The Technology of the Incas and Aztecs

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The Technology of the Incas and Aztecs


When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas in the 1500s, among the native civilizations they encountered were two great empires. The Aztec Empire covered much of central Mexico, and had its capital at Tenochtitlan, the site of modern Mexico City. The Incas, from their capital at Cuzco, ruled a territory that stretched 4,000 miles along the western coast of South America and up into the Andean highlands. These civilizations never developed the wheel or used animals for hauling, and the Incas had no system of writing. Nevertheless, they built great cities with highly developed religious, political and economic structures, and were accomplished in the arts, creating fine jewelry, textiles and pottery.


The Aztecs were part of a highly developed cultural tradition in Mesoamerica, today's Mexico and Central America. Among the peoples of the region were the Olmecs, whose civilization flourished as early as 1200 b.c., the Teotihuacan people, who built the greatest ancient city in the Americas, the Toltecs, and the Mayans. Common features of Mesoamerican culture included pyramids and temples in which human sacrifice was practiced, polytheism, a calendar, hieroglyphic writing, large commercial markets, and a ball game laden with religious symbolism.

The Aztecs began as a nomadic tribe, until they settled in a swampy area of Mexico and began building their city of Tenochtitlan in the fourteenth century. The Aztec Empire grew by conquest, and the Aztecs prospered by demanding tribute from the subjugated peoples. Captured enemy warriors supplied many of their human sacrifice victims, although women and children were sacrificed as well.

In South America, the Incas also built upon the accomplishments of their predecessors and their neighbors. These included the Nazca, Moche, Huari, Chimu and Tiahuanaco peoples. Complex societies were formed in the Andes and the coastal valleys beginning about 1800 b.c. Much of their culture was assimilated and became the foundation for the Inca civilization in the mid-1400s a.d.


Farming was very important for the civilizations of the Americas. Both the Aztecs and the Incas were excellent farmers, despite having no animals suitable for pulling plows or carrying heavy loads. Llamas were native to the Andes, but they could only carry small loads. In Mesoamerica, there were no pack animals at all. There were no wheeled carts, or even wheelbarrows. Although wheeled toys and decorations have been found at Mesoamerican sites, the wheel was never put to practical use. Human labor was marshaled to do all the agricultural work required to feed the population. The main tool was the wooden digging stick, used for turning the soil and planting seed.

Without animals, the farmers of the Americas found other ways to increase their productivity. The Aztecs built up plots of land called chinampas in the middle of marshy lakes by piling up layers of aquatic vegetation and rich mud from the lake bottom, along with animal and human manure. The result was an extremely fertile soil that, coupled with the warm climate of the region, could support up to seven harvests per year. Around the edges of the chinampas they planted willow trees. The extensive root systems of the willows helped to keep the soil from washing away. In the center they grew crops such as corn, beans, squash, tomatoes and avocado, flowers, and medicinal herbs. Corn was a staple of their diet, and it was the Aztecs who first introduced it to Europeans.

The Incas farmed the highlands, where special care had to be taken to prevent soil erosion on the hillsides. They practiced terraced farming, carving flat plots out of the hillside in a stairstep pattern. This greatly increased the amount of land that was available for cultivation, and helped prevent the soil from running off due to wind and rain. They also employed sophisticated irrigation methods. Using these techniques, Andean farmers cultivated potatoes, another important New World contribution to the European diet. Corn was an important crop in this region as well as in Mesoamerica.

In addition to farming, the Incas and Aztecs depended on hunting and fishing for their food supply. Their weapons included blowguns, bows and arrows, spears flung with a spear-thrower for greater distance, and slings made of braided yarn. The hunter held both ends of the sling, with a stone supported in a cradle at its center, and whirled it around his head. The stone was ejected by releasing one end of the sling. These weapons were surprisingly accurate and could be used at long range, both for hunting and in battle. Warriors also fought with wooden clubs and swords or spears edged with obsidian blades.

