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Aztecs or Mexica?

The Origins of the Aztec Name


Mexica and the Founding of Tenochtitlan from the Codex Duran

Mexica and the Founding of Tenochtitlan from the Codex Duran


Despite its popular use, the term Aztec used to define the founders of Tenochtitlan and the empire that ruled over ancient Mexico from AD 1428 to 1521 is incorrect.

This term reached popularity in the 19th century, when it was proposed by the famous German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt, and then popularized in William Prescott’s book “The History of the Conquest of Mexico”, published in 1843.

The term has some historical foundation, though, since it derives from Aztlan, the legendary homeland that the Mexica–the proper name of the Aztecs– left to reach the Valley of Mexico. According to archaeological, linguistic and historical sources, the Mexica were the last of several tribes which, between the 12th and 13th century, left Northern Mexico and moved south toward Central Mexico.

During their migration from Aztlan, commanded by their patron god Huitzilopochtli,the group split, and the one that continued to travel until the Basin of Mexico adopted the name of Mexica, in honour of their patron deity, who was also known under the name of Mexi.

Aztecs, therefore, is an ambiguous name which doesn’t define historically either a group of people or a culture or a language.  Mexica is the proper term that should be used to: 1) define the people who left Aztlan and founded, in AD 1325, the two settlements of Tenonchtitlan and Tlatelolco in the Basin of Mexico; 2) the descendents of this group, who inhabited these cities and that from 1428 were the leaders of the empire which ruled over ancient Mexico until the arrival of the Europeans.


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

Barlow, Robert H., 1949, The Extent of the Empire of the Culhua Mexica, University of California Press, Berkeley

López Austin, Alfredo, 2001, Aztecs, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, vol. 1, edited by David Carrasco, Oxford University Press.pp: 68-72

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