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The first Aztecs were farmers from northern Mexico. Around the 1100s they migrated south. When they arrived in central Mexico, they found that other tribes had taken all the good farmland. All that was left for the Aztecs was a swampy island in the middle of Lake Texcoco (tays-KOH-koh). To survive, the Aztecs hired themselves out as skilled fighters.

The Aztecs also controlled a huge trade network. Most towns in the empire had a market where local farmers and artisans brought their goods to trade. One enormous market near the capital drew buyers and sellers from all over the Aztec Empire. Merchants carried luxury goods such as gems and rare foods to sell there. Because these merchants dealt with people in many parts of the empire, the emperors used them as spies. These spy merchants reported trouble building in the empire.

War, tribute, and trade made the Aztecs rich. As they grew rich, they grew even stronger and conquered more people. By the early 1500s they ruled the most powerful state in Mesoamerica.




Nowhere was the Aztec Empire’s power and wealth more visible than in its capital, Tenochtitlán (tay-NAWCH-teet-LAHN). To build this amazing city, the Aztecs had to overcome many geographical challenges.

The city’s island location made travel and trade difficult. To make it easier to get to and from their city, the Aztecs built three wide causeways—raised roads across water or wet ground—to connect the island to the shore. The causeways were made of rocks covered with dirt. Tenochtitlán was surrounded by water, but the water was undrinkable. As a result, the Aztecs built a stone aqueduct, or channel, to bring fresh water to the city.

The city’s island location also limited land available for farming. To create more land for farming, they built “floating gardens” called chinampas (chee-NAHM-pahs). They made the gardens by putting soil on rafts anchored to trees in the water. The chinampas surrounded a central island that was the heart of the city.

Through the Aztecs’ efforts, Tenoch-titlán became the greatest city in the Americas. It had huge temples, a busy market, clean streets, and a magnificent palace. The first Europeans in the city were stunned by what they saw.

“These great towns and pyramids and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision . . . It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen, or dreamed of before.”
–Bernal Díaz del Castillo, from The Conquest of New Spain

At its height, Tenochtitlán was one of the world’s largest cities, with some 200,000 people. But the arrival of Europeans soon destroyed both the city and the rest of the Aztec Empire.



In the late 1400s Spanish explorers and soldiers arrived in the Americas. The soldiers, or conquistadors (kahn-kees-tuh-DOHRZDOHRZ), came to explore new lands, search for gold, and spread their Catholic religion.

A small group of conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés (er-NAHN kawr-TAYS) reached Mexico in 1519. They were looking for gold. Hearing of this arrival, the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma II (MAWK-tay-SOO-mah), believed Cortés to be a god. According to an Aztec legend, the god Quetzalcoatl (ket-suhl-kuh-WAH-tuhl) was to return to Mexico in 1519. Cortés resembled the god’s description from the legend. Thinking that the god had returned, Moctezuma sent Cortés gifts, including gold. With getting more gold his motive , Cortés marched to the Aztec capital. When he got there Moctezuma welcomed him, but Cortés took the emperor prisoner.

Enraged, the Aztecs attacked and drove the Spanish out. In the confusion Moctezuma was killed. Cortés and his men came back, though, with many Indian allies. In 1521 they conquered Tenochtitlán.

Reasons for the Defeat of the Aztecs

How did a few conquistadors defeat a powerful empire? Four factors were vital in the Spanish victory: alliances, weapons and horses, geography, and disease.
First, alliances in the region helped the Spanish forces. One important ally was an American Indian woman named Malintzin (mah-LINT-suhn), also known as Malinche. She was a guide and interpreter for Cortés. With her help, he made alliances with tribes who did not like losing battles and paying tribute to the Aztecs. The allies gave the Spaniards supplies, information, and warriors to help defeat the Aztecs.

The Spaniards also had better weapons. The Aztecs couldn’t match their armor, cannons, and swords. In addition to these weapons, the Spaniards brought horses to Mexico. The Aztecs had never seen horses and at first were terrified of them.

The third factor, geography, gave the Spanish another advantage. They blocked Tenochtitlán’s causeways, bridges, and waterways. This cut off drinking water and other supplies. Thousands of Aztecs died from starvation.

The final factor in the Spanish success was disease. Unknowingly, the Spanish had brought deadly diseases such as smallpox to the Americas. These new diseases swept through Aztec communities. Many Aztecs became very weak or died from the diseases because they didn’t have strength to defend themselves.

Together, these four factors gave the Spanish forces a tremendous advantage and weakened the Aztecs. When the Spanish conquered Tenochtitlán, the Aztec Empire came to an end.



People in Aztec society had clearly defined roles. These roles, along with social class, determined how Aztec men and women lived. Aztec society was organized into groups called calpullis (kahl-POOH-yees). A calpulli was a community of families that shared land, schools, and a temple. Each calpulli elected a leader who took orders from the king.

