General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Sep 2017/9 Jaguar
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Our In-House Team

Question for March 2008

Did they have First Aid? Asked by Applecroft Primary School. Chosen and answered by Our In-House Team.

Florentine Codex, Book 11: treating a head wound
Florentine Codex, Book 11: treating a head wound (Click on image to enlarge)

The Spanish were the first to admit that Aztec First Aid was very advanced: ‘They have their own native skilled doctors who know how to use many herbs and medicines which suffices for them. Some of them have so much experience that they were able to heal Spaniards, who had long suffered from chronic and serious diseases’ (wrote the Spanish missionary Toribio de Benavente Motolinía in 1541).

To give just one example, the great ‘maguey’ (century plant cactus, from the agave family) has provided generations of Mexicans - including the Aztecs - with a common source of food, drink, clothing, writing and work materials of all kinds, AND herbal medicine.

Book 11 of the Florentine Codex records how the Aztecs used the cactus to heal head wounds:-

’The juice of the small maguey, when still tender, is later pressed out when it has been cooked, or it is boiled in an ‘olla’ [pot], well cooked; salt is mixed in [the water]. With it is healed one who is wounded in the head, or someone who is cut somewhere, or whom they have knifed. It is placed there where the head is wounded, or where he is cut.

Using ‘toloa’, a herbal painkiller (Florentine Codex, Book 11)
Using ‘toloa’, a herbal painkiller (Florentine Codex, Book 11) (Click on image to enlarge)

Possibly because the Aztecs were always going to war, they had plenty of opportunities to practise their skills at treating the wounded. Modern observers now believe that Aztec treatments of wounds were faster and more effective than Spanish equivalents; they’ve shown that the sap of the agave cactus contains highly effective antibiotic components - little wonder that it’s still used today in some parts of Mexico!

The full procedure for treating a battle head wound is to be found in Book 10 of the Florentine Codex:-

’First the blood is quickly washed away with hot urine. And when it has been washed, then hot maguey sap is squeezed thereon. When it has been squeezed out on the place where the head is wounded, then once again maguey sap, to which are added [the herb] called ‘matlalxihuitl’ and lampblack with salt stirred in, is placed on it. And when [this] has been placed on, then it is quickly wrapped in order that the air will not enter there, and so it heals. And if one’s flesh is inflamed, this medicine which has been mentioned is placed on two or three times. But if one’s flesh is not inflamed, this medicine which has been mentioned is placed on only once and for all.’

In other words, 1) wash the wound with warm, fresh urine, 2) treat it with a special plant leaf to stop the bleeding and then 3) dress the wound with hot, concentrated sap from the century plant cactus.

Treating a head wound, Florentine Codex Book 10
Treating a head wound, Florentine Codex Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

In healthy humans, urine is sterile - so now you know it’s an excellent way to clean a wound out in the fields! Perhaps Aztec warriors, after a hard battle, looked around for a poor wounded comrade to pee on, rather than let it go to waste...

Sources of images and information:-

Florentine Codex, Books X and XI - images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994

’Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition’ by Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano, Rutgers University Press, 1990

Florentine Codex, translated/edited by Charles E Dibble and Arthur J O Anderson, School of American Research & University of Utah, 1974

Our In-House Team has answered 20 questions altogether:

Did the Aztecs have different types of chewing gum to today’s?

Did the Aztecs have a god of snow?

Which parts of the Day of the Dead festival go back to the Aztecs?

Why did they put holes [gaps] in the [upright huehuetl] drums?

Was Snake Woman an Aztec empress?

How big was the Aztec army?

Did they have First Aid?

Which pet was the Aztecs’ favourite?

Why did they call them ‘chinampas’?

Did the Spanish have an interpreter when they conquered the Aztecs?

Which was the Aztecs’ most fearsome weapon?

Why was the Sun God called Tonatiuh?

Did they send post (mail)?

Did they have the same seasons as we do?

What did they do with the shells of armadillos after eating the meat?

Why didn’t Aztec houses have doors?

Which was the biggest group [job sector] in Aztec society?

Why is it better to support loads on the forehead and not on the shoulders?

When children were punished, how long were they held over smoking chillies for?

What was the Aztecs’ greatest fear?

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