Credit: Courtesy of PBS site Conquistadors.
All about us we saw cities and villages built in the water, their great towers and buildings of masonry rising out of it…When I beheld the scenes around me I thought within myself, this was the garden of the world.
—Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Spanish conquistador
When the Spanish conquistador Hernan de Cortes and his army arrived in Tenochtitlan (ten-ohch-teet-LAHN), capital of the mighty Aztec empire, they were amazed by what they saw. The island city was built in the middle of Lake Texcoco, connected to the surrounding land by three great causeways. Stone aqueducts delivered fresh water to the city residents. A network of canals made up the city streets, and farmers grew vegetables on ingeniously constructed “floating gardens” (chinampas). There were palaces, parks, ball courts, a zoo, a bustling market, and an awe-inspiring temple complex. Tenochtitlan was the hub of a rich civilization that dominated the region of modern-day Mexico at the time the Spanish forces arrived. In this lesson, students will learn about the history and culture of the Aztecs and discover why their civilization came to an abrupt end.
Who were the Aztecs? Where and when did they live? What was their culture like? What were their major religious beliefs? What was their capital city like? What happened to them?
Read the entire lesson to get a sense of the content. Review the websites embedded in the activities. Bookmark them for easy reference. Access the basic map of Mexico found at the Xpeditions mapsite. Click off state borders. Download and print the map. Make copies for each of your students for Activity One. Have colored pencils or markers on hand for the map work. Establish five groups of students for Activity Two. Download and print out the lists of questions for each group provided in .pdf format. Download the list of websites for this activity provided in pdf format and make copies for the groups.
You can obtain additional background information about the Aztecs at Aztec Empire available through EDSITEment reviewed resource Internet Public Library and The Mexica/Aztecs, also available through and Internet Public Library. It would be useful to have on hand children's books about the Aztecs from your school library as supplementary materials.
Ideally, two or three students should work together at one computer in these activities. If there are not enough computers in your classroom for this, you might wish to have some of the students work on other projects while one group completes the activities.
Have the students carry out Web research to find out about the ancient Aztecs and answer the questions on the Student Version of the Meet the Aztecs chart, provided in pdf format. A Teacher Version of the chart has also been provided. They should visit the Conquistadors site and the Encarta pages on the Aztec Empire.
Have the students go to National Geographic's Xpeditions map site to find the geographical context of the Aztec realm. On the world map, click on North America, then click on the modern-day country of Mexico. Locate Mexico City, the country's capital—built on the site of the old Aztec capital.
Distribute blackline printouts of the North America map and have the students color in the country of Mexico. Distribute blackline printouts of the Mexico map and ask the students to draw a circle around Mexico City.
Tell the students that they will now learn about how the Aztecs lived. Explain that they will work in five groups, each group assigned to finding information about a specific topic. The topics are the following: the local environment, the Aztec social structure, food production and preparation; education and writing; and warfare. Assign the students to the groups and then hand out the appropriate sets of questions and websites provided in .pdf format to each group:
Distribute the lists of useful websites provided in .pdf format to each group.
Instruct your students to read each web page carefully and look closely at graphics before answering their questions. After gathering all the data required and filling out the question forms, each group should prepare a presentation of their findings. When everyone is ready, have the students share what they have learned so far about the Aztecs.
Like most early peoples, the Aztecs worshipped many nature gods. However, their main deities were Huitzilopochtli (weetz-ill-oh-PACHT-lee), the war god, and Tlaloc (til-AH-loc), the rain god. Tell the students that they will be learning about these two gods. Divide the class in half. One group will find information about Huitzilopochtli, the other will research Tlaloc.
The students should consult the websites listed in Activity One. In addition to these, the group working on Huitzilopochtli can find a picture of the god at Huitzilopochtli available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library. They can also learn about human sacrifices made to the god of war by revisiting Conquistadors-Mexico, going to page three of Aztec Life and Times, and clicking on "gods must be pleased."
