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When used about ethnic groups the term "Aztec" refers to several Nahuatl speaking peoples of central Mexico in the postclassic period of Mesoamerican chronology, especially the ethnic group that had a leading role in the establishing the hegemonic empire based at Tenochtitlan, the Mexica. Other ethnic groups associated with the Aztec empire are the Acolhua and Tepanec ethnic groups and some of the ethnic groups that were incorporated into the empire, and the term is also sometimes used about them. In older usage the term was commonly used about modern Nahuatl speaking ethnic groups, as Nahuatl was previously referred to as the "Aztec language". In recent usage these ethnic groups are rather referred to as the Nahua peoples.[2][3] Linguistically the term "Aztecan" is still used about the branch of the Uto-Aztecan languages (Also sometimes called the yuto-nahuan languages) that includes the Nahuatl language and its closest relatives Pochutec and Pipil.[4]

To the Aztecs themselves the word "aztec" was not an endonym for any particular ethnic group. Rather it was an umbrella term used to refer to several ethnic groups, not all of them Nahuatl speaking, that claimed heritage from the mythic place of origin, Aztlan. In the Nahuatl language "aztecatl" means "person from Aztlan". In 1810 Alexander von Humboldt originated the modern usage of "Aztec" as a collective term applied to all the people linked by trade, custom, religion, and language to the Mexica state and the Triple Alliance. In 1843, with the publication of the work of William H. Prescott, it was adopted by most of the world, including 19th century Mexican scholars who saw it as a way to distinguish present-day Mexicans from pre-conquest Mexicans. This usage has been the subject of debate in more recent years, but the term "Aztec" is still more common.[5] Sometimes the term Aztec is replaced wholesale with "Mexica".

Aztec culture

Aztec culture is the culture of the people referred to as Aztecs, but since all ethnic groups of central Mexico in the postclassic period shared most basic cultural traits, many of the basic traits of Aztec culture cannot be said to be exclusive for the Aztecs. For the same reason the notion of "Aztec civilization" is best understood as a particular horizon of a general Mesoamerican civilization.

Among the cultural traits that the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan shared with many other cultures of central Mexico are the agricultural basis of maize cultivation, the basic social organization dividing society into classes of noble pipiltin and macehualli commoners, the complex of religious beliefs and practices including most of the pantheon (e.g. gods such as Tezcatlipoca, Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl), the calendric system of a xiuhpohualli of 365 days intercalated with a tonalpohualli of 260 days. Cultural traits particular to the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan was the veneration of the Mexica patron God Huitzilopochtli, the construction of twin pyramids, and the ceramic ware known as Aztec I to III.[6]

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