Golden Facts About The Aztec Civilization

October 8, 2023 | Miles Brucker

Golden Facts About The Aztec Civilization

Great palaces. Sparkling canals. Walls of skulls. Chilling sacrifices. The Aztecs were one of the most inspiring—and horrific—civilizations ever. Centered on the city of Tenochtitlan in the middle of Lake Texcoco, they built a civilization based on agriculture, sacrifice and, of all things, cleanliness. At its peak, Aztec culture was rich in mythology and religious traditions, all while achieving some astonishing architectural and artistic feats—but if anything, their human sacrifice rituals were even more chilling than people realize. Read on to discover 54 golden facts about the Aztec Civilization.

1. A Housing Market To Die For

Aztecs would commonly bury their deceased under the houses that they occupied while alive. Imagine having to ask your real estate agent about a property’s body count.


2. Floating City

The Aztec built their city of Tenochtitlan right in the middle of the salt lake Texcoco. Why put a city in a lake? According to legend, the wandering Mexica tribes followed an ancient prophecy that told them to build a great city. The prophecy foretold that the location of the city would be revealed by an eagle on top of a cactus with a snake in its beak. They finally witnessed this sight...on a tiny, swampy island in the middle of Lake Texcoco.

It wasn't ideal, but prophecies are prophecies, and Tenochtitlan was founded around the year 1325. By the way, if that "eagle, cactus, and snake" image seemed familiar to anyone, you've probably seen it before. It's right in the middle of Mexico's flag!

Aztec FactsWikimedia Commons

3. Next To Godliness

The city of Tenochtitlan was known to be very clean for the time period. It even had garbage men!

Aztec Civilization FactsWikimedia Commons

4. A Mesoamerican Venice

Unsurprisingly, it took a lot of work to make a whole settlement on the water. There were dams, bridges, canals, and lakes within the city so people would travel by boat just like in modern-day Venice.

Aztec Civilization FactsPixabay

5. Humble Brag

All the achievements of the Aztecs are made more impressive when you know they had no beasts of burden, never discovered the wheel, and had no steel or iron.

Aztec Civilization FactsFlickr

6. Sophie’s Choice

Aztec people would sometimes sell themselves or their children into slavery in order to pay off debts. That’s a good motivator to do your chores.

Aztec Civilization FactsWikimedia Commons

7. Indentured Servitude

The Aztecs' form of slavery made it possible for slaves to eventually buy their freedom back once a debt had been worked or paid off.

Aztec Civilization FactsWikimedia Commons

8. All Dogs Guide To Heaven

On occasion, Aztecs would sacrifice a dog and bury it along with a deceased person at their funeral. They believed that a dog could guide the spirit to the afterlife.

Worst Thing a Guest did factsShutterstock

9. You Are What We Say You Are

Europeans starting using the term "Aztec" to refer to the people who lived around the city of Tenochtitlan, but that's not what they called themselves. They referred to themselves as the Mexica.

Aztec Civilization FactsPxHere

10. Pick A Name Out Of A Hat

Tenochca is another name the Aztecs went by, named after their city Tenochtitlan. The Aztec capital was a thriving metropolis for centuries—and it's still around today! Maybe you'd know it by its modern name: Mexico City.

Aztec Civilization FactsWikimedia Commons

11. No Child Left Behind

Ahead of their time, the Aztecs were one of the first societies to implement mandatory child education. If you thought scantron was annoying, try chiseling your test answers into rock.

Aztec Civilization FactsShutterstock

12. So Many Gods, So Little Time

The Aztec pantheon featured many different gods and goddesses. Each of them controlled one or more facets of Aztec life, such as daily activities and nature. There were many agricultural gods because farming and natural elements were central to their culture.

Aztec Civilization FactsShutterstock

13. Heads Will Roll

Aztec gods and religion demanded more human sacrifices than any other faith in history. Priests would conduct these rituals at the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. Approximately 500 to 700 individuals were sacrificed annually in efforts to appease the gods.

Aztec Civilization FactsWikipedia

14. The Ultimate Warrior

Most of the individuals who were sacrificed were captured during conflicts. It is believed that the Aztecs would arrange battles with their enemies for the specific purpose of each side being able to capture prisoners for sacrifice. Good day to call in sick to work.

Photo of a ancient Aztec Temple of Kukulcan

15. No One Was Safe

The Aztec religion could be brutally literal at times. During periods of drought, priests would sacrifice children specifically, because they believed that the little ones' tears would bring rain. In 1980, archaeologists found the remains of 42 child skeletons near a large Aztec temple.

