Life in the provinces of the Aztec empire

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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. 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 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 overloads. 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. What do these excavations tell us about the people who lived in the provinces of the Aztec Empire? The overall impression is that provincial commoners were relatively prosperous, enterprising people. In spite of an economic decline after conquest and incorporation into the Aztec Empire, commoners in both urban and rural settings still enjoyed access to a wide range of imported goods. These goods were obtained through the markets. Both documentary and archaeological data indicate that the Aztec market system operated largely outside state control. The markets connected people in even the smallest peasant villages with the larger informal Aztec economy of central Mexico. Family members engaged in a variety of craft activities to produce goods to sell in the markets. At sites in Morelos, the most important of these products were cotton textiles manufactured by women in their homes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)56-63
Number of pages8
JournalScientific American
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1997
Externally publishedYes

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