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Chapter 12 - Aztecs

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The Aztec were a band of hunter-gatherers living on a small island in northwestern Mexico when their god, Huitzilopochtli (wee tsee loh POCH tlee), told them to leave their homeland.

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He said:"Go where the cactus grows, on which the eagle sits happily…there we shall wait, there we shall meet a number of tribes and with our arrow or with our shield we shall conquer them."

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They journeyed through deserts and over steep mountains.

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They were hungry and thirsty, hoping at every turn to see the promised sign:an eagle sitting on a prickly pear cactus, eating a snake.

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There was no time to grow food, so they ate fly eggs and snakes to survive. There was no time to weave cloth, so they wore animal skins for clothing. They journeyed through the fertile lands of tribes that were larger and stronger. These tribes looked down on the Aztec, calling them Dog People because of their barbarian ways. They did not allow the Aztec to settle. Besides, the Aztec still had not seen the sign.

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After 200 years of wandering, the Aztec came upon the promised sign. They found the eagle and a small, swampy island in Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. They named their new home Tenochtitlan,(tay nawch tee TLAN) " Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus." There they started to build a powerful empire.

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By the time the Aztec arrived in the Valley of Mexico in the early 1300s, powerful tribes had already claimed the most fertile lands in the area. So they settled on a soggy, uninhabited island in Lake Texcoco. The island was about 12 miles square in size.

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The future did not look good for the Aztec. Because the land on their island was mostly swamp, they couldn't grow crops such as corn for food or cotton for clothing. They learned to collect and eat algae from the lake.

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Also, the timber and stone they needed to build huts was scarce on the small island.      The Aztec, however, learned to use what was around them to their advantage.

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They used reeds and mud from the swamp to make huts. They caught and ate birds and fish that lived on the island or in the water around it. From the tribes around them, the Aztec learned a method of farming that was especially suited to the swampy areas in which they lived. This way of farming made use of chinampas, or "floating gardens."

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Chinampas are narrow strips of land about 300 feet long and 15 to 30 feet wide, almost completely surrounded by canals. The Aztec built these floating gardens around their central city. They used the rows of canals to tend the chinampas by boat.

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On these floating gardens, Aztec farmers were able to produce such vegetables as corn, squash, chili peppers, beans, and tomatoes.        The Aztec used canals around the chinampas to travel by canoe to the city of Tenochtitlan and nearby islands. They also raised roads to the mainland so they could also travel back and forth on foot. One causeway (roadway raised above the water) was over five miles long.

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The Aztec learned to be skilled warriors. As the number of Aztec warriors increased, so did the Aztec reputation for military skill.

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One of the greatest rulers of the empire was Ahuitzotl (ah WEE soh tl). He oversaw the completion of the pyramid of the Great Temple, which he dedicated to the god Huitzilopochtli.

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When Ahuitzotl died in 1502, his nephew, Moctezuma , became the new ruler. Like Ahuitzotl, he led his warriors into battles of conquest.  Under his rule, which lasted until 1520, the empire reached its greatest size, with a population of about 25 million people.

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