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) (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 (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 (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) (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 (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!
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...
Here's what others have said:
13 At 11.02pm on Monday November 14 2016, Jeanette wrote:
Hi I was wondering when the page on Basic Aztec facts: Aztec Numbers was published?
12 At 2.03pm on Thursday September 10 2015, lucy wrote:
it has really helped with my home work i do recommend this to any other kids who need help with the Aztecs.:)
11 At 10.20am on Friday January 10 2014, alisha wrote:
wow my teacher just asked us to do a powerpoint or a booklet on the Aztec and it was the best and so was the work shop thank you for helping us I know a bit of Spanish but I didn’t put my hand up because a was shy
10 At 4.48pm on Wednesday February 6 2013, stephanie wrote:
thanks helped with my posterboard!
9 At 7.47pm on Sunday November 11 2012, Andrew wrote:
thanks for helping me with my home work!!!!
8 At 5.46am on Friday November 9 2012, 1902937 wrote:
so what would the aztec emperor do to ask for 8000 bee hives?
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.
7 At 5.04am on Friday November 9 2012, 2345 wrote:
so 4 fingers, a flag and a feather added together would equal 424 right? in aztec by the way
Mexicolore replies: Yup, dead on.
6 At 4.58am on Friday October 26 2012, liz young wrote:
wow this was exactly what i was looking for thanks so much!!!!
5 At 4.11pm on Thursday May 24 2012, erica wrote:
i think its amazing to find what your looking for!
4 At 1.39pm on Monday April 2 2012, Josie wrote:
What is Friend and Good Bye and Hello in Ancient Aztec?
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!
3 At 7.36pm on Thursday February 16 2012, zippy wrote:
helped with homework
2 At 12.46pm on Saturday September 17 2011, bella wrote:
thanks for helping me with my home work!!!!
1 At 1.29pm on Tuesday November 23 2010, Aishah wrote:
I think you are right.