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The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (7)

Mexica Life

The Mexica, like their immediate allies and enemies, were lucky to live near a large lake, which provided aquatic animals (and other edible lake products) year round. But most of Mexico is mountainous. Despite rivers and a few lakes, it is subject to periods of dryness or even drought, like the drought that may have driven King Huémoc from Tóllan. The basic agricultural adaptation in this part of the world consists of maize, pole beans, squash (including pumpkin), and chiles. These were the Neolithic cultigens that made settled life possible in Mesoamerica and that, as we saw in an earlier reading on the Hopi, still make up most of the diet among the northern, Puebloan peoples. Not surprisingly, these were the crops planted by the Mexica.

They were not, of course, the only crops. The common "beaver tail" cactus (opuntia vulgaris), for example, has fleshy edible leaves (nohpalli) still eaten under the name nopal, borrowed into Spanish from Náhuatl.

Not all crops are food crops. Century plants or maguey (Náhuatl: metl [Note 13]) were grown for their fibers, which were used for rope and rough clothing, and later for a kind of rough paper. (Well, all right, maguey could also be fermented to make pulque, a kind of beer. [Note 14])

In steep mountain areas, farming was ideally done by terracing the mountainside to create a series of more or less level fields. However, none of the commonest crops required level ground to grow so long as water was sufficient, and in some areas fields could be planted and minimally maintained by a farmer supported in whole or in part by a rope tied to a stake in the ground above.

In marshy areas, chinampas were created by piling up mud drawn from under the water level, and we saw that creating chinampas was an early priority each time the Mexica were resettled. Chinampas, which were known throughout Mesoamerica, still exist in Lake Xochimílco, the surviving, southernmost, portion of Lake Tetzcóhco. They work well so long as there is a way to keep the mud from flowing down off of the islands and back into the water. Although woven reeds can be used, and are almost essential for a new installation, the most successful long-term solution to the problem is to hold the soil in place by planting water-tolerant willow trees (Spanish: huejote from Náhuatl: huéxotl) around each artificial island. The spaces between islands serve as canals to transport people and goods from island to island. But such canals need to be constantly maintained both to keep the mud from seeping back in and to keep reeds from choking these canals. The reeds, although a nuisance when they block canals, were also a crop, with a wide range of uses, including the construction of simple houses. Over the years the Mexica built more and more chinampas, greatly extending their arable land as they reclaimed more and more of the shallow lake for agriculture. (Click here for More About Chinampas.)


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