Educational Questions & Answers

Settling South of the Border

Some of the most advanced and earliest civilizations in the Western Hemisphere were in what is now Mexico. Historians note that hunters lived in the area in 21000 BC or perhaps even before that. Cultivation of crops started in 8000 BC, with squash as the probable first crop. The Olmecs established the first primary Mesoamerican civilization somewhere between 1500 and 600 BC. Mayans were at the peak in the Mexican area around the 700's AD. Toltecs, a warring people, migrated down to Mexico from the north and established their empire in the Valley of Mexico in the 900's. Tula and Talncingo were cities north of present day Mexico City that they founded. Here a great civilization grew that can be seen today in the ruins of what were monuments and building of magnificence.

The Chicimeca pushed out the Toltecs during the 12th century. In the 13th century the Nahuatlans, made up of seven different tribes, arrived from the north. The Aztecs were the most advanced and powerful of these seven tribes. This was evidenced by the construction of Tenochtitlan, an island fortress city with its own causeway dam and fortress. The Aztec influence was seen throughout most of Mexico during the 15th century, helped in this by emperor Itzcoatl.

The Aztecs were a very developed and cultured people, advanced in art, intellect and agriculture, growing corn and depending on it extensively. Rich and strong, they build tremendous Aztec cities and banded together for social, political and spiritual strength. The explorer de Cordoba came to Mexico from Europe, finding Mayan civilization traces in Yucatan in 1517. The Cuban de Grijalva discovered the Aztecs along Mexico's east coast and took his tale back to his homeland. The governor of Cuba promptly sent the soon to be conqueror Cortes and a large complement of warriors to the region.

By this time 38 Aztec provinces had been established, all independent, some fiercely so. It was this internal strife that made the Cortes victory over the Aztecs possible. Nor did it help the Aztec cause that the Aztec emperor Montezuma welcomed Cortes, thinking that their soon to be conqueror was the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, also called the Plumed Serpent.

The Aztecs were divided into three groups - the slaves, the commoners and the nobles. Poor children got sold into slavery, a temporary indentured servant status, by their parents. Slaves could, however, pay to get out of their slavery. They could also flee to the royal palace and if they did so successfully they were no longer slaves. Commoners, except for the most lowly of them, were allowed to be homeowners and landowners. The tlalmaitl, the lowest, were all tenant farmers. Nobility was earned or born into. Priest and warriors, for example, earned nobility.

Early Aztecs worshipped at the altars of several gods. Their gods presided over the sun, the moon, the rain, the calendar, the Aztec writing, and resurrection. Aztecs produced many writings called codices, which archeologists have kept intact today. These writings, many with drawings, were made on animal hide or on paper. The Aztecs developed a 365-day, 18-month calendar. Each month was the same - 20 days each. However, five other days, called hollow days, were considered days of bad luck. The Aztecs haven't disappeared. There are more than one million of their civilization still around the Mexico City area. They don't practice modern day life, but rather subsist as illiterate farmers. Their religion is partly that of earlier Aztecs but also part that of present day Roman Catholics.

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Settling South of the Border