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Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

The Aztec Empire of 1519 was the most powerful Mesoamerican kingdom of all time. The multi-ethnic, multi-lingual realm stretched for more than 80,000 square miles through many parts of what is now central and southern Mexico. This enormous empire reached from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf coast and from central Mexico to the present-day Republic of Guatemala. Fifteen million people, living in thirty-eight provinces and residing in 489 communities, paid tribute to the Emperor Moctezuma II in Tenochtitlán, the capital city of the great empire.

Uto-Aztecan Language
Map of Mexico
History of Mexico
Mexican Traditions
The Mexica (pronounced "me-shee-ka") Indians, the dominant ethnic group ruling over the Aztec Empire from their capital city at Tenochtitlán in the Valley of Mexico, had very obscure and humble roots that made their rise to power even more remarkable. The Valley of Mexico, which became the heartland of the Aztec civilization, is a large internally-drained basin which is surrounded by volcanic mountains, some of which reach more than 3,000 meters in elevation.

My understanding of the Mexica Indians and the Aztec Empire has been greatly augmented by the works of the anthropologist Professor Michael E. Smith of the University of New York. Professor Smith has written several books about the central Mexican Indians, including The Aztecs and Aztec Imperial Strategies, which I have used as primary sources for this article.

The growth of the Mexica Indians from newcomers and outcasts in the Valley of Mexico to the guardians of an extensive empire is the stuff that legends are made of. Many people, however, are confused by the wide array of terms designating the various indigenous groups that lived in the Valley of Mexico. The popular term, Aztec, has been used as an all-inclusive term to describe both the people and the empire.

Professor Smith uses the term Aztec Empire to describe "the empire of the Triple Alliance, in which Tenochtitlán played the dominant role." Quoting the author Charles Gibson, Professor Smith observes that the Aztecs "were the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Most of these were Náhuatl speakers belonging to diverse polities and ethnic groups (e.g., Mexica of Tenochtitlán, Acolhua of Texcoco, Chalca of Chalco)." In short, the reader should recognize that the Aztec Indians were not one ethnic group, but a collection of many ethnicities, all sharing a common cultural and historical background.

On the other hand, the Mexica, according to Professor Smith, are "the inhabitants of the cities of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco who occupied adjacent islands and claimed the same heritage." And it is the Mexica who eventually became the dominant people within the Aztec Empire. Legend states that the Mexica Indians originally came to the Valley of Mexico from a region in the northwest, popularly known as Atzlan-Chicomoztoc. The name Aztec, in fact, is believed to have been derived from this ancestral homeland, Aztlan (The Place of Herons).

In A.D. 1111, the Mexica left their native Aztlan to settle in Chicomoztoc (Seven Caves). According to legend, they had offended their patron god Huitzilopochtli by cutting down a forbidden tree. As a result, the Mexica were condemned to leave Aztlan and forced to wander until they received a sign from their gods, directing them to settle down permanently.

The land of Aztlan was said to have been a marshy island situated in the middle of a lake. Some historians actually consider the names "Chicomoztoc" and "Aztlan" to be two terms for the same place, and believe that the island and the seven caves are simply two features of the same region. For nearly five centuries, popular imagination has speculated about the location of the legendary Aztlan. Some people refer to Aztlan as a concept, not an actual place that ever existed.

However, many historians believe that Aztlan did exist. The historian Paul Kirchhoff suggested that Aztlan lay along a tributary of the Lerna River, to the west of the Valley of Mexico. Other experts have suggested the Aztlan might be the island of Janitzio in the center of Lake Pátzcuaro, also to the west, with its physical correspondence to the description of Aztlan. Many people have speculated that the ancestral home of the Aztecs lay in California, New Mexico or in the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa.

The idea that Sinaloa, Sonora, California, and New Mexico might be the site of Aztlan is a very plausible explanation when historical linguistics have been considered. "The north-to-south movement of the Aztlan groups is supported by research in historical linguistics, " writes Professor Smith in The Aztecs, "The Náhuatl language, classified in the Nahuan group of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages, is unrelated to most Mesoamerican native languages." As a matter of fact, "Náhuatl was a relatively recent intrusion" into central Mexico.

