General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 29 Nov 2020/5 Flower
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Did the Aztecs practice martial arts?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Alex: Hey I’ve been seeing your website for a while and I wonder if you can tell me about hand to hand combat (non weapon). I always heard about the martial arts in others (such as in North America) I try to find it in other websites (But no luck) so I was hoping you would answer this. (Answer compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Reference to being trained in ‘arte militar’ in the Codex Mendoza (fol. 62r, detail): but is this martial arts or the art of warfare?
Pic 1: Reference to being trained in ‘arte militar’ in the Codex Mendoza (fol. 62r, detail): but is this martial arts or the art of warfare? (Click on image to enlarge)

This question has come up before. We don’t think the Mexica did practice martial arts as we know them today. Certainly there are almost no references to this in the historical sources, that we’ve been able to find. Back in 2005, our Panel of Experts member Dr. Joanne Harwood wrote that ‘In the telpochcalli [school for commoners] students learned martial arts and physical endurance in preparation for life as warriors, also shown in the Codex Mendoza’. The trouble is, what has been translated into English as ‘martial arts’ actually reads in the original Spanish gloss arte militar (pic 1) - which might just as easily be interpreted as ‘the art of warfare’. The caption, translated from the Spanish, states, referring to the right-hand figure in picture 1: ‘Youth’s father, who offers his son to the warrior so that he may be trained in martial arts and taken to war’.

Pic 2: Artist’s impression of Aztec warfare
Pic 2: Artist’s impression of Aztec warfare

Youths were trained in this school to withstand constant hardships of all kinds in a regime that all agree was singularly tough, designed for character building. In his classic book on Aztec education, Fernando Díaz Infante describes some of the key elements in this training, which included: working the land, learning to handle weapons, and engaging in mock battles. Exercise and physical discipline were based on learning to tolerate extremes of hot and cold (weather), taking part in races involving not just speed but also agility and stealth, in order to surprise the enemy. ‘They learnt to make traps to capture warriors, and to engage in hand-to-hand combat on the battlefield’ (our translation).
Codex images of warriors generally depict weapons being deployed, but it seems sensible to deduce that Aztec warriors would inevitably have ended up needing to resort to close-up, hand-to-hand fighting in the heat of battle.

So our conclusion would be ‘Yes’ to hand-to-hand combat, but ‘No’ to anything resembling our modern-day concept of ‘martial arts’.

• Fernando Díaz Infante La educación de los aztecas, Panorama Editorial, Mexico City, 1996
• Frances F. Berdan & Patricia Rieff Anawalt The Codex Mendoza Vol. IV Translation, University of California Press, 1992.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Image scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition of the Codex Mendoza, Waterlow & Sons, London, 1938
• Pic 2: illustration by and ©Thomas Haller Buchanan, scanned from Jane S. Day Aztec: The World of Moctezuma, Denver Museum of Natural History and Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1992. This image is shown here purely for reference use and should NOT be copied/reproduced.

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