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Mexicolore contributor Alexandra Biar

Lake navigation: a key cultural feature of the Mexica (Aztecs)

We are grateful to Alexandra Biar for kindly offering us this article on a little studied aspect of Aztec life, the control of lakes and waterways. Alex is a doctoral student in pre-Columbian archaeology at the University of Paris1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. We have removed academic references from the article, in favour of a Further Reading list at the end...

Pic 1: Flores (formerly Tayasal) island, Guatemala - not finally conquered by the Spanish until 1697
Pic 1: Flores (formerly Tayasal) island, Guatemala - not finally conquered by the Spanish until 1697 (Click on image to enlarge)

In contrast to other civilisations of the ancient world such as those of the Mediterranean or SE Asia, Mesoamerican cultures are not particularly well known for their maritime history or naval architecture. Nevertheless, it was vital for two famous lakeside cities in the pre-Hispanic world, Tayasal (Maya) and Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco (Mexica), to exert strict and complex management and control of their aquatic environment in order for them to establish their prosperity. It was precisely because of its location that Cortés, en route to Honduras in 1521, came up against Tayasal’s excellent defense system, that allowed it to hold out against the Conquistadors for some considerable time.

Pic 2: Map of ‘The Valley of Tenochtitlan as seen by Cortez’ published in 1869 by George F. Cram in Illinois
Pic 2: Map of ‘The Valley of Tenochtitlan as seen by Cortez’ published in 1869 by George F. Cram in Illinois (Click on image to enlarge)

We owe the first in-depth studies of Mesoamerican navigation to the British archaeologist Norman Hammond in the 1980s, who focused largely on the transportation of goods and traffic along the entire coastline of the Gulf of Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula. Historical sources show us that, alongside maritime navigation studied by Hammond, another very important form of navigation existed, that of rivers and lakes. Unfortunately, few researchers have taken interest in these freshwater examples, even though numerous writers have confirmed that they favoured the development of highly complex social structures. Indeed it is in the centre of the closed-water basins of Mexico’s central plateaux that we see the flourishing of great civilisations such as the Teotihuacano, Mexica or Tarascan, and a key correlation between their development and lake navigation systems has been systemically proven.

Pic 3: The city of Tenochtitlan and surroundings - painting by Miguel Covarrubias, National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City
Pic 3: The city of Tenochtitlan and surroundings - painting by Miguel Covarrubias, National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The city of Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325 by the Mexica on a small island within Lake Texcoco. In order to establish themselves at the centre of the powerful empire later confronted by the Conquistadors, the city’s inhabitants had to learn to dominate their environment – to exploit it to economic, political and religious ends. Not only did they take maximum advantage, like their contemporaries and like others before them, of one-man canoes carved from a single log of wood, but they developed complex technological systems in order to control their lakeside world, the supply of goods and the growth of towns and cities.

Pic 4: Canals and ‘chinampas’, Plano en Papel de Maguey (L); still active ‘chinampas’ (top R); illustration by Alberto Beltrán (bottom R)
Pic 4: Canals and ‘chinampas’, Plano en Papel de Maguey (L); still active ‘chinampas’ (top R); illustration by Alberto Beltrán (bottom R)  (Click on image to enlarge)

General environmental adaptation

The Mexica soon shaped the environment to suit their needs and to consolidate their power. The major hydraulic works that they and their neighbours on the lakes of the Valley of Mexico engineered fulfilled different objectives. The first and best documented of these, was clearly to reclaim land from the water using the ingenious system of ‘chinampas’ and canals, artificial physical extensions of pre-existing islands. As is well known, the invention of chinampas is probably due to the inhabitants of Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco, in the south of the Mexico Basin, and was intended originally as a means of developing intensive agriculture. It’s worth remembering here something clearly shown in the Plano en papel de maguey, that the chinampas of Tenochtitlan served not only as an area of cultivated land but also as a residential zone, implying control over the dampness of the soil.

Pic 5: Illustration of Tenochtitlan and lake landscape by Alberto Beltrán
Pic 5: Illustration of Tenochtitlan and lake landscape by Alberto Beltrán (Click on image to enlarge)

The second objective of Mexica engineering was that of controlling the disastrous fluctuations in lake water levels, by constructing canals, dykes and even aqueducts - public works that also helped reduce the (previously high) saline [salt] levels in the water. The benefits that these environmental changes brought served to complement each other and needed daily maintenance, with the use of lake crafts and a large, well organized labour force.
The canals of the island of Tenochtitlan, which earned the city the nickname Venice of the New World, criss-crossed the entire metropolis, creating a grid-like structure for the landscape and allowing fast communication both within and without the city. Thanks to the historian Edward Calnek and the architect Jorge González Aragón, we know that two grades of canals existed: regular ones that followed labyrinthine [maze-like] routes and which measured up to two metres in width, and main canals, facing East-West and measuring 3-5 metres in width. When we consider that the largest Aztec monoliths – such as the goddess Tlaltecuhtli weighing 12 tons and measuring 4.19 x 3.62 m – were transported on the lake, it stands to reason that some of the principal canals must have been at least 6 metres wide.

