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Pre-Columbian Aztec Social Organization


In Aztec society, a calpulli (kal-pooh-li) – which in Nahua, the language spoken by the Aztec, means “large house” – was an organizational unit broadly corresponding to a ward, or a Spanish “barrio”. Under the Aztec empire, it represented the most important social unit under the level of the city-state, or Altepetl.

Different families, often related through kinship, formed a calpulli, especially in the countryside of the Aztec empire.At Tenochtitlan, there were eight different calpulli within each of the four quarters that made up the city. In this and other larger cities, the different calpullis were instead bound together through work specialization and occupation.

Aztec Calpulli Characteristics

In the countryside, the group of people who formed a calpulli was collectively the owner of the land they cultivated and in which they lived. This organization had its own patron deity, school, and temple. In larger cities, members of the same calpulli usually had the same occupation. A calpulli was also the center for tax collection and it formed the basic army unit.

The chief of each calpulli was the paramount and highest-ranking member of the community, this officer was usually a men and he represented his ward in front of the government. This charge was in theory elective, but several studies and sources have proved that it was actually hereditary.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Aztec Empire, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Smith Michael, 2003, The Aztecs. Second Edition, Blackwell Publishing.

Van Tuerenhout Dirk R., 2005, The Aztecs. New Perspectives, ABC-CLIO Inc. Santa Barbara, CA; Denver, CO and Oxford, England.

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