Aztec Civilization FactsWikimedia Commons

16. Cavities For All!

The Aztecs were the first people to introduce Europeans to chocolate. I’m sure every dentist would like to personally thank the Aztecs for all that sweet cavity money.

Aztec Civilization FactsPxHere

17. From A to Deer-snake

The Aztec alphabet consisted of detailed drawings and hieroglyphs. It was a very advanced system used to keep records of everything from taxes to sacrifices.

Aztec Civilization FactsShutterstock

18. Who Needs A Gym?

Some of the larger stones that the Aztecs used to build their temples weighed in at roughly 44 tons. Although they used boats extensively to transport construction materials, once they got to the building site the blocks had to be moved by hand, without the use of wheeled carts or beasts of burden. I hope they didn’t skip leg day.

Aztec Civilization FactsWikipedia

19. Don’t Forget Your Change

Just how important was chocolate to the Aztecs? They actually used cacao beans as currency for small purchases, though when it came to bigger items, they used standardized lengths of cotton cloth instead.

Aztec Civilization FactsPixabay

20. Playoff Season

Ullamaliztli, also known as the "Mesoamerican Ballgame," was a popular team sport that involved getting a rubber ball through small stone hoops without it touching the ground. Players could only use their knees, elbows, hips, and head to do so. Picture a mix of handball, squash, and basketball. This wasn't just fun and games though! The sport was highly ritualistic, and they often held games alongside—you guessed it!—human sacrifices.

Aztec Civilization FactsWikipedia

21. Ulama Jamma

The Mesoamerican ballgame was around for centuries and saw many different variations. In fact, one version of the game, ulama, is still played today.

Mesoamerican ballgame on a brick wall visited by tourist

22. You Thought Hockey was Tough?

Even if the ballgame had nothing to do with human sacrifice, it would still be a brutal bloodsport. The heavy rubber ball, like a massive lacrosse ball, could seriously injure any players. The Spaniards noted that players of the game were usually covered in horrific bruises. They even reported seeing players die during games.

Aztec FactsWikimedia Commons

23. Why Fight?

According to some historical archives, different Aztec city-states would utilize the ballgame as a strategy to sidestep clashes that could escalate into combat situations. Instead of risking their combatants in conflict, they chose to resolve disagreements on the ballcourt. However, considering the brutality of the sport, perhaps open conflict might have been a more compassionate approach.

Aztec FactsFlickr

24. Play To Win… Or Die

The skulls of sacrificed former players would often line the courts used to play Ullamaliztli. As the sport was associated with a noble sacrifice, historians are unsure whether it was the winners or losers who faced the end of their careers after games. Wouldn't it be simpler to just retire a player's jersey?

Mesoamerican ballgame on a brick wall visited by tourists

25. Hold Onto Your Four Leaf Clovers

There were 365 days on the Aztec calendar, based on the movement of the sun. A year was divided up into 18 months, each with 20 days, and every day had a name. This left five "nameless" days at the end of the year which they considered to be very unlucky.

Aztec Civilization FactsMax Pixel

26. Good Eats

The Aztec diet consisted mainly of maize, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, beans, and chocolate. Aside from what they grew, the hunting of coyotes, armadillos, snakes, rabbits and wild turkeys was also common. They practically had their own Whole Foods!

Aztec Civilization FactsWikipedia

27. Forward Thinking

With a top-notch agricultural setup, the Aztecs also developed a comprehensive irrigation system that helped strengthen their civilization.

Aztec Civilization FactsShutterstock

28. When One Isn’t Enough

Polygamy was a widespread practice amongst Aztec males; although it did come with certain boundaries. While official records acknowledged all wives, only the first wife received a wedding ceremony. Furthermore, some historians believe the term "tying the knot" came from the Aztec wedding tradition of literally tying the bride and groom's robes together.

Aztec Civilization FactsShutterstock

29. Metropolis on a Lake

At its peak, Tenochtitlan was one of the biggest cities in the world. Historians estimate that the city held between 200,000 and 400,000 people at the time of Spanish arrival. In Europe, only Paris, Venice, and Constantinople would have been bigger—it would have been five times the size of London under Henry VIII.