The students should take notes and download whatever graphics seem useful. Copies of these can be made for other class members. Once the data have been gathered, have the students share what they have learned the two gods. Then draw a Venn Diagram on the board. Ask the students to name characteristics the two gods had in common and then to come up with those that were unique to each one. Write this information on the Venn Diagram. Then ask the students what conclusions can be drawn about the religious ideas and rituals of the Aztecs.
This activity should be done together as a large group. Study the legend of the founding of Tenochtitlan by accessing Conquistadors — Mexico available through Conquistadors. Go to page 2 of Aztec Life and Times. Have a student read aloud the first paragraph, then everyone should click on "an eagle perched on a cactus, eating a snake." Ask your students what they think the bird, cactus, and snake symbolize. (The Aztecs associated birds and feathers with the heavenly spirits, plants with this world, and snakes with the frightening underworld.) Inform the students that this image currently appears on the Mexican flag.
Now go to Tenochtitlan available through Conquistadors to access a map and brief description of the capital city. Read more about the Aztec capital at The Great City of Tenochtitlan available through Casa de Joanna.
Now return to Aztec Life and Times available through Conquistadors, access page 4 and click onto "land farmed communally" to learn more about the chinampas. Discuss this ingenious means of land reclamation. Ask the students what possible drawbacks might arise in this system.
The altars of the two gods, Huizilopochtli and Tlaloc, were the focal point of the capital city. To learn more about the pyramids upon which their shrines and altars were built, go to Tenochtitlan: Templo Mayor at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource ArchNet. Click on each image. Encourage the students to comment upon each image and to explain the role of the pyramid/temples in the lives of the Aztecs. You might ask your students if they can think of ways in which the Aztec pyramids differ from those of the ancient Egyptians. (The Egyptian pyramids were tombs, not temples, and, unlike the Aztec structures, they were not flattened on top. And no one would have thought of climbing them! Both types, however, were immense and were built of stone.)
Review the major topics you have covered with the class in Activities Two, Three, and Four. Then as a group make a list of ten major achievements of the Aztecs. Write these on the board as the students offer suggestions. Ask the students to rank these achievements in order of importance. Encourage debate about why one might be considered more significant than another.
Now explain that, despite the impressive accomplishments of the Aztecs, the city of Tenochtitlan—and, in fact, the entire Aztec civilization—was destroyed by about 200 Spanish soldiers. Brainstorm with the students about possible explanations for this. Mention that the Aztecs were at a disadvantage when the Spanish arrived on Mexican shores because of their mistaken belief that Conquistador Hernan de Cortes was the much-awaited Aztec god Quetzalcoatl (ket-zahl-co-AHT-ul). Read with your students about the prediction that this god would come from the sea at Omens of Doom available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Conquistadors. The Aztec ruler, Montezuma, sent the newly arrived Cortes gifts as one would to a returning god. Ask your students how Cortes might have responded to these gifts. (Here's a hint: the Spanish were very greedy!)
Despite their high hopes for a better future, the Aztecs were conquered by Spanish soldiers bent on obtaining gold and other riches as well as personal glory. The rich civilization was soon in shambles. Today, the ruins of Tenochtitlan lie beneath modern Mexico City. For a view of the ruins of the city, access Mexico City: View of Tenochtitlan Sacred Precinct available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource LANIC . Click larger image. There is another excellent image of the ruins at The Mexica/Aztecs, also available through Internet Public Library. Over a million people in Mexico still speak Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztecs, and there has been great interest in recent years to learn more about this rich civilization of the past.
The Spanish conquistador Cortes was certainly nothing like the benevolent god the Aztecs had been waiting for. Once the Spanish troops arrived in Tenochtitlan, fighting soon broke out. The Spanish had the advantage of guns (the Aztecs fought with arrows and spears). Eventually, most of those natives who were not killed or captured in the fighting succumbed to the European diseases for which their bodies had no immunity. Learn more about the dramatic clash between native armies and Spanish might by further exploring EDSITEment-reviewed website, Conquistadors.
5-7 class periods