The Aztec civilization was composed of a variety of Nahuatl-speaking people who dominated large parts of central Mexico in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries until the Spanish conquest. The Aztecs did not refer to themselves as Aztecs, but rather used the term Mexica as their ethnic name. The name Aztec comes from the Nahuatl word aztecatl, which means “person from Aztlan”.
Aztlan was the mythical place of origin for the Nahua peoples, including the Mexica. The Aztec empire was not a unified empire, but rather a confederation of three Nahuatl-speaking city-states: Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. However, there were many other Nahuatl-speaking ethnic groups that were part of the Aztec civilization. Scholars have identified at least seven key Aztec tribes that made up the empire:
The Seven Major Aztec Tribes
1. The Mexica of Tenochtitlan
2. The Acolhua of Texcoco
3. The Tepaneca of Tlacopan
4. The Chalca
5. The Xochimilca
6. The Tlahuica
7. The Mixtec
In the following sections, we will take a closer look at each of these seven major Aztec tribes, examining their history, culture, and role within the Aztec empire.
The Mexica of Tenochtitlan
The Mexica founded the city-state of Tenochtitlan in 1325 and were the dominant ethnic group within the Aztec empire. According to legend, the Mexica were guided by their god Huitzilopochtli to found Tenochtitlan on an island in Lake Texcoco. Under successive rulers, the Mexica expanded Tenochtitlan through military conquest and political alliances.
By the early 16th century, Tenochtitlan had grown into a thriving metropolis and the capital of the Aztec empire. The Mexica spoke Nahuatl and worshipped gods such as Huitzilopochtli (god of war and sun), Tlaloc (god of rain and lightning), and Quetzalcoatl (god of learning and wind). When the Spaniards arrived in 1519, Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world, with over 200,000 inhabitants.
The Mexica were ruled by powerful emperors who sat at the top of the social and political hierarchy. Below the emperor were the nobility class and priestly class who governed the city-state’s affairs. At the bottom of the social pyramid were merchants, artisans, soldiers, and farmers. The Mexica expanded the empire through warfare, extracting tribute from conquered subjects. The Mexica practiced ritual human sacrifice to appease their gods, a practice that horrified the Spaniards.
The Acolhua of Texcoco
The Acolhua people inhabited the city-state of Texcoco located on the eastern shores of Lake Texcoco. Under King Nezahualcoyotl, Texcoco grew into one of the major Nahuatl-speaking city-states in the valley of Mexico during the 15th century. It was an important cultural center known for its poetry, architecture, and libraries filled with codices.
The Acolhua spoke the Nahuatl language and had a similar culture and religious beliefs as the Mexica. However, they were more influenced by the earlier Toltec civilization. Important deities included Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent god) and Tezcatlipoca (god of night and sorcery). The Acolhua also played the Mesoamerican ball game called tlachtli.
When the Mexica of Tenochtitlan formed their triple alliance, the Acolhua of Texcoco joined as the second member. This partnership created a powerful Aztec empire. The Acolhua ruler Nezahualcoyotl was considered one of the empire’s greatest kings who helped create laws, expand trade networks, and build aqueducts and architecture.
The Tepaneca of Tlacopan
Based around the city of Tlacopan (modern day Tacuba), the Tepanecs were another Nahuatl-speaking tribe that made up the Aztec empire. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Tepaneca dominated the Valley of Mexico until the rise of Tenochtitlan. Their capital was Azcapotzalco located on the western shores of Lake Texcoco.
The most famous Tepanec ruler was Tezozomoc who expanded Tepaneca territory through a series of conquests. He extracted tribute from subjugated regions and traded extensively. The Tepaneca were known as skilled merchants, traders, and administrators. Their language, culture, and religion were similar to that of the Mexica and Acolhua.
When Tenochtitlan and Texcoco defeated the Tepaneca in 1428, it marked the beginning of the Aztec empire. As part of the triple alliance pact, Tlacopan became the third major member of the empire. Although Tlacopan did not have the political and military might of the other two powers, it still exerted economic and cultural influence over the Aztec civilization.
Based in the eastern valleys of the Basin of Mexico, the Chalca were an influential ethnic group who controlled valuable resources and trade routes. Their major city was Chalco situated on the eastern shores of Lake Chalco. The Chalca spoke Nahuatl but had a distinct culture and economy from the lakeside cities.