Gwyneth Paltrow factsWikimedia Commons

30. I'm Getting Hungry!

Aztec cuisine is very much alive and well today—they mostly ate corn, chili, beans, squash, tomato, avocado, and chocolate. In fact, many common English names for foods (chocolate, tomato, chili, avocado, tamale, taco, pupusa, chipotle, pozole, atole) come from Nahuatl, the Aztec language.

NO to DRUGSFlickr

31. I Ate His Liver With Some Fava Beans

Xipe Totec (meaning "Our Lord the Flayed One"), was the Aztec god of agriculture, vegetation, the east, disease, spring, goldsmiths, silversmiths, liberation, and the seasons. They believed that he flayed himself to provide food for humanity. As such, followers of the god wore the flayed skin of prisoners during worship.

Aztec Civilization FactsFlickr

32. Property Sisters

As far as gender was concerned, Aztec society was fairly equal—at least compared to the patriarchal cultures in Europe. Women could own property, and both sons and daughters could inherit from their parents. This meant that women actually had a degree of financial independence from their husbands.

Susan B. Anthony factsShutterstock

33. Bad Omens

The Aztec Empire was at its height in 1517 when Emperor Moctezuma II received news that massive ships with strange warriors had arrived from across the ocean. He immediately sent envoys to greet them, and told people to keep him informed about their movements. The Spanish had arrived, and Moctezuma had no idea what was coming.

Earl of Sandwich FactsWikipedia

34. Countdown Clock

At first, Moctezuma welcomed the infamous Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors into Tenochtitlan. However, it quickly became clear that the Europeans had malicious plans for the Aztecs, and they soon became unwelcome. Hostilities finally erupted in 1520, when the Spanish carried out a brutal atrocity.

Charles V factsWikimedia Commons

35. The Beginning of the End

The tragic incident in the Great Temple unfolded in June 1520. Pedro de Alvarado, who was appointed by Cortes to oversee Tenochtitlan, unearthed a scheme against the Spanish. To prevent it, he planned a preemptive strike against the Aztecs, to take place during a religious festival. While nearly all of the city's nobles were in the Great Temple for a massive ritual, the Spanish launched an assault. Unarmed and unprepared, the Aztecs were utterly slaughtered.

Historians estimate that as many as 10,000 nobles, including Emperor Moctezuma himself, lost their lives on that day.

Aztec FactsWikimedia Commons

36. The Blame Game

The Spaniards justified their violent actions by claiming they were preventing a human sacrifice from occurring. The Aztecs claimed that the Spanish had a sheer desire to seize their gold. Regardless, they both agreed the attack was completely unprovoked. A few nobles managed to scale the temple complex walls and relay the news of the horrific event to the rest of the city, but most of them succumbed, trapped inside.

Crusades FactsPxHere

37. Pinch Me!

Built in the middle of a lake, Tenochtitlan was evidently a sight to behold. When the Spaniards, clad in their armours, first saw the city, they were captivated by its beauty, and many of them thought they were living a dream.

Aztec FactsWikimedia Commons

38. Who Needs Tractors When You've Got Canoes?

The Aztecs were masters of using Lake Texcoco to their advantage. Tenochtitlan's agriculture was based on "chinampas," artificial islands built on the lake to grow food. They could be cultivated year-round, they irrigated themselves, and they yielded an amazing amount of food. The chinampas were separated by narrow canals, and the farmers who tended to them got around by canoe.

School Trips FactsShutterstock

39. The Great (Aztec) Pyramid

The Templo Mayor was the centerpiece of Tenochtitlan. This immense structure boasted a colossal pyramid at its core, devoted to Huitzilopochtli, the deity of conflict and the sun, and Tlaloc, the god of rain and farming. The temple was actually rebuilt six times in the span of two centuries and reached its greatest size (over 60 meters tall) just before the Spanish Conquest.

After the Spanish took over, the razed the pyramid and build a cathedral in its place.

Aztec FactsWikimedia Commons

40. Mmmm... Sacrilicious

The Aztecs believed that Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc actually lived in the Great Pyramid. Every year during a religious festival, they built an idol of Huitzilopochtli out of amaranth seeds, honey, and human blood. Then, at the end of the festival, they broke the idol apart and gave it to the people to eat. Yummy.

Woodstock FactsGetty Images

41. Look! In The Sky! It's...Quetzalcoatlus?

Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of wind, was depicted as a massive feathered serpent. This ferocious image inspired paleontologists who discovered the skeleton of the largest flying animal ever. Called Quetzalcoatlus, this pterosaur had a wingspan of over 35 feet—the size of a small airplane!