Pic 6: Removable bridges played a key role in the defense of Tenochtitlan; Florentine Codex Book XII
Pic 6: Removable bridges played a key role in the defense of Tenochtitlan; Florentine Codex Book XII (Click on image to enlarge)

The main canals, epitomized by the famous Acequia Real (Royal Channel) that ran along the length of today’s Corregidora Avenue from Mexico City’s Historic Centre, were ideal for carrying large boats - employed as much for transporting tribute items to the palace of Moctezuma as for bearing religious monuments, and processional celebrants. By contrast the regular canals carried a large volume of smaller boats with their daily loads of passengers and goods. Of course we shouldn’t forget that a significant part of urban traffic took place on land, suggesting the existence of fixed and moveable bridges – a fact confirmed in the accounts of the Spanish defeat during the Sad Night.

Pic 7: Part of the map of Mexico City drawn by Juan Gómez de Trasmonte in 1628, showing the aqueduct bringing fresh water from Chapultepec Park (bottom right) into the city; notice how the lake is disappearing...
Pic 7: Part of the map of Mexico City drawn by Juan Gómez de Trasmonte in 1628, showing the aqueduct bringing fresh water from Chapultepec Park (bottom right) into the city; notice how the lake is disappearing... (Click on image to enlarge)

The broad and lengthy causeways connecting the island of Tenochtitlan with the mainland served several purposes: firstly, as a means of communication by land; secondly, they acted as dykes to hold the water at bay, and complemented the great stone levee-bridge constructed under the leadership of Nezahualcóyotl, the wise king of Texcoco. The three main causeways were those from Tepeyac (to the north), Tlacopan (to the west) and Iztapalapan (to the south). It’s worth noting that this last one was built by the Xochimilcas, clear proof of the political power of the Mexicas and of their influence over neighbouring peoples.
A fourth, smaller, causeway was that of Chapultepec. This uniquely carried the aqueduct constructed in the decade following 1420 and re-built on the orders of Nezahualcóyotl two decades later, supplying fresh water to the island city of Tenochtitlan, surrounded by salty water. In the construction of these great public works it’s obvious that single-man canoes played a key role, helping to ferry materials and every-day goods.

Pic 8: The ‘Canal de la Viga’ in use in 1899
Pic 8: The ‘Canal de la Viga’ in use in 1899 (Click on image to enlarge)

Port installations, customs points and quays

It’s impossible to imagine life in Tenochtitlan and the coastal communities of the Basin of Mexico without navigation. Whilst it’s true that navigation is hardly mentioned in the historical accounts of great hydraulic works, its crucial role is evident from the descriptions of daily life and commerce, first and foremost in the southern lakes of Chalco and Xochimilco. In effect the documents describe the movement of products along routes that remained in use even into the first half of the 20th century, as in the case of the Canal de la Viga. These routes were privileged with installations such as harbours and jetties to control the flow of people and goods. Cortés himself wrote: ‘At each entrance to the city, where the canoes unload... there are houses where live officials in charge of supervising and taxing every product...’

Pic 9: Pre-Hispanic settlements around México-Tenochtitlan, painting in the Hotel Majestic, Mexico City
Pic 9: Pre-Hispanic settlements around México-Tenochtitlan, painting in the Hotel Majestic, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

This level of organization demanded the construction and fitting-out of facilities and buildings tailor-made for the moving, storing and monitoring of goods and people by government authorities. These installations included:-
Harbours: natural or artificial havens suitable for the (un)loading of cargo and (dis)embarkation of passengers by boat, and for the carrying out of maintenance.
Quays: places suitable for loading goods and people.
Port installations are in effect groupings of architectural structures that combine several complementary roles: custom points for the receipt and control of goods; warehouses and storage facilities; stalls and posts for buying and selling; jetties for the transfer of goods from dry land to lake transports, etc. The construction of these facilities requires both manpower and materials (wood, stone, lime, etc.). Unfortunately to date no archaeological remains exist of such facilities, making it harder to draw firm conclusions regarding their construction and purpose.

