Forget everything you've ever heard about gold and its uses. Refined jewelry, gold coins and bars pale in comparison to the gold of the Aztecs. This ancient civilization used copious amounts of the yellow metal to make all sorts of things that were important to them.
Aztecs were a Native American people that inhabited central Mexico. Between the 14th and the 16th centuries, they created a rich mythology and a unique cultural heritage. The capital was situated on Lake Texcoco and called Tenochtitlan. Its ruins now lie under modern-day Mexico City.
The Aztec society was divided into various social classes. Slavery was common but not inherited. A slave could have their own slaves, property and, most importantly, the possibility to buy their freedom.
Medicine was practiced by priests and physicians. The Aztecs had over 100 words for different body parts. Herbal gardens provided a year-round supply of medicinal herbs.
Parents were responsible for educating their children. Some boys above the age of 5 went to school. The Aztecs' moral and ethical ideals were transmitted through oral lore. Special 'colleges’ taught history, religion, military art, and trading skills, while schools taught literacy, rituals, poetry, and martial arts.
Gold mining mostly took part in the modern provinces Guerrero and Oaxaca (the 121 gold items found in the so-called Tomb 7 confirm this). Near Zacatula, gold panning was practiced using special wooden pans. There were many gold-bearing rivers in the territory controlled by the Huastecs. The Zapotecs, too, had rich gold mines, but the Aztecs didn't have full control over them. The largest gold-bearing regions were under the control of the Tarascans, but political tensions between the peoples forced Aztecs to trade for this gold.
How did this advanced civilization view gold? The precious metal was used to make all sorts of items, though the purpose of some of them remains a mystery.
We learn about the rich capital, Tenochtitlan, from the diaries written by Cortes' soldiers. They all described the incredible wealth of the city. The ruler's palace included dozens of stone buildings; there was even a zoo with thousands of animals and birds kept in cages made of pure gold. Cocoa was drunk out of golden cups, and food was eaten off golden plates. The emperor's wooden throne featured gold inlays and gems. In the garden next to the palace, there were golden trees with silver leaves and fruit made of precious stones. In front of the statue of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, there was a pile of gifts made of gold – goblets, cups, weapons – that reached up to its knees. The Aztecs were rather bellicose and believed that one had to donate gold to the war deity before battle and then thank him after a victory. During rituals, both priests and the ruler would donate gold-embroidered vestments.
An interesting fact: when the Spaniards first met ruler Montezuma, they gave him a helmet as a gift; however, it wasn't made of solid gold but only gilded. They calculated that the ruler alone owned 5,000 tons of gold.
After the fall of the Aztec empire in 1521, all of its gold fell into the hands of the Conquistadors. They melted jewelry, statues and idols into gold bars, hoping to return to Europe rich. However, sea storms and the French corsairs led by Jean Fleury interfered with their plans. Some of the galleons were captured near the Azores, others sank during a storm, and only 2 reached Spain. Therefore, the Aztec gold still lies at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
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