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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Jan 2017/13 Monkey
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Two Aztec merchants walking along a hilly path

Basic Aztec facts: AZTEC TRANSPORT

Did you know that the Aztec empire spread hundreds of miles across the whole of Mexico? It is even more impressive that they travelled all of this distance without the use of wheels or large animals like horses and cattle. Read on to find out how these enterprising people got around... (Written by Julia Flood/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The Aztecs in their ancestral home, Aztlan. If you look closely you will see (to the left) an island in a lake with a pyramid in the middle of it
Pic 1: The Aztecs in their ancestral home, Aztlan. If you look closely you will see (to the left) an island in a lake with a pyramid in the middle of it (Click on image to enlarge)

The ease of canoeing
The Aztecs were a tribe that came from a distant homeland called Aztlan, in the centre of a large lake (pic 1). One day, their god Huitzilopochtli led them on a long pilgrimage south which took hundreds of years, and they eventually settled in another lake in the Valley of Mexico. They called their new home Tenochtitlan - we know it as Mexico City. Tenochtitlan was surrounded by water on all sides, but was also accessible via big roads, called causeways, and long canals along which canoes passed all day long.

Pic 2: Colonial map of Colhuacan from around 1580. This is modern day Ixtapalapa in Mexico City
Pic 2: Colonial map of Colhuacan from around 1580. This is modern day Ixtapalapa in Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Look at this native map of the town of Culhuacan, a suburb of Tenochtitlan (pic 2). Its canals are painted blue, and its causeways have foot symbols inside their lines to show that people walked on them. Can you see the bridges that allow people to cross each canal? They are coloured brown.

Pic 3: This is a map of Tenochtitlan according to Hernan Cortés, the leader of the conquistadors. Nuremberg Map, 1524
Pic 3: This is a map of Tenochtitlan according to Hernan Cortés, the leader of the conquistadors. Nuremberg Map, 1524 (Click on image to enlarge)

Tenochtitlan was full of canals and floating gardens called chinampas and the best way to get to and away from them was via canoe. Canoes were important because they made it much easier to transport heavy objects across the water rather than to drag them by road – remember, there were no pack animals or carts with wheels to make travel easier!
Pic 3 shows a Spanish map of Tenochtitlan. In it, the Aztecs go about their daily business transporting goods and travelling to their floating gardens by canoe. On the upper right hand side of the island is the great market of Tlatelolco. This place would have teemed with canoes arriving to offload their goods every morning.

Pic 4: From the Lienzo de Tlaxcala
Pic 4: From the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Click on image to enlarge)

Of course, canoes were also used for war. Pic 4 shows the conquistador Hernán Cortés with four Indian soldiers. They are being attacked on all sides by Aztec warriors in canoes. The Aztecs and other Indian cultures were very shocked when they first saw a Spaniard on top of a horse! To learn more interesting facts about Aztec canoes, how they were made, and what they were used for, follow the link ‘King Canoe’ below.

Pic 5: Spot the aqueduct...!
Pic 5: Spot the aqueduct...! (Click on image to enlarge)

Waterways
The Aztecs were very good engineers so we had to dedicate a little space here to the transport of water. The Acolhua ruler, Nezahualcoyotl, designed an incredible aqueduct that you can see in picture 5 (enlarged bit of pic 3). It follows the yellow causeway pointing directly upwards – a thin blue thread of water marks the aqueduct, which transported water from a nearby spring to the city centre.

Pic 6: A young man carries a heavy load. Codex Mendoza
Pic 6: A young man carries a heavy load. Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

Using the feet as transport
The Aztecs were no strangers to walking. As we have already mentioned, they went on a very long pilgrimage, and they were used to travelling overland for trade or to wage war. This is how they did it...
• Dress for war – many travellers walked in large expeditions. This is particularly true of the pochteca, a class of Aztec merchants. They were trained soldiers and went dressed for any eventuality. They travelled alongside apprentices, and cargo carriers (pic 6).

Pic 7: The Spanish enter Chalco. Lienzo de Tlaxcala
Pic 7: The Spanish enter Chalco. Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Click on image to enlarge)

• Bring heavy lifters – any wise traveller carrying a heavy load would make sure he hired a tlameme, or carrier. Tlameme carried bundles strapped onto a heavy frame. A head strap helped bear the weight evenly. The frame was so heavy that it was compared (as a metaphor) to the burdens of a nobleman’s duties. The tlameme in picture 7 is carrying packs for the Tlaxcalan and Spanish soldiers.
• Mind your money – hiring tlameme was not cheap because they couldn’t walk very fast and required hearty meals. Therefore, it was in the best interests of merchants to buy small items of high value that could be transported easily and more quickly.

Pic 8: A ‘titantli’ courier. Codex Mendoza
Pic 8: A ‘titantli’ courier. Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

Transporting messages
Special couriers, called paynani, were professional message carriers that kept Aztec nobles in communication with each other. They were also in charge of keeping the roads in good condition, and often stopped at road houses so that fresh couriers could relieve them. Other messengers, called titantli, travelled on diplomatic missions. Their dress of a fan and a staff were symbols of their imperial mission (pic 8).

Pic 9: A rural lord has sent two warriors to kill visiting Aztec merchants. You A can see their travelling frame and the fan and staff are diplomatic belongings of a messenger. Codex Mendoza
Pic 9: A rural lord has sent two warriors to kill visiting Aztec merchants. You A can see their travelling frame and the fan and staff are diplomatic belongings of a messenger. Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

Going by road?... beware!
The Franciscan monk, Bernadino de Sahagún lists seven types of roadway. The roads in Tenochtitlan tended to be called ohtli, and were main thoroughfares, kept wide and clean at all times. The pochteca merchants, however, travelled to rural places, on established routes, tracks or cross country. They were very wary on their travels and made sure their children understood the dangers (pic 9) of travelling by road:-
“Travel the road with warning lest thou stumble upon something. For desolate, ferocious, cruel and peopled by evil men, spreadeth the wasteland.” (Florentine Codex Book IV)

Pic 10: Four Aztec priests transport their god Huitzilopochtli (Left-Hand Humming Bird). He is in the bundle on the far right with his beak sticking out! Codex Boturini
Pic 10: Four Aztec priests transport their god Huitzilopochtli (Left-Hand Humming Bird). He is in the bundle on the far right with his beak sticking out! Codex Boturini (Click on image to enlarge)

Did you know? The Aztecs transported their gods!
When the Aztecs walked from Aztlan to Tenochtitlan they were led by their god Huitzilopochtli. He was carried on his priests’ backs in a sacred bundle. Here is an image of Huitzilopochtli making his journey (pic 10).

What is transport without wheels?
You might think that because the Aztecs walked or rowed canoes they hadn’t invented the wheel. Wrong! Click on ‘Just toying with wheels’, below, to find out how the Aztecs used the wheel!

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 27th 2015

emoticon Q. “What is it that has large ribs on the outside and which stands along the road?
A. The carrying frame.” Old Aztec riddle. Florentine Codex, Book VI.

King Canoe

Just ‘toying’ with wheels...

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