General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Sep 2017/11 Vulture
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Our In-House Team

Question for October 2010

Did they send post (mail)? Asked by Fleetville Junior School. Chosen and answered by Our In-House Team.

Model of Aztec relay runner carrying a supply of fish, Post Office building, Mexico City
Model of Aztec relay runner carrying a supply of fish, Post Office building, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

At its height Mexica (Aztec) society was highly organised, and required a swift and efficient system of communication between imperial centre (Tenochtitlan) and the outlying regions and tribute centres on which it depended. The Mexica were a warrior people, and their success in war rested largely on the huge support structure - from loadbearers carrying supplies to couriers (runners) taking vital messages of command and information as fast as possible to and from the heart of the empire.

Aztec messenger, Codex Mendoza folio 70r (detail)
Aztec messenger, Codex Mendoza folio 70r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

News was generally sent by word of mouth, only on occasion ‘written’ using glyphs on blocks of wood or folded bark paper sheets. Messengers - paynani in Náhuatl - constituted a skilled and well-trained profession, often building up their fitness from a young age. A bit like London cab drivers, they knew the local highways and byways (there’s a special mention of ‘short cuts’ in the Florentine Codex!) like the backs of their hands. Many routes were peppered with staging posts - techialoyan - at regular (roughly 5-mile) intervals; these acted as store houses and bases from which a runner could be quickly despatched, covering the next section of the route at amazing speed as part of a relay of runners.

Native runner
Native runner

Dress codes were important among the Mexica/Aztecs, and messengers proved no exception: couriers actually ‘dressed the part’ according to the news they carried. If a messenger approached the emperor’s palace with untied, messy hair it was a sign that the Aztecs had suffered a military defeat, and no-one spoke to him. If he arrived with his hair neatly plaited, with coloured ribbon attached, and brandishing shield and club, it was a sure sign that he bore good news, and people would follow him to the palace to share in the excitement...

Picture sources:-
• Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our copy of the 1938 James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London
• Native runner illustration from www.paynani.com

Mexico’s long-distance running tradition

‘Meals on sandals’

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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