Elizabeth Graham – The Aztecs and the Maya

Map showing Approximate Areas of Mexico where the Aztecs and the Maya lived (foto L Covarrubias, Fischgrund Ediciones de Arte)

Logo Mexicolore. (foto Idem)

The Aztecs and the Maya

Where do the Aztecs and Maya Live Today, and Where did they Live in the Past?

The people who are known as the ‘Aztecs’ and ‘Maya’ live in Mexico and Central America today, and lived in the same areas in the past. The Aztec political centre was present day Mexico City and the land around it. This is where the Aztec Empire was based. We call the area the ‘Basin of Mexico’ or ‘Valley of Mexico’ because Mexico City and the land around it form A large valley (or basin) surrounded by high mountains. In the past, the rivers that ran down the mountains formed A huge lake in the valley, called Lake Texcoco, and the Aztecs built their main city on an island in this lake. Not much of the lake remains today because Mexico City was built on it.
Maya Civilisation was spread out across the Yucatan Peninsula, this includes the Mexican States of Campeche, Yucatan, Quintano Roo and part of Tabasco, and includes Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras and western El Salvador. Unlike the Aztecs, the Maya were never an empire. The Maya World was made up of many city states, although some citystates became more powerful than others.

Reconstrucion by Ignacio Marquina of Tenochtitlan city centre (top), Palenque ruins today (bottom)

Reconstrucion by Ignacio Marquina of Tenochtitlan City centre (top), Palenque ruins today (bottom) (foto  Arquitectura Prehispánica by I Marquina, INAH | SEP |Wikipedia)

When did Aztec and Maya Civilisation exist?

This is complicated because dates are always changing! Maya Civilisation goes back at least to about 1.500 BC and existed until the time the Spanish arrived in the area in the 1500‘s. Belize is interesting because in Belize, it is the British who settled in Maya Territory. But the Maya are best known for the large cities they built that flourished from about 300 BC until AD 900. In the 900‘s, there was A lot of political turmoil and some (not all) cities were abandoned. This period is known as the MayaCollapse’. Many of the Maya seemed to get A lot more interested in maritime trade after the Collapse, and in commerce in general, as if the fall of the powerful dynasties made it easier for everyone else to rise in the world! Smaller cities then spread out across the Peninsula and it is these cities that the Spaniards saw when they came to Yucatan. Cortes arrived in 1519.
The Aztec Empire flourished from about 1300, 1326 is the usual date given, until its Conquest by the Spaniards in 1520 – 1521. The Aztecs were in the Valley of Mexico before 1300 but it took them A while to consolidate their power. And that is A great story in itself!

Aztec faces Maya (L: stone figure, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, R: replica of Maya stucco head)

Aztec faces Maya, (links) Stone Figure,  rechts  Replica of Maya Stucco Head  (foto National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City)

Who were the Aztecs and the Maya?

Well, in fact these names are fake. The Aztecs did not call themselves Aztecs, and the Maya did not call themselves Maya. It gets complicated, but the people we now call ‘Maya’ actually called themselves by the name of their home town or city. We call them ‘Maya’ because linguists now know that all the languages of the Maya area are connected to A common root that existed sometime around 1.500 BC. But the ancient Maya didn’t know that! It would be A bit like us giving one name to all the people who spoke A language that derived from Indo European; or, say, giving Italians, French, Spanish, Romanians and the people who speak Romansh all the same name because we know their languages are connected. Kind of crazy () but () because we don’t have good records of what the Maya called themselves, we use ‘Maya’. The language or languages we call ‘Mayan’. Today there are about 30 Mayan Languages.
As for the Aztecs, the ones who dominated the mpire are mostly Mexica Culhua. There were LOTS of ethnic groups with unpronounceable (to us) names living around the Basin of Mexico. Mexica, Culhua, Acolhua, Tepaneca, Matlazinca (…) to name but A few.

