General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 28 Feb 2021/5 Monkey
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‘Seeds of Change’
‘Seeds of Change’
‘Five Hundred Years Since Columbus’ (1991)
Aztecs confront Spanish in chess

Health Profiles: Aztec Warrior v Spanish Conquistador

This comparative ‘health profile’ comes from Seeds of Change: A Quincentennial Commemoration, edited by Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1991). The health profiles were written by John W. Verano and Douglas H. Ubelaker in their chapter ‘Health and Disease in the Pre-Columbian World’.

Aztec warriors, in a chess set
Aztec warriors, in a chess set (Click on image to enlarge)

An Aztec male was eligible for military service at age 15. In Aztec society, success on the battlefield was a principal vehicle for social advancement, and most young men were eager to become warriors. The battlefield was a hazardous place, however, and the standard weapons of war - arrows, darts, slings, and clubs with razor-sharp obsidian edges - could inflict terrible wounds. To treat its wounded the Aztec army maintained specialists who set fractured bones, realigned dislocated joints, and cleansed and sutured lacerations [stitched up open wounds].
Common health complaints included intestinal disorders, headaches, coughs and fevers. It was widely believed that disease was sent by the gods or was the result of sorcery, hence the advice of a professional healer was often sought - both to cure a disease and to divine its source. There were many healers in Aztec society who specialized in particular ailments, and treatment frequently combined ritual activities and herbal remedies. Some 1,200 plants were used by the Aztecs for medicinal purposes. Most of these plants and plant preparations could be purchased in the marketplace from a vendor who specialized in herbs, medicines and curing paraphernalia.

Battle line-up: the crude weapons caused terrible wounds...
Battle line-up: the crude weapons caused terrible wounds... (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztec people were meticulous about personal hygiene. They bathed regularly in streams and lakes, and took frequent sweat baths as well. Most dwellings in Tenochtitlan had a bathhouse, a small, circular structure that was heated by a fire built against the outer wall. The bather entered the structure and threw water against the wall to produce steam. Steam baths were used for personal cleaning, as well as to treat coughs, fevers, and joint problems. The Aztecs also recognized the importance of dental hygiene and cleaned their teeth regularly with powdered charcoal and salt.
As for general health and appearance, a 16th century Spanish conquistador observed: ‘The people of this land are well made, rather tall than short. They are swarthy as leopards... skillful, robust and tireless, and at the same time the most moderate men known. They are very warlike and face death with the greatest resolution.’

Spanish conquistadores, in a chess set
Spanish conquistadores, in a chess set (Click on image to enlarge)

The Spanish conquistadores who made their way to the New World were survivors of a long and harsh process of selection. Infant mortality was high in 15th and 16th century Europe. One out of every three children died in the first year, and less than half survived to age 15. Poor nutrition and infectious disease were major contributors to this high mortality. Vitamin deficiencies were common, and scurvy was a familiar companion of sea voyagers. Recurrent outbreaks of bubonic plague, smallpox, measles, typhus, and other infectious diseases periodically winnowed [cut down] the population of Europe, as did drought and famine. In terms of personal hygiene, the Spanish conquistador had much to learn from his Aztec adversary. Bathing was a seldom-practiced ritual in 16th century Europe, and cities of this period were not renowned for their sanitary conditions.
While Europeans had a vague notion of the contagious nature of some diseases, illness more commonly was attributed to astrological phenomena, curses, personal and moral dissoluteness [immorality], and, above all, divine retribution upon sinful man. Medical treatments, which might include bleeding of the patient and treatment with herbal remedies, were aimed at restoring the balance of bodily ‘humours’ - blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.

Spanish soldiers praying before battle
Spanish soldiers praying before battle (Click on image to enlarge)

While a wealthy individual might consult a university-trained physician for treatment of an illness, the common man generally relied on barber-surgeons, apothecaries [medieval chemists], and self-taught practitioners. Barber-surgeons were the medical personnel who accompanied the Spanish conquistadores and early colonists to the New World. A general lack of confidence in their medical skill is suggested by the fact that conquistadores frequently sought out Aztec practitioners for health complaints, in preference to their fellow countrymen.
The Spanish who came to the New World in the early 16th century were tough, wiry, battle-scarred adventurers. Many showed the characteristic pockmarks left by a bout with smallpox during childhood, as well as wounds sustained in previous military campaigns. While they had little understanding of how to protect their health or to treat their illnesses, they were survivors, nevertheless. And like their Aztec opponents on the battlefield, they had little fear of death.

Picture sources:-
• Chess set images: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Aztec battle line-up: detail from illustration by Adam Hook, courtesy of Osprey Publishing
• Spanish soldiers: from Wikipedia (Spanish Conquistador).

Clean Aztecs, Dirty Spanish

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Mexicolore replies: We’ve contacted the British Museum shop to enquire. It sounds as if they ARE still available (August 2012), to special order, costing in the region of £300. Contact Customer Services at the British Museum Company directly, and mention the Moctezuma chess sets.
Mexicolore replies: Lucky! This isn’t ours, we photographed it in the British Museum shop during the Moctezuma exhibition in 2009.