Science and Technology of the Aztecs
Aztecs made impressive advancements in a number of areas including agriculture, education and medicine. They were well known for their compulsory education system where both boys and girls had to go to school.
They invented farming methods for swampy land and made a variety of tools. They also had two calendars one for religious ceremonies and another for tracking time.
One of the most amazing things about Aztec culture was their ability to thrive in a difficult environment, surrounded by water. One of the most significant pieces of engineering that allowed the Aztecs to do this was their aqueducts.
The aqueducts were used to bring freshwater into Tenochtitlan, their capital city built on an island in Lake Texcoco. This water was essential for the survival of Tenochtitlan, as well as a number of other important religious and cultural activities.
The aqueducts had to overcome many environmental challenges, including sand and clay that were prone to flooding. The aqueducts also had to be designed in a way that would allow them to handle the changing flow of water due to evaporation and leakage. The aqueducts were also designed to ensure that the aqueducts stayed fresh and clean, which meant they had to have a very effective drainage system. The Aztecs used two main methods of irrigation for their crops: terracing and chinampas.
The Aztecs were keenly aware of the passage of time and developed sophisticated calendars to track the seasons and operate a farming system that fed millions. Their most famous monolith, the Sun Stone, has long been interpreted as a huge solar calendar. But new research suggests it may have a different function after all.
The Sun Stone is decorated with concentric circles of days, ‘weeks’ and years. The researchers suggest that these could be calibration markers, which would have helped the Aztecs achieve solar accuracy over a 52-year cycle.
The Aztecs used two interrelated calendar systems; one, called the tonalpohualli or ritual cycle, had 260 days and was religious in nature while the other, the xiuhmolpilli or civil calendar, had 365 days divided into 18 “months” of 20 days and five unlucky days tacked onto the end. Each day in the ritual year had a name and was associated with a particular deity, and this combination of names and numbers was used for divination.
The Aztecs were masters at agricultural technology, especially in the water. Their floating gardens, called chinampas, transformed swampy wetlands into fertile farmland, which helped to feed the massive empire.
When the conquistador Hernan Cortes arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519, he saw a city in the middle of a lake with lush gardens spreading out around it like an archipelago. The gardens were built on chinampas, raft-like structures constructed of foundation stones from the bottom of lakes and held together with reed mats.
Chinampas are still used today, including in the famed Xochimilco wetlands park, which is home to countless canals and a thriving ecosystem. And the Aztecs were also keen observers of nature, and experimented with a huge range of plants for their medicinal properties. For example, the passion flower was used to help put patients to sleep or ease pain during surgery, much as it is in modern medicine. The tequila plant, meanwhile, was used as an effective antispasmodic.
The Aztecs made bronze weapons, including the tlaximaltepoztli (figure 1.2). They also used gold and silver ornaments to signify wealth and power. They believed metal possessed animate characteristics and divine associations.
Metallurgy is the science that deals with extracting metals from their ores, purifying them and alloying them to create useful objects. By the time the Spanish arrived in Tenochtitlan, many Mesoamerican tradespeople had organized themselves into guilds that helped them hone their skills and protect their designs from competition.
Anthropologist Terry Stocker has suggested that one reason the Aztecs didn’t develop metalworking to a greater extent was that they already had obsidian, a naturally-occurring rock harder than steel and able to produce murderously sharp blades. Plus, obsidian leaves a record of its history in its fractured surface. When cast into bells, a form that was important to the Aztecs for reproducing the sounds of thunder and rain in their ceremonies, bronze was also a good replacement for obsidian.