Aztec FactsWikimedia Commons

42. Lake No More

Anyone who's been to Mexico City might be confused to hear that Tenochtitlan, the great floating city, once stood there. Why? Well, there's no massive Lake Texcoco anywhere to be seen near Mexico City. During the Aztec era, extensive dams were used to control the level of the lake, but they were destroyed during the Spanish Siege of Tenochtitlan. These were never rebuilt, and early Mexico City had to deal with almost constant flooding.

Finally, to stop the floods, Lake Texcoco was drained for good in the 20th century.

Natural Disasters FactsWikimedia Commons

43. Consequences

As it turns out, draining a massive lake isn't exactly good for the local environment. Several species from the region have since become endangered or gone extinct. The depletion of the water table has also left Mexico City unstable and vulnerable to earthquakes, and ironically enough, the city that was once built on a lake suffers from a severe lack of water.

Memorable Strangers factsPixabay

44. The Best Laid Plans

Tenochtitlan was meticulously planned. It had a remarkable symmetry, and any new buildings had to be approved by the calmimilocatl, who was in charge of all city planning.

Aztec FactsWikimedia Commons

45. Now That's What I Call a Palace

The Aztec Emperor lived in lavish palaces at the Empire's height. By the time of Emperor Moctezuma II, the palace had two separate zoos, one for mammals and one for reptiles, and paid 300 people to maintain them. His estate also contained an extravagant botanical garden and a massive aquarium with ponds for both freshwater and saltwater fish.

Great Escapes Facts Public Domain Pictures

46. I Prefer the Statue of Liberty

The Aztec's fondness for human sacrifice led to a truly horrific sort of public display. The "tzompantli," common across many different Mesoamerican cultures, was a massive skull rack meant to show off the skulls of sacrifices. Tenochtitlan alone had several of them, but the largest was in the massive Templo Mayor complex in the city's center. Archaeologists discovered this huge tzompantli in 2017, and it contained more than 650 skulls.

Burial Customs FactsShutterstock

47. You get a Sacrifice! And You get a Sacrifice! Everyone Gets a Sacrifice!

It seems the Aztecs just couldn't get enough of sacrifice. They sacrificed adults, children, and animals, depending on which god they meant to please. Some priests would practice self-mutilation and offer up their own blood as a sacrifice. And finally, while it's unknown just how widespread this practice was, some Aztec rituals featured cannibalism.

Eating Sins ExperienceShutterstock

48. Now You're Just Bragging

The Aztecs themselves reported that during the reconsecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan, they sacrificed more than 80,000 prisoners in just four days.

Aztec FactsWikimedia Commons

49. I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

The Spanish completely razed the city of Tenochtitlan within four years of arriving in Mexico—but they didn't do it alone. While the Aztec Empire was the most powerful state in the land, there were many smaller city-states who resented them. When Cortes set about conquering the Aztecs, he allied with many different indigenous factions, who helped him overthrow Aztec rule.

Aztec FactsWikimedia Commons

50. La Malinche

How did Cortes get so many local groups to fight for him? With the help of his constant companion, a Nahuatl woman remembered as La Malinche. She acted as his advisor and interpreter, and she was essential to Cortes's conquest of the region.

Aztec FactsWikimedia Commons

51. A Brutal End

Cortes defeated the Aztecs by trapping them within their resplendent city. The Siege of Tenochtitlan stretched beyond two months, and at its conclusion, upwards of 240,000 Aztecs had lost their lives. It's said that by the time the siege was lifted, 40,000 Aztec bodies were floating in the canals of the city, as there had been no way to bury them.

Aztec FactsWikimedia Commons

52. Not So Bad

On the other hand, the Spanish endured a loss of around 100 personnel during the siege. However, thousands of the indigenous allies did not survive the conflict.

Aztec FactsWikimedia Commons

53. Cover Your Mouth When You Cough

When Europeans crossed the Atlantic and encountered the Aztecs, they brought a bevy of diseases with them. While the Europeans had developed resistance to these illnesses, the Aztecs were completely vulnerable. Historians estimate that maladies such as smallpox, introduced by the Spanish, claimed the lives of approximately 20 million Aztecs. It's generally accepted that this, beyond armed conflicts, was the primary cause for the Aztec civilization's downfall.

Aztec Civilization FactsWikimedia Commons

54. Last But Not Least

Overthrown by the Spanish and neighboring enemy tribes, the fall of the Aztecs marked the last major Native American civilization.

Aztec Civilization FactsShutterstock

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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