The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican civilisation that conquered swathes of central Mexico in the late middle ages. Notorious for their military prowess and fearsome efficiency in battle, the Aztecs built a sprawling empire of more than 300 city-states before they were conquered by the Spanish in 1521.
Before the Europeans arrived, battles in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica typically began with a face-off: drums were pounded and both sides postured and readied for conflict. As the two forces approached, projectiles such as spears and poison-tipped darts would be launched. Then came the messy melee of hand-to-hand combat, in which warriors would wield axes, spears and clubs lined with obsidian blades.
Obsidian was a volcanic glass available in abundance to the Aztecs. Though fragile, it could be made razor-sharp, so it was utilised in many of their weapons. Crucially, the Aztecs possessed only a rudimentary knowledge of metallurgy, so they weren’t capable of crafting metal weapons that could rival European armaments like swords and cannon.
From clubs lined with obsidian blades to sharp, shovel-headed spears, here are 7 of the deadliest weapons used by the Aztecs.
1. Obsidian-edged club
The macuahuitl was a wooden weapon somewhere between a club, a broadsword and a chainsaw. Shaped like a cricket bat, its edges were lined with razor-sharp obsidian blades that would have been capable of severing limbs and inflicting devastating harm.
As Europeans invaded and colonised Aztec lands, the macuahuitl earned notoriety as the most fearsome of all Aztec weapons, and a number of them were sent back to Europe for inspection and study.
The Aztecs also used a range of variations on the classic macuahuitl. For example, the cuahuitl was a short hardwood club. The huitzauhqui, on the other hand, was a club shaped liked a baseball bat, sometimes lined with small blades or protrusions.
2. Dart gun
Known as tlacalhuazcuahuitl, blowguns – typically a narrow tube used to fire darts – were regularly used by Aztec hunters. It’s thought that they may have been utilised in battle when necessary, too: trained hunters would have been deployed to fire poison-tipped darts at enemies.
3. Shovel-headed spear
A sort of spear, the tepoztopilli was a long, wooden weapon with a shovel-like tip that would be lined with obsidian blades. The weapon varied from roughly 3 feet long to the height of a man, sometimes 7 feet in length.
Due to its length, tepoztopilli would have been held by those on the front line of the Aztec army. Its superior reach would be extended forwards and used to slice, jab and topple enemies.
Aztec warriors used tools known as atlatl to launch spears, darts and arrows. They were essentially sticks that acted like levers to extend a person’s throwing arm. The butt end of a projectile would be placed in its end, and the wielder would swing the tool overarm, launching the dart or spike.
Atlatl, or variations of the device, were popular throughout pre-Columbian America and were also used by the Maya civilisation.
Aztec shields, known as chīmalli, were typically made out of animal skins, feathers and sometimes precious metals. Both defensive aids and pieces of art, Aztec chīmalli were meticulously crafted and could feature feathers motifs and impeccable mosaics.
Though not technically weapons, chīmalli formed a vital part of an Aztec warrior’s arsenal, and would have been used to barge, strike and parry during assaults and military advances.
6. Bow and arrow
Aztec armies utilised longbows known as tlahhuitolli. Typically around 5 feet long, these bows would have been strung with animal sinew. Aztec arrows were balanced with animal feathers and often spiked with obsidian or stone.
The Aztecs are known to have used axe-like weapons named itztopilli during battle. They were largely similar to tomahawks or modern hatchets, with wooden handles and sharpened metal or stone heads.