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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 24 Jan 2017/4 Eagle
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Aztec number symbol of 8000, attached to canes, Codex Mendoza

Basic Aztec facts: AZTEC NUMBERS

All the peoples of ancient Mesoamerica counted in 20s, not 10s like we do: probably because we all have 20 fingers and toes! It’s one of the oldest ways of counting in the world. There are still some villages south of Mexico where a person is called ‘a twenty’. For the Aztecs it was a number linked to their sacred calendar. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Two uses for a Mexica incense bag! (Drawing by Debs Tyler)
Pic 1: Two uses for a Mexica incense bag! (Drawing by Debs Tyler) (Click on image to enlarge)

In the top picture, from the Codex Mendoza, there’s an Aztec incense bag tied to a bunch of canes - part of a list of tribute paid each year to the Aztecs. If you saw an incense bag being held by someone (see Pic 1) - well, it was an incense bag. But if it was on its own as a symbol, it was being used as a ‘glyph’ to show a number: in this case 8,000. Pity the poor folk that had to pay the Aztecs 8,000 canes every year in tax!

Pic 2: The Mexica symbol for 20 - a banner or flag
Pic 2: The Mexica symbol for 20 - a banner or flag (Click on image to enlarge)

The symbol for 20 was a little flag or banner (see Pic 2), and the Aztec word for 20 was cempoalli meaning ‘one count’.
The first four Aztec numbers had simple names in their language, Náhuatl:-
1 = ce
2 = ome
3 = yei
4 = nahui

Pic 3: The Mexica symbol for one - a finger, circle or dot
Pic 3: The Mexica symbol for one - a finger, circle or dot (Click on image to enlarge)

Up to 20 you could show numbers just by the right number of dots (or sometimes fingers). It was common among other ancient Mexican peoples to use a bar for 5, but for some funny reason the Aztecs insisted on being ‘dotty’..............!

Pic 4: The Mexica symbol for 400 - a feather (or hair)
Pic 4: The Mexica symbol for 400 - a feather (or hair) (Click on image to enlarge)

From 20 up to 400 you could join flags together (100 would be 5 flags alongside each other) and add dots to them if need be.
400 - which is 20 x 20 - had its own symbol, a feather (see Pic 4). Some people say it was more like a hair or even a fir tree: the idea is the same, “as numerous as hairs or the ‘barbs’ [branches] of a feather...” The Náhuatl word for 400 was tzontli or hair.

Pic 5: The Mexica symbol for 8,000 - an incense bag
Pic 5: The Mexica symbol for 8,000 - an incense bag (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, 20 x 400 = 8,000, and the symbol for this was the incense bag or pouch (see Pic 5). The Náhuatl word for this was xiquipilli. Why a bag? Perhaps to show the almost uncountable contents of a sack of cacao beans. So drawing 8,000 of something was a bit like saying ‘a sackload’ of whatever it was... In fact the Aztecs/Mexica always measured their tribute by count and volume rather than by weight.

Thanks to our friend Felipe Dávalos for illustrating the number symbols specially for us!

emoticon By combining root words, ‘multiplier’ words (like 20) and word endings, the Aztecs could count up to 64,000,000
- a real ___ load of numbers!
AND, by the way, it was the ancient Mexicans who invented zero. Not exactly ‘featherweights’ when it came to Maths...

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: He’d put out an order for 8,000 bee hives! More seriously, he’d draw a pottery jar of honey, and ‘attach’ to it with a thin black line the glyph for an incense bag, meaning 8,000. Honey was traded, according to the Codex Mendoza, in ‘little jars’, not in bee hives.
Mexicolore replies: Yup, dead on.
Mexicolore replies: Thanks, Josie. In Náhuatl (the Aztec language) ‘friend’ would be icniuhtli, ‘hello’ is niltze! and the closest to ‘goodbye’ might be ‘Be well’ - Ma xipactinemi. (The ‘x’, BTW, is pronounced ‘sh’). Well, at least ‘hello’ is fairly easy!