On the other hand, if one observes the locations of the indigenous people who spoke the Uto-Aztecan languages, all of their lands lay to the northwest of the Valley of Mexico. The northern Uto-Aztecans occupied a large section of the American Southwest. Among them were the Hopi and Zuni Indians of New Mexico and the Gabrielino Indians of the Los Angeles Basin. The Central Uto-Aztecans - occupying large parts of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Sonora in northwestern Mexico - included the Papago, Opata, Yaqui, Mayo, Concho, Huichol and Tepehuán. It is reasonable to assume that where there is a linguistic relationship there is most likely also a genetic relationship. Thus, it is highly likely that the legendary Aztlan was located in northwestern Mexico or the Southwestern United States.

It is important to note, however, that the Aztlan migrations were not one simple movement of a single group of people. Instead, as Professor Smith has noted, "when all of the native histories are compared, no fewer than seventeen ethnic groups are listed among the original tribes migrating from Aztlan and Chicomoztoc." It is believed that the migrations southward probably took place over several generations. "Led by priests," continues Professor Smith, "the migrants stopped periodically to build houses and temples, to gather and cultivate food, and to carry out rituals."

The first group of migrants probably included the Acolhua, Tepaneca, Culhua, Chalca, Xochimilca, all of whom settled in the Valley of Mexico. The second group, including the Tlahuica of Morelos, the Matlatzinca of Toluca Valley, the Tlaxcalans of Tlaxcala, the Huexotzinca of Puebla, and the Malinalca of Malinalco, migrated to the surrounding valleys. The last to arrive, around A.D. 1248, were the Mexica who found all the good land occupied and were forced to settle in more undesirable locations of the Valley.

As the late arrivals in the Valley of Mexico, the Mexica were forced by other groups in the valley to take refuge on two islands near the western shore of Lake Texcoco (one of the five lakes in the area). Their first home was an island in the middle of Lake Chapultepec (Place of the Grasshopper), which is now in Downtown Mexico City. The Mexica were welcomed to Chapultepec by the Tepanec leader of city-state of Azcapotzalco on the understanding that they would work as both mercenaries and laborers. However, around 1315, the Mexica were ejected from Chapultepec by the Tepanecs.

When the Mexicas first arrived in the Valley of Mexico, the whole region was occupied by some forty city-states (altepetl is the Nahua term). These city-states - which included the Tepanecs, Coatlinchans, Cholcos, Xochimilcos, Cholulas, Tlaxcalans and Huexotzincas - were engaged in a constant and continuing battle for ascendancy in the Valley. In describing this political situation, Professor Smith observed that "ethnically similar and/or geographically close city-states allied to form regional political confederations." By 1300, eight confederations of various sizes occupied the entire Valley of the Mexico and adjacent areas.

In A.D. 1325, the Mexica, once again on the run, wandered through the wilderness of swamps that surrounded the salty lakes of the Valley of Mexico. On a small island, the Mexica finally found their promised omen when they saw a cactus growing out of a rock with an eagle perched atop the cactus. The Mexica high priests thereupon proclaimed that they had reached their promised land. As it turns out, the site turned out to be a strategic location, with abundant food supplies and waterways for transportation.

The Mexica settled down to found their new home, Tenochtitlán (Place of the Cactus Fruit). The Mexica became highly efficient in their ability to develop a system of dikes and canals to control the water levels and salinity of the lakes. Using canoes and boats, they were able to carry on commerce with other cities along the valley lakes. And, comments Professor Smith, "the limited access to the city provided protection against military attack."

Huitzilihuitl, who ruled the Mexica from 1391 to 1415, writes Professor Smith, "presided over one of the most important periods in Mexica history. The Mexica became highly skilled as soldiers and diplomats in their dealing with neighbors. One of Huitzilihuitl's major accomplishments was the establishment of successful marriage alliances with a number of powerful dynasties." Over time, the Mexica, as the latecomers and underdogs of the Valley region, sought to increase their political power and prestige through intermarriage.

