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10 Fascinating Discoveries Made by the Aztecs
We tend to think of inventors as brainy people in white lab coats, mixing small vials of colorful liquid together, and in a puff of smoke, something is invented. Or the engineers laboring away, wrench in hand, as their spouses stand by idly while they waste away in their worthy pursuit of improving the combustion engine. But usually, that is not the case.
In fact, most inventions come about as real problems arise that need solving. Modern problems require modern solutions, and that adage was as true in the early ages of civilization as it is now. Ancient populations also had problems, and you will be surprised to find that they had quite creative and inventive ways of fixing them.
Here are 10 fascinating discoveries made by the Aztecs.
As the population grew, demand for more advanced agricultural practices arose. Chinampas, in short, is a farming system that utilizes artificial floating islands built in natural water sources such as rivers and streams. They provide high productivity without the need for complex artificial irrigation methods.
Chinampas were developed by the Aztecs in the 14th century in the Valley of Mexico. The combination of nutrient-rich materials used to construct them and easy access to water meant they could support diverse crops such as maize, beans, squash, tomatoes, and chili peppers.
Today, the chinampas remain an important source of food, generating 40,000 tons of production per year in one of the world’s most populated cities.
Although technically invented by the Mayans, it was the Aztecs who are credited with the more practical uses that we know and love today.
In a process that involves the extraction of a resin obtained from the sapodilla tree, a substance named chicle is produced. By slicing the bark in a very specific way, they were able to collect the resin. The Mayans dried it and used it to quench thirst and stave off hunger. It was the Aztecs who realized they could use it to freshen their breaths.
The Aztecs had strict rules over its use, however, only allowing kids and single women to chew it in public. Married women and widows were only allowed to chew it in private to freshen their breaths, with men having to chew it in secret to clean their teeth.
In a time when a massive rat infestation and a plague known as the black death, as a result of poor hygiene, brought some countries in Europe to their knees, the Aztecs already had a solution.
Realizing the need for a constant supply of fresh water in the 1300s, the Aztecs lived a surprisingly hygienic life. Known as the Great Aqueduct (Chapultepec Aqueduct), they built an uninterrupted water supply for the provision of an endless supply of fresh water to Tenochtitlan, their capital city, also allowing waste to be washed away with the stream.
Considering parts of the construction can still be found in Mexico City to this day, the design was impeccable, with the length of the aqueduct traced by a wooden walkway that allowed for easy cleaning and maintenance.
7 Ball Game
The Aztec ball game was a revision of the ancient Mesoamerican game and might have its origin traced to the ancient Olmec civilization. It became an essential part of the Aztec empire, not just as a form of entertainment but also for political and religious reasons.
The Aztec ball game was played on a tlachtli ball court and was often the first thing built when the Aztecs settled in a new area. It was considered a very difficult game played with a large rubber ball with the object of getting the ball through a stone hoop, with the ball never allowed to touch the ground.
A modern version of the sport, known as ulama, is still played to this day.
Speaking of ball games, the ancient Aztecs (and Mayans) are credited with numerous rubber inventions, including the rubber ball used to play the ball game. Discovering that mixing latex from rubber trees with juices squeezed from morning glory vines in different proportions would yield different results.
Changes in bounciness increased with more juice, while longevity and wear were maximized when less juice was used in the mixture. Today, scientists have discovered that by mixing the right amounts, they were able to produce a material that bounced well but was also hard-wearing, which could also be used for sandals.
Although only some 100 balls have been discovered at various sites, it is clear that they had the process well and truly nailed down.
5 Red Dye
When the Spanish conquistadors met the Aztec leader, Montezuma, they were blown away by the vibrant red color of his robes. Due to the rarity of a good source of red dye, the Spanish associated the color red with power and royalty.
By harvesting, drying, and powdering cochineal bugs, the Aztecs were able to create a red dye that gave textiles and paints a vibrant red color unlike anything else known to the world at that point in time.
The Spanish essentially created a monopoly drying cochineal by the ton, with the popularity of the dye quickly spreading through the Roman Empire, who decided to color their army’s uniforms red, then to the British, who adorned their royalty with it in an attempt to demonstrate their power and courage.
The traditional practice still exists today in parts of Peru and the Canary Islands, where the cochineal bug is still harvested.
When next time you are feeling down, watching a rerun of your favorite show, and chomping down on your favorite chocolate, spare a thought for the Aztecs.
Although technically invented by earlier civilizations of Mesoamerican peoples, it was the Aztecs who perfected it and brought it to the world. Believed to be gifted to them by the gods themselves, they enjoyed their cocoa caffeinated in hot or cold, even using cocoa beans as currency to buy other goods. Such was the value of it.
There are many stories of how cocoa made it all the way to Europe. Still, a popular version is that a conquistador named Hernan Cortes was introduced to the delicacy by the Aztecs. When he returned to Spain with the magic cocoa beans, he kept the secret to himself at first, which, as we know now, didn’t remain a secret he took to his grave.
3 Antispasmodic Medicine
Although the Aztecs had quite an assortment of goods when it came to medicine, from treatments for infections to aloe vera for certain skin ailments, something they are famous for is their development of an antispasmodic treatment.
Derived from the passion flower (which is also believed to have qualities to aid in epilepsy, insomnia, and high blood pressure) and the Lippia dulcis, or Aztec sweet herb, the Aztecs treated patients before surgery to relax their muscles and prevent muscle spasm while undergoing a procedure.
More recently, there have been numerous case studies showing some of the efficacies of the various herbs used by the Aztecs in their herbal treatments that might actually find some use in the modern world as effective treatments for certain ailments.
We think of ice baths and saunas as modern recovery methods. Still, it was the Mesoamericans, and in particular, the Aztecs, who perfected the former.
Built with stone and cement (sometimes volcanic rock) in an igloo shape, temazcal was abundant in most homes of more affluent people who had the space to build their saunas on the side of their homes. Bathers would carry superheated stones from outside fires in the center of the temazcal and dose them with cold water, collecting thick clouds of steam in the little room.
More state-of-the-art temazcals had a built-in fire chamber, allowing heat to pass from the chamber through the walls of the hut, relaxing muscles in steaming glory.
Named for the sound it makes when the corn pops, totopoca, or popcorn, has been around for centuries and is used for more than just Friday night at the cinema or Netflix and chill.
First found along the coast of Peru and dated to 4700 BC, popcorn was as much part of the Aztec culture as ritual sacrifice or colorful garb. Used in elaborate ceremonies and even having a dance called the “popcorn dance,” where young women would shake their popcorn garlands to the beat, popcorn was a staple.
Just like it is for many people in the modern era, popcorn was an essential food for the Aztecs, cooking the grains over an open fire or heated in hot sand.