Pic 10: ‘Roldán Street and the [Alhóndiga] Wharf’ - painting by Casimiro Castro and J. Campillo, 1864
Pic 10: ‘Roldán Street and the [Alhóndiga] Wharf’ - painting by Casimiro Castro and J. Campillo, 1864 (Click on image to enlarge)

Given their importance to the Mexica economy and government, more archaeological work is badly needed in the search for port installations, several of which should be located at the periphery of Tenochtitlan and the surrounding lake shores.
A quay is generally an impermanent construction requiring considerable space, with a jetty whose size would be relative to the breadth of the canal serving it and to the volume of goods passing through. The archaeologist Francisco González Rul identified two types of quay: stone and wooden. Remains of these have been found under the present Palacio Nacional. We also have descriptions of them in historical records from the 16th and 17th centuries, and litho-/photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries. On the site of the famous pre-Hispanic and colonial quay (pic 10) on the corner of Alhóndiga Street and Corregidora Avenue stands today a stone bridge, evocative of Mexico City’s bygone lake-side past.

Pic 11: Pantitlán, Florentine Codex Book 1
Pic 11: Pantitlán, Florentine Codex Book 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

Dockyards: military or private establishments given over to boat building, repair, maintenance, and equipment. These facilities had to be located near large bodies of water and must have resembled hangars, capable of housing small canoes as well as larger, more important vessels. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún refers to them in his description of the ceremonies and sacrifices at the disposal site of Pantitlán, in the centre of Lake Texcoco: ‘When all were sacrificed, we took all the offerings... and we carried them to the place where the lake is called Pantitlán, which is found not far from the dockyards.’ And later (Book 2, Florentine Codex) he indicates: ‘And when [the fire priest] had cast away [papers in an incense ladle], then they turned the boat about... And when they had come to reach Tetamaçolco, where there had been embarking at the place of embarkation, thereupon there was bathing; then there was [returning] on the part of each [boat].’

Pic 12: Attendants fan feathers and play drums on Lake Texcoco accompanying the Spanish column on its approach to Tenochtitlan - detail from ‘Screen with scenes from the conquest of Mexico’ (colonial), National History Museum
Pic 12: Attendants fan feathers and play drums on Lake Texcoco accompanying the Spanish column on its approach to Tenochtitlan - detail from ‘Screen with scenes from the conquest of Mexico’ (colonial), National History Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

What’s interesting in these passages is the specific reference to places for the keeping and return of craft, and in particular those for ritual or military use, suggesting different types of lakeside storage facilities around the Basin of Mexico – for trade, for military purposes and for religious ceremonies. It would also imply different types of craft, for specific uses. We know, for example, that some vessels were of large dimensions, used in festivals to carry priests with their offerings, or the emperor and his court. According to historical sources, these boats were kitted out with benches and awnings to offer protection from the sun and the rain.

Pic 13: Warriors disembark from war canoes, Florentine Codex Book XII
Pic 13: Warriors disembark from war canoes, Florentine Codex Book XII (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally we should also recall the probable existence of large vessels for military use, as mentioned in the accounts of the Noche Triste (Sad Night) and of the victorious sally of the Mexica against the Spanish at the beginning of the siege of the city. The simple fact that the Conquistadors had to build brigantines proves the critical role these were to play in achieving eventual control of the lakes.

Vessel typology

16th century sources tell us much about the vessels used by the Mexica and their neighbours, from the construction materials they used, through their shape and trim, to details such as their form of propulsion, carrying capacity and uses. Careful analysis of the data suggests that, as in the case of the boats spotted by Columbus on the open seas, those of the Basin of Mexico were mainly one-man canoes.

Pic 14: Typology of Mexica canoes: a first attempt to identify and classify canoe styles shown in the historical sources
Pic 14: Typology of Mexica canoes: a first attempt to identify and classify canoe styles shown in the historical sources (Click on image to enlarge)

Based on detailed study of the different depictions of canoes represented in the codices – some of which show a wide variety of shapes and styles even on a single page - we are in a position today to draw up a typology of canoes in use in the Basin of Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries (pic 14), including a list of sources consulted for this study, showing the number of boats found in each:-
• (Early C16th) Codex Boturini (Mexico): 2
• (1524) Letters from Cortés (USA): 13
• (1540-41) Relación de Michoacán (Italy): 2
• (1541-42) Codex Mendoza (England): 9
• (1550-55) Uppsala Map (Alfonso de Santa Cruz) (Sweden): 21
• (pre-1560) Lienzo de Tlaxcala (private collection): 22
• (1540-85) Florentine Codex (Italy): 26
• (end C16th) Codex Azcatitlan (France): 4
• (1576-81) Codex Durán (Spain): 4
Total number of boats identified: 103
Total number of boats not identified: 40
Total number of boats included in this typology: 63.