As fishermen, Incas and Aztecs employed a variety of techniques including angling, nets and harpoons. The bag-shaped nets of the Aztecs, woven from agave fibers, were not much different than some of the nets still used in Mexico today. Aztec canoes, used for fishing and transportation, were made from hollowed-out tree trunks. In Inca territory, in the Andes and on the South American coast, fewer trees were available, so the canoes were made from bundles of reeds woven together.

Both the Aztecs and the Incas were great builders of cities, despite the lack of wheeled carts to haul materials. Burdens that could be managed by a single man were carried in large baskets that were supported on the back and steadied by a strap across the forehead. Scholars believe that sleds, levers, or ropes must have been used to move heavier loads.

Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, impressed even the conquistadors. It sat in the middle of Lake Texcoco, connected to the mainland by three elevated stone causeways. Wooden drawbridges could be raised to allow boats to pass. There were also canals, both within the city and for long-distance transportation. Tenochtitlan was much larger than any European city of its time, and had wide, straight streets, stone aqueducts to bring fresh water from springs in the nearby hills, and a large, well-organized marketplace. Because of the swampy ground, the buildings sat on wooden pilings, a construction technique later adopted by the Spaniards.

The city was centered on a large pyramidal temple, the site of the human sacrifices. Around it were palaces and a ball court. The ball game, called ulama, was played with a rubber ball that could be propelled only using the hips. It was restricted to noblemen, and represented the battle between day and night. It was also intended as an offering for a good harvest. Like captured enemies, losing ballplayers were often sacrificed to the gods.

Aztec homes were built of adobe around a courtyard and religious shrine, and furnished with reed mats and low tables. The kitchen was equipped with a hearth fire and jars or bins for foods preserved by salting or drying in the sun. There were also grindstones for making corn flour. The flour was then cooked into a porridge called atole or made into tortillas that were cooked on a flat stone griddle. Tortillas are still central to the cuisine of the region.

The homes had adjacent bathhouses heated by a fireplace and used for taking steam baths. Water was thrown onto the hot walls to make the steam. Bathing was not only considered necessary for personal cleanliness; it also was part of religious purification rituals.

The Incas were known for their skill as stonemasons. Their buildings were constructed from huge stone blocks fitted so precisely that no mortar was needed to hold them together. Today their ruins withstand earthquakes that topple modern buildings. Yet this was accomplished with only stone hammers for cutting and wet sand for polishing. The Inca capital of Cuzco was built in the Andes with the mountains and the high walls of the fortress of Sacsahuaman for defense. In their palaces, the kings could enjoy stone baths into which the water from mountain springs was channeled.

The famed Incan city of Machu Picchu was built shortly before the conquistadors arrived. However, its location was so remote that it was not discovered by outsiders until 1911. It had 143 stone buildings, of which about 80 were houses; the rest were dedicated to religious and ceremonial purposes. Incas also practiced human sacrifice in their temples, but less frequently than the Aztecs. The typical Inca house was a one-room structure made either of adobe or stone blocks, with a thatched roof and trapezoidal openings for doors and windows.

Complex civilizations like those of the Aztecs and Incas required the keeping of records. The Aztecs used hieroglyphs, or picture-writing, to represent objects and ideas in carvings, paintings, and long strips of paper called codices. Their counting system was based on units of 20, rather than the decimal system based on the number 10 that we use today. Their 365-day calendar consisted of 18 months that were 20 days long, plus five extra days. Astrology was important to their system of beliefs, and so the calendar was invested with religious meaning.

The Incas had no system of writing. Instead, they used bundles of cord called quipus to keep their numerical records. The quipu was made up of a horizontal cord with a series of strings suspended from it. The length of the cord, the color and position of the individual strings suspended from it, plus the type of knots upon them all meant something to Inca record-keepers. Quipus were used for census, taxation, and other administrative and commercial purposes.

