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Renee McGarry, expert on Aztec flora and fauna

Introduction

We are most grateful to Renee McGarry, doctoral candidate in art history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, for writing this introduction to our new series of pieces on key creatures and wildlife in the Aztec world. Renee’s dissertation, Exotic Contact: Flora and Fauna in Mexica (Aztec) Visual Culture, considers how plants and animals are represented in Aztec sculpture and painted books.

Stuffed wildcat, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Stuffed wildcat, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

When considering the Aztecs’ vast and extensive knowledge of flora and fauna in the Basin of Mexico and beyond it is important to keep in mind that they did not always live there. In fact, they spent over 80 years migrating through Central Mexico to prepare them for the day that they would come to rule the region. During this time, they learned farming techniques, how to best utilize a variety of climates and altitudes to their benefit, and they saw a lot of flora and fauna that came to be a part of both their daily lives and their rich system of symbols.

Statue commemorating the founding of Tenochtitlan, Mexico City, by sculptor Carlos Marquina
Statue commemorating the founding of Tenochtitlan, Mexico City, by sculptor Carlos Marquina (Click on image to enlarge)

Before delving into the flora and fauna of Central Mexico, it’s important to take a step back and think about the environment that surrounded it. The Aztecs founded their capital city, Tenochtitlan, where they saw an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus which grew from a rock. This unlikely omen - arguably a product of divine intervention - appeared in a rather inconvenient location: the middle of Lake Texcoco. Faithful to their patron god, Huitzilopochtli, the Aztecs settled there and began about building a vast urban center at approximately 2,240 meters above sea level, surrounded by mountains that sometimes reached more that than twice that high.

Some of the few remaining (2010) chinampas outside Mexico City
Some of the few remaining (2010) chinampas outside Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The climate of the Basin is fairly moderate and has only two seasons, wet and dry. During Pre-Columbian times, there were five lakes which provided both fresh and salt water to the Aztecs. The Aztecs built dams and aqueducts to control the water flow from these lakes and to provide fresh drinking water to Tenochtitlan. The dams and aqueducts also maximized agricultural opportunities particularly when combined with a variety of temperature zones. This enabled year-round agriculture with some manipulation of the landscape, such as terracing on mountainsides or the creation of chinampas in the lakes. These modifications were one of the ways that the Aztecs were able to sustain such a large population.

Obsidian monkey receptacle, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Obsidian monkey receptacle, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Plants and animals were obviously symbols to the Aztecs. There was the eagle and jaguar society that only allowed in the most prestigious and commanding warriors. Gods had animal affiliates, such as Huitzilopochtli’s association with the hummingbird (his name translates to “hummingbird warrior”) or Quetzalcoatl’s association with the feathered serpent, a recurring character throughout Mesoamerican mythology. Snakes could be understood as fertility symbols. Monkeys were associated with the god of dance and music, Xochipilli. The cactus was an imperial marker. Each human had a nahualli, or an animal affiliate with which their spirit could be associated. There is no doubt that plants and animals had a strong cosmomagical meaning in the lives of the Aztecs.

Aztec stone grasshopper sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Aztec stone grasshopper sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

They also had an everyday meaning. Many plants and animals had a dual existence: a symbol and a part of everyday life. Dogs were one of two animal domesticates and served as companions and food as well as guides in the afterlife. Frogs were fertility symbols, part of the ecosystem of the lakes, and source of protein. Maize was the single most common agricultural crop and also the material the gods used to create a failed version of man under an earlier sun. The cactus was a boundary marker for villages as farms as well as an imperial symbol. Grasshoppers could become locusts and swarm, destroying an entire growing season. We also see discussion and representation of many other plants and animals of which there are no known double meaning: fleas, chía, amaranth, and turkeys to name just a few.

Recreated burial offering full of animal remains, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Recreated burial offering full of animal remains, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

How do we know anything about the flora and fauna that surrounded the Aztecs and its meaning? We know some of it through archaeology, particularly what was found at the site of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City. Archaeologists uncovered a large number of animal remains and discovered evidence of plant deposits (often as pollen remants.) They have also excavated large plant and animal sculptures both in the Templo Mayor and in the region at large. These intermediate- to large-sized stone sculptures are incredibly detailed but also provide only a schematic rendering of some plants and animals. Some sculptures include a dog, a feathered coyote, a frog, and more renderings of serpents than you can count.

Gathering ‘cacaloxochitl’, Florentine Codex, Book XI
Gathering ‘cacaloxochitl’, Florentine Codex, Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Like anything involving the Aztecs, a large quantity of our knowledge comes from a post-conquest source, particularly from a Spanish Franciscan missionary named Bernardino de Sahagún who lived in New Spain right after the conquest. He utilized a series of native informants to provide him with information about native life. He eventually compiled the answers, with his edits and annotations and some accompanying illustrations, into a 16-volume set entitled The Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. The lengthiest book is Book 11, Earthly Things, which describes more about plants, animals, and the natural world than you can even imagine. Of course, because Sahagún was asking the questions and indigenous inhabitants in the Basin of Mexico may have tailored their answers to better suit a missionary, it is hard to say that it’s completely accurate. Even still, it is one of the most extensive resources on the 16th-century natural world that resonates with modern-day readers.

Aztec stone pumpkin sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Aztec stone pumpkin sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Pairing The Florentine Codex with other colonial-period sources, archaeological evidence, and visual culture from the Aztec period allows us to have some understanding of their relationships to plants and animals. As time goes on, we will continue to learn more about the role of plants and animals in everyday life as well as in Aztec cosmology.

Picture sources:-
• All photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Image from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 27th 2010

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Mexicolore replies: Good question. OK, leave this with us for a while...
In fact we’ve asked a recognised expert on pre-Hispanic dogs, Dody Fugate, to write an article for us on this subject. Bear with us!
Mexicolore replies: Fire away! If we can’t answer your question we’ll always try and find someone who can...
Congratulations on your superb English, BTW!
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for your comments. We’re getting there! We are slowly adding to this section all the time, mainly thanks to Renee (see above). We’re certainly aware of the gaping gaps in content, but please bear with us...
We’re about (summer 2013) to upload a great new article on the jaguar...!