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AZTEC Student Teacher Resource Center

(c)1997 Thomas H. Frederiksen - All Rights Reserved




If you or I get sick we see a doctor, usually follow the advise of our physician and generally recover. The Aztec operated in a similar matter, however, the causes of the illness were treated quite differently. You or I don't attribute our illnesses to the eruption of volcanos or the fancy of an obscure deity that we somehow slighted, the Aztec did. Often the Aztec family would view illness in their homes as punishment or destiny with no hope for cure or reversal of the illness.

The treatment of any illness could be approached from quite a few different angles including, physical treatment, drugs, or a spiritual cure. The herb knowledge was extensive and effective. The spiritual, or magical cures, were just as important and deserve equal study and consideration as they apply to general medical treatment.

The Aztec had a love-hate relationship with their deities and saw themselves as mere pawns in the hands of the gods. An illness could be seen as retribution for not strictly following a rather extensive set of daily homage routines. Sickness may also be inflicted for no other reason than the amusement of a particular deity.

Another form of divine intervention in the health of the Aztec was pre-ordained illness. The Aztec had a well established birth sign structure, much like modern astrology. Babies born during certain days were expected to develop into sickly children and die early of disease. Conversely babies born on other days could expect favor from the gods and live happy, disease free lives. Should one of these favored people develop illness, he or she surely must have forgotten to properly pay homage to the gods.

In a general sense, Aztec medical science was on an even par with contemporary medical science of the day in Europe. Often times the Aztecs, or more specifically the Mexica, were far superior in the identification and treatment of the various ailments that affected them. Like their medical counterparts in Europe(*1),

1 Europe, in some ways, was behind the New world in the progression of medicine. As late as 1530 such theories as the "Doctrine of Signatures" was being led by Swiss Alchemist Paracelsus. This theory stated that plants looked like the disease they were intended to cure. For example a walnut looked like a brain, therefore, it must be good for the cure of brain ailments. Ody, p. 19. Paracelsus, real name Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, ordered his followers in 1524 to burn
books written by advocates of herb medicine, Kruger, p.157.


the Aztec practitioners tended to concentrate on treating the symptom and not the disease or cause of the illness(*2).

Dr. Michael Meyer relates that the Aztecs were even preforming "brain operations"(*3). In general, the Mexica could be considered to have been a very healthy race of people with preventive health measures and in possession of a good sense of public sanitation as a part of their daily lives.

The mental health of the Aztec was certainly in need of improvement. Considering the extent of anxiety in the daily lives of the common individual, it is no wonder that so many of their drugs were prescribed for various stomach ailments. As a regular antacid user myself, I speak from experience when I say that anxiety affects your digestive track, and I don't even have to worry about giant rocks falling on my head or becoming claw-handed as a result of my birth sign.

The daily lives of the Aztec were so regulated and controlled that it would have been difficult to maintain any type of mental health that we would associate with. This breakdown of balance between the mind and the body could manifest itself in a number of physical ailments, and probably did.

With the exception of bleeding a patient, or setting broken bones, the Mexica concentrated on an herbal (*4) approach to medicine, even maintaining extensive

2 The Aztecs were convinced that comets, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions were some of the causes of illness, as well as offending various deities, particularly Tezcatlipoca, "He Who Slaves We Are".

3 Meyer, p. 79. Meyer does not reference his source for this statement. Wolfgang von Hagen, pp. 113-114, discusses the subject of skull trepanning as having been highly developed in the Inca society but found no references to the Aztecs developing such a practice.

4 As the Mexica tended to approach medicine from an herbal view, it is helpful to understand basic naturopathic terms and principals associated with herbs and the use of herbs in medicine. Listed here are the basic elements associated with a more modern naturopathic approach to healing with herbs.

ASTRINGENT - helps to close open wounds and stop fluid discharge.
ANTIEMETIC - used to control vomiting.
ANTISEPTIC - used to cleanse and ward off infection.
ANTISPASMODIC - used to relieve spasms.
DEMULCENT - inflammation relief.
DIURETIC - help with the flow of urine.
EMETIC - induce vomiting.
EMMENAGOGUE - help with menstruation flow.
EMOLLIENT - balm for inflamed skin.
FEBRIFUGE - fever control
LAXATIVE - constipation.
NERVINE - the nervous system treatment.
SEDATIVE - help with sleep and relaxation.
TONIC- revitalize and strengthen the whole body.


gardens, for growing some of the drugs that they used medicinally(*5).

