General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Our In-House Team

Question for June 2012

Which was the biggest group [job sector] in Aztec society? Asked by Holy Trinity CE Primary School. Chosen and answered by Our In-House Team.

7 of these 8 Mexica workers are loadcarriers! Codex Mendoza folio 62r (detail)
7 of these 8 Mexica workers are loadcarriers! Codex Mendoza folio 62r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Without a doubt the largest sector of the working population in Aztec times were porters or loadcarriers, known in Náhuatl as tlamemehque. Roughly one in three ‘soldiers’ in the Mexica army was a porter. Basically, you name it, it had to be carried on the back in Aztec times! With no wheeled vehicles and no large pack animals, and very rough terrain in the highlands and plateaux of the Central Valley, the simplest solution was always going to be manpower - lots of it... Porters either used wooden carrying frames or simpler ‘tumplines’ - woven straps slung from the forehead down the back to distribute the weight evenly and effectively.

A ‘teomama’ or god-carrier (in this case Ehécatl carries Chicomecóatl), stone sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
A ‘teomama’ or god-carrier (in this case Ehécatl carries Chicomecóatl), stone sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

As Tenochtitlan expanded, the demand for porters grew steadily, especially to and from the city’s thriving markets (where the cost of a porter’s trip was valued at some 20 cocoa beans). Most Aztec professions were hereditary (you followed in your father’s footsteps) but in effect anyone could become a porter, and, if you owned no land of your own, poverty could and did easily push you into taking work as a porter.
Although they had low status in society, porters were still considered honourable citizens:-
’Marriage was referred to as a large carrying frame, a great burden. Thus, carrying was considered an honest occupation. Yet carrying also had negative connotations [associations]. The tumpline was thought to have been provided by the deity Cihuacoatl, along with other burdens and undesirable things. People born in the 13-day series beginning with 1-Jaguar were doomed to slavery, the digging stick, or the tumpline.’

Further information and quote from:-
Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno (Facts on File, 2006).

Picture sources:-
• Image from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London
• Photo of god-carrier figure by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

The carrying frame

Learn more...

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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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Good point, but bear in mind we don’t know how long the average porter’s ‘trip’ was, and 20 cocoa beans was hardly a lot of money: you needed around 30 to buy a small rabbit! We suspect Aztec porters were neither poor nor rich in those days, but at least they earned a ‘living’ wage...