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Skilled naturalists and healers, the Aztecs left behind a rich cultural legacy

The Aztecs

Frances F. Berdan
Reaktion Books
232 pp.
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In Mexico, the Aztecs are far from lost, argues archaeologist and anthropologist Frances Berdan in The Aztecs, her contribution to the Lost Civilizations series. The current Mexican flag shows an eagle and a serpent on top of a cactus—a clear reference to a famous 16th-century Aztec depiction of the founding of their capital city, Tenochtitlan (now the site of Mexico City), in 1325. Moreover, the Aztec language, Nahautl, is still spoken by two million people. The Nahautl word for “email,” for example, is “tepozmecaixtlatiltlahcuilloli” (“apparatus where writing is delivered to your face”).

Knowledge of the pictographic and allusive Aztec script—which is no longer used, unlike its spoken counterpart—is to a great extent lost, however. The script has been reconstructed several times by various scholars, most recently by Gordon Whittaker in his painstaking book Deciphering Aztec Hieroglyphs (1). Spanish sources have proved crucial to the decipherment. The eagle-on-a-cactus hieroglyph, for instance, appears in the first folio of a postconquest Aztec manuscript known as the Codex Mendoza—created during the rule of Antonio de Mendoza, viceroy of New Spain from 1535 to 1550, following the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in 1521—in which the Spanish annotator comments that the image stands for Tenochtitlan, which “means, in our Castilian, ‘prickly pear cactus growing on a stone.’”

We are lucky that the codex survived, notes Berdan. After its completion around 1541, it is believed to have been carted by mule train down from the mountains to Veracruz, where it was loaded onto a Spanish treasure ship headed to Spain. The ship apparently fell victim to a seaborne attack by French privateers, and the codex ended up in France in the hands of a cleric and cosmographer to King Henry II. Having passed through four subsequent owners, all of whom fortunately acted as good stewards, it eventually came into the collections of the Bodleian Library in Oxford in 1659. Published in the mid-19th century, it appeared in 1992 in a definitive facsimile edition edited by Berdan and anthropologist Patricia Rieff Anawalt.

From this and other early colonial sources, we learn that the Aztecs had a strong interest in the natural world, including the heavens, although there is no evidence that they separated the natural from the supernatural. “They drew on their predecessors’ fount of knowledge based on millennia of celestial observations,” writes Berdan, including solar and lunar movements, patterns of eclipses, the repeated appearance of comets, and the occurrence of meteor showers. Using this information, they calculated the lengths of the lunar month and the solar year and the synodic period of Venus. Instead of a man in the moon, the Aztecs saw a rabbit. (According to their creation mythology, the gods hurled a rabbit onto the moon to dim it.)

Aztec physicians developed treatments for headaches, stomachaches, coughs, fevers, parasites, skin sores, insomnia, and unstable mental states, as well as for snakebites, broken skulls, and severed noses. According to one study, 85% of 118 plants used by the Aztecs that are “ethnohistorically identified with curative properties” are efficacious in modern medical terms (2). The hot sap of the maguey (agave), for example, was applied to wounds and is known today to inhibit bacterial growth. “Without the concept of bacteria at hand, the Aztecs could not phrase this cure in those terms, but their experience taught them that it worked,” notes Berdan.

Most of this knowledgeable and accessible introduction to the Aztecs—the fruit of a lifetime’s study—is concerned with matters such as food and drink, textiles and dress, pottery and art objects, dwellings and architecture, the social divisions of society, trade and the economy, religion and mythology, and, inevitably, the notorious Aztec penchant for human sacrifice. This latter custom was integral to Aztec myths and ceremonies. “Humans were burdened with a debt to their gods for their very existence,” and they believed they must repay it with their blood, and sometimes with their lives.

Some excellent illustrations add to the volume’s readability, yet one cannot help but notice the surprising absence of any substantial discussion of Aztec script. For that, the interested reader must turn instead to Whittaker’s highly detailed study (1).

References and Notes:
1. G. Whittaker, Deciphering Aztec Hieroglyphs (Univ. of California Press, 2021).
2. B. Ortiz de Montellano, Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition (Rutgers Univ. Press, 1990).

About the author

The reviewer is the author of Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009).