Historian reveals Aztec history through their own words

Forget history written by the victors. Cundill Prize-winning historian Camilla Townsend turned to annals kept by the Aztecs themselves to reveal a history of a vibrant, sophisticated people who valued hard work, perseverance, who were master storytellers and loved a good joke — and who 500 years ago had outdoor food courts!

Camilla Townsend won the 2020 Cundill Prize for her book, Fifth Sun: A History of the Aztecs

Camilla Townsend won the 2020 Cundill History Prize for Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs. The Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University delved into annals written by the Aztecs themselves in her award-winning book. (Oxford University Press USA/Esti Lamm)

*Originally published on December 3, 2020.

Picture the Aztecs and what images come to mind? A bloodthirsty people sacrificing captives and ripping out their hearts to frenzied crowds? The hapless and incompetent leader Moctezuma handing over his empire to the daring Spanish? Little wonder these images remain so powerful in both scholarly circles and popular culture. History in this instance was literally written by the victors, the Spanish.

But these stereotypes are likely going to become defunct. Historian Camilla Townsend turned to obscure, and often ignored sources written by the Aztecs themselves to see how they saw themselves and their place in history.

The annals, as scholars call them, were an accident of history. The colonizing Spanish taught the Roman alphabet to young Aztecs in the years following the Conquest, in order to disseminate the teaching of the Church. But their pupils also recorded the oral histories of their people, using the alphabet they'd been taught to represent the sounds of their own Nahuatl tongue.

The result is her stunning book, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, the 2020 winner of the prestigious Cundill History Prize — and the $75,000 (U.S.) purse that goes with it. Fifth Sun reveals a sophisticated, hardworking people who valued family, perseverance — and whose capital city, Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), was admired by all who visited it for its lush beauty.

A dancer in Aztec costume performs during the commemoration of emperor Cuauhtemoc's 483rd anniversary in front of his statue in Mexico City, 2008. Cuauhtemoc was the last emperor of the Aztec empire and was defeated by the Spaniards commanded by Hernan Cortez in the 16th century. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images))

The city was situated on an island, with causeways and canals defining it. The urban space was jewelled with pyramids, verdant gardens, and markets — one of which sold everything from decorated tamales to roasted cacao. It even featured a kind of outdoor food court — and this was 500 years ago. Before the conquest in 1519, it was divided into semi-autonomous districts, which in turn had their own administrative responsibilities.

But Townsend doesn't romanticize the Aztecs, or ignore the more troubling aspects of their culture, such as human sacrifice. It's a fact: they did practice human sacrifice. Anyone reading these words would likely be appalled at the sight of one being carried out.

People here in this country [U.S.] have been able to say things about Mexicans that are so preposterous.- Camilla Townsend

The context for understanding the practice, she argues, should not be our own, nor that of the Spanish. It should be considered in light of how the Aztecs themselves saw it. 

Sometimes the gods required sacrifice to keep the cosmos going. Human sacrifices were minimal in number for most of Aztec history, and they were solemn occasions, not orgies of public violence. The remains of those sacrificed occupied elevated positions in the homes of Aztec officials. And if the historical lens is widened, one sees that other people in what is now Mexico and Central America also practiced it, as did the Celts in Europe.

While Aztec history is as dazzling as it is fascinating, there is a moral to the story — or rather, to history. In the way Camilla Townsend views it in Fifth Sun, Aztec history is with us now. It speaks both to us, and through us. As she told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed:

"People here in this country [U.S.] have been able to say things about Mexicans that are so preposterous, you wonder how could that thought even be uttered in public?

"But then, when you think about how we've been taught to think about the 'primordial Mexican', it isn't that mysterious. So we have hindered our own ability to do what's right, and be the people we would like to be."

* This episode was produced by Greg Kelly.

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