The Aztec Environment

The Aztec people lived in the Valley of Mexico located in south-central Mexico. The valley is approximately 7,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded by high mountains on all but the northern side. The valley is a closed hydrographic unit, water flowing down the mountains drains into a series of shallow, marshy lakes, all of which are interconnected.

The relatively high elevation of the Valley of Mexico results in a climate generally cooler than what would be expected. The average temperature of the region is around 12 degrees celcius. These lower temperatures allow for only a one-crop growing season, and often this is interrupted in the spring and fall seasons by frost. The cool climate caused a sense of uncertainty for the Aztec farmer, wondering if his crops would be ruined by frosts, affecting his survival, had to be at the fore-front of his thoughts.

The rainy season that the Aztecs experienced lasted from May through October. The amount of rainfall varied from an average of 450 mm in the north up to 1000 mm in the southern part of the valley. Rainfall, although plentiful throughout most of the valley, was often sporadic and could not be relied upon for the watering of the Aztec's crops. The Aztecs learned early that rain was unpredictable and taht irrigation systems had to be set up by to insure that their crops would not fail.

The system of lakes within the valley make it a unique environment. These lakes are both saline and freshwater, giving the Aztecs variety in the resources available to them and presenting problems along the lines of farming. The resources that lakes provided the Aztecs with were a wider variety of fish and hunting areas at their disposal, greater opportunity for collecting plants that grew along and around the lakes, and the ability to perform certain types of intensive farming techniques. Lakes also were an excellant source of transportation for the Aztec people, they allowed them to easily transport agricultural proudcts and other items around the central area of their empire. Problems that arose because of the lakes were that the the swampy plain was subject to flooding, neccessitating water control and drainage projects (Blanton p 111). The Aztecs were able to overcome these problems by using forms of high-water table cultivation and through the drainage of low-lying areas. Prior to the Spanish invasion in the 1500's the Valley of Mexico was one of the most complex and productive agricultural areas in the western hemisphere.

Volcanic elements in the soil of the valley were important to the development of the Aztec empire. This volcanic soil was extremely fertile, ideal for the cultivation of maize, the Aztecs main crop. Obsidian, a volcanic glass, was also found in the valley. Obsidian was a valuble resource to the Aztecs because of it's relative rarity in Mesoamerica. Used for cutting tools and decoration, obsidian was a sought after raw material.

Within the Valley of Mexico was an environment that allowed the Aztecs to flourish as a people. Because of the fertility of the soil they were able to advance agriculturally until they were producing a surplus, which then allowed them to begin developing a civiliztion. At the hieght of their civiliztion they had developed the land to the point of it being one of the most productive areas in the New World. The resources present in the valley provided the Aztecs with food, materials for tools and decorations, and gave them items which they were able to trade with other groups in the area, eventually developing trade routes that reached as far south as the Mayan empire.

Written by Daniel Larsen.