The Upper Class

Kings and Nobles

The king was the most important person in Aztec society. He lived in a great palace that had gardens, a zoo, and an aviary full of beautiful birds. Some 3,000 servants attended to his every need. Of these servants, 300 did nothing but tend to the animals in the zoo, and 300 more tended to the birds in the aviary! Other servants fed and entertained the emperor.

The king was in charge of law, trade and tribute, and warfare. These were huge responsibilities, and the king couldn’t have managed them without people to help. These people, including tax collectors and judges, were Aztec nobles. Noble positions were passed down from fathers to their sons. As a result, young nobles went to special schools to learn the responsibilities they would face as government officials, military leaders, or priests.

Priests and Warriors

Just below the king and his nobles were priests and warriors. Priests in particular had a great influence over Aztecs’ lives. They had many duties in society, including:

  • keeping calendars and deciding when to plant crops or perform ceremonies,

  • passing down Aztec history and stories to keep their tradition alive,

  • performing various religious ceremonies, including human sacrifice.

Aztec warriors also had many duties. They fought fiercely to capture victims for religious sacrifices. Partly because they played this role in religious life, warriors had many privileges and were highly respected. Warriors were also respected for the wealth they brought to the empire. They fought to conquer new lands and people, bringing more tribute and trade goods to enrich the Aztec civilization.

The Middle Class

Not really members of the upper class, merchants and artisans fell just below priests and warriors in Aztec society. Merchants gathered goods from all over Mesoamerica and sold them in the main market. By controlling trade in the empire, they became very rich. Many used their wealth to build large, impressive houses and to send their sons to special schools.

Like merchants, most artisans were also rich and important. They made goods like beautiful feather headdresses and gold jewelry that they could sell at high prices. Many of the richest artisans lived in Tenochtitlán. Other artisans, who lived outside the capital and made items for everyday use, lived more like the lower class. Artisans from other tribes often sent crafts to the Aztecs as tribute.

The Lower Class

Farmers and slaves were in the lower class of Aztec society. However, some people could improve their lives and positions by becoming warriors in the army or studying at special schools.

Most of the empire’s people were farmers who grew maize, beans, and a few other crops. Farmers did not own their land, and they were very poor. They had to pay so much in tribute that they often found it tough to survive. Farmers lived outside Tenochtitlán in huts made of sticks and mud and wore rough capes.

No one in the Aztec Empire suffered as much as slaves did. Most of the slaves had been captured in battle or couldn’t pay their debts. Slaves had little to look forward to. Most were sold as laborers to nobles or merchants. Slaves who disobeyed orders were sacrificed to the gods.



The Aztecs believed gods ruled all parts of life. Their gods’ powers could be seen in nature, such as in trees or storms, and in great people, such as kings or ancestors.

Like other Mesoamericans, the Aztecs always tried to please their gods. They believed sacrifice was necessary to keep the gods strong and the world safe. Aztecs made their greatest number of sacrifices to the war god Huitzilopochtli (wee-tsee-loh-POHCHT-lee) and the rain god Tlaloc (TLAH-lohk). The Aztecs believed the former made the sun rise every day, and the latter made the rain fall. Without them, their crops would die, and they would have no food.

To prevent this, Aztec priests led bloody ceremonies on the top of the Great Temple in Tenochtitlán. These priests cut themselves to give their blood to the gods.
Priests also sacrificed human victims to their gods. Many of the victims for these sacrifices were warriors from other tribes who had been captured in battle. Priests would sacrifice these victims to “feed” their gods human hearts and blood, which they thought would make the gods strong. Aztec priests sacrificed as many as 10,000 victims a year in religious ceremonies.


Scientific Achievements

The Aztecs made several advances in science. Many of these they accomplished by building on the achievements of the peoples they conquered. The Aztec system of tribute and their large trading network allowed them to learn skills from people all over the empire. For example, they learned how to build their floating gardens called chinampas from neighboring tribes.

The Aztecs also studied astronomy and created a calendar much like the Maya one. The calendar helped the Aztecs choose the best days for ceremonies, for battles, or for planting and harvesting crops. The Aztecs also knew many different uses for plants. For example, they knew of more than 100 plants that could be used as medicines.


Artistic Traditions

In addition to their achievements in science, the Aztecs had a rich artistic tradition that included architecture, sculpture, and jewelry. Both the architecture and the sculpture made use of stone. Workers built bridges and lined canals with stone. Carpenters and stonecutters built huge pyramid-shaped stone temples. Hundreds of such temples stood in Tenochtitlán.

Talented Aztec artisans used turquoise mosaics to decorate knife handles and masks. Artisans also used gold and colorful feathers to make jewelry. Aztec women wove cloth from cotton and other fibers and embroidered it with colorful designs.


