Weird History

What Everyday Life Was Like For Aztecs 

Melissa Sartore
Updated November 11, 2019 19.2k views 12 items

The Aztec civilization was built upon a complex combination of Olmec and Mayan traditions, but during the 14th, 15th, and early-16th centuries, the Mexica people acquired a new level of power, influence, and wealth across Mesoamerica.  

The Mexica originally settled in the area around Lake Texcoco, where they founded their city-state of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), and entered into alliances and tributary relationships with neighboring clans and tribes. Clear social expectations, cultural uniformity, and general economic stability allowed the empire of the Aztecs to thrive before eventually falling victim to Spanish conquerors in the sixteenth century. 

The daily life of an Aztec man or woman was full of blood, sweat, and tears - and of course a huge appreciation for nature and the divine. Despite their untimely fate, they did their best to keep their noses clean - literally - and their bellies full.

They Started Wars When They Needed Humans To Sacrifice
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Photo:  Codex Magliabechiano/WikiMedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Human sacrifice was a normal part of religious and social convention in the Aztec civilization. Slaves and prisoners of war would be sacrificed to the gods according to a ritual calendar as well as in times of drought, famine, or other periods of strife.

If there weren't enough people around to sacrifice, then the Aztecs would start by attacking their neighbors to gather some prisoners for the bloodletting.  

The so-called Flower Wars, the first of which took place in 1450, were likely conducted to bring about tributes from neighbors as well as to train warriors, but were ultimately agreed-upon conflicts where both sides would fight long enough to obtain prisoners for sacrifice. Then the war would end.  

These ritualized conflicts, known as xochiyaoyotl, were never about land or killing, but as the number of sacrificial victims grew, the demographics of different clans and states changed. Resentment grew as well when Tlaxcala, a state within the larger Aztec empire, refused to pay tribute and engage in the wars and, eventually, allied with the Spanish.  

They Used Merchants As Spies
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Photo:  Florentine Codex/WikiMedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Trade was essential to the success of the Aztecs, though long-distance merchants were often viewed with great skepticism - they'd been out in the world and made vulnerable to outside influences, after all. Regional markets, however, were managed and overseen by the government and were great outlets for the quick exchange of goods, not to mention gossiping and socializing.

Pochteca, or long-distance merchants, often lived in separate areas of the city and formed their own social groups. And as there were no wheeled vehicles, merchants had to move their goods by hand or on their backs, making it strenuous work. It was also dangerous work at times because of pirates and bandits, so some pochteca were put to work as informants, spies, and messengers. Occasionally, they'd even wear disguises when working for the government gathering information. 

They Ate Bugs And Worms, Among Other Things
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Photo:  Florentine Codex, Late 16th century./WikiMedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Like most cultures across Mesoamerica, the Aztecs depended on maize, or corn, as their staple crop. They also grew a lot of beans and squash, as well as tomatoes, avocados, chilies, tubers, and root vegetables, enjoying a mostly vegetarian diet.

The upper classes ate more meat and fish than the commoners, but there were plenty of ants, grasshoppers, and worms for everyone to enjoy. Insects, which are actually quite high in protein, were often harvested and eaten. Aztec farmers even cultivated insects and used their eggs to make tortillas similar to the ones made out of corn today. Some insects were cooked while others were eaten alive, and some even had presumed medicinal values. In fact, in many parts of Mexico and Mesoamerica today, insects are still part of the cuisine.

They Hunted With Blow Darts
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Photo:  Aztec feast. Illustration from the Florentine Codex, Late 16th century./WikiMedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the many weapons in the Aztec warrior's repertoire was a blow gun, or a tlacalhuazcuahuitl. Warriors also carried slings (tematlatl), bows and arrows (tlahhuitolli and micomitl), and spears (atlatl) in preparation for combat at various ranges, not to mention daggers (tecpatl), batons (cuahuitl), clubs (cuauhololli), and axes (itztopilli) for hand-to-hand combat.  

The blow gun was most commonly used for hunting animals, but would have been a handy tool against one's enemies as well. The guns themselves were five- to six-foot-long hollow tubes, harboring darts that were tipped with poisonous frog secretions. 

Aztec men often hunted for rabbit and deer, which was eaten at ritual feasts with vegetables, corn, and chocolate.