Pic 15: Remains of an Aztec canoe, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. It measures 5 metres long and corresponds in our typology to type 1b
Pic 15: Remains of an Aztec canoe, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. It measures 5 metres long and corresponds in our typology to type 1b (Click on image to enlarge)

Our own research shows that all vessels sported a flat bottom, perfectly adapted to lake use, allowing their crews to manoeuvre them easily and speedily. When it comes to archaeological remains, the only examples of pre-Hispanic boats from the Basin of Mexico found to date are a wooden one-man canoe on display in the Mexica Hall of the National Anthropology Museum (pic 15) and a miniature model found in Offering 41 of the Templo Mayor, though we know other similar examples have been found in other parts of Mesoamerica. The single-person canoe in the Anthropology Museum was discovered in the 1960s along the Calzada de Tlalpan avenue; judging by its dimensions and load capacity we can estimate it was capable of carrying around a ton of weight – by our reckoning, after studying similar examples, a vessel able to transport a monolith as large as the Tlaltecuhtli figure. But this implies sufficient breadth, both of the canoe and of the canals along which it travelled.

Pic 16: Typology of Mexica paddles
Pic 16: Typology of Mexica paddles (Click on image to enlarge)

To the canoe typology we need to add one for the vital tools of propulsion. In the codices two different types of paddle are shown: one in the form of a long, broad spade, the other a heart-shaped spade. We should of course add mention of the pole, mentioned in the texts though not shown graphically.

Pic 17: Alhóndiga square and bridge at the end of the ‘Canal de la Viga’, in the heart of Mexico City, early 1900s
Pic 17: Alhóndiga square and bridge at the end of the ‘Canal de la Viga’, in the heart of Mexico City, early 1900s (Click on image to enlarge)

In conclusion, control of navigation and of the lake environment was essential for the inhabitants of the Basin in pre-Hispanic times, and vital in many respects for the Mexica. Single-person canoes were, without any doubt, the best proof of their adaptation to this geography, alongside the evidence for their prowess in hydraulic engineering. With the arrival of the Spanish and the ensuing technological, economic and political change, Mexica lake transport had to face a totally new challenge.

Pic 18: The bridge of Mexicaltzingo and canal boats
Pic 18: The bridge of Mexicaltzingo and canal boats (Click on image to enlarge)

Further reading:-
• ARMILLAS, Pedro, ‘Gardens on Swamps’, Science, vol. 174, 1971, pp.653-661
• BIAR, Alexandra, La navigation Mexica dans la lagune de Mexico: navigation et prise du pouvoir, MA thesis in pre-Columbian archaeology, Université Paris1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris, 2011
• CALNEK, Edward, ‘Settlement Patterns and Chinampa Agriculture at Tenochtitlan’, American Antiquity, vol. 37, no. 1, 1972
• HAMMOND, Norman, ‘Classic Maya Canoes’, The International Journal of Nautical Archeology and Underwater Exploration, no.10(3), 1981, pp.173-185
• SANDERS, W. T. and Barbara J. PRICE, Mesoamerica: the Evolution of a Civilisation, Random House, New York, 1968.

Pic 19: ‘Moctezuma’ exhibition, British Museum, London, 2010
Pic 19: ‘Moctezuma’ exhibition, British Museum, London, 2010 (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1, 4l, 8, 10, 14 (top), 15, 16, 17 & 18: images supplied by Alexandra Biar
• Pic 2: image scanned from our own copy (private collection)
• Pic 3: photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
• Pix 4 (top R), 9 & 12: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 4 (bottom R) & 5: images scanned from our own copy of The Sun Kingdom of the Aztecs by Victor von Hagen, Brockhampton Press, 1958
• Pix 6, 11, 13 & 14 (bottom R): Images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro facsimile edition of the Florentine Codex, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 7: image scanned from our own copy of La Ciudad de México (vol. 1) by Fernando Benítez, SALVAT, Mexico City, 1981 (photo by Armando Salas Portugal)
• Pic 14: graphic (top) supplied by Alex Biar; codex images from (L) Codex Azcatitlan fol. 1, (centre bottom) Lienzo de Tlaxcala fol. 42 (both supplied by Alex Biar), (centre top & right top) Codex Mendoza fols. 63 & 64 - images scanned from James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, (bottom R) image from the Florentine Codex Book XI (see above).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 10th 2012

‘Water and the Aztec Landscape in the Valley of Mexico’

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