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7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 10 - Mayans and Aztecs

What will we be learning in this unit?
  • What were the main features of the Mayan civilization?
  • How did the Aztec culture develop?


The World of the Mayas

  • Among the peoples influenced by the Olmecs were the Mayas. Between a.d. 300 and 900, Mayan city-states flourished from the Yucat - ¡n in southern Mexico through much of Central America.
  • Scientists have recently determined how Mayan farming methods allowed them to thrive in the tropical environment. Mayan farmers cleared the dense rain forests and then built raised fields that caught and held rainwater. They also built channels that could be opened to drain excess water. This complex system produced enough native corn, called maize, and other crops to support rapidly growing cities.

 


The World of the Mayas
  • Towering pyramid temples dominated the largest Mayan city of Tikal, in present-day Guatemala. Priests climbed steep temple stairs to perform sacrifices on high platforms, while ordinary people watched from the plazas far below. Some temples also served as burial places for nobles and priests. The Mayan pyramids remained the tallest structures in the Americas until 1903, when the Flatiron Building, a skyscraper, was built in New York City.


The World of the Mayas
  • Tikal also boasted large palaces and huge stone pillars covered with elaborate carvings. The carvings, which usually record events in Mayan history, preserve striking images of haughty aristocrats, warriors in plumed headdresses, and captives about to be sacrificed to the gods. 
  • Much of the wealth of Tikal and the other Mayan cities came from trade. Along roads made of packed earth, traders carried valuable cargoes of honey, cocoa, cotton cloth, and feathers to exchange with other people across Middle America.


 The World of the Mayas

  • Each Mayan city had its own ruling chief. He was surrounded by nobles who served as military leaders and officials who managed public works, collected taxes, and enforced laws. Rulers were usually men, but Mayan records and carvings show that women occasionally governed on their own or in the name of young sons. Priests held great power because only they could conduct the elaborate ceremonies needed to ensure good harvests and success in war. 
  • Most Mayas were farmers. They grew corn, beans, and squash - the basic food crops of Middle America - as well as fruit trees, cotton, and brilliant tropical flowers. Men usually cultivated the crops, while women turned them into food. To support the cities, farmers paid taxes in food and helped build the temples.

 


 The World of the Mayas
  • Along with their magnificent buildings and carvings, the Mayas made impressive advances in learning. They developed a hieroglyphic writing system, which has only recently been deciphered. Mayan scribes kept their sacred knowledge in books made of bark. Though Spanish conquerors later burned most of these books, a handful were taken to Europe and survive in European museums. 
  • Mayan priests needed to measure time accurately in order to hold ceremonies at the correct moment. As a result, many priests became expert mathematicians and astronomers. They developed an accurate 365-day solar calendar, as well as a 260-day calendar based on the orbit of the planet Venus. Mayan priests also invented a numbering system and understood the concept of zero.


The World of the Mayas
  • About a.d. 900, the Mayas abandoned their cities, leaving their great stone palaces and temples to be swallowed up by the jungle. Not until modern times were these "lost cities" rediscovered. 
  • No one knows for sure why Mayan civilization declined. Possibly, frequent warfare forced the Mayas to abandon their traditional agricultural methods. Or overpopulation may have led to overfarming, which in turn exhausted the soil. Heavy taxes to finance wars and temple building may have sparked peasant revolts. Still, remnants of Mayan culture have survived. Today, millions of people in Guatemala and southern Mexico speak Mayan languages and are descended from the builders of this early American civilization.


  Roots of Aztec culture

  • Long before Mayan cities rose to the south, the city of Teotihuac - ¡n had emerged in the Valley of Mexico. The Valley of Mexico is a huge oval basin ringed by snowcapped volcanoes, located in the high plateau of central Mexico. From a.d. 100 to a.d. 750, Teotihuac - ¡n dominated a large area. 
  • The city of Teotihuac - ¡n was well planned, with wide roads, massive temples, and large apartment buildings. Along the main avenue, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon rose majestically toward the sky. Citizens of Teotihuac - ¡n worshiped a powerful nature goddess and rain god, whose images often appear on public buildings and on everyday objects. Teotihuac - ¡n eventually fell to invaders, but its culture influenced later peoples, especially the Aztecs.