"Marriage alliances," writes Professor Smith, "were an important component of diplomacy among Mesoamerican states. Lower ranking kings would endeavor to marry the daughters of more powerful and important kings. A marriage established at least an informal alliance between the polities and was a public acknowledgement of the dominant status of the more powerful king."

Sometime around 1428, the Mexica monarch, Itzcoatl, ruling from Tenochtitlán, formed a triple alliance with the city-states of Texcoco and Tlacopan (now Tacuba) as a means of confronting the then-dominant Tepanecs of the city-state of Azcapotzalco. Soon after, the combined force of the Triple Alliance was able to defeat Azcapotzalco. Later that year, Culhuacan and Huitzilopochco were defeated by the Alliance. A string of victories continued in quick succession, with the defeat of Xochimilco in 1429-30, Ixtapalapan in 1430, and Mixquic in 1432. "The only area of the valley to resist conquest for any length of time," comments the anthropologist Mary G. Hodge, "was the southeastern portion occupied by the Chalca confederation. The hostilities with the Chalca city-states were resolved only through conquering this area piecemeal, between 1456 and 1465."

Professor Smith writes that "the three Triple Alliance states were originally conceived as equivalent powers, with the spoils of joint conquests to be divided evenly among them. However, Tenochtitlán steadily grew in power at the expense of Texcoco and particularly Tlacopan." In time the conquests of the alliance began to take the shape of an empire, with the Triple Alliance levying tribute upon their subject towns. Professor Smith, quoting the words of the anthropologist Robert McCormick Adams, writes that "A defining activity of empires is that they are 'preoccupied with channeling resources from diverse subject polities and peoples to an ethnically defined ruling stratum."

With each conquest, the Aztec domain became more and more ethnically diverse, eventually controlling thirty-eight provinces. The Aztec tributary provinces, according to Professor Frances F. Berdan, were "scattered throughout central and southern Mexico, in highly diverse environmental and cultural settings." Professor Berdan points out that "these provinces provided the imperial powers with a regular and predictable flow of tribute goods."

Of utmost importance became the tribute that made its way back to Tenochtitlán from the various city-states and provinces. Such tribute may have taken many forms, including textiles, warriors' costumes, foodstuffs, maize, beans, chiles, cacao, bee honey, salt and human beings (for sacrificial rituals).

Aztec society was highly structured, based on agriculture, and guided by a religion that pervaded every aspect of life. The Aztecs worshipped gods that represented natural forces that were vital to their agricultural economy. All of the Aztec cities were dominated by giant stone pyramids topped by temples where human sacrifices provided the gods with the human sustenance that the priests believed their supernatural deities required.

For hundreds of years, human sacrifice is believed to have played an important role of many of the indigenous tribes inhabiting the Valley of Mexico. However, the Mexica brought human sacrifice to levels that had never been practiced before. The Mexica Indians and their neighbors had developed a belief that it was necessary to constantly appease the gods through human sacrifice. By spilling the blood of human beings onto the ground, the high priests were, in a sense, paying their debt to the gods. If the blood would flow, then the sun would rise each morning, the crops would grow, the gods would provide favorable weather for good crops, and life would continue.

Over time, the Mexica, in particular, developed a feeling that the needs of their gods were insatiable. The period from 1446 to 1453 was a period of devastating natural disasters: locusts, drought, floods, early frosts, starvation, etc. The Mexica, during this period, resorted to massive human sacrifice in an attempt to remedy these problems. When abundant rain and a healthy crop followed in 1455, the Mexica believed that their efforts had been successful. In 1487, according to legend, Aztec priests sacrificed more than 80,000 prisoners of war at the dedication of the reconstructed temple of the sun god in Tenochtitlán.

The Mexica's sacrificial rituals were elaborate in form, calculated by the high priests to appease specific gods at certain times. During the ceremony, a victim would ascend the steps of the pyramid. At the top, a Mexica priest would stretch the victim across a stone altar and cut out the victim's heart. The priest would hold the heart aloft to the god being honored and then fling it into a sacred fire while it was still beating.

