Monday, February 28, 2011

The Rise of the Aztec Empire

Aztec Punishments for Children in the Codex Mendoza

Aztec Sacrifice by the Anonymous Conqueror

Aztec Social Hierarchy

Aztec Social Hierarchy
This is a pdf file of the Aztec Social Pyramid. It's only one page but view it like a slideshow.

Aztec Emperors

Aztec Social Structure

Aztec society was composed of 20 groups called calpullis, which were something like clans or extended families. Land was owned by the calpullis rather than by individuals. Calpulli representatives formed a council that selected two men as rulers. The emperor, the "chief of men," was responsible for external affairs, such as wars and alliances. The vice-emperor, who was called Snake Woman after a goddess, supervised internal affairs. Both also had religious duties.

Aztec society was divided into a number of classes. Although people could advance to a higher level, most often by distinguishing themselves in battle, the usual pattern was for individuals to live out their lives in the class into which they had been born. At the top of the social order were government officials and priests. Next came traders and craftsmen. A special group of traders called pochteca brought luxuries such as gold, gems, and exotic feathers from distant areas and served as military spies. Below these groups were the farmers, who composed most of the population. Lowest in society were the slaves. Some slaves were captives or criminals, but most of the slaves were poor people who gave up their freedom in exchange for food, shelter, and clothing. They usually served as slaves for only a short period of time and were well treated.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Founding of Tenochtitlan

 A pictograph from the Codex Mendoza showing the founding of Tenochtitlan.

Tenochtitlan, the populous lake city of the Mexicas in the 14th and 15th centuries, has always fascinated me. And much of that fascination has to do with the story of the city's founding, memorialized in the dramatic, aggressive image of an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus, and a serpent wriggling in the grip of its talons and beak.

In his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, which reexamines Native American societies light of new scientific and archeological evidence, Charles Mann writes of this founding myth:
"The Mexicas [one of the three groups that formed the Triple Alliance in the 14th century, in the region around what is Mexico City today] fled to a swampy, uninhabited island" on Lake Texcoco. "According to an account by Hernando Alvaro Tezozomoc, grandson of the last Mexica ruler, the refugees stumbled about the island for days, looking for food and a place to settle, until one of the priests had a vision in a dream. In the dream, the Mexica's patron deity instructed his people to look in the swamp for a cactus. Standing on the cactus [the prickly pear cactus, called the tenochtli, which inspired the name of the town], the god promised, 'you shall see an eagle, warming itself in the sun.'"
A slightly different version of this is in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, by Nicholas Ostler. And since Ostler is an expert on languages, it is worth looking at his translation of the story from Nahuatl, the language of the Mexicas:
"It was prophesied that they [the Mexicas] must settle 'where the eagle screeches, where he spreads his wings, where the eagle feeds, where the fish fly, where the serpent is torn apart.' In the distance, on a prickly pear cactus, they saw this vision, of an eagle eating a snake. A voice cried out: 'O Mexicas, it shall be here!' But no one knew who spoke. They knew that the reedy but defensible islands in the middle of the lake should be their home, Tenochtitlan, 'place of the prickly pear'. It was the year ome calli, '2 House', 1325."
Inspired by this vision, the Mexicas went on to build an astonishing city on the islands of Lake Texcoco: Tenochtitlan was a sight to behold. One can only imagine what might have survived to the present day if disease had not wiped out the Mexicas and other Mesoamerican societies in the wake of the Spanish conquest. In 1491, Mann describes the Spaniards' reaction upon entering Tenochtitlan in 1519:
"Tenochtitlan dazzled its invaders - it was bigger than Paris, Europe's greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gaped like yokels at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright from goods from hundreds of miles away. Boats flitted like butterflies around the three grand causeways that linked Tenochtitlan to the mainland. Long aqueducts conveyed water from the distant mountains across the lake and into the city. Even more astounding than the great temples and the immense banners and colorful promenades were the botanical gardens - none existed in Europe. The same novelty attended the force of a thousand men that kept the crowded streets immaculate."
The Mexico City of today is built over the ruins of the lake city (the lake is now drained) of Tenochtitlan. And the image that guided the Mexicas to build the city now occupies a central place in the flag of Mexico.
Painting of the founding of Tenochtitlan, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

Images of Tenochtitlan

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Aztec Powerpoints & Websites

Here are a couple of Aztec Powerpoint Presentations. I found them on the internet.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The European Discovery of Australia

 There is some excellent information about  the European Discovery of Australia at the site listed below.

The Geelong Keys

A Rare 16th Century Hand Forged Key

The Geelong Keys were a set of keys discovered in 1845 or 1846 in the time of Governor Charles La Trobe at Corio Bay in Victoria, Australia. They were embedded in the stone of the beach in such a way as to make him believe that they had been there for 100-150 years (~1700 AD). Since the earliest proven English exploration of the area was by Matthew Flinders in 1802, writer Kenneth McIntyre suggested the keys may have originated with some earlier European explorers of the region, possibly Portuguese explorations.

