The Aztecs are best known as a violent people who expanded their empire through ruthless warfare. They also had a reputation for making human sacrifices in elaborate rituals -- that often involved the removal of beating hearts -- to appease their many gods. While these practices were certainly true, the culture also gave birth to elaborate crafts, a highly organized system of government and a language -- Nahuatl -- that's still spoken by a million people.
In many ways, the Aztecs' warlike ways were born out of necessity. Originally part of a tribal collective known as the Chichimec, the people who would become the Aztecs wandered toward southern Mexico in the early 12th century. They arrived in the Valley of Mexico around 1250 A.D., but they found the land already populated by different city-states. For the next 75 years, the Chichimec were shunned and forced to live where there wasn't much farmable land.
They eventually settled on an island in Lake Texcoco, where, according to legend, they saw the sign foretold by their patron god Huitzilopochtli: an eagle on a cactus. The Aztecs established their city of Tenochtitlan -- present-day Mexico City -- there in 1325 A.D. Other city-states remained uneasy with their new neighbors, though, and fighting continued. Finally, they formed an alliance with two other major settlements in 1430, and the Aztec empire was born.
The empire flourished until Cortés arrived in 1521, and the Aztecs achieved many impressive accomplishments, as we'll see on the following pages.