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Aztec (ăz´tĕk´), Indian people dominating central Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. Their language belonged to the Nahuatlan subfamily of Uto-Aztecan languages. They arrived in the Valley of Mexico from the north toward the end of the 12th cent. and until the founding of their capital, Tenochtitlán (c.1325) were a poor, nomadic tribe absorbing the culture of nearby states. For the next century they maintained a precarious political autonomy while paying tribute to neighboring tribes, but by alliance, treachery, and conquest during the 15th and early 16th cent. they became a powerful political and cultural group. To the north they established hegemony over the Huastec, to the south over the Mixtec and Zapotec and even ventured as far as Guatemala. Their subjugation of the people of Tlaxcala in the mountains to the east was bloody but only intermittent, and the Tlaxcala people later became allies of the Spanish against the Aztec. Only in the west, where the Tarascan Indians severely defeated them, did the Aztec completely fail to conquer.

The Aztec Civilization

By absorption of other cultural elements and by conquest the Aztec achieved a composite civilization, based on the heritage of Toltec and Mixteca-Puebla. They attained a high degree of development in engineering, architecture, art, mathematics, and astronomy. The Aztec calendar utilized a 260-day year and a 52-year time cycle. Aztec skill in engineering was evident in the fortifications of their island capital. The Aztec further developed sculpture, weaving, metalwork, ornamentation, music, and picture writing for historical records. Agriculture was well advanced and trade flourished.

The political and social organization was based on three castes—nobility, priesthood, and military and merchants. The priesthood was a powerful political as well as religious force. Aztec government was relatively centralized, although many conquered chiefs retained political autonomy; they paid tribute and kept commerce open to the Aztec. The Aztec had a large and efficient army. Prisoners of war were used for human sacrifice to satisfy the many gods of the Aztec pantheon, notably Huitzilopochtli, the chief god, who was god of war.

Spanish Conquest

When the Spaniards, under Hernán Cortés, arrived in 1519, the Aztec civilization was at its height. However, many subject Indian groups, rebellious against Aztec rule, were only too willing to join the Spanish. Initially, the invaders were aided by the fact that the Aztec believed them to be descendants of the god Quetzalcoatl. Montezuma, the last of the independent Aztec rulers, received Cortés, who made him prisoner and attempted to rule through him. The Aztec revolted, Montezuma was killed, and Tenochtitlán was razed (1521). Cuauhtémoc, last of the emperors, was murdered (1525), and the Spanish proceeded to subjugate Mexico.


See B. Diaz del Castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico (tr. by A. P. Maudsley, 1928, repr. 1965); A. Caso, The Aztecs, People of the Sun (tr. 1958, repr. 1967); L. Sejourné, Burning Water: Thought and Religion in Ancient Mexico (1961); J. Soustelle, The Daily Life of the Aztecs on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest (tr. 1961, repr. 1970); G. C. Vaillant, The Aztecs of Mexico (rev. ed. 1962); B. C. Brundage, A Rain of Darts: The Mexican Aztecs (1973); G. W. Conrad and A. A. Demarest, Religion and Empire: The Dynamics of Aztec and Inca Expansionism (1984); R. Hassig, Trade, Tribute, and Transportation (1985) and Aztec Warefare (1988).

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The Aztec were a nomadic Native American people who settled in central Mexico during the fourteenth century. In 1325, they founded the city of Tenochtitlan (the site of present-day Mexico City). The Aztec were a poor tribe but during the 1400s they conquered neighboring peoples to build a powerful empire that dominated the region for two centuries.

Although they were hunters (primarily deer, rabbit, and fowl), their economy was based on agriculture. Among other crops, they cultivated corn, beans, squash, sweet potatoes, papayas, cotton, rubber, and cacao (the chocolate bean). They cleared forests by a slash-and-burn method and dug trenches to create irrigation systems. They also practiced step-farming in the highlands by cutting terraces into mountainsides to create arable (farmable) tracts of land.

The marketplace was central to Aztec life, and trade flourished. But since the Aztec had no form of money, merchants bartered rather than sold their goods.

They worshiped many gods, including the god of the Sun and the god of the Moon, for whom they built terraced pyramids at Teotihuacan, in central Mexico. The tallest pyramid, built to honor the Sun, reaches a height of 216 feet (66 meters). Their chief god was Quetzalcoatl, who represented the forces of good and light.

According to legend Quetzalcoatl would return one day from over the sea. This belief at first worked in the favor of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes (14851547) who arrived in central Mexico in November 1519. Aztec emperor Montezuma (14661520) initially mistook Cortes and his group for heavenly hosts and presented the Spaniards with gifts.

The impressive city of Tenochtitlan bedazzled the European explorers. Besides being a marvel of engineering (with a system of causeways, canals, bridges, and aqueducts), it was home to an estimated quarter of a million people (more densely populated than any Spanish city at that time). It was also a thriving trade and cultural center. The Spanish explorers called it a Venice of the New World.