Writing and Literature
The Aztecs had a complex writing system. They kept written historical records in books made of separate pages. Another name for this type of ancient book is a codex (KOH-deks). Many pages of Aztec books were made of bark or animal skins.

In addition to their written records, the Aztecs had a strong oral tradition. They considered fine speeches very important, and they also enjoyed riddles. These were some popular Aztec riddles at the time when the Spaniards arrived:

“What is a little blue-green jar filled with popcorn? Someone is sure to guess our riddle: it is the sky. What is a mountainside that has a spring of water in it? Our nose.”
—Bernardino de Sahagún, from Florentine Codex

Knowing the answers to riddles showed that one had paid attention in school. Stories about ancestors and gods formed another part of the Aztec oral tradition. The Aztecs told these stories to their children, passing them down from one generation to the next. After the Spanish conquered the Aztec Empire, these stories were written down. Much of what historians know about the Aztecs they learned from these written stories.


The Aztecs arose in Mesoamerica, in what is now Mexico. In South America another great empire arose. That empire belonged to the Incas. However, South America was the home of several civilizations before the Incas built their empire. These civilizations provided a foundation for the Incas. The Incas borrowed from the scientific and cultural achievements, such as farming techniques and craft-making skills, of these cultures.

Around 900 BC, complex civilizations began to develop in what is now Peru. These included the Chavín (chah-VEEN) culture in the highlands, and the Nazca, Moche (MOH-chay), and Chimú (chee-MOO) cultures on the coast.

Each of these cultures learned to adapt to its environment. In doing so they made scientific advances. For example, in the steep mountains, people made terraces for farming. On the coast they developed irrigation systems so they could farm in the desert. As a result, farming could support large populations both in the highlands and on the coast.

These early cultures also built some of South America’s first cities. In these cities people developed crafts such as textiles, pottery, and gold jewelry. Because the cities were also religious centers, religious symbols often appeared in the crafts. The influence of these early civilizations set the stage for the Inca civilization.

The Incas began as a small tribe in the Andes. Their capital was Cuzco (KOO-skoh). In the mid-1400s a ruler named Pachacuti (pah-chah-KOO-tee) led the Incas to expand their territory. He gained territory through agreements with other tribes or conquest.

Later Inca leaders continued to expand their territory. By the early 1500s the Inca Empire was huge, as the map on the previous page shows. It stretched from what is now northern Ecuador to central Chile and included coastal deserts, snowy mountains, fertile valleys, and thick forests. Around 12 million people lived in the Inca Empire. To rule this empire, the Incas formed a strong central government.


08 - INCA GOVERNMENTL_Americas_-_Inca_Quipu.jpg

The Incas didn’t want the people they conquered to have too much power. So they made the leaders of conquered areas move out of their villages. Then they brought in new leaders who were loyal to the Inca government. The Incas also made the children of conquered leaders travel to the capital to learn about Inca government and religion. After awhile, the children went back to rule their villages, where they taught people the Inca way of life.

The Incas knew that to control their empire they had to communicate with the people. But the people spoke many different languages. To unify their empire, the Incas established an official language, Quechua (KE-chuh-wuh). All official business had to be done in that language.

Although the Inca had no written language, they kept records with cords called quipus (KEE-pooz). Knots in the cords represented numbers. Different colors stood for information about crops, land, and other important topics.


The Inca government also controlled the economy. Instead of paying taxes, Incas had to “pay” their government in labor. This labor tax system was called the mita L_Americas_-_Inca_Mita.jpg(MEE-tah). Under the mita, the government told each household what work to do.

Most Incas were farmers. They grew crops such as maize and peanuts in valleys where the climate was warm. In the cooler mountains they grew potatoes. In the highest mountains, people raised animals such as llamas (LAH-muhz), animals that are related to camels but native to South America, for meat and wool.

As part of the mita, people also had to work for the government. Farmers worked on government-owned farms in addition to their own farms. Villagers produced cloth and grain for the army. Other Incas worked in mines, served in the army, or built roads to pay their labor tax.

There were no merchants or markets in the Inca Empire. Instead, government officials would distribute goods collected through the mita. Leftover goods were stored in the capital for emergencies. But their well-organized government couldn’t protect the Incas from a new threat—the Spanish.


A civil war began in the Inca Empire around 1530. After the Inca ruler died his two sons, Atahualpa (ah-tah-WAHL-pah) and Huáscar (WAHS-kahr), fought to become the new ruler. Atahualpa won the war, but fierce fighting had weakened the Inca army.