Aztec and Maya societies were both hierarchical. Displays in (L) Diego Rivera Museum and (R) National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

Aztec and Maya Societies were Both Hierarchical., Displays in, links Diego Rivera Museum and rechts National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (foto  Ian Mursell | Mexicolore)

The upper classes of these groups all intermarried, exactly like the ruling houses of the past in Europe and the corporate executives oftoday. Some things never change. So in fact, the people called ‘Aztec’ were A mixed bag. On the other hand, most of the groups living around Lake Texcoco traced their ancestry to A place called ‘Aztlan’ (the Spanish got the word ‘Aztec’ from ‘Aztlan’). No one can be sure where Aztlan was, but most evidence puts it completely outside Mexico in the southwest US! Groups slowly moved South into Mexico over the centuries. They all spoke, and still speak, A language called ‘Nahuatl’ and this is what unites them. Like English today or French or Latin in the past, Nahuatl spread widely into many other cultural and ethnic areas. By the time the Spaniards came, even the Maya spoke Nahuatl in addition to their native languages.

Chocolate - enjoyed by both (wealthy) Aztecs and Maya alike; Mesoamerican exhibits at ChocoStory, Bruges

Chocolate enjoyed by Both (Wealthy) Aztecs and Maya alik,  Meso American exhibits at ChocoStory, Bruges (foto  Ian Mursell | Mexicolore)

What did the Aztecs and Maya Do for Us?

Some words from Nahuatl, Aztecs

Chocolate, tomato, avocado, chilli, coyote, ocelot, atlatl, guacamole

Some words from Mayan Language

Cacao, cocoa, shark, cigar.

How are the Maya and Aztecs alike?

Main Similarities

Agriculture, books, some aspects of the Calendar, importance of jade, attitudes towards war and conflict, they did not kill on the battlefield,

• Corn, Maize, was the basis of the diet as well as beans and squash. Corn was soaked in A lime solution. Yes, the same stuff you put on soil in gardens which added Calcium and made A greater range of Proteins available. Doritos are made this way and are good for you!

• Cacao, Chocolate, only grew in the Tropics but everyone loved it and the Aztecs imported it.

Trading was a vital part of Aztec and Maya life; murals in the National Palace (top) and the National Museum of Anthropology (bottom), Mexico City

Trading was A Vital Part of Aztec and Maya Life, murals in the National Palace (top) and the National Museum of Anthropology (bottom), Mexico City (foto  Ian Mursell | Mexicolore)

There were no cattle or sheep or goats so they didn’t have to knock down the forest to graze their animals.

• Everyone walked everywhere or travelled in canoes, no cars or horses or the wheel. So it was A lively landscape and seascape with people selling food and drinks and resting places to everyone else. Great for business!
• They both liked tobacco and smoked cigars, not pipes.
• There was lots of trade between the two areas, Valley of Mexico and Yucatan Peninsula. Merchants were really important to both societies.

Scribes: Aztec (top) and Maya (bottom); detail from a screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río (top), detail from a mural in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (below)

Aztec (top) and Maya (bottom); detail from A Screen Mural by Roberto Cueva del Río, (top), Setail from a mural in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (below) (foto’a Ian Mursell | Mexicolore)

How are they different?

Both kept written records and books, but the Maya had A written language that was phonetic. The Maya also inscribed stone monuments with text on the histories of dynasties. They practiced Astronomy, used Mathematics, and had the concept of Zero.

The Maya were also sea traders and great maritime people. The Aztecs were more land and lake oriented.

Art styles were different. The Maya created some of what we would call ‘Realistic’ representations of people. The Aztecs were wonderful at depicting realistic animals with great sensitivity.

Picture Sources

• Map adapted fom the map by Luis Covarrubias, Trajes Regionales de México, text and illustrations by L Covarrubias, Fischgrund Ediciones de Arte, Mexico City, 1978
• Illustration by Ignacio Marquina , Arquitectura Prehispánica by I Marquina, INAH | SEP, Mexico, 1951, page 197
• Photo of Palenque from Wikipedia
• All other photos by Ian Mursell | Mexicolore.

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Here’s What Others have said


At 02.25 PM on Saturday December 24 2022, todd harrell holmes wrote

Call me crazy, but I have noticed that Aztec Art, at least as seen in the Codex Borgia, looks remarkably similar to Tibetan Buddhist Art.

Mexicolore replies

Many thanks for flagging this up ()


At0 5.52 AM on Wednesday October 26 2022, John Roscoe wrote

I’m sorry but comment number (11) is complete nonsense.

