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Content created: 2008-08-21

Part 6 Part 8

The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (7)

Mexica Life

photo by DKJ
Field fences made of edible cactus are common throughout most of Mexico, providing privacy, food, and animal control all at once.

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 may see in a separate 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. (Click here to go to the Hopi reading.)

They were not, of course, the only crops. The common "beaver tail" cactus (opuntia vulgaris), for example, has fleshy edible leaves (nohpálli) 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])

13. The word "maguey" was borrowed into Spanish from the Taino language of the Caribbean. Although it has been re-borrowed into English from Spanish, English speakers outside of the Southwest are rarely familiar with it. Other names used in English are sisal, henequen, and hemp, although the last of these can also refer to a wide range of other fibrous plants.

14. A goddess named Mayáhuel was the patron deity of both maguey and pulque, as well as of intoxication and fertility (and today of riotous fraternity parties). She had 400 breasts, it was said, and she was mother of the 400 rabbits (the stars) and patron of days or years counted with the word for rabbit. Maguey was said to have been sprouted first on Mayáhuel's grave.

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. In some areas fields could be planted on a hillside and minimally maintained by a farmer supported in whole or in part by a rope tied to a stake in the ground above.

Diorama in Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Many plants will grow on steep hillsides, but that doesn't mean that farming them is easy. This museum diorama shows the use of a rope to tend corn on a cliff too steep to stand on.

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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