Like every civilisation in history, agriculture was one of the most important sources of sustenance for the Aztecs. However, they had to develop unique methods for Aztec farming and agriculture since their city-state, Tenochtitlan, was founded on the swampy grounds of Lake Texcoco. However, the Aztecs did succeed in developing these methods very successfully and the Spaniards who arrived in the Americas in 1521 were surprised at the ingenuity of these Aztec agriculture and farming methods.
Aztec Farming and Agriculture: Chinampas System
A special kind of artificial method of farming was used among the Aztecs which was known as Chinampa. With this method, Aztec farming and agriculture flourished on lands which could otherwise not be farmed because of their swampy nature. As per this method of farming, the Aztecs used small, rectangular areas of land to grow crops on the shallow lake beds in the Mexico Valley. The advantage that these artificial islands enjoyed was that water was present in abundance and the climate was also suitable for farming.
A special kind of artificial method of farming was used among the Aztecs which was known as Chinampa.
Aztec Farming and Agriculture: Chinampas Construction
Chinamps were created by building up extensions of soil into bodies of water. According to Codex Vergara, the size of these artificial lands for Aztec farming and agriculture was usually 30 meters by 2.5 meters. However, there were chinamps of larger sizes as well and in Tenochtitlan some of them were as large as 91 meters by 4.6 meters. The shallow lake bed was staked out and the rectangular land was fenced with wattle. Mud, lake sediment, and decaying vegetation was also used to bring the land to the level of the lake.
Aztec Farming and Agriculture: Farm Land Ownership Rules
The Aztecs had developed a sophisticated and hierarchical land ownership system. The emperor, in addition to having personal and royal property, had dominion over the newly conquered lands which he could distribute to the nobility, calpulli, and the warriors. However, mostly the owners of the newly conquered lands could retain their possessions but had to pay part of the profit as a tribute. Nobles were given large tracts of lands as service for the emperors with certain conditions. Common people could not posses land on individual basis but could have access to land through their calpulli.
Aztec Farming and Agriculture: Farm Crops Grown
Aztecs grew a variety of crops and grains. Some of the most important crops grown through Aztec farming and agriculture were maize, beans, and squash. Maize was in particular the most important grain in Aztec society and the essential part of their diet. Other than these, Aztecs also grew chilies, tomatoes, and peanuts etc. In addition to these, Aztecs used chinamps to grow a variety of flowers. They also collected algae from the surface of Lake Texcoco and used high-protein algae to make breads and cheese type foods.
Aztec Farming and Agriculture: Aztec Farmers
There were two main types of farmers for Aztec farming and agriculture. The first types were the labourers who were similar to the serfs in Europe at the time. These people tilled and harvested the land of their masters and could be sold to new masters along with the land. They were given a small part of the produce as an income for their services. The other types were the experts of Aztec farming and agriculture. They managed the kind of seeds which were to be sown and supervised the working of the crop rotation.
Maize was a popular food produce by the Aztec Farming, Maize flourished on lands which could otherwise not be farmed.
Aztec Farming and Agriculture: Farming Tools
Aztecs used relatively primitive tools for Aztec farming and agriculture. They did not have advanced tools for the time such as plows. The most important tool for Aztec farming and agriculture was the classic wooden digging stick. This stick was called Uictli in the Nahuatl language. There were multiple types of these digging sticks and other than farming, it was often also used for other purposes such as construction and repair work. Additionally, they also developed ingenious irrigation methods for the water supply.
Aztec Farming and Agriculture: Farm Animals
Aztec farming and agriculture did not use any animals since they did not have plows and wheels. Thus the absence of animals used for farming made then entire process quite cumbersome since they had to use small pointed sticks for farming and this took a lot of time. They did have dogs but no other animals were used in farming. However, on their farms, Aztecs did raise a variety of domestic animals such as geese, ducks, dogs, turkey, tapir, and rabbits etc.
Aztec Farming and Agriculture: Making Food from Grains
Aztecs used a variety of methods to make food from the grains and vegetables that they grew. The most important product of Aztec farming and agriculture was, of course, maize. Other than being eaten as it was, maize was also grounded into flour and eaten with other foods. Another important crop of Aztec farming and agriculture was squash which was grown in several varieties. Other kinds of foods included pumpkin which was valued because of its protein content and the bottle gourd which was grown because it could be used as a water container after being eaten. Finally, beans were grown in abundance and were an important part of Aztec diet.
Aztec Farming and Agriculture Remnants
Aztec farming and agriculture methods were highly impressive not just for their own time but also for later times. Thus remnants of Aztec farming and agriculture methods exist even today, in particular the chinampa system, in the southern portion of the greater Mexico City. But with access to modern farming methods and tools, these methods are being abandoned.
Aztec Farming and Agriculture Summary
Agriculture was a very important part of the Aztec Empire and the primary source of food for its inhabitants. Thus various unique and innovative methods were used for Aztec farming and agriculture in order to make the swampy ground of Lake Texcoco arable. The most innovative way was the creation of artificial lands which could be used to grow crops. These were small, rectangular pieces of land called chinamps. In the empire, the nobility was often awarded land by the emperor although the nobility of the conquered city-states usually retained its land after paying a certain amount of tribute. Common people could not own land on individual basis but could have access to it through their city-council or calpulli.