On his way to be crowned, Atahualpa got news that a group of Spaniards had come to Peru. They were conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro. Stories about the Spaniards amazed Atahualpa. One Inca reported:
“They and their horses were supposed to nourish [feed] themselves on gold and silver… All day and all night the Spaniards talked to their books and papers… They were all dressed alike and talked together like brothers and ate at the same table.”
–Anonymous Inca, quoted in Letter to a King

After he had heard of the Spaniards’ arrival, Atahualpa agreed to meet Pizarro. At that meeting, the Spaniards told Atahualpa to convert to Christianity. When he refused, they attacked. They captured Atahualpa and killed thousands of Inca soldiers.

To win his freedom, Atahualpa asked his people to fill a room with gold and silver for Pizarro. The people rushed to bring jewelry, statues, and other objects. Melted down, the precious metals may have totaled 24 tons. However, the Spaniards killed Atahualpa anyway. Some Incas fought the Spaniards, but in 1537 the Spaniards defeated the last of the Incas and gained control over the entire region.
The fall of the Inca Empire was similar to the fall of the Aztec Empire.

  • Both empires had internal problems when the Spanish arrived
  • Cortés and Pizarro captured the leaders of each empire.
  • Guns and horses gave the Spanish a great military advantage.
  • Disease weakened native peoples.

After defeating both the Aztecs and Incas, the Spanish ruled their lands for about the next 300 years.


Inca society had two main social classes—an upper class and a lower class. The Incas from Cuzco made up the upper class. As they conquered new lands, the conquered people became Inca subjects and joined the lower class.

Daily Life for the Upper Class

The king, priests, and government officials made up the Inca upper class. While most noble men worked for the government, women from noble families had household duties such as cooking and making clothes. They also took care of children.

Sons of upper-class families went to school in Cuzco. They studied Quechua, religion, history, and law to prepare for lives as government or religious officials.

Upper-class families had many privileges. They lived in stone houses in Cuzco and wore the best clothes. They didn’t have to pay the labor tax, and they often had servants. Still, as part of the Inca government, they had a duty to make sure that people in the empire had what they needed.

Daily Life for the Lower Class

Most Incas were farmers, artisans, or servants. There were no slaves in Inca society. Lower-class men and women farmed on government lands, served in the army, worked in mines, and built roads.

Parents taught their children how to work, so most children didn’t go to school. But some carefully chosen young girls did go to school to learn weaving, cooking, and religion. Then they were sent to serve the king or work in the temple in Cuzco.

Lower-class Incas lived outside Cuzco in small houses. By law they had to wear plain clothes. Also, they couldn’t own more goods than they needed.



The Inca Empire had an official religion. When the Incas conquered new territories, they taught this religion to the conquered peoples. But the people could still worship their own gods, too. As a result, the many groups of people who made up the empire worshipped many different gods.

The sun god was important to Inca religion. As the sun set earlier each day in the winter, at Machu Picchu priests performed a ceremony to tie down the sun and keep it from disappearing completely. The Incas believed their kings were related to the sun god. As a result, the Incas thought their kings never really died.

In fact, priests brought mummies of former kings to many ceremonies. People gave these royal mummies food and gifts. Some Inca rulers even asked them for advice.
Inca ceremonies often included sacrifice. But unlike the Maya and the Aztecs, the Incas rarely sacrificed humans. They usually sacrificed llamas, cloth, or food.

Incas outside Cuzco worshipped their gods at local sacred places. The Incas believed certain mountaintops, rocks, and springs had magical powers. Incas performed sacrifices at these places as well as at the temple in Cuzco.



The Incas had strong traditions of building, art, and storytelling. Many of their creations still exist today.


The Incas are known for their massive buildings and forts made of huge, stone blocks. Workers cut the blocks so precisely that they didn’t have to use cement to hold them together. Inca masonry, or stonework, was of such high quality that even today it is nearly impossible to fit a knife blade between the stones. In fact, many Inca buildings in Cuzco are still being used.

The Incas also built a system of very good roads in their empire. Two major highways that ran the length of the empire formed the basis of the system. Roads paved with stone crossed mountains and deserts. With these roads and rope bridges spanning rivers and canyons, the Incas connected all parts of the empire.




The Incas produced works of art as well. Artisans made gold and silver jewelry and offerings to the gods. They even created a life-sized field of corn out of gold and silver in a temple courtyard. Each cob, leaf, and stalk was individually crafted. Incas also made some of the best textiles in the Americas. Archaeologists have found brightly colored Inca textiles that are still in excellent condition.


Oral Literature

While archaeologists have found many Inca artifacts, there are no written records about the empire produced before the Spanish conquest. Instead, Incas passed down stories and songs orally. Incas sang about daily life and military victories. Official “memorizers” learned long poems about Inca legends and history. After the conquistadors came, some Incas learned how to speak and write in Spanish. They wrote about Inca legends and history. We know about the Incas from these records and from the stories that survive in the songs, dances, and religious practices of people in the region today.