 


Roots of Aztec culture

  • In the late 1200s, bands of nomadic people, the ancestors of the Aztecs, migrated into the Valley of Mexico from the north. According to Aztec legend, the gods had told them to search for an eagle perched atop a cactus holding a snake in its beak. They finally saw the sign on a swampy island in Lake Texcoco. Once settled, the Aztecs shifted from hunting to farming. Slowly, they built the city of Tenochtitl - ¡n, on the site of present-day Mexico City. 
  • As their population grew, the Aztecs found ingenious ways to create more farmland. They built chinampas, artificial islands made of earth piled on reed mats that were anchored to the shallow lake bed. On these "floating gardens," they raised corn, squash, and beans. They gradually filled in parts of the lake and created canals for transportation. Wide stone causeways linked Tenochtitl - ¡n to the mainland.

 


  Roots of Aztec culture
  • In the 1400s, the Aztecs greatly expanded their territory. Through a combination of fierce conquests and shrewd alliances, they spread their rule across most of Mexico, from the Gulf of Mexico on the east to the Pacific Ocean on the west. By 1500, the Aztec empire numbered an estimated 30 million people. 
  • War brought immense wealth as well as power. Tribute, or payment from conquered peoples, helped the Aztecs turn their capital into a magnificent city.


World of Aztecs
  • Unlike the Mayan city-states, each of which had its own king, the Aztecs had a single ruler. The emperor was chosen by a council of nobles and priests to lead in war. Below him, nobles served as officials, judges, and governors of conquered provinces. They enjoyed special privileges such as wearing luxurious feathered cloaks and gold jewelry. Next came the warriors, who could rise to noble status by killing or capturing enemy soldiers. The majority of people were commoners who farmed the land.


World of Aztecs
  • At the bottom of society were the slaves, mostly criminals or prisoners of war. Despite their low status, slaves' rights were clearly spelled out by law. For example, slaves could own land and buy their freedom. 
  • Protected by Aztec power, a class of long-distance traders ferried goods across the empire and beyond. From the highlands, they took goods such as weapons, tools, and rope to barter for tropical products such as jaguar skins and cocoa beans. They also served as spies, finding new areas for trade and conquest.


World of Aztecs

  • The priests were a class apart. They performed rituals they believed pleased the Aztec gods and prevented droughts or other disasters. The chief Aztec god was Huitzilopochtli, the sun god. His pyramid-temple towered above central Tenochtitl-¡n. 
  • Huitzilopochtli, the Aztecs believed, battled the forces of darkness each night and was reborn each morning. As the Legend of the Suns shows, there was no guarantee that the sun would always win. To give the sun strength to rise each day, the Aztecs offered human sacrifices. Priests offered the hearts of tens of thousands of victims to Huitzilopochtli and other Aztec gods. Most of the victims were prisoners of war, but sometimes a noble family gave up one of its own members to appease the gods.

 


   World of Aztecs
  • Other cultures, such as the Olmecs and the Mayas, had practiced human sacrifice, but not on the massive scale of the Aztecs. The Aztecs carried on almost continuous warfare, using the captured enemy soldiers for a regular source of sacrificial victims. Among the conquered peoples, discontent festered and rebellion often flared up. When the armies from Spain later arrived, they found ready allies among peoples who were ruled by the Aztec empire.


World of Aztecs

  • Priests were the keepers of Aztec knowledge. They recorded laws and historical events. Some ran schools for the sons of nobles. Others used their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics to foretell the future. The Aztecs, like the Mayas, had an accurate calendar. 
  • Like many other ancient peoples, the Aztecs believed that illness was a punishment from the gods. Still, Aztec priests used herbs and other medicines to treat fevers and wounds. Aztec physicians could set broken bones and treat dental cavities. They also prescribed steam baths as cures for various ills, a therapy still in use today.