In 1519, when Hernn Corts led his army into Tenochtitlán in the Valley of Mexico, that Aztec city was the capital of a far-flung tributary empire. The emperor Motecuhzoma sat atop a complex social and political hierarchy, and the Aztec populace owed allegiance and tribute to nobles at several levels. Below the emperor were the kings of subject city-states. The Aztec dominion employed a policy of indirect rule, and imperial authorities supported local dynasties so long as they delivered their quarterly tribute payments on time. Officials recorded these payments in documents such as the Codex Mendoza [see "The Codex Mendoza," by Patricia Rieff Anawalt and Frances F. Berdan; Scientific American, June 1992]. Local nobles, who lived in both urban and rural areas, were subjects of their city-state king. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the commoners, whose tribute payments supported all these nobles.
Aztec commoners must have had a heavy tribute obligation. How were they able to meet their payments? First of all, there were millions of commoners, so the tribute burden was spread over a large population. During the 1970s, surveys of patterns of settlement turned up the startling discovery that the Aztec period witnessed one of the major population explosions of antiquity. The number of people in the Valley of Mexico, the heartland of the Aztec Empire, increased from 175,000 in the early Aztec period (11501350 C.E.) to nearly one million in the late Aztec period (13501519 C.E.). Similar patterns of growth occurred in other parts of Aztec territory as well.
The Aztec population explosion placed a heavy stress on the environment of central Mexico. New villages and towns sprung up everywhere, and all available land was cultivated, often at considerable labor expense. Wherever possible, farmers built dams and canals to irrigate cropland; they also built terraced stone walls on hillsides to make new fields; and they drained the swamps outside Tenochtitlán to create raised fields (chinampas), one of the most highly productive agricultural systems of the ancient world. These intensive farming practices transformed the central Mexican countryside into a managed landscape of cultivation.
What were the effects of tribute extraction, population growth and agricultural intensification on the Aztec common people? Did these processes leave people impoverished and powerless, or did they allow commoners to prosper and thrive? Few of the available written accounts have information on conditions beyond the imperial capital, and thus it is up to archaeologists to study these questions.
Until recently, no major archaeological excavations had been carried out at Aztec sites. Most Aztec cities and towns either were destroyed during the Spanish Conquest or were occupied and then buried under later settlements. The few surviving sites were small, unassuming peasant villages. Most archaeologists working in Mesoamerica bypassed Aztec sites on their way to the spectacular jungle ruins of Classic-period Maya civilization. Aztec sites were deemed either too difficult to excavate or too small to bother with. This neglect came to an abrupt end in 1978, when the Mexican government mounted an extensive excavation of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlán. Situated in the middle of Mexico City today, this magnificent structure, and the richness of the offerings associated with it, awakened a new interest in Aztec society. Unfortunately, these excavations did not provide much new information about the commoners or life in the provinces.
To address these issues, my wife, Cynthia Heath-Smith, and I embarked on archaeological projects at rural and urban sites in the modern Mexican state of Morelos. Located just south of the Valley of Mexico, this was the first area outside the valley to be conquered when the Aztecs began their military expansion in the 1430s.
We first excavated two rural sites--Capilco and Cuexcomate--southwest of the modern city of Cuernavaca. Later we turned to the Aztec city of Yautepec in north-central Morelos. By excavating the houses of both rich and poor, we have found that provincial society was far more complex than previously thought. Aztec peasants were not simple farmers whose lives were dominated by the need to pay tribute to their elite overlords. Commoners living in both rural and urban areas of the provinces made heavy use of a thriving marketing system. They exchanged craft goods produced in their homes for a variety of foreign goods, and most of this economic activity was accomplished outside imperial control and ignored by early writers on the Aztecs.