The Cultural Achievements of the Aztecs: More than Conquerors

The Aztecs are often associated with war and human sacrifice but there was a lot more to them and their culture.

Jul 13, 2023By Anthony Arcane, BA Anthropology (Archaeology Concentration), MSc Ancient Cultures

aztec cultural achievements


The Aztecs’ or Mexicas’ precise origins are unknown, although they are said to have been descended from a northern group of hunter-gatherers from Áztlan (“Land of White Herons”) according to the Codex Aubin. During the fall of Tula, the capital of the Toltec Empire around 1179 CE, the Aztecs traveled from the barren plateau of northern Mexico in search of a new home. According to Aztec legend, Huitzilopochtli, the sun and war god, guided them. Although the Aztecs did indeed conquer and sacrifice humans, they also achieved incredible things that are often overlooked.


1. The Aztecs were Brilliant Engineers and Architects

Tenochtitlan, by Diego Rivera, 1945 CE, via


With more pyramids than Egypt as well as the home of the largest pyramid on the planet, Mesoamerica was once home to brilliant architects and magnificent structures. Perhaps the most famous architectural feat of the Aztecs was their capital city, Tenochtitlan.


Built on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, Tenochtitlan utilized the water around it in the construction of floating gardens (chinampas), sluice gates, and dams. Tenochtitlan flourished as a result of the inhabitant’s control over Lake Texcoco, with plentiful crops and a burgeoning population. With the natural security provided by the lake and its militaristic neighbors (the city-states of Tlacopan and Texcoco), the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan were able to concentrate their efforts on the construction of temples, residential buildings, academies, ball courts, streets, and so on.


By the time of the Spanish Conquest in  1521 CE, Tenochtitlan may have been the largest city in the world with as many as 200,000 inhabitants if not more. According to the Spanish Conquistador, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, in his The Conquest of New Spain, Tenochtitlan was both entrancing and indescribable. Templo Mayor — a temple devoted to Huitzilopochtli, the deity of the sun and battle, and Tlaloc, the god of rain — stood in the city center, where bloodletting and human sacrifices took place.

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After a siege by the Conquistadors and an alliance of indigenous peoples that took 93 days, Tenochtitlan was largely destroyed. After surrendering in 1521 CE, Tenochtitlan faced more destruction and looting. From the foundation of the once great city, Hernan Cortes began the construction of Mexico City and drained Lake Texcoco. The remains of Tenochtitlan can still be seen today speckled throughout Mexico City, a constant reminder of the once great empire.


2. The Aztecs Required Universal Education in their Empire

Codex Mendoza, depicting education in the Aztec Empire commissioned by Antonio de Mendoza, 1541 CE, via the Bodleian Library, Oxford


Before attending mandatory schooling, Aztec children were taught household chores and values by their parents. Sons were taught by their fathers how to canoe, catch fish, transport products, and a plethora of other labor-intensive duties. Daughters, under the guidance of their mother, learned how to weave on a loom, grind maize, and look after the house. At 15 years of age, both males and females would attend full-time schooling at Calmecac (“the House of Tears”) or Telpochcalli (“the House of Youth”). Which school they attended was largely based on the calendar sign and number associated with their birth.


Calmecac was a religious academy, often reserved for the children of nobles and the highly talented children of commoners. Teens that attended a Calmecac academy were taught an array of subjects, including religion, literature, science, astronomy, art and architecture, maths, medicine, law, and government.


Teens that attended Telpochcalli underwent extensive military training and weren’t taught how to read or write. However, Telpochcalli attendees did learn about the religion and history of the Aztec Empire. Considered not to be as strict and diversified as Calmecac, Telpochalli attendees were able to gather at the cuicacalli (“House of Song”) to learn how to play music, dance, and sing in their spare time. In Eurocentric fashion, the introduction of advanced higher education in the Americas was attributed to the establishment of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in 1536 CE, as opposed to the long-established Aztec education system.


3. The Aztecs were Herbalists

Codex Florentine. Book XI: Natural Things, by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, 1577 CE, via Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.


Between 1440 and 1469 CE, Aztec emperor Moctezuma I established a botanical garden that housed around 2,000 varying species of plants. The Aztecs used these plants to treat abrasions, burns, internal issues, and even mental illnesses.


Tenochtitlan was not the only Aztec city that practiced the utilization of massive gardens; Texcoco was home to Texcotzingo, the earliest botanical garden in the Americas. More than 180 of the plants and trees discovered in these gardens were employed for medicinal purposes, according to the Badianus Codex of 1552 CE.


Not only were the Conquistadors impressed with the Aztecs’ medical proficiency when they arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519 CE but King Charles V of Spain sought out agents to steal knowledge about the usage of these native plants. It is suggested that medical practitioners in the Aztec empire were centuries ahead of European practitioners in their use of anesthetic drugs in surgery and natural medicinal practices.