Some fifteen hundred different plants, pastes, potions, and powders were cataloged soon after the conquest by a variety of historians. The Mexica were sophisticated enough to wrap flower petals around certain medicines to form a type of capsule, or "pill" for easy consumption(*6). Many of these medicinally used plants and herbs are still in use today and can be found in sidewalk drugstores(*7). Photographs of the disease are often posted along with the various jars, bags and other containers displayed, depicting the ailment the drug is intended to cure or provide some sort of relief.

5 Townsend, p. 170-171, relates the location of several tended gardens that may have produced some of the medicinal items used routinely by the Mexica. One was constructed by an engineer called Pinotel, commissioned by Moctezuma I, to build a garden near Huaxtepec. This garden was a horticultural experiment that successfully transplanted trees and herbs from the coastal regions to the Valley of Mexico. During the transplanting the gardeners would let blood over the planting area from their ears and fast for eight days. Gillmore, pp. 169-170 gives the spelling as Pinotl and relates the story in detail and assigns Pinotl as being a tribute collector from the Cuetlaxtlan region. Gillmore further relates in her notes, p. 236, that certain medicinal plants grown in this garden were cultivated after the conquest for a hospital in Mexico City run by Gregorio Lopez.

The lord of Texcoco, Netzahualcoyotl, maintained an extensive medicinal garden of trees and therapeutic plants at Tetzcotzingo. Cortes wrote to King Charles V. of his observations of the extensive gardens at Ixtapalapan, as noted in his second letter to the King written in 1520. The great garden at Huaxtepec was discussed in his third letter.

6 Gillmore, p. 189.

7 The sidewalk drugstore I am most familiar with is located just outside the tourist zone in Nogalas Sonora and is just feet away from a traditional pharmacy. The pharmacy is full of tourists and what look like well off local residents, while the sidewalk vendor always seems to have a good crowd of what appear to be less economically stable local residents. The vendor had approximately 100 different large clear plastic bags and jars with various dried roots, powders, and herbs. I have also observed similar sidewalk drugstores throughout Asia.


The Mexica seemed not to encompass medicine into their long list of social taboo subjects, and approached the science with an open mind. The history of the Valley of Mexico teaches us that the area was a melting pot of cultures. For centuries various tribes from both North and South America settled and mingled in the fertile valley of central Mexico.

The various medicine practitioners must have sought each other out and traded recipes, stories and secrets. The discoveries made by each tribe were discussed, tried and experimented with. The good ones eventually would have been accepted into general daily practice. The Mexica even had a crude dental industry in practice. Common tooth decay among the Mexica was treated with crude fillings and drugs were used for anesthetic. Feather quills and cactus spines were used as simple instruments. Ground seeds and roots of the nettle plant was used for the treatment of festering gums(*8).

The general state of sanitary conditions in the streets, homes, and great ceremonial centers, located near the great city of Tenochtitlan, were exceptional and well regulated. Although I'm not sure this sanitation was done in the name of any health related regulation but rather a way to keep a large number of people gainfully employed and give the various deities a clean place to rest.

The city streets were well swept and kept clean(*9), drainage was well mastered, and most human waste was collected and disposed of or used in an agricultural manner(*10). The daily garbage generated by the large population of the city(*11) was treated in a like manner. Several reports by the conquering Spanish make reference to the cleanliness of the great city of Tenochtitlan and the surrounding area.

8 Liquidamber styraciflua, or sweet gum (copal) was applied to a cheek in hot form for a common toothache. Vogel, pp. 378-9.

9 Meyer, p. 89, indicates that a crew of over a thousand people were daily assigned to the task of cleaning the city streets of the great Mexica city of Tenochtitlan.

10 Innes, p. 140, relates that canoes of human waste were taken up various creeks and sold for the manufacture of salt and skin curing. Urine was made into dye.

11 Buckets of human waste were routinely reported to have been seen sold in the marketplace for use as fertilizer. Human waste was barged with garbage out of the city. There must have been landfills and dumping areas. I have not been able to ascertain the locations of these Aztec "dumps", however, a likely spot may have been on the eastern shore of Lake Texcoco near the Chimalhuacan area.


