal progress was created through advancements in engineering and agricultural technologies, while the cultural tradition of human sacrifice was practiced to an unprecedented scale. Lastly, the Aztec Empire came to an end under the combined force of Spanish colonial subjugation and the diseases brought with them. All these factors played a role in bringing about tremendous change in the Aztec society.
(Change slide) After completing the research process, my thesis mostly remained the same as my original hypothesis, however more aspects of the inquiry were included.
(Change slide) The Aztecs faced an array of technical problems specific to their location (Saragoza, 2012). As shown behind me, I first approached this task by attempting to understand the agricultural and engineering advancements that generated societal progress. (Change slide) With a growing population and a capital city located in the middle of a lake, there existed three major issues that would require technological ingenuity: sanitation, fluctuating seasonal water levels, and a lack of land for agricultural production (Saragoza, 2012). The Aztecs were in dire need of sanitation and access to safe drinking water as the lake water was not always potable (Saragoza, 2012). (Change slide) To combat this, a combination of aqueducts, sewerage treatment, and physical structures were implemented (Saragoza, 2012). Two aqueducts served the city – one to bring water from outlying springs, and the other to act as an aquifer, excrement was collected by the labour force and used as manure, and water fluctuations were dealt with by a system of canals, sluices, and dykes (Saragoza, 2012). (Change slide) One of the most important agricultural innovations initiated by the Aztecs was the chinampa, a small, but relatively stable and highly fertile artificial plot of land created through mixing straw, mud, excrement, and wattle (Saragoza, 2012). In this way, the Aztecs were able to sustainably create land on which they could farm on and give employment to a massive workforce (Saragoza, 2012). These technological advancements managed sanitation which in turn prevented disease and created a productive and sustainable composting system (Saragoza, 2012).
(Change slide) For my first focus question, I relied heavily on a secondary lecture taught by Alex Saragoza, a specialist on Latin American history. As he is highly experienced in the field and his lectures are taught at a university level, it suggested to me that his work would be reliable and his perspective largely objective. I found that his conclusions were supported by primary sources from the Aztec era, as shown behind me. This primary source is an artist’s impression of the technology of the chinampas, suggesting that the Aztecs were indeed successful farmers, engineers, and instigators of internal change. I also found through my research that Aztec agriculture was so successful in supplying food to the population of Tenochtitlan that it created opportunities for trade. (Change slide) This is confirmed by another primary source – an account by Bernal Diaz de Castillo about the booming marketplace of Tenochtitlan, as shown behind me. In conclusion, advancements in technology helped to sustain the Aztec empire, and this system of highly intensive agriculture came to influence the growth of the Aztec economy.
(Change slide) In focus question 2 I aimed to understand the Aztec practice of ritual human sacrifice, as well as the potential consequences of it. I found that there were many attempts to explain the motives behind the practice from a religious, political or ecological standpoint, but for this speech, I will share the two most dominant perspectives – the religious and political motives. (Change slide) Firstly, many reputable scholars and writers agree that human sacrifice to the Aztecs was a deeply religious and spiritual practice upon which the Aztecs believed the continuity of the entire world depended on, based on their origin myths (Anawalt, 1982). They carried a heavy spiritual burden and believed the sun god Huitzilopochtli needed to be continually replenished with human blood to continue living (Anawalt, 1982). (Change slide) Other sources argue however that religious beliefs alone do not justify the extreme scale in which the ritual was practiced, and conclude that human sacrifice was a way to stratify society, legitimise rulers quickly and deal with tension and crisis caused by war (Nicholson, 2017). The most common offering for sacrifice were war captives, thus human sacrifice symbolised the economic and political assimilation of conquered peoples and superiority of the nobles (Ingham, 1982). It reinforced the ruler’s power and prerogative and continued the social norms set by the gods to ensure the people were under control and would not rebel (Nicholson, 2017). Thus, it is possible that human sacrifice was a practice opted by the elite class of Aztec society as a sanctioned means of social control.
(Change slide) For this question, I relied on the work of Anawalt, a prominent Mesoamerican anthropologist, to explain the religious motives that underpinned the practice of human sacrifice, and this was corroborative with this painting from the Florentine Codex created by the Aztecs themselves. I also relied on the works of Nicholson and Ingham, published anthropologists, to explain the socio-political justifications of human sacrifice. Nicholson and Ingham corroborate on many levels – both agree that human sacrifice was carried out in the service of politics. Overall, it can be concluded that the Aztec religion heavily influenced the need for ritualised human sacrifice, however, the practice itself ultimately helped to maintain the society’s complex and highly stratified social hierarchy.
