General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Sep 2017/9 Jaguar
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Professor Michael E. Smith

Question for July 2015

If the Aztecs died of old age - if nothing went wrong - how long did they expect to live for? Asked by Dulwich Prep School. Chosen and answered by Professor Michael E. Smith.

Pic 1: Depiction of Aztec commoners: illustration by Felipe Dávalos (L), stone sculpture on exhibition in the British Museum (‘Moctezuma’)
Pic 1: Depiction of Aztec commoners: illustration by Felipe Dávalos (L), stone sculpture on exhibition in the British Museum (‘Moctezuma’) (Click on image to enlarge)

The average life expectancy for an Aztec was only 25 years. This is based on studies of the age at death of skeletons found in burials from the Aztec period. But this figure is a bit misleading, because the Aztecs - like many peoples in the developing world today - had high rates of infant mortality. Even though Aztec medicine was in many ways more advanced than European medicine at the same time (early Spaniards in Mexico preferred Aztec doctors to Spanish doctors!), there were just too many diseases and other causes of death for infants. When many infants die, these deaths bring down the average figure for life expectancy. After the Spanish conquest the life expectancy of people in some rural Mexican villages dropped to as low as 15 years because of the many epidemic diseases that raged through Mexico.

Pic 2: ‘One consequence of the low Aztec life expectancy is that people married at an early age’; illustration by Felipe Dávalos (top); detail of mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City
Pic 2: ‘One consequence of the low Aztec life expectancy is that people married at an early age’; illustration by Felipe Dávalos (top); detail of mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

But if an Aztec (before 1519) lived to be age 15, then the average life expectancy was 19 more years (age 34). So those who survived infancy were often healthy and sturdy individuals who would live a longer life. 34 years sounds like a short life today, but then people in western nations today have the longest life expectancy of any people who ever lived on earth.
One consequence of the low Aztec life expectancy is that people married at an early age. Men typically married at around 19 years of age, but the average age for their brides was 13 years! These married “women” started having babies within just a few years of their marriage. This custom upset an early Spanish Viceroy (official), Martin Enriquez, who complained about “the custom in the time of their paganism [that is, before the Spanish conquest] to marry almost at birth because no girl reached the age of twelve without marrying.”

This information is from works by demographer Robert McCaa. I discuss some of these facts in my textbook, The Aztecs.

McCaa, Robert
1994 ‘Child Marriage and Complex Families Among the Nahuas of Ancient Mexico’. Latin American Population History Bulletin 26: 2-11
2000 The Peopling of Mexico from Origins to Revolution. In A Population History of North America, edited by Michael R. Haines and Richard H. Steckel, pp. 241-304. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Smith, Michael E.
2012 The Aztecs. 3rd ed. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: illustration drawn for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos; photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: illustration (top) drawn for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos; photo by Evita Sánchez Fernández/Mexicolore.

Professor Michael E. Smith has answered 4 questions altogether:

Where did the aqueduct go to (from Tenochtitlan)?

Were there rich and poor in Aztec times?

If the Aztecs died of old age - if nothing went wrong - how long did they expect to live for?

Why did Aztec houses have no windows?

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