When the Aztec revolted in 1520, Cortes put down the insurrection and went on to conquer them, claiming Mexico for the Spanish in August 1521. Mexico City became the seat of the viceroyalty (a province governed by a representative of the king or queen) of New Spain. This designation remained throughout the colonial period.

See also: Inca, Mesoamerica, Native Americans (Treatment of), New Spain (Viceroyalty of)

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Slash-and-burn agriculture

Slash-and-burn agriculture refers to the process of cutting down a forest, burning the trees, and then using the cleared land to grow crops. This agricultural approachused mainly in tropical countriesis the leading cause of tropical deforestation.

Usually, some type of slash-and-burn system is used when vast areas of tropical rain forest are converted into large-scale, industrial farms. However, slash-and-burn is more often used by individual, poor farmers who migrate to the forest frontier in search of land on which to grow food. Poor farmers operate on a smaller scale, but since there are many such people, huge areas are ultimately affected. Slash-and-burn is an often permanent conversion of the tropical rain forest into farmland, leading to severe environmental problems.

Failures of slash-and-burn agriculture

Although many species of trees and other plants grow in mature tropical rain forests, the soil of many forested sites is actually quite infertile. This poor fertility is a direct result of the climate in which tropical rain forests exist. The warm, wet tropical climate is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and other microorganisms, which decompose or break down much of the organic matter in tropical soils. Heavy tropical rains leach (dissolve) much of the remaining organic matter or soil nutrients.

The plant species that are native to the tropical-forest ecosystem are well adapted to this soil infertility. (An ecosystem is an ecological community, including the plants, animals, and microorganisms, considered together with their environment.) They are able to absorb and conserve the small concentrations of nutrients in the soil. As a result, most of the organic nutrients in tropical rain forests are contained in the living vegetation, particularly in trees. After these trees are felled and burned, the nutrients are found in the remaining ash. However, this is a short-term phenomenon as the nutrients are quickly leached or washed away. The overall effect of slash-and-burn agriculture is a rapid decline in the fertility of the land.

Other environmental risks of tropical deforestation

Trees in tropical rain forests store huge quantities of carbon in their tissues, helping reduce the amount present in the atmosphere. The loss of tropical rain forests and the increased use of fossil fuels (such as oil and gas) have led to increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmospherewhat scientists call the greenhouse effect.

Old-growth tropical rain forests are the most highly developed and diverse ecosystems on Earth. Tropical deforestation, mostly caused by slash-and-burn agriculture, is the major cause of the great wave of plant and animal extinctions that is presently plaguing Earth.

[See also Forests; Rain forest ]

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Aztec (Tenochca) Native American civilization that rose to a position of dominance in the central valley of Mexico in c.ad 1450. A warlike group, the Aztec settled near Lake Texcoco in about 1325, where they founded their capital Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). They established an empire that included most of modern Mexico and extended s as far as Guatemala. The state was theocratic, with a number of deities whose worship included human sacrifice. The Aztec built temples, pyramids and palaces and adorned them with stone images and symbolic carvings. At the time of the Spanish conquest, Aztec society was based on the exploitation of labour. As a result Hernán Cortés was able to use disaffected tribesmen to help him defeat the Aztec in 1521. See also Central and South American mythology


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Az·tec / ˈazˌtek/ • n. 1. a member of the American Indian people dominant in Mexico before the Spanish conquest of the 16th century. 2. the extinct language of this people, a Uto-Aztecan language. • adj. of, relating to, or denoting this people or their language. ORIGIN: from French Aztèque or Spanish Azteca, from Nahuatl aztecatl ‘person of Aztlan,’ their legendary place of origin.

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Aztecbeck, bedeck, check, cheque, Chiang Kai-shek, crosscheck, Czech, deck, dreck, exec, fleck, heck, hitech, keck, lek, neck, peck, Québec, rec, reck, sec, sneck, spec, speck, spot-check, tec, tech, Toulouse-Lautrec, trek, wreck •Hayek • Baalbek • pinchbeck •Steinbeck • Warbeck •Brubeck, Lübeck •Uzbek • Beiderbecke • hacek •soundcheck • Dubcek • foredeck •sundeck • afterdeck • quarterdeck •Dalek, Palekh •fartlek • Chichimec • Olmec • redneck •breakneck • V-neck • bottleneck •swan-neck • roughneck • rubberneck •halterneck • leatherneck • turtleneck •henpeck • kopek • shipwreck • Hasek •Aztec • Mixtec • Toltec • infotech •discothèque • Zapotec

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Aztec a member of the American Indian people dominant in Mexico before the Spanish conquest of the 16th century. The Aztecs arrived in the central valley of Mexico after the collapse of the Toltec civilization in the 12th century. Their rich and elaborate civilization centred on the city of Tenochtitlán, which boasted vast pyramids, temples, and palaces with fountains. Aztec rulers (the last and most famous of whom was Montezuma) tended to be despotic, and captives taken in war were offered as sacrifices to the gods.

The name comes via French or Spanish from Nahuatl aztecatl ‘person of Aztlan’, their legendary place of origin.

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slash-and-burn agriculture See shifting cultivation.

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slash-and-burn agriculture See SHIFTING CULTIVATION.