National Geographic : 2010 Nov
his people were o spring of the great Toltec and elevating Huitzilopochtli---their patron god of the sun and of war---to the pantheon of exalted Toltec deities. e royal counselor went one step further. As Miguel León-Portilla writes, Tlacaelel cra ed their imperial destiny as "the conquest of all other nations...to capture victims for sacri- ce, because the source of all life, the sun, would die unless it were fed with human blood." Thus did the reviled newcomers from the north ascend to nobility. ey subjugated town a er town in the Basin of Mexico. Under Mocte- zuma I, in the late 1440s, the Mexica and their allies marched over 200 miles to extend their empire southward into the present-day states of Morelos and Guerrero. By the 1450s they had pushed into the northern Gulf coast. And by 1465 the Chalco Confederacy, the lone holdout in the Basin of Mexico, was vanquished. It would fall to the eighth Aztec ruler, Ahui- tzotl, to stretch the empire to its breaking point. . e man whose re- mains Leonardo López Luján hopes to nd near the Templo Mayor is not represented in any artwork. " e only images we have of an Aztec ruler are of Moctezuma II, and these were made based on descriptions from the Spaniards a er his death," López Luján says, referring to the last emperor who ruled over Mexico on the eve of the Spanish conquest. "About Moctezuma II, we have many details of his life. Of Ahuitzotl, we have very few." Here's what we do know: e high-ranking military o cer assumed the throne in 1486 a er his brother Tizoc lost control of the empire and about sacri ce," he says. "I think there are a lot of signs that they were bothered by it." e codices reveal that this was a people with a sophisticated awareness of the limitations of an empire that relied on human sacri ce. Even as they achieved their greatest might under Ahuitzotl, the predicate for their doom was be- ing laid. A people who believed themselves at the center of a highly precarious universe were also in icted with what Carrasco terms a "cos- mic insecurity." from scratch. e rst Aztec, or Mexica, migrated from the north---from Az- tlan, so it was said, though this ancestral home- land has never been located and perhaps existed only in legend. ey spoke the Nahuatl tongue of the mighty Toltec, whose dominance across central Mexico had ended in the 12th century. But language was the Mexica's only connection to greatness. Chased o from one Basin of Mexico settlement a er another, they at last happened upon an island in Lake Texcoco that no one else wanted and in 1325 proclaimed it Tenochtitlan. Little more than a swamp, Tenochtitlan lacked drinkable water and stones and wood for build- ing. But its scruffy new inhabitants, though "almost totally uncultured," as renowned scholar Miguel León-Portilla puts it, compensated with what he terms "an indomitable will." ese settlers proceeded to dig through the ruins of the once great city-states of Teotihua- can and Tula. What they saw, they appropriated. By 1430 Tenochtitlan had become greater than either city, a marvel of land ll and aqueducts, divided by canals and causeways into four quad- rants all in orbit around the centerpiece of a double-staircased pyramid with twin temples at its summit. None of their ourishes was particu- larly original, and that was the point. e Mexica sought to establish ancestral connections with empires past---particularly through the machi- nations of Tlacaelel, the royal consigliere who could boast that "none of the past kings has acted without my opinion or counsel." During the rst half of the 15th century, Tlacaelel introduced a new version of Mexica history, asserting that BELIEVING THEY LIVED IN A HIGHLY PRECARIOUS UNIVERSE INFLICTED THE AZTEC WITH A COSMIC INSECURITY.