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Article suitable for older students

Mexicolore contributor Professor Liz Graham

The Aztecs and the Maya

We’re sincerely grateful to Panel of Experts member Elizabeth Graham, Professor of Mesoamerican Archaeology at University College London, for this quick, fun, helpful, entry-level comparison between the Mexica (Aztecs) and the Maya. We hope teachers preparing for the National Curriculum change from Aztecs to Maya will find it an excellent starting point...
For more information, feel free to e-mail Liz Graham

Map showing approximate areas of Mexico where the Aztecs and the Maya lived
Map showing approximate areas of Mexico where the Aztecs and the Maya lived (Click on image to enlarge)

Where do the Aztecs and Maya live today, & where did they live in the past?
The people who are known as the ‘Aztecs’ and ‘Maya’ live in Mexico and Central America today, and lived in the same areas in the past. The Aztec political centre was present-day Mexico City and the land around it. This is where the Aztec Empire was based. We call the area the ‘Basin of Mexico’ or ‘Valley of Mexico’ because Mexico City and the land around it form a large valley (or basin) surrounded by high mountains. In the past, the rivers that ran down the mountains formed a huge lake in the valley, called Lake Texcoco, and the Aztecs built their main city on an island in this lake. Not much of the lake remains today because Mexico City was built on it.
Maya civilisation was spread out across the Yucatan Peninsula (this includes the Mexican states of Campeche, Yucatan, Quintano Roo and part of Tabasco) and includes Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras and western El Salvador. Unlike the Aztecs, the Maya were never an empire. The Maya world was made up of many city-states, although some city-states became more powerful than others.

Reconstrucion by Ignacio Marquina of Tenochtitlan city centre (top), Palenque ruins today (bottom)
Reconstrucion by Ignacio Marquina of Tenochtitlan city centre (top), Palenque ruins today (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

When did Aztec and Maya civilisation exist?
This is complicated because dates are always changing! Maya civilisation goes back at least to about 1500 B.C. and existed until the time the Spanish arrived in the area in the 1500s. Belize is interesting because in Belize, it is the British who settled in Maya territory. But the Maya are best known for the large cities they built that flourished from about 300 B.C. until A.D. 900. In the 900s, there was a lot of political turmoil and some (not all) cities were abandoned. This period is known as the Maya ‘collapse’. Many of the Maya seemed to get a lot more interested in maritime trade after the collapse, and in commerce in general, as if the fall of the powerful dynasties made it easier for everyone else to rise in the world! Smaller cities then spread out across the peninsula and it is these cities that the Spaniards saw when they came to Yucatan. Cortes arrived in 1519.
The Aztec Empire flourished from about 1300 (1326 is the usual date given) until its conquest by the Spaniards in 1520-21. The Aztecs were in the Valley of Mexico before 1300 but it took them a while to consolidate their power. And that is a great story in itself!

Aztec faces Maya (L: stone figure, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, R: replica of Maya stucco head)
Aztec faces Maya (L: stone figure, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, R: replica of Maya stucco head) (Click on image to enlarge)

Who were the Aztecs and the Maya?
Well, in fact these names are fake. The Aztecs did not call themselves Aztecs, and the Maya did not call themselves Maya. It gets complicated, but the people we now call ‘Maya’ actually called themselves by the name of their home town or city. We call them ‘Maya’ because linguists now know that all the languages of the Maya area are connected to a common root that existed sometime around 1,500 B.C. But the ancient Maya didn’t know that! It would be a bit like us giving one name to all the people who spoke a language that derived from Indo-European; or, say, giving Italians, French, Spanish, Romanians and the people who speak Romansh all the same name because we know their languages are connected. Kind of crazy...but...because we don’t have good records of what the Maya called themselves, we use ‘Maya’. The language or languages we call ‘Mayan’. Today there are about 30 Mayan languages.
As for the Aztecs, the ones who dominated the empire are mostly Mexica-Culhua. There were LOTS of ethnic groups with unpronounceable (to us) names living around the Basin of Mexico: Mexica, Culhua, Acolhua, Tepaneca, Matlazinca... to name but a few.