However, Aztec medicine wasn’t solely based on observable science. The Aztecs believed that the human body contained three entities: The tonalli (residing in the brain), the teyolía (residing in the heart), and the ihíyoti (residing in the liver). The balance of these entities could alter one’s health as could the interference of gods and goddesses. To cure illnesses from these supernatural deities, ritualistic treatments took place as well as medicinal ones. Despite the Aztecs’ proficiency in medicine, they couldn’t save themselves from the diseases brought upon them by the Spaniards. Certain Aztec medicines and treatments are still used by medical practitioners today.


4. The Aztecs were Artists

Aztec Sun Stone, 1502 – 1520 CE, via The University of Texas at Austin


With the Aztec Empire requiring its inhabitants to undergo rigorous education, individuals could specialize in specific crafts such as trading, herbalism, agriculture, and war. However, one of the most important crafts an Aztec resident could specialize in was art.


At the core of Aztec education, art allowed the empire to be enriched with the crafting of pottery, jewelry, stone sculptures, mosaics, and architectural reliefs. One of the most recognized examples of Aztec art is the Aztec Sun Stone/Calendar. Weighing 24,590 kilograms (approx. 54,000 lbs) and with a diameter over 3.5 meters (11.5 feet), the stone is embellished with an assortment of symbols ranging from zoomorphic to elemental to abstract figures.


While pseudo-sciences may mislead some people to believe that the stone serves as a doomsday clock, there is significantly more purpose and artistry behind the stone. The stone exemplifies the multi-functionality of Aztec artifacts/features, embracing the entirety of Aztec subjects such as astrology, chronology, religion, and politics.


Cihuateotl statue, 1300 – 1521 CE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art


With the fall of the Aztec Empire, the Aztecs’ way of life began to change and the production of Aztec art began to cease. The Aztec people underwent forced Roman Catholic conversion and everyday practices were outlawed. Although an authoritative overseer, Augustine Friars commissioned the decoration of churches using local artists, which allowed some Aztec art to survive during the initial Spanish takeover. Nowadays, Aztec artifacts and majestic structures help academics better comprehend Aztec culture and history.


5. The Aztecs were Athletes 

Nayarit ball court model, 200 BCE – 500 CE, via Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles California


Although many inhabitants were required to perform considerable labor, time in the Aztec Empire was not entirely defined by labor. During times of leisure, Aztec citizens participated in and observed an array of extracurricular endeavors such as pole climbing, gambling, and perhaps the most famous, Ōllamalīztli. Mainly played by the aristocracy, Ōllamalīztli was a game in which an athlete’s knees and hips were used to strike a rubber ball (an ōllamaloni) weighing up to 4 kilos (9 lbs) through a stone ring affixed to a stone wall in a ballcourt (a tlachtli).


More than 1,500 ballcourts have been uncovered in Mesoamerica, indicating the prominence of Ōllamalīztli. Ōllamalīztli was more than just an athletic event though; it was also the scene of disputes, gambling, and conflict resolution between neighboring states. Originally banned by the Conquistadors sometime after their arrival, Ōllamalīztli has since made a comeback among the people of the Americas to commemorate and honor their heritage. With archaeological evidence of a ballcourt dating back to 1400 BCE, Ōllamalīztli is considered the oldest ball game in the world.


While the aristocracy played Ōllamalīztli, the citizens that desired to enjoy gentler games played Patolli, a board game. Although intended to be enjoyable, Aztec games were often associated with a specific deity or celestial event, and players had to thoroughly respect it.


Did you Know? Human Sacrifice was Necessary for the Aztecs

Mosaic Skull of Tezcatlipoca, God of the Great Bear Constellation and of the Night Sky, 1400- 1521 CE, via the British Museum


Every civilization has its own set of myths and traditions, and the Aztecs were no exception. Due to the Nahuatl glyphs and 16th-century codexes (such as the Florentine Codex and the Borgia Codex), over 200 gods and goddesses have been identified in the Aztec pantheon. These deities possessed immense influence over the Aztec mind, overseeing nearly every element of everyday life and the world.


Several deities were believed to have demanded human sacrifice and cannibalism to avoid famine, the end of the world, or to provide an abundance of fertility. Instead, what has been regarded as the human sacrifice was a very sacred event in the Aztec consciousness. From their perspective, the Aztecs were not only safeguarding the cosmos but also demonstrating their prowess as a nation in the middle of instability and unrest.

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By Anthony ArcaneBA Anthropology (Archaeology Concentration), MSc Ancient CulturesAnthony Arcane is an experienced explorer, archaeologist, academic, adventure-athlete, and classicist with a focus on Eastern and European material culture. Arcane's focus is emphasized through the study of material culture and ancient texts in: Greek, Roman, Celtic, Viking and Late Norse, Egyptian, Scythian, Native American, and the Ancient Kingdoms of Britain. Arcane founded Horizons International Archaeological and Environmental Co. Arcane has been approached by National Geographic and the Discovery Channel due to his intense passion for the ancient world. Having traveled the world, Arcane is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the Explorers' Club.