Both cultures wove cloth using a simple back-strap loom that can still be seen in use by their remote descendants. The material being woven is stretched between two wooden poles. One pole is fixed to a tree or other support, and the other is fastened to a belt around the user's waist. Aztec cloth was generally made of plant fibers, such as cotton or fiber from the maguey cactus. Incas obtained wool from llamas and alpacas. Brightly colored garments and headdresses made of tropical bird feathers were reserved for special occasions and the nobility.

The pottery wheel was not known in either culture; nevertheless, the Incas and Aztecs were skilled at making highly decorated pottery and ceramics. The ability to craft beautiful jewelry and ritual objects from precious metals was developed thousands of years ago in the Andes, where gold was near the surface and could be obtained by panning the earth near rivers and streams. The knowledge spread to Mesoamerica in about 850 b.c. Intricate objects were molded using the "lost wax" method. The desired shape was delicately carved in beeswax, and then covered with clay to form a mold. Heated over a charcoal fire, the wax melted and ran out, and the clay shell was used as a mold for the molten metal. When the trinket was cooled, it was removed by breaking the clay. Precious stones were used for adornments and ceremonial objects, in combination with gold or alone. Turquoise and jade were particularly favored.

When the conquistadors arrived in the Americas in the sixteenth century, they were probably shocked by the practice of human sacrifice, but the lure of the gold and jewels they found led to atrocities of their own. Although some Spanish priests and laymen protested, native people who refused to give up their treasures were summarily massacred. Many others were forced to abandon the farms that supported them, and were enslaved. They were put to work mining more gold, which was shipped back to the royal court and ecclesiastical authorities in Spain. Some of it can still be seen in the gilt-covered interiors of churches there.

The Incas and Aztecs offered little resistance. In part this was because the conquistadors, although relatively few in number, had the advantages of horses, armor and guns. They also carried diseases that were new to the Americas, and took a fearsome toll. But another important reason these fierce warrior civilizations crumbled so quickly is that they believed from the beginning that they were doomed. The Aztec emperor Montezuma had been hearing rumors of strange and powerful men and perceiving omens of imminent disaster. When Cortes arrived among the Aztecs, they at first believed him to be the god Quetzalcoatl. One of the last Inca kings, Huayna Capac, heard from a soothsayer that both the royal line and his empire would be wiped out. The unfortunate oracle was promptly executed for being the bearer of bad news. Before long the cities of the Incas and Aztecs were destroyed, their rulers murdered, and Spain ruled much of the Americas.


Further Reading

Boone, Elizabeth Hill. The Aztec World. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1994.

Karen, Ruth. Kingdom of the Sun: The Inca. New York: Four Winds Press, 1975.

McIntyre, Loren. The Incredible Incas and Their Timeless Land. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1975.

Stuart, Gene S. The Mighty Aztecs. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1981.

Townsend, Richard. The Aztecs. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

Warburton, Lois. Aztec Civilization. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1995.


Our current calendar is complicated. Seven days in a week, 12 months in a year, and each of those months is either 30 or 31 days long. Except, of course, for February, which is either 28 or 29 days in length, depending on the year. Now, think of having two calendars, one for religious purposes and one for non-religious matters. This is what the Aztecs appropriated from the Zapotec, their predecessors in Central America.

The Aztec religious calendar had 13 months of 20 days each. It formed the basis for religious ceremonies, for deciding "lucky" days based on the date of one's birth, and all other religious functions. The non-religious calendar had 365 days, divided into 18 months of 20 days each, plus an additional 5 days, which were considered very unlucky. Because of the differing lengths of the Aztec calendars, they were in synchrony only once every 52 years. Unfortunately for current scholars, the Aztecs would often refer to a date only by the name of the day, month, and the current year in the 52-year cycle. This has led to some degree of confusion for historians, who often have no way of telling which calendar cycle was referred to. Two dates are known for certain; the date that Cortez entered the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán (November 8, 1519) and the date of the surrender of Cuauhtémoc on August 13, 1521.