General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Apr 2021/4 Wind
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Famine in Aztec territory, Codex Telleriano-Remensis

The human cost of famine

Famine was a major problem in Aztec times. Shortages, anxiety and hunger recurred most years - particularly from June to July, in between the two main harvests - and nature would constantly threaten to make a precarious situation worse by throwing in droughts (or floods), snow storms, swarms of locusts or plagues of rodents. The government in Tenochtitlan did its best to build up reserves, distribute foodstuffs to the population during key festivals, erect large granaries to store emergency supplies, construct dykes to control lake flooding. But it wasn’t an equal fight... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Feeding a population that had grown to around one million in the Central Valley of Mexico at the height of the empire was a huge task, and from time to time disaster would strike. A major drought, lasting four years, hit the region in the 1450s, and Aztec people had to sell themselves to the Huaxtecs on the Gulf Coast and ‘to the Totonacs who paid 400 cobs of maize for a young woman and 500 for a man of working age’ (Warwick Bray, Everyday Life of the Aztecs). Reports indicate that Aztec farmers even stood guard over their crops at night to ward off pests.
This image, from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, shows what appears to be a young Mexica boy crying as his father (or brother?) sells himself to a Huaxtec merchant (the bird-man figure) as a load-carrier in exchange for a full load of maize grains for his family.

Image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, edited by Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1995.

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