The function of Aztec priests was one of the most important in Aztec society. It was the priests who determined which days would be lucky for engaging in activities such as war and religious ceremonies. They were guided in their decisions by a religious calendar of 260 days, that was combined with a solar calendar of 365 days. The meshing of the two calendars produced a 52-year cycle that played an integral role in Mexica society and religion.

The basic unit of Aztec society was the calpulli, which was the Aztec equivalent of a clan, or group of families who claimed descent from a common ancestor." Each calpulli regulated its own affairs, electing a council which would keep order, declare war, dispense justice. Calpulli ran the schools where young Mexica boys were taught about citizenship, warfare, history, crafts, and religion. Each calpulli also had a temple, an armory to hold weapons, and a storehouse for goods and tribute that were distributed among its members.

In the Tenochtitlán of later years, during the ascendancy of the Aztec Empire, the function of the calpulli, took on a different form. As the city grew large and complex, the Mexica calpulli were no longer based on familial relationships. Instead,the capulli became like wards, or political divisions, of the city. Each calpulli cstill governed and provided education to its members, but the members of a calpulli were not necessarily related. It is believed that there were 15 calpulli in Tenochtitlán when the city was founded in 1325. By the time that the Spaniards arrived in the early Sixteenth Century, there were as many as eighty calpulli throughout the city.

In Tenochtitlán and the other Aztec city-states, the leaders of each calpulli were joined together in a tribal council which was given the responsibility of electing four chief officials, one of whom would be selected as the Tlatoani (Great Lord). After Tenochtitlán became the center of Aztec civilization, its ruler became the supreme leader of the empire, to whom lesser rulers paid tribute. This ruler was considered to be a descendant of the Aztec gods and served as both military leader and high priest.

By the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, the Aztec Empire had become a formidable power, its southern reaches extending into the present-day Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. The Mexica had also moved the boundaries of the Aztec Empire to a large stretch of the Gulf Coast on the eastern side of the continent. But, as Professor Smith states, "rebellions were a common occurrence in the Aztec empire because of the indirect nature of imperial rule." The Aztecs had allowed local rulers to stay in place "as long as they cooperated with the Triple Alliance and paid their tribute." When a provincial monarch decided to withhold tribute payments from the Triple Alliance, the Aztec forces would respond by dispatching an army to threaten that king.

Professor Smith wrote that the Aztec Empire "followed two deliberate strategies in planning and implementing their conquests." The first strategy was "economically motivated." The Triple Alliance sought to "generate tribute payments and promote trade and marketing throughout the empire." Their second strategy deal with their frontier regions, in which they established client states and outposts along imperial borders to help contain their enemies."

However, Professor Smith, in his essay on "The Strategic Provinces" commented on the existence of "major unconquered enemy states surrounded by imperial territory." The fact that these enclaves remained free of Aztec dominance is some indication that these "enemy states" may have been recognized as "serious and powerful adversaries." The most powerful enclave, Tlaxcalla, located to the east of the Valley of Mexico, was a "confederation of four republics." Tlaxcalla, writes Professor Smith, "was a Nahuatl-speaking area whose population shared a common cultural and ethnic heritage with the rest of the peoples of central Mexico."

Aztlan migrants had arrived in the Puebla-Tlaxcalla Valley between the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries and, Professor Smith explains, "populations grew and city-states developed in a fashion that paralleled the Valley of Mexico." Thus, by the beginning of the Fifteenth Century, writes Professor Smith, "three polities stood out as the most powerful and influential - Tlaxcalla itself, Huexotzinco, and Cholula."

Emperor Moctezuma I, who ruled the Aztecs from 1440 to 1469, conquered the states north and east of Tlaxcalla and, according to Professor Smith, began "a process of encirclement that continued under the following emperors and was largely complete by the time Moctezuma I took power in 1502." This encirclement cut the Tlaxcallans off from external trade. As a result elite goods (gold, feathers, and cacao) and utilitarian items (cotton and salt) became rare in the state.

