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Early Civilizations: Aztec Life

Early Civilizations: Aztec Life

John D Clare, Ticktock Publishing Ltd., Tunbridge Wells 2000

Beautifully, creatively and profusely illustrated, with good use of simplified versions of codex symbols

Unusual inclusion of a small number of useful websites

Unfortunately the book is peppered with loaded and biased adjectives and nouns showing that the author has fallen all too feebly into the temptation of stereotyping the Aztecs.  You can guess what effect the following will have on young readers: ‘(The Aztecs were) vicious, half-civilized nomads ... presiding over... an oppressive, bloodthirsty tyranny ... butchery unequalled in history... barbaric (culture) ... Ritual cannibalism was so common that some historians believe human flesh formed an important part of the Aztecs’ diet... children were indoctrinated ... they terrorized surrounding cities ...’

Predictably, the author opts to include, uncritically, the most sensational and exaggerated claims: that the skull rack near the main temple in Tenochtitlan contained ‘136,000 skulls’, that ‘huge numbers of victims were killed - 80,400 were said to have been sacrificed at one ceremony alone ...’ Suffice to say that archaeologists have yet to find any evidence to support such wild figures. Even Cortés himself limited his claims to some 3,000 Aztec sacrifices a year.

Clare, desperate to present the Aztecs in the worst possible light, lets his imagination run riot: the beautiful turquoise mosaic ‘butterfly’ mask in the British Museum ‘was used in an Aztec religious ceremony, and the person who wore it was probably sacrificed and eaten!’; ‘... captives were thrown into the fire alive but, before they died, were pulled out to have their hearts ripped from them. At the end of another ceremony, people took home the victims’ flesh, and ate it in a stew’; he talks of the ‘hells’ beneath the earth (the idea of hell was alien to the Aztecs); even the lives of humble citizens are distorted: ‘Sometimes peasants, ruined by drink, gambling or disaster, would sell themselves into slavery in exchange for a loan to the rest of the family ...’

Then there are the purely factual errors:
• “Nothing ever changed: people stayed in the class into which they were born” - not true, Aztec society, although strictly hierarchical, provided many opportunities for upward mobility, based on proven merit
• “The length of the rope was calculated so that they (the flyers in the Voladores ceremony) reached the ground in exactly 52 circles” - wrong: each of the 4 flyers circled 13 times, to give a total of 52 circles
• Tlachtli was anything but ‘tennis-like’!
• Unforgiveably, what Clare calls ‘a deadly ceremony’ in which ‘the captives were forced to dance all night, and were burned at the stake the next morning’ is in fact the festival of the 10th solar month depicted in the Codex Borbonicus, and the ‘captives’ are Aztec youths holding hands dancing round the high pole topped with paper banners and prizes made of dough that the youths had to try and snatch! (Judge for yourselves - look on our main Reviews page)
• The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan is not an Aztec construction
• “Just three years later, the Aztec empire had surrendered (to the Spanish)” -in fact it was two years later - ok, a detail, but careless nonetheless
• Chalchiuhtlicue is pronounced ‘Chal-cheeoo-tlee-kway’, not ‘Chal-chee-weet-lee-kway’ (if you’re going to put Nahuatl pronunciations in, for heaven’s sake get them right!)
• Any Mexican would fall about laughing at the idea that the Aztecs made hot chocolate by ‘boiling caca beans’!

Beautiful to look at though this book is, it does the Aztecs a great disservice by its sensationalist content. Not recommended.