The Early History of the Aztecs in Mexico

Aztecs sharing a meal - Codex Florentino

The rich, extensive Aztec Empire of Mexico discovered and later conquered by Spain’s conquistadores after 1519 had its beginnings in a tribe of social outcasts.

According to one modern theory, the first humans in the Americas were nomads from eastern Siberia who crossed the land bridge later covered by the Bering Strait up to twelve thousand years ago.

The Aztecs, Sons of the Dog

Among these nomads were the Chichimecs or “sons of the dog” who included the Aztecs.Unlike true nomads, though, the Aztecs had a destination, a place of permanent settlement that had been promised to them by their god Huitzilopochtli.

In around the year 1163AD, the Aztecs arrived at Coatepec in eastern Mexico. Here, settlement became sufficiently permanent for them to dam the nearby river and enjoy for some time a plentiful food supply. They had to move on, though, after the dam was destroyed.

In the Valley of Mexico

In 1168, they reached Tula, capital of the mighty Toltec empire but did so at the very moment when the empire succumbed to attacks by Chichimecs. Quite possibly, the Aztecs themselves played a part in the Toltecs’ downfall.

Tula lay some forty miles from Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico, which meant that the Aztecs were very close to the final destination promised them by Huitzilopochtli. Nevertheless, despite its proximity, they still had a great deal more wandering to do. The year 1299 found them at Chapultepec, a former Toltec stronghold, which now lay in the land of the Tepanecs, one of two great powers in the Valley of Mexico.

At this time, the Valley was a cauldron of rivalry and enmity, and here, the Aztecs, who were poor and powerless, were not made welcome. Neighbouring tribes, including the Tepanecs, attacked them, driving them from Chapultepec in 1315 and again, after a brief return, four years later.

Surviving Poisonous Serpents

At this nadir of their fortunes, the Aztecs appealed to Coxcoxtli, one of the rulers of Culhuacan on the eastern shore of Lake Texcoco, to the southwest of Chapultepec. Coxcoxtli allowed them to settle at Tizaapan, some six miles west of Chapultepec.

Tizaapan, however, was a fearful place and the Aztecs were not expected to survive among the vistas of volcanic rock and an environment thickly infested with poisonous serpents and other reptiles. The Aztecs confounded all expectations. Reputedly, they roasted and ate the serpents, and so impressed the Culhua that they were permitted to trade and intermarry and serve as mercenaries in Culhua wars.

Hundreds of Severed Ears

In one conflict fought against nearby Xochimilco, the Aztecs, armed with stone knives and wooden clubs, not only prevailed, bu returned to Culhuacan with hundreds of severed ears in baskets which they carried on their backs. These they poured out in front of a horrified Coxcoxtli to prove how many men they had killed.

The Culhua reaction was disgust and dismay at the bloodthirsty potential of their mercenaries. Subsequently, the Aztecs confirmed this opinion when they killed and flayed a young Culhua princess who was, ostensibly, to become the wife of Huizilopochtli. They then invited the victim’s father, Achitometl, to the wedding, where he came across a priest wearing his daughter’s skin.

Achitometl naturally demanded vengeance and the Aztecs were thrown out. They escaped to Acatzintlan on the shore of Lake Texcoco, where the water was shallow enough for them to cross.

An Eagle on a Cactus

A later narrative written in 1581 by a Spanish priest Fray Diego Duran recounted what happened next.

After reaching a small island in the lake, “they took shelter among the reeds and rushes, where “they passed the night in great anguish and sore affliction, with their women and children still crying and begging to be left there to die, as they could bear no more travails.”

Fortunately for these ferocious, if suffering people, their wanderings were very nearly at an end. Their legends recorded that Huitzilopochtli had decreed that the Aztecs’ final destination would be at a place where they came upon an eagle perched on a cactus plant.

Shortly after the Aztecs reached the small island on Lake Texcoco, they discovered a stream full of red and blue water. These were their symbolic colours of victory. Following the water to its source beneath a rock, the Aztecs found a cactus and on the cactus, a white eagle with a serpent gripped in its talons.

Tenochtitlan, the Cactus Rock

This, the Aztec priests declared, was the long-awaited sign from Huitzilopochtli, at the place the god had named Tenochtitlan, the place of the fruit of the Cactus or “Cactus Rock”. The year in the Aztec reckoning was equivalent to 1325.

Some two centuries later, the magnificent lake-borne city the Aztecs built on this marshy, uninviting site would amaze the Spaniards and today, the national flag of Mexico commemorates it with its central image of an eagle, standing on a cactus, holding a snake in its mouth.


  1. Carrasco, David and Sessions, Scott: Daily Life of the Aztecs: People of the Sun and Earth.(Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008) ISBN-10: 0872209334/ISBN-13: 978-0872209336
  2. Smith, Michael E: The Aztecs (Peoples of America) Oxford, Oxfordshire, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002) ISBN-10: 0631230165/ISBN-13: 978-0631230168