In seeking to conquer Tlaxcalla, the Aztecs maintained an almost perpetual state of war with Tlaxcalla. The many wars between the two nations also provided a source of victims of human sacrifices. However, after the arrival of the Spaniards, the Tlaxcalan confederation offered a fertile ground of opposition and defiance against the Aztec Empire. In 1519, the Spaniards initiated an alliance with the Tlaxcallans that played a major role in the fall of Tenochtitlán and continued for many centuries.

Metztitlan. A powerful Otomí conquest state located in the rugged mountainous region of what is now northern Hidalgo, Metztitlan remained an unconquered enclave within the Aztec Empire up until the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519. The independence of this small kingdom was easily maintained because of the nature of the terrain in the Metztitlan Valley, where, writes Professor Smith, "a small but well-placed force could hold off a larger and more powerful army." Emperors Ahuítzotl and Moctezuma were able to complete the isolation of Metztitlan. Professor Smith believes that the state remained unconquered because "there were few resources of interest to the empire in this area, and the final emperors may have decided that Metztitlan was not worth the effort."

Yopitzinco. Located in the isolated mountain area along the Coast Chica region of Guerrero, just southeast of present-day Acapulco, Yopitzinco was occupied by the Yope Indians, who had a reputation as fierce warriors. The Pacific coastal regions to the north and south of Yopitzinco were conquered by Ahuitzotl and Moctezuma II but, it appears that Yope territory had little to offer the Aztec Empire.

Tututepec. As a "large and powerful Mixtec conquest state in the mountains of southwestern Oaxaca," write Professor Smith, "Tututepec controlled a long stretch of the Pacific coast and was in the process of expanding to the north and east in the decades prior to 1519."

The Tarascan Empire of present-day Michoacán was not an enclave located within the Aztec Empire but stood on the periphery of the Mexica domain. The Tarascans (Purhépechas) were a constant source of problems for the Mexica. Like the Aztecs, the Tarascans had engaged in militaristic expansion and conquered adjacent states. Located some 150 kilometers west of the Valley of Mexico in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin, the Purhépecha Kingdom controlled an area of at least 45,000 square miles (72,500 square kilometers), including parts of the present-day states of Guanajuato, Guerrero, Querétaro, Colima, and Jalisco.

In A.D. 1478, when the Aztec armies met in battle with the Tarascans, it is believed that as many as 20,000 Triple Alliance warriors may have perished. Against a Tarascan force of about 50,000, the Aztec force of 32,200 warriors was nearly annihilated and the independence of present-day Michoacán preserved for another half-century.

In 1502, Moctezuma II Xocoyotl (the Younger) ascended to the throne of Tenochtitlán as the newly elected tlatoani. It was about this time when the Mexica of Tenochtitlán began to suffer various disasters. While tribute peoples in several parts of the empire started to rebel against Aztecs, troubling omens took place which led the Mexica to believe that their days were numbered. Seventeen years after Moctezuma's rise to power, the Aztec Empire would be faced with its greatest challenge and a huge coalition of indigenous and alien forces which would bring an end to the Triple Alliance.

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.


Frances F. Berdan, "The Tributary Provinces," in Frances F. Berdan et al., Aztec Imperial Strategies. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996, pp. 115-135.

Ron Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Mary G. Hodge, "Political Organization of the Central Provinces," in Frances F. Berdan et al., Aztec Imperial Strategies. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996, pp. 17-45.

Michael E. Smith, "The Strategic Provinces," in Frances F. Berdan et al., Aztec Imperial Strategies. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996, pp. 137-150.

Michael E. Smith, The Aztecs. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1996.

Susan Spitler, "Homelands: Aztlan and Aztlán," Online: http://www.tulane.edu/~anthro/other/humos/sample.htm November 20, 2001.

John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he coauthored "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002) and "The Dominguez Family: A Mexican-American Journey" (Heritage Books, 2004). He has degrees in History (Loyola-Marymount University) and Geography (St. Cloud State University) and is a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research (SHHAR). He is an associate editor of SHHAR's online monthly newsletter, www.somosprimos.com. John is presently collaborating with illustrator Eddie Martinez on a manuscript entitled "Indigenous Mexico: Past and Present."