General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
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Aztec canoes, Florentine Codex

King Canoe

Anything you canoe, I canoe better... At least one historian has calculated that there were between 100,000 and 200,000 canoes on Lake Texcoco at the time of the Spanish Conquest. That’s almost one canoe per person! (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: I’m a canoe - acanother canoe! (Apologies to Flanders & Swann...)
Pic 1: I’m a canoe - acanother canoe! (Apologies to Flanders & Swann...) (Click on image to enlarge)

Early Spanish writers commented on the fact that the lakes all round the Aztec capital were peppered with canoes of all shapes and sizes: carrying goods to and from the city (and especially the great market at Tlatelolco), removing waste, ferrying warriors and raiding parties and - as in Venice - doing many of the every-day transport jobs now carried out in cities by buses and lorries. River/lake/canal transport is - as the English discovered hundreds of years ago - a very efficient means of getting goods from A to B. In a society without wheeled vehicles or draft animals, the canoe played a crucial role in moving heavy loads. Indeed, the growth of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco into one of the world’s largest cities was certainly due in part to the huge success of the fast-moving, largely water-bound, traffic to and from the main market.

Pic 2: Teenagers hard at work fetching provisions for the home. Codex Mendoza, folio 60r
Pic 2: Teenagers hard at work fetching provisions for the home. Codex Mendoza, folio 60r (Click on image to enlarge)

And the island location had advantages too. From effective defense to a transport system based largely on canoe-supplied provisions, ‘the lake offered far greater transport efficiency than did land routes, in terms of movement of goods to and from the city’ (Professor Susan Toby Evans). Much of the transport took place at night, to avoid the heat of the day - it’s well known that the market at Tlatelolco was open 24/7, with its numbers swelling from the 40,000 average to as many as 60,000 on each (fifth) major market day.

Pic 3: An Aztec youth doing community service by transporting building materials needed to repair a temple by canoe. Codex Mendoza folio 63r
Pic 3: An Aztec youth doing community service by transporting building materials needed to repair a temple by canoe. Codex Mendoza folio 63r (Click on image to enlarge)

Most general-purpose canoes - those depicted in codices -averaged 14 feet in length, were dug out from a single tree trunk and with upturned ends, and were propelled by wooden pole (or paddle). It took about a week for a skilled carpenter to make a canoe from scratch, and it could cost the equivalent in the market of a single fine cotton cape. The Florentine Codex records the skill of the ‘water folk’ who made their living from the lake - which was not without its dangers (strong, treacherous winds and whirlpools were common: the most dangerous winds to the boatmen were known to be the northerlies and southerlies). The Codex also notes that the Aztecs attributed the invention of the pole for propelling boats to the god Opochtli, an aspect of Tlaloc, the rain god.

At the other extreme, the largest canoes, made of straight-grained spruce trees, were 50 or more feet in length, capable of carrying either 60 passengers or 3 tons of maize. Little wonder that the Náhuatl word for canoe was acalli or ‘water-house’, from the two words atl (water) and calli or house: the Spanish noted that Aztec boatmen would often sleep in their travelling canoes on long journeys...

Sources/further reading:-
The Essential Codex Mendoza by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, University of California Press, 1997
Everyday Life of the Aztecs by Warwick Bray, Dorset Press, 1968
Ancient Mexico & Central America by Susan Toby Evans, Thames and Hudson, 2004
The Aztecs (2nd. edn.) by Michael Smith, Blackwell, 2003

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: Florentine Codex, Book 2, (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence): image scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Picture 1: illustration by Felipe Dávalos, from www.latinamericanstudies.org/aztec-life.htm
• Pictures 2 & 3: images scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938 of the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)

‘The Indian Canoe’ by John Lienhard (The Houston Canoe Club)
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