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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
To view the rest of the
Aztec Medicine and other topics, return to the main page
of this resource center.