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Science Museum Group

Assistant Curator Rebecca Raven explores medicine in the age of the Aztec Empire, from ceremonial birth to death on the sacrificial stage.

When the Aztec Empire features in popular culture, often it is in relation to human sacrifice.

While this holds some truth, it is not the whole story of this advanced and sophisticated Empire where medicine flourished. Careers like being a physician were open to both men and women, while pain was managed using refined herbs.

At this point we should remember citizens of the time never referred to themselves as Aztecs.

Instead, the term Mexica is most commonly used to refer to the inhabitants of the city of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, the capital of the expanding Empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, while Nahua is used to refer to the indigenous populations of central Mexico more generally. Aztec is now used to refer to the Empire, as this term was given to the citizens by colonisers.

Model of Tenochtitlan at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Image by Thelmadatter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Mexica massively outstripped their European contemporaries in their use of herbs. Moctezuma I, ruler of the biggest alliance in the Empire from 1440-1469, established a botanical garden with approximately two thousand different species of plants.

The medicinal qualities of these plants were used to cure ailments from cuts and burns to excessive flatulence, with some of these plants still regularly used in Mexico today.

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Tenochtitlan, they marvelled at the Mexica medical proficiency and were quick to appropriate their knowledge. The Spanish immediately sent correspondence about the Mexica’s use of herbs back home. Soon King Charles V of Spain dispatched agents to learn (and steal knowledge) about these native plants.

A stone mortar bowl like this one in the Science Museum Group Collection would have been used to grind herbs used for medicinal purposes.

Despite this, the Spanish did not adopt many of the Mexica’s medical procedures. Mexica medical practitioners were centuries ahead of European doctors in their use of anaesthetic drugs in surgery.

It wasn’t until 1846 that William Morton publicly demonstrated ether, the original general anaesthetic in the West, whereas the Mexica had been using herbs to dull pain for centuries. While Europeans had a grasp of how to use herbs to reduce suffering, it nowhere near rivalled the Mexica’s use of plants.

Later adoption of practices carried out by the Mexica extend beyond the use of anaesthetic. The streets of the Empire were kept clean through regular sweeping, and this hygienic environment extended to personal practices as well. Childbirth in all cultures can be quite a dangerous time, but this was eased by Mexica midwifes who made sure to keep the room clean and eased the pain with massage and herbs.

Nahua culture – that is the culture of the indigenous populations of central Mexico – is entrenched in religion, and for them, medicine was no different.

As one of the gods of medicine and healing, Ixtlilton was responsible for helping children sleep by bringing them darkness and a peaceful night’s sleep. ‘Bringing a child darkness’ could sound pretty ominous but in reality it was a caring and nurturing act to perform and Ixtlilton was known as a gentle god.

This idea of a character entering a child’s room and helping them sleep is similar to Northern European mythology of the Sandman. Different versions of this myth exist, but many are far more disturbing than Ixtlilton. In Hoffmann’s short story, Der Sandman, he threw sand in children’s eyes, causing them to fall out and be collected by Mr Sandman. In comparison, Ixtlilton is a surprisingly compassionate god.

Human sacrifice was an important part of Mexica religion and culture. The act was conducted at Templo Mayor, the highest building in Tenochtitlan, so that everybody could witness it.

Human sacrifice as shown in the Codex Magliabechiano, Folio 70. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

However, the tools the Mexica used point towards a more merciful side to such a gory act.

The naturally occurring volcanic glass obsidian, which is sharper than steel, was used by the Mexica to make knives and arrowheads which could easily cut through skin. These extremely sharp blades cause less pain than other materials as they leave fewer rips and tears in the skin.

Obsidian was abundant in the region, providing the Mexica with reliable access to it. Following the invasion of Spanish conquistadors, the Spanish replaced European made objects like shaving blades with obsidian.

Obsidian is sometimes still used in surgery today, as the small and precise incisions lead to faster healing for patients. Though as obsidian is more brittle and significantly more expensive than stainless steel, its use is not widespread.

Obsidian knife from the Science Museum Group Collection.

While the people of the Aztec Empire certainly engaged in human sacrifice, we should not overlook their sophisticated use and knowledge of medicine. Mexica treatments were often safer and provided more comfort to patients than treatments conducted in Europe at the same time.


Further reading: Anatomy: art and science