What Everyday Life Was Like For Aztecs

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 Conducted Perpetual Wars To Get Prisoners For Human Sacrifice

    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 Had Extensive Trade Routes, And Used Merchants As Spies

    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. 

  • Education Was Universal, Mandatory, And Practical

    Boys, girls, men, and women all received an education in the Aztec empire, though each group was trained to do specific tasks based upon their gender, age, and social status. Girls and boys were educated by their parents from a young age, with a greater emphasis placed on basic skills. Some girls were also taught sewing, weaving, cooking, and other home-based tasks while boys learned the basics of farming or whatever trade their fathers practiced.  

    Noble boys would then branch off to calmecac, which was essentially military school, around the age of 12 or 13. There they'd learn the skills necessary to be warriors - running, jumping, fighting - as well as matters of law, religion, and other civic topics.  They were expected to go on to become government officials, scholars, teachers, or priests.

    Around the same age, common boys went to telpochcalli to learn more about agriculture and receive some warrior training. Girls on the other hand went to a separate school to learn about running the household as well as singing, dancing, and crafts. Once common boys and girls finished school, most returned home to put their skills to use.

    All of the schools taught about religious rituals and the duties related to citizenship and history. Talented students were then chosen to become priests and ritual healers, respectively.

  • They Sang, Danced, And Played Ball

    When the Aztecs weren't working or fighting, they played board and dice games, sang, danced, and even gambled. Patolli was one of the most common games and was played by moving tokens on and off a reed mat based on the throw of beans that served as dice. 

    Young women were taught dancing and singing in school as part of their instruction in maintaining a household. Musical instruments like drums, flutes, whistles, and rattles were made out of shells, bones, and wood. Singing and dancing was also an important part of religious ceremonies and community celebrations.

    The Mesoamerican ballgame predates the Aztec civilization, but they picked up where the Olmec and Maya left off and played the game as a religious event. Just as battles provided Aztecs with sacrificial victims, so too did the ballgame. The game was played on an H-shaped field with the creation story of Mesoamerica carved into the surrounding stone walls. The loser of the game - which involved trying to keep an 8-10 pound rubber ball from hitting the ground or to get it into the opponent's goal - would be sacrificed to the gods.

  • They Had A Wide Array Of Food Available To Them

    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 Dredged The Lakes And Terraced The Land To Make 'Floating Gardens'

    Agriculture was essential to the survival of the Aztecs, and as a result they developed several practices to ensure they got the most out of their land. They used the chinampas system (which called for the dredging of mud from the bottoms of swamps to fertilize soil) for planting, growing, and harvesting everything from corn to peppers to tomatoes. Aztec farmers would then place the muck on top of reed rafts and float the rafts on top of water, holding them in place by planting trees or building walls. 

    The Aztecs would also channel water into these raised fields and terrace them to increase yield efficiency. In addition to that technique, the Aztecs planted small gardens, collected algae, and fertilized soil with human manure.