Mexicolore replies

Aren’t you being A bit OTT? Please enlighten us as to why ()


At 03.45 PM on Monday June 6 2022, Maria Baum wrote

For the Ancient Maya, each letter has A weight, A number, A vibration, and A color. Names and numbers are very important. The sum of the letters in A name has A weight that gives A vibration that gives color, sound, and shadow. If A letter is added or removed, the meaning, weight, color, sound, and shadow will change.
The Maya Lacandón still believe that the date, time, weather, and place where A child is born, and the name given to the child, will affect him for the rest of his life. Names and dates are very important. When A name was chosen by the Ājq’Ij, Spiritual Guide. the name should not be changed.
That is why the name is Maya, not Mayan,” said the Elder, “the white men want to take our shadow, our weight, our music.Maya Elder Notes
Mayan is A word that some authors started using in the 70’s.

Mexicolore replies

Many thanks for these insights into traditional Maya Culture ()


At 11.14 AM on Sunday June 6 2021, Jeanne wrote

Note to Flor Armenta.
The slaughter of the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico, commencing with Hernán Cortez’ overthrow of the Aztec Empire was brutal as was its subsequent enslaving and forced conversions on pain of death. Far more people died from the Spanish Conquest of Mexico than the British, not that they were less brutal, just that they never conquered much territory in the Americas. This is such an important A part of the history of the continent.


At 01.03 PM on Tuesday April 13 2021, Ashurbanipal wrote


If the Aztecs were really so violent and killed their own people to the same degree the Europeans did, the society would’ve collapsed very quickly and this webpage wouldn’t exist.


At 08.32 PM on Tuesday April 6 2021, Descendant of Moctezuma wrote

Like the Aztecs were so peaceful. They were Bloody and violent. They flayed people in the name of their Bloody religion. I’m part Aztec or at least I’m A descendant of the Mexica and I am not proud of it.


At 08.04 AM on Saturday March 6 2021, 5540 Pemberton St wrote

When the Spanish came here, they didn’t bring any women, those Natives was raped and slaughtered, and they brought attack dogs . Ain’t nothing nice about any greedy European, and there lust for riches and power !!!!!!


At 08.39 PM on Monday January 11 2021, Elijah wrote

Hey random question but when was this article published? And who’s your publisher?

Mexicolore replies

Thanks for prompting us. We forgot to add the upload date, 2 februari 2014. We are our own publishing house, ‘Mexicolore’.


At 02.23  PM on Wednesday September 23, 2020, Flor Armenta wrote

Mexicans are mostly A mixed breed between the Indegenous People some of Mayan and Aztec Decent, and the Spanish who, did not slaugter them like the English did, but colonized by inbreed ()


At 06.22 PM on Thursday May 7 2020, Mayra G Arzate wrote

I really like the information given here. I am s student archaeologist studying the Ancient Maya and was inspired to study this civilization due to my native heritage from Mexico. I do wonder A lot if the Maya were the same people as the Aztecs, Mexica but at A much later period in time? Because there is A lot of similarities in culture and traditions that should be considered for scholars naming them “Different People”. I recently started identifying myself as Mexica | Maya because I was born in Mexico and have family roots embedded in that land but also feel pretty Maya at heart. Thank you!


At 01.01 PM on Tuesday April 28 2020, Hayden wrote

Yes, my name is Hayden and I am Mexican, no I do not live in US, I live in Mexico City, and I m glad there is people that really investigate what are they doing, not like the movies, were they always but Mexico as A desert. this is A really accurate document of our story, thank for the info!


At 10.15 PM on Wednesday February 27 2019, Sohaila wrote

This article really helped me A lot of thank you for putting your time and effort into this work. I love you.


At 10.59 PM on Thursday March 13 2014, lauren arce wrote

Why don’t people in Mexico identify themselves as of Mayan or of Aztec Descent? why do they call themselves Mexican? Is Mexico considered A construct of the Spanish Imperialism? or is Mexico and Mexican considered their own making?

Mexicolore replies

Many Mexicans DO identify themselves as being of Aztec, Maya or other Indigenous Cultures descent. Calling yourself Mexican is like A Cornish person calling him and herself British. It just adds another layer of identity and often pride ()

We’re sincerely grateful to Panel of Experts Member Elizabeth Graham, Professor of Meso American Archaeology at University College London, for this quick, fun, helpful, entry level comparison between the Mexica, Aztecs, and the Maya. We hope teachers preparing for the National Curriculum change from Aztecs to Maya will find it an excellent starting point ()

Mexicolore, februari 2nd 2014


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