The study of these keys was the subject of two pamphlets published by the Royal Society of Victoria in the 1870s. The first of these pamphlets suggested that the depth at which the keys lay indicated an age closer to 200-300 years. The second pamphlet repudiated this claim and was based on an interview with a limeburner who said that the keys may have been dropped down a hole to that depth. The Geelong Keys are often connected to the Mahogany Ship further west on Victoria's Shipwreck Coast also claimed to be a relic of early European exploration of the area. However, research by Geologists Edmund Gill and P.F.B. Alsop showed the age of the deposit in which the keys were found to be 2330-2800 years and this made La Trobe's dating highly implausible.

The error by La Trobe is quite understandable, according to Gill and Alsop, given that in 1847 most people thought the world was only 6000 years old.

The keys themselves, and all original drawings of them, have been lost.

(Information from the Wikipedia article on the Geelong Keys)
In 1871 Charles La Trobe wrote to the Australasian newspaper regarding a mysterious set of keys that had been found in Geelong some 20 years earlier when he was Superintendent of the Port Phillip District. He had been examining a newly excavated quarry in Geelong near the beach and was struck by a strata of shells a fair way above water level. Obviously either the water level of Port Phillip Bay had dropped over time or the land had risen. Upon remarking on this a workman commented that a set of keys had been dug out from this layer just the other day. The keys were fetched and examined. La Trobe and many since him speculated that they may have been dropped on the beach at an earlier period by previous European visitors. The earliest known English exploration was by Flinders in 1802 but the level of the shell strata suggested to La Trobe a period of several hundred years – a period when it was thought that Spanish and Portuguese ships may have been in the South Seas.

Now La Trobe was an amateur naturalist, a keen observer and “a sketcher of no mean pretensions”. He even made a sketch of the keys and there is no reason to believe that such a man would invent the story of the keys. Maybe the Geelong Keys indicate that Spanish or Portuguese sailors had landed on Australia long before Captain Cook.
With advances in scientific analysis we should now be in a position to determine the origins of the Geelong Keys. All we have to do is subject them to forensic analysis. So where are the keys kept. Aha, like any good mystery the evidence has disappeared. When the five keys were found they were given to some children. to play with. They lost one and gave one to a passing stranger before La Trobe was able to examine them. Now all keys are lost together with La Trobe’s sketch of them.

Well, what about the quarry? It has since crumbled and formed part of the cliff face at Limeburners Point.
That returns us to the oral and written records. William Buckley had lived with the local Aborigines and perhaps they might have stories of white men landing long before the English. However I am reliably informed that the only story they had about white men was an ancient legend that one day a great white god would appear in the area and kick nine goals in a losing grand final. La Trobe quotes the shell layer as being about 3 metres above high water level and under about 4 and a half metres of overburden. From today’s knowledge of deposits in the area, that would put it at over two thousand years old – long before modern metal keys. James Harrison noted in the same edition of the paper where La Trobe published his observations that metal objects where often embedded in new diggings to detect the leeching of certain metals. If for instance you came back and found a copper oxide coating on the keys you knew the soil was probably rich in copper. Perhaps they had been secreted there by a wily prospector.

But probably the most useful evidence comes from the archives of the Royal Society. In September 1849 Mr R.C.Gunn noted that La Trobe had shown him the two keys (the numbers keep decreasing) and he went to Geelong to investigate the discovery. On questioning the limeburner he found that the keys had not been dug out of the shell layer but found with shells at the bottom of the pit and assumed to have fallen from that layer. In practice they could have fallen from any layer including the top where a Geelong resident of the time may have dropped them. He said that he reported his findings to La Trobe. Perhaps 20 years later La Trobes recollections were rustier than the keys. However papers like Gunn's tend to destroy a good yarn and are thus rarely mentioned. And of course that does do not rule out the possibility that Spanish or Portuguese had landed on this coast or that even a ship may have been wrecked in Victoria - but that's another mystery for another day.

Meanwhile the people of Geelong go about their daily lives. Every so often a Geelong wife or girlfriend, during a routine search of their partner’s suit pockets, will come across a set of unfamiliar keys (sometimes with a heart pendant attached). “And where did these come from?” she asks. “I just picked them up off the shells while walking near the beach” he says. “I have no idea who they belong to”.

Thus the mystery of the Geelong Keys continues.

(Information from -

Columbus Cartoon (1960)

Here's the video we watched about Christopher Columbus. Remember that this was made in 1960 and reflects some of the ideas about race and civilization from that time.