The common Mexica household maintained a good sense of personal hygiene and bathed often, once a day was common(*12). Aztec society before the arrival of the Spanish could be considered a healthy one. Medicine seemed to be confined strictly to the treatment of diseases, both physical and spiritual and not to physical deformities(*13).

As soon as 1553, by royal order, the Spanish began to establish a hospital system. This order called for the establishment of a hospital program to tend to the medical needs of ill Indians in the cities and countryside. By 1570 King Philip II had sent his personal doctor, Francisco Hernandez, to Mexico who spent seven years in the study of the native plants of Mexico as well as a general study of Aztec medicine, and took his finding back to Spain(*14).

In 1580 Mexico City could boast four hospitals for Spaniards(*15), one hospital for the Indian population, and one hospital for Negroes and Mestizos(*16). Various groups of nuns and monasteries in Mexico began to open their doors and concentrate their energy on the health of Mexico.

12 One of the hardest traditions the early Spanish priests tried to break was the practice of adult men bathing with young girls and older women bathing with young males.

13 During an earthquake it was common practice to publicly sacrifice a hunchback, or other severely deformed, to stem the destruction. For this reason hunchbacks and others afflicted with physical deformities were well treated by society and kept close at hand.

14 He intended to publish his work but much of his work was destroyed. He did however collect information on over twelve hundred different plants used in medicine.

15 Apparently the hospitals were well funded. According to Lockhart, p. 216 and p. 284, one particular Mexico City hospital, Nuevstra Senora de la Concepcion, was supported by a large ranch it owned called Estancia of Mestepec in the western part of Ixtlahuaca. As of 1585 the estancia could boast possession of 10,400 sheep, as well as black slaves to run the ranch.

16 Meyer, p. 245. Meyer further relates that these hospitals were more like "rest homes" and provided only minimal treatments. The good Bishop Zumarraga established a hospital in Mexico City for the treatment of Venereal diseases with an asylum for the insane soon following. Even with the coming of European medicine the early Spanish colonists could only expect to live half as long as we do today.


In 1533 the Spanish crown was calling for anyone practicing medicine to have been examined by a qualified university to ascertain competence of the medical practitioner. In 1621 a department of surgery and anatomy was initiated at the University of Mexico. By 1791 there were barely two hundred and twenty one surgeons and barbers(*17) in Mexico to service the native population. Those practitioners were located mostly in the large cities with little contact with the rural areas(*18). Considering the large Indian population in the countryside, it is no wonder that ancient cures and medicines persisted into daily practice and can still be found to be in use in large sections of Mexico today.

Medicine in Mexico has never seemed to be a great burning political cause, or at least at other times than election periods. Even during the Mexican revolutionary period, 1910-1940, the population tended to place land reform and education above the health of the common people. The medical system in Mexico today still relies heavily upon ancient cures and the local midwives and medicine men. Fortunately for the poor, many of these herbs, remedies and potions actually work.

This system of medicine provided a base for the formal medical community to build upon. Recent awareness of the importance of some of the old medicines has led to university level interest into the study and documentation of some of the ancient herbal remedies still in practice by the Indians of Mexico and other middle and South American Indian tribes. Local medicine people are being contacted in rural areas of Mexico today and specimens tested for cancer relieving properties, tuberculosis, and a host of modern day ailments including AIDS research. One such program is funded by agreements reached at the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil(*19).

17 Surgeons, or the common official medical practitioner, was also a barber.

18 Meyer, p. 245.

19 Team researchers as of 1994 are from the University of Arizona, Purdue University, Louisiana State University, the Institute of Biological Resources in Argentina, the National University of Patagonia in Argentina, the Catholic University of Chile, the National University of Mexico and the American Cyanamid Company. This team is headed by Barbara A. Timmermann professor of pharmacology/toxicology and arid lands studies, the University of Arizona. She has been studying and relating her finding of the subject of desert plants for 30 years. An article outlining this on-going research project with a photograph of Professor Timmermann is featured in THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR, p. 1 B, September 4, 1994. Professor Timmermann is known to lecture on the subject.

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