General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
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Maquahuitl

This article was kindly prepared for us by Paul Wilding, who has for many years carefully researched - and in fact recreated in his London workshop - various examples of Aztec weaponry.

Picture 1
Picture 1

The Mexican Broadsword
In 1518 the expedition of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortéz landed in Mexico. Almost all of Mexico at that time was ruled by the mighty Aztec Empire, far more advanced and powerful than anything the Spanish had encountered before. After ten thousand years apart from the old world, Aztec technology had developed differently to that of the Spanish. Aztec medicine was much more advanced than the Spanish, Mexican society was much more conservative, the state organised compulsory schooling for all children, there was no money and no iron or bronze. Without metal Aztec weapons were very different to those of the Spanish. There were:Tepoztopilli, long spears with blade down the side, which were used for slashing unarmoured legs rather than stabbing people.

Picture 2
Picture 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Cuauhololli, a wooden mace with a heavy wooden ball at one end (bottom right of Picture 1). Atlatl dart throwers, as well as slings, clubs and axes. However it was one weapon that caught the Spanish’s imagination, the Maquahuitl. The Spanish called it a broadsword, “They have swords that are like broadswords, but their hilts are not quite so long and are three fingers wide; they are made of wood with grooves into which they fit hard stones blades which cut like a Toledo blade" - The Unknown Conquistador. The Maquahuitl was a thin wooden paddle with obsidian blades glued into it creating a ferocious cutting edge. There were many kinds. Most common were single handed versions, which were used with a rattan shield called a Chimalli. Many soldiers carrying these would have worn Ichcahuipilli, quilted cotton and maguey fibre armour soaked in salt water and the knights’ elaborate feather suits.

Picture 3
Picture 3

Other kinds of Maquahuitl just had blades down one side, not both. There was also the mighty two handed Maquahuitl which resembled a pole arm, and the miniature Maquahuilzoctli. Blades on Maquahuitl could be many shapes: triangular, straight and rounded were common. A Maquahuitl could have just 2 or 3 long blades making up one edge or more than 20 tiny blades. Maquahuitl could be made of plane wood, or elaborately decorated, with carved patterns, feathers, paint and precious jewels. The Maquahuitl is often confused with another Aztec weapon, the Bladed Club. Bladed clubs were heavy clubs with one or more blades inserted in them. Because they were a crushing weapon the blades had to be very big and strong to withstand the blow, making the club even more heavy and unwieldy. What makes the Maquhuitl different is that it is made from a paddle not a club. The paddle was an invention from the US which only arrived in Mexico in the Late Classic Era (bladed clubs had been around from 200 AD). With lightweight blades the Maquahutil was a sleek, skilful weapon similar to a sword. The Conquistadors mention the Aztec knights’ great prowess with it and images in the Codex Selden and Codex Nuttall give glimpses of fencing manoeuvres with it.

Picture 4
Picture 4

The Aztec empire had many elite soldiers, such as knights, but also most men in Aztec society could be called up for war at any time if needed. Aztec armies with allies and baggage could be over a hundred thousand strong. Aztecs had to have huge supplies of weapons at hand to arm these soldiers. Spanish accounts tell of huge armouries stockpiled with thousands of weapons ready for when war broke out. “Montezuma had two houses stocked with every sort of weapon; many of them were richly adorned with gold and precious stones. There were shields large and small, and a sort of broadsword, and two-handed swords set with flint blades that cut much better than our swords” (Bernal Diaz – The Conquest of New Spain). “The marqui ordered all the arms taken out of the arsenal we have mentioned, which were bows and arrows, spears and slings, and wooden swords with flint blades. There were about five hundred cartloads, and he had them burned“ (Andri de Tapia, The Conquistadors: First-Person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico).

Picture 5
Picture 5 (Click on image to enlarge)

The blades of a Maquahuitl were knapped. The process of chipping pieces off siliceous rock in a particular order. Knapping is very complex and requires planning ahead like a game of chess. Anthropologists judge how clever hominid species were by how complexly knapped the tools they made were. Native Americans achieved the highest standard of knapping anywhere on earth, and the Aztecs were up among the best. The material the Aztecs preferred to knap was obsidian. A natural glass formed by erupting volcanos when the lava hit water and cooled really quickly. Obsidian was reasonably easy to work compared to other materials and is the sharpest material known to man. Theoretically it is the only material in the world that can be sharpened to a single atom’s width. When obsidian wasn’t available other minerals were used such as flint and chert.

Picture 6
Picture 6

Aztecs quarried their own obsidian and received it as tribute from conquered tribes. The obsidian was worked twice, once at the quarry where one set of knappers would chip the huge nodules into smaller workably size piece called blanks or performs. This would remove much of the unnecessary material, making much more efficient transportation of this heavy resource with no carts. The preforms would then be sent to factories and workshops where knappers chipped it delicately into blades ready for use. These blades were then taken to store houses. The Aztecs were not the first people to wield the Maquahuitl. It was common amongst the Mixtec and Toltec hundreds of years before and had long been surpassed as a weapon by the bow. However the Aztecs still chose to use the Maquahuitl above other weapons.

A mass bow fire was more deadly than a Maquahuitl but you needed a huge supply of arrows. Whilst these might be available close to your home city, the Aztec empire was so large that sometimes campaigns meant marching a thousand kilometres to the edge of the empire and fighting for three months. With no wheels or beasts of burden, bows became a logistical impossibility. The Maquahuitl also offered many advantages. Spears made excellent phalanx, but what if you are in a jungle fighting guerrillas sniping at you, you need to run after them or if you are assaulting fortification and need to scale a wall. The Maquahuitl was an all purpose weapon, it could be used in pitched battles or small skirmishes, it easy to carry, easy to maintain on campaign and durable. Occasionally the Aztecs would lose battles to enemies who used mass bow fire such as the Tarascans and Tlaxcallans. But this was the price they paid for having such a general purpose weapon.

As the Spanish advanced on Tenotitlan the capital city of the Aztecs, ferocious battles were fought between Spanish swords and Mexican Maquahuitls. In one famous account a Spanish horseman got a nasty shock. “With their swords they cut spears, yea, and a horse neck at a blow, and make dents into iron, which seemeth a thing unprofitable and incredible” (Francisco Lopez de Gomara, The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the Weast). Whether a Maquahuitl could really cut the head off a horse is open to much speculation. The Spanish continually talked about the Maquahuitl’s deadliness. Contemporary tests by experimental archaeologists suggest the Spanish may have been exaggerating.

Whether a decapitating weapon or not, or whether a sword or not quite, the Maquahuitl is still a tribute to Mesoamerican ingenuity, as any Palaeolithic society on earth had the technology to invent it too, but only the Mexicans actually did...

Sources

Ancient Kingdom of Mexico – Nigel Davies

Aztecs Warfare – Ross Hassig

The Aztecs – Nigel Davies

The Conquistadors: First-Person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico - Patricia de Fuentes

The Conquest of New Spain - Bernal Diaz

The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the Weast - Francisco Lopez de Gomara

Andri de Tapia The Unknown Conquistador

Warfare & Society in Mesoamerica – Ross Hassig

Pictures

Codex Florentine

Codex Lienzo of Tlaxcala

Codex Laud

Codex Mendoza

Codex Vaticanus

Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus

Paul Wilding’s website
Video: ‘The True Aztec Macana / Macuahuitl - History, HEMA, and Misconceptions’ by The Poor Historian
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Mexicolore replies: You’re right, of course, Juan Alonso, but Paul was here just quoting faithfully from the English translation of Bernal Díaz’ book.