Origins of the Aztecs


People had lived in the Valley of Mexico for at least 12,000 years when the Aztecs arrived in the 14th century. Here the Aztecs ended their 200-year odyssey in search of their true homeland, following the command of their patron god Huitzilopochtli. They called themselves the Mēxihcah, or Mexica. The name 'Aztec' refers to their legendary ancestral home Aztlán, or 'the Place of Whiteness'.

The story of the long journey from Aztlan to Tenochtitlán is recorded in the Codex Boturini. Created between 1530 and 1541, the codex was created on a single, long sheet of fig bark by an unknown artisan. Codices are pictorial books that show Aztec beliefs, practices and history; several hundred codices written by colonial-era Aztecs survive, but there are very few left from the time before conquest.

From Outsiders to Victors

At first, the people of the Valley of Mexico regarded the Mēxihcah with suspicion, and treated them as serfs.

In 1323 the Mēxihcah persuaded a lord of the ruling Colhuacan dynasty to give his daughter in marriage to the Mēxihcah leader. When they sacrificed the princess bride, her furious father forced the Mēxihcah onto uninhabited land in the middle of Lake Texcoco. Here the Mēxihcah lived a tough existence as mercenaries for the local Tepanec kingdom.

In 1325 the Mēxihcah overthrew the Tepanecs and established their great city Tenochtitlán. Home to the massive Templo Mayor, the Aztec city-state grew rapidly and dominated the region. By the time Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th century, the Valley of Mexico was one of the most densely populated areas on Earth.

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