Sustainability of the Aztec Empire

When Europeans arrived in the early 1500s, the Aztecs had one of the largest empires at the time with a population over 200,000. With a massive size and impressive organization and cleanliness, the Aztec empire could be considered one of the more sustainable empires in history. The Aztecs maintained systems of organization of resources that would be admired in today’s society.

The foundation of their sustainability comes down to their use of small, artificial islands that they built to accommodate the growing population, known as chinampas. The Aztec chinampas covered over 12 square kilometers and were highly productive due to the high amount of water and sunlight in the area. The productivity was further increased by the recycling of nutrients. The Aztecs had a method for disposing organic wastes that would fertilize the crops. Human excrement was used often and highly valued in the Aztec society. Urine was usually stored and sold. Reusing excrement prevented it from being released into the environment, preventing the pollution of the lakes surrounding the chinampas.

Chinampa farming

Chinampa farming

Littering and dumping waste was highly frowned upon in Aztec society. Wastefulness was not tolerated at all and in some cases individuals would be sentenced to death for being wasteful. They even had a system for recovering recyclable waste. They also maximized recycling by burning certain materials and then disposing the remainder in chinampas, which helped fertilize the soil.

The Aztec empire had managed to create and maintain, what we would consider today a sustainable materials management system, which is considered the most ideal method for managing waste, conserving resources and protecting the environment.

Although they had an ideal system of sustainability, the empire did not survive the militant conquest of the Spaniards. After conquering the Aztecs, the Spaniards dismantled the waste management system, drained all of the lakes, and built Mexico City over the land.

Overview of the gird-like layout of the chinampas

Overview of the grid-like layout of the chinampas

This begs the question, how long would the Aztecs have survived had they survived the Spanish conquest? With their constant reuse and recycling of organic materials, they minimized their impact on the environment. Because their waste was also considered resources, they showed no signs of exhausting these resources, which is a major issue in the topic in sustainability of today’s society.

With sustainability being a prominent issue today, applying some of the theories and viewpoints that the Aztec empire used as far as waste, adaptability, and resources could help reduce the massive effect that modern society has on the environment.



Further Reading:

Rituals and Remains

To an archaeologist, human remains can be considered a treasure chest of information. Human remains do not just simply tell archaeologists about the death of the individual, they can also reveal much of the life story, such as age, sex, height, genetic ancestry, if they had any illness/disease, types of food they ate, past injuries and how they were treated, any deliberate body modifications, and so much more. An individual’s remains can explain a little bit about their life, but a burial ground(or lack thereof) can explain much about the surrounding culture of the people as a whole.

In 1908, two archaeologists, known as the Bouyssonie brothers, discovered a site in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France and immediately hypothesized the possibility of these remains being intentionally  buried; however, at that time, they did not have enough information, nor the appropriate technology to reach this conclusion.

Reconstruction of Neanderthal Burial in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France

Reconstruction of Neanderthal Burial in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France

After a 13 year reexamination of the site, archaeologists were able to conclude that there was at least partial modifications the area to create a grave. This conclusion forces a reevaluation of the idea of the neanderthal and its culture. The findings from the site showed that Neanderthals were not the ignorant, barbarian-like characters that modern humans perceive them to be. Archaeologists found that the Neanderthals were more  similar to modern humans than they had previously thought. Neanderthals had actually decorated themselves with pigments and wore jewelry made from feathered and colored shells. They also cared for their sick and elderly. The skeleton discovered in the La Chapelle site showed that the deceased suffered from hip and back problems that would have made movement without assistance extremely difficult. These findings serve as evidence that the Neanderthals had developed complex thought and culture.

Decorative shell ornament worn by Neanderthals on jewelry

Decorative shell ornament worn by Neanderthals on jewelry

Death may be one of the most important topics in archaeology, as  how the living treat the dead reveal a lot about the culture and thought process of the living.The findings of the La Chapelle site helped to clarify much about the culture of Neanderthals; however, this also raises many questions that will likely be left unanswered due to the lack of written records in Neanderthal history. Archaeologists are left to wonder if the burial was ceremonial or if it was simply for practical purposes. Also, there was also the possibility that the Neanderthals were not the first to bury the dead and that they simply adopted the practice from some other species. In the future, there may be more discoveries that can answer these lingering questions behind the Neanderthal burial ground; however, the discovery is still remarkable.

Further Reading