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Did the Aztecs use metal spears?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Vic Hernandez: I was recently told that the Aztec used spears, two designs in particular, the cuatopilli (wooden spear) and the tepoztopilli (metal spear), apparently the tepoztopilli had a metallic point while the cuatopilli had a broad head edged with obsidian blades in a similar fashion to a macuahuitl. I tried to look up this information but came up with nothing, and what I did found referred to the tepoztopilli but only described it as what a cuatopilli would have been. The only other clues that I found is that tepoztli refers to metal and topilli refers to a staff or pole in the Aztec language, so if you brake down cuatopilli you would get a reference to cuahuitl (wood) and topilli. Aside from language, it was mentioned by Bernal Diaz Del Castillo that an Aztec spear pierced his metallic armor, and I don’t think that wood and obsidian would be up to the task of piercing a steel breast plate, I would imagine only some kind of metal would be up to the task, but I can’t find anything regarding this information. I know that the Aztec used metallic elements in some weapons like axe blades and mace heads, is it possible that they used metal spear points as well? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Artist’s impression of an Aztec lance; illustration by Adam Hook
Artist’s impression of an Aztec lance; illustration by Adam Hook (Click on image to enlarge)

We don’t think the Mexica (Aztecs) used metal-bladed spears. Though some feathered darts have been found with copper points, and copper axes had been used as ‘heavy weapons’ in earlier times (and had long been a basic form of currency in Mesoamerica), ‘their employment by later Aztec imperial troops... was probably not widespread’ (John Pohl). Today’s Aztec warfare scholars (Pohl, Ross Hassig, Marco Antonio Cervera...) follow the example of Fray Motolinía in the 16th century by only mentioning obsidian-bladed lances. Obsidian, as Pohl explains, ‘is a disposable technology, the antithesis of labor intensive iron or steel. An obsidian worker can produce a blade in a matter of seconds, use it until it becomes dull or broken, and then simply strike a new blade to refit a weapon under virtually any kind of field conditions including combat itself’. Advantage obsidian!
We can’t find any references to ‘cuatopilli’. The nearest word in Nahuatl we can find is cuauhtopilli which, according to Kartunnen’s dictionary, means a ‘cross decorated with flowers’. Wooden roundhead clubs or maces were called cuauhololli.

Aztec elite officers with lances, Codex Mendoza folio 67
Aztec elite officers with lances, Codex Mendoza folio 67 (Click on image to enlarge)

According to Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Spanish accounts of Aztec thrusting spears mentioned that they were longer than the Spanish equivalent and cut better than Spanish knives. ‘The length of the blade indicates that they were used to slash and not simply to thrust’, and you’re right, one of these weapons did puncture Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s metal armour ‘only to be stopped by the thick underpadding of cotton’.
You’re right about the Nahuatl words. However research in this field can be tricky: whilst tepoztli does mean metal in general, teputztli means one’s back or shoulders, and Cervera, in his book Guerreros Aztecas calls the weapon in question a teputzopilli. A bit of a minefield!

Aztec warriors with thrusting spears. Codex Durán fol. 30a (detail)
Aztec warriors with thrusting spears. Codex Durán fol. 30a (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec Warrior AD 1325-1521 by John Pohl, Osprey Publishing, 2001
Guerreros Aztecas by Marco Antonio Cervera Obregón, Ediciones Nautilus, S.L., Madrid, 2011
Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Facts on File Inc., NY, 2006
An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl by Frances Kartunnen, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992
Diccionario de la lengua Nahuatl o mexicana by Rémi Siméon, Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1991

Picture sources:-
• Artist’s impression of an Aztec lance by Adam Hook, courtesy of Osprey Publishing
• Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Image from the Codex Durán (also known as Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de Tierra Firme, scanned from our own copy of the Arrendadora Internacional edition, Mexico, 1990.

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