As skilled agriculturists, the Chalca cultivated the surrounding chinampas, or artificial islands used for farming. They provided agricultural tribute including maize, beans, chili peppers and more to the cities around the lakes. The Chalca engaged in trade, ceramics, and cloth-making, supplying many materials to the Aztec empire.
In the 15th century, the Chalca were defeated by the armies of Tenochtitlan and Texcoco. They became subject allies within the Aztec empire, paying tribute and serving as warriors under Mexica rulers. Despite their subjugation, Chalca culture and language continued to thrive and influence the larger Aztec civilization. Chalca warriors were known for their fearsome jaguar helmets.
Based around the city of Xochimilco near the southern shores of Lake Texcoco, the Xochimilca (sometimes called the Xochimilcas) were another important ethnic group. Xochimilco was founded on the wetland “floating islands” known as chinampas which the Xochimilca used for agriculture and flower growing.
The Xochimilca spoke Nahuatl but had distinct cultural traditions including their religious beliefs, clothing styles, dances, cuisine, and more. They worshipped gods and goddesses connected to agriculture, flowers and vegetation such as Xochipilli, Macuilxochitl, Xochiquetzal and Mixcoatl. Xochimilca warriors fought fiercely to defend their autonomy and pride.
In the 15th century, the Xochimilca were subjugated by the Aztec empire after prolonged conflict. They forged marriage alliances with Aztec nobility and supplied agricultural goods as tribute. However, they rose up in rebellion against Aztec rule which led to a brutal war. In the end, Xochimilco remained an important imperial province within the empire.
Based in the state of Morelos, the Tlahuica were another Nahuatl-speaking ethnic group absorbed into the Aztec empire. Their main city was Cuauhnahuac (modern day Cuernavaca) ruled by King Tlaltecatzin. Other Tlahuica settlements included Oaxtepec, Yautepec and Totolapan.
The Tlahuica economy was based around agriculture in the hot, tropical climate. They cultivated crops such as cotton, cacao, fruits, and vegetables. Tlahuica farmers extensively used irrigation systems which allowed successful cultivation in drier areas. Fertility and earth goddesses were important in Tlahuica religion.
In the 15th century, the Tlahuica came under Aztec control through both warfare and marital alliances. Aztec emperor Moctezuma Ilhuicamina married Tlahuica princess Atotoztli. Tlahuica warriors were known for their elite “shorn ones” unit who shaved their heads except for a single braid. King Tlaltecatzin remained in power as a subject ruler under the Aztecs.
The Mixtec were a Mesoamerican people originating in the mountainous regions of Oaxaca and Guerrero. Mixtec-speaking city-states such as Tilantongo, Tututepec and Tlaxiaco controlled important trade routes that connected the Aztec empire to regions further south. In fact, the Mixtec were the major trading partner that provided the Aztec empire with luxury goods from Central America and other southern areas.
Key Mixtec commodities included greenstones, tropical bird feathers, cacao beans, jaguar skins and resins. In turn, the Aztecs exported crafts, pulque, salt, textiles and other northern goods to the Mixtec. Intermarriage between Aztec nobles and Mixtec rulers helped cement political alliances. The Mixtec had unique cultural traditions seen in their pottery, metalwork, codices and trophy skulls.
Although they were never fully conquered, the Mixtec city-states remained autonomous allies within the Aztec empire, contributing important economic resources through trade. The Aztecs attempted to exert military control at times but were unable to colonize the mountainous Mixtec homelands.
The Aztec civilization was a complex mosaic of different Nahuatl-speaking ethnic groups. While the Mexica of Tenochtitlan were the most dominant group, the empire also relied heavily on its alliances with other major tribes including the Acolhua, Tepaneca, Chalca, Xochimilca, Tlahuica, and Mixtec peoples.
Each tribe contributed key economic, political and cultural elements to the empire. They served as allies, trade partners, providers of tribute, warriors, and members of the nobility through intermarriage. The diversity of the Aztec civilization ultimately strengthened it, although tensions and rebellions sometimes occurred between the central Mexica rulers and subject tribes. Understanding the roles of these tribes provides insights into the complex inner workings of the Aztec empire.