(Change slide) Focus Question Three explored warfare and militarism, as warfare was a fundamental part of Aztec culture. (Change slide) The Aztecs engaged in warfare for two reasons: to acquire territory and expand political control and to collect sacrificial victims to honour the gods (Cartwright, 2015). Successful warfare also meant that conquered cities would pay regular tribute in the form of goods and people (Cartwright, 2015). The Aztecs were so successful in war that they formed an empire that covered 20, 000 square kilometres, and collected tribute from over 300 city states at the height of their power (Cartwright, 2015). As well as this, the Aztecs often initiated campaigns known as “flower wars” in order to acquire sacrificial victims – a favourite target for these campaigns was the eastern city of Tlaxcala, which would in the future ally with the Spaniards to aid in the conquest of Tenochtitlan (Cartwright, 2015).
(Change slide) For this question, I relied on the work of Cartwright, a history writer, and publisher on a reputable online website called Ancient History Encyclopaedia. This website is consistently reviewed for accuracy and adherence to academic standards, and its intent would be to educate online readers, suggesting to me that Cartwright’s perspective would be neutral and unbiased. Thus, warfare provided the Aztecs both sacrificial victims and materials from conquered peoples, as well as a way to expand their empire (Cartwright, 2015). The tribute gained, however, was a major consequence of the warfare waged (Cartwright, 2015).
(Change slide) The defeat of the Aztecs by Hernando Cortés marked the beginning of 300 years of Spanish rule in the former Aztec Empire (Easton et. al, 2017). In my final focus question, I aimed to understand the effects of the Spanish invasion of Tenochtitlan, which Robinson described as “a confrontation between civilisations, and gods”. (Change slide) There were several short-term and long-term effects of Spanish colonisation. With Spanish arrival came disease, and huge numbers of Aztecs died following major outbreaks of smallpox in the 1520s (Easton et. al, 2017). This is depicted in this illustration from the Florentine Codex. After the conquest, priests came to set up the Catholic Church and as a result, thousands of Aztecs were converted (Easton et. al, 2017). The Spanish then introduced domestic animals, such as horses, cattle, pigs, and sheep, and the conquered Aztecs had to adaot to European learning and technologies such as the wheel, and Latin script (Easton et. al, 2017). The wider long-term effects, however, included a dramatic change in population and language (Easton et. al, 2017). Many Spaniards migrated to the Americas after the conquest and African slaves were brought to work in plantations, drastically changing the ethnic makeup of the population (Easton et. al, 2017). The Spaniards also prided themselves in the spread of the Spanish language which is now the most common language in all Latin America (Easton et. al, 2017).
(Change slide) For this focus question, I relied particularly on Easton, Saldais, Smith, and Dumovic, writers of a reputable humanities textbook, and this primary illustration from the Florentine Codex. These writers have strong academic backgrounds in the discipline of history, and their information corroborated with other credible sources that I read, confirming the information’s accuracy and reliability. This primary illustration also corroborates with the previous source and implicitly shows that the diseases brought by the Spanish took heavy tolls on the local Aztec population. Overall, apart from the introduction of disease and Christianity, the conquest of Tenochtitlan brought about tremendous change by introducing new animals, technology and learning, as well changing the language and ethnic makeup of the population (Easton et. al, 2017).
(Change slide) In conclusion, the Aztecs were a powerful and wealthy people who instigated internal change through strong agricultural and engineering inventions. Their religious beliefs manifested into their culture through the practice of human sacrifice and consequently, social control was achieved. The last half of the 15th century saw the Aztecs expanding their territory and political control enormous through warfare, reaping tribute that continued to sustain their empire. Finally, they were defeated by the combined external forces of foreign disease and Spanish forces, which brought about changes in religion, language, and society. Thank you. (Change slide)
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Matrícula de tributos Painting found in National Institute of Anthropology and History, Mexico. (1520). Retrieved May 9, 2018, from https://www.wdl.org/es/item/3248/
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Plano en papel de Maguey Painting found in Visual Resources Collection, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico. (1543). Retrieved April 24, 2018, from https://quod.lib.umich.edu/h/hart/x-384397/05d113142
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