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HomeNL-2017-10 Aztec Canoeing

Aztec Canoeing
Year 1535

This article is written largely with information from Mexicolore, and used with their gracious permission. We thank them for allowing us to share this story here. To learn more about the lives of the Aztec Indians, visit their web site here: Mexicolore

Mexicolore ("Mexico - the Lore of the Land") was established in 1980 by Graciela Sánchez and Ian Mursell. Together they have worked for over 35 years in partnership with museums, the BBC, schools, institutions, groups and individuals to educate about Mexico’s culture and people.

The first Spanish settlement in Mexico was established in February 1519, as a result of the landing of Hernán Cortés in the Yucatan Peninsula, accompanied by about 11 ships, 500 men, 13 horses and a small number of cannons. Cortés formally claimed the land for Spain, and the conquest of the Aztec Empire was completed in 1521.

Don Antonio de Mendoza, the viceroy of New Spain, commissioned a book to be created in 1535 to document the history of the Aztec rulers and their conquests, a list of the tribute paid by the conquered, and a description of daily Aztec life, using traditional Aztec pictograms with Spanish commentary. This book is called the Codex Mendoza (a codex is an ancient manuscript). There are also several other Mesoamerican codex books, and together these comprise a priceless historical record of ancient Aztec life in the 16th century.

Among these extraordinary images and descriptions are included depictions of the role of canoes in Aztec culture.

  Illustration by Felipe
D'ávalos, from

Battle between Spanish
and Aztecs,
Florentine Codex. Book XII

At least one historian has calculated that there were between 100,000 and 200,000 canoes on Lake Texcoco at the time of the Spanish Conquest. That’s almost one canoe per person! Lake Texcoco is where the Aztecs built the city of Tenochtitlan, located on an island within the lake - it was the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas. After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, efforts to control flooding by the Spanish led to most of the lake being drained. The entire lake basin is now the site of present-day Mexico City, the capital of Mexico. Being located in the middle of a lake, naturally, canoes were absolutely essential to life in the city.

Florentine Codex, Book 2
The canoeists at top
are blowing horns
made of conch shells
Early Spanish writers commented on the fact that the lakes all round the Aztec capital were peppered with canoes of all shapes and sizes: carrying goods to and from the city, and especially the great market at Tlatelolco, removing waste, ferrying warriors and raiding parties and doing many of the every-day transport jobs. River/lake/canal transport is a very efficient means of moving goods, and in a society without wheeled vehicles or draft animals, the canoe played a crucial role in moving heavy loads. Indeed, the growth of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco into one of the world’s largest cities was certainly due in part to the huge success of the fast-moving, largely water-bound, traffic to and from the main market.

The island location had advantages too. From effective defense to a transport system based largely on canoe-supplied provisions, "the lake offered far greater transport efficiency than did land routes, in terms of movement of goods to and from the city", according to Professor Susan Toby Evans. Much of the transport took place at night, to avoid the heat of the day - it’s well known that the market at Tlatelolco was open 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, with its numbers swelling from the 40,000 average to as many as 60,000 on each (fifth) major market day.

  Codex Mendoza,
folio 60

At age 13, boys harvested reeds from the lake, which were made into mats for sitting and sleeping, and for laying out wares upon them in the market. The mats were also required by the thousands as tribute to the Spanish. At age 14, a boys upbringing graduated to fishing. "Sostoztillas" is bread made from corn into tortillas, and this depicts the per-meal allotment of two tortillas for that age. They also received 14 of those green things, whatever they are - I have been unable to determine that (sapote?). 

Codex Mendoza folio 63r

"Youth who is occupied in bringing sod in his canoe for repair of the temple", as part of his community service training at age 14. There were two possible types of sod, one used for roofing material, and another used for making adobe.

Most general-purpose canoes - those depicted in codices - averaged 14 feet in length, were dug out from a single tree trunk and had upturned ends. They were propelled by wooden pole or paddle. It took about a week for a skilled carpenter to make a canoe, and it could cost the equivalent in the market of a single fine cotton cape. At the other extreme, the largest canoes, made of straight-grained spruce trees, were 50 or more feet in length, capable of carrying either 60 passengers or 3 tons of maize. Little wonder that the Aztec word for canoe was acalli or "water-house", from the two words atl (water) and calli (house). The Spanish noted that Aztec boatmen would often sleep in their travelling canoes on long journeys.

  Opochtli, inventor
of the canoe pole
Florentine Codex Book 1

The demand placed upon the canoe - some journeyed down large rivers to the sea, from one island to another, and across small gulfs - dictated how large the vessel needed to be. Just as their canoes were made from wood, so were their poles and paddles. The Codex notes that the Aztecs attributed the invention of the pole for propelling boats to the god Opochtli, the god of hunting and fishing.

The Florentine Codex records the skill of the "water folk" who made their living from the lake. Such a living was not without its dangers; strong, treacherous winds and whirlpools were common. There were areas in the lake where a great whirlpool would sometimes occur, threatening boatmen. "Many times the lake becomes angry and turbulent, even though there is no wind." Winds were named for the cardinal direction in which it blew, and each was attributed with its own personality. The wind from the north was from the land of the dead, and was dangerous for canoes. When it arose, the fishermen greatly quickened their pace, plying the pole rapidly, straining their arms, that they might beach on the shore. Also feared was the wind from the south, a particularly violent wind.The wind from the west, on the other hand, though cold, was not considered dangerous. The eastern winds, known as from the land where the sun rises, were benign.  

Boturini Codex
This image depicts the Aztec origin story, whereby the Aztecs left their homeland Aztlán, also known as Mexica, at the behest of their god/ruler Huitzilopochtli, to find a new home in the Valley of Mexico. Of course, they did so partly by paddling in a canoe! 

You can learn a great deal more about Aztec life by viewing those codices, and you can start here. They are a fascinating history lesson that can keep you engrossed for hours. Warning: Some of the material is not for the faint of heart, detailing such things as ritual human sacrifices and cruel punishments. I've focused here in this article only on the aspect of canoeing which appears in those ancient volumes.

The editor, John Rich