Aztec and Maya societies were both hierarchical. Displays in (L) Diego Rivera Museum and (R) National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Aztec and Maya societies were both hierarchical. Displays in (L) Diego Rivera Museum and (R) National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The upper classes of these groups all intermarried - exactly like the ruling houses of the past in Europe and the corporate executives of today. Some things never change. So in fact, the people called ‘Aztec’ were a mixed bag. On the other hand, most of the groups living around Lake Texcoco traced their ancestry to a place called ‘Aztlan’ (the Spanish got the word ‘Aztec’ from ‘Aztlan’). No one can be sure where Aztlan was, but most evidence puts it completely outside Mexico in the southwest U.S.! Groups slowly moved south into Mexico over the centuries. They all spoke, and still speak, a language called ‘Nahuatl’ and this is what unites them. Like English today or French or Latin in the past, Nahuatl spread widely into many other cultural and ethnic areas. By the time the Spaniards came, even the Maya spoke Nahuatl in addition to their native languages.

Chocolate - enjoyed by both (wealthy) Aztecs and Maya alike; Mesoamerican exhibits at ChocoStory, Bruges
Chocolate - enjoyed by both (wealthy) Aztecs and Maya alike; Mesoamerican exhibits at ChocoStory, Bruges (Click on image to enlarge)

What did the Aztecs and Maya do for us?
• Some words from Nahuatl (Aztecs): chocolate, tomato, avocado, chilli, coyote, ocelot, atlatl, guacamole
• Some words from Mayan languages: cacao (cocoa), shark, cigar.
How are the Maya and Aztecs alike?
Main similarities: agriculture, books, some aspects of the calendar, importance of jade, attitudes towards war and conflict (they did not kill on the battlefield)
• Corn (maize) was the basis of the diet as well as beans and squash; corn was soaked in a lime solution (yes, the same stuff you put on soil in gardens) which added calcium and made a greater range of proteins available. Doritos are made this way and are good for you!
• Cacao (chocolate) only grew in the tropics but everyone loved it and the Aztecs imported it.

Trading was a vital part of Aztec and Maya life; murals in the National Palace (top) and the National Museum of Anthropology (bottom), Mexico City
Trading was a vital part of Aztec and Maya life; murals in the National Palace (top) and the National Museum of Anthropology (bottom), Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

• There were no cattle or sheep or goats so they didn’t have to knock down the forest to graze their animals.
• Everyone walked everywhere or travelled in canoes (no cars or horses or the wheel) so it was a lively landscape and seascape with people selling food and drinks and resting places to everyone else. Great for business!
• They both liked tobacco and smoked cigars (not pipes).
• There was lots of trade between the two areas (Valley of Mexico and Yucatan Peninsula); merchants were really important to both societies.

Scribes: Aztec (top) and Maya (bottom); detail from a screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río (top), detail from a mural in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (below)
Scribes: Aztec (top) and Maya (bottom); detail from a screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río (top), detail from a mural in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (below) (Click on image to enlarge)

How are they different?
Both kept written records and books, but the Maya had a written language that was phonetic. The Maya also inscribed stone monuments with text on the histories of dynasties. They practiced astronomy, used mathematics, and had the concept of zero. The Maya were also sea traders and great maritime people; the Aztecs were more land and lake-oriented. Art styles were different. The Maya created some of what we would call ‘realistic’ representations of people. The Aztecs were wonderful at depicting realistic animals with great sensitivity.

Picture sources:-
• Map: adapted fom the map by Luis Covarrubias, scanned from our copy of Trajes Regionales de México, text and illustrations by L. Covarrubias, Fischgrund Ediciones de Arte, Mexico City, 1978
• Illustration by Ignacio Marquina scanned from our own copy of Arquitectura Prehispánica by I. Marquina, INAH/SEP, Mexico, 1951, p.197
• Photo of Palenque from Wikipedia
• All other photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 19th 2014

Details of our new schools programme on the Maya...

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Mexicolore replies: Many Mexicans DO identify themselves as being of Aztec, Maya (or other indigenous cultures) decent. Calling yourself Mexican is like a Cornish person calling him/herself British; it just adds another layer of identity (and often pride...)