The United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS) has discovered that the ancient Aztecs of Mexico were able to function as a zero-waste society, proving that the practices of indigenous peoples from the past could provide valuable insights and lessons about efficiently using resources and improving modern waste management systems.
“While technological innovation is often seen as the answer to modern waste problems, what can we learn from the historical methods used by great ancient societies such as the Aztecs of Mexico,” writes Resilience.org. “How are past systems like Aztec waste management and resource use relevant to the contemporary world?”
The answer is both simple and complex and lies in the similarities – instead of in the differences – when comparing the types of challenges that any large developing culture experiences. For example, rapid population growth is currently responsible for many of the world’s challenges surrounding waste management and sustainability – a problem that was once shared by the ancient Aztecs.
To deal with the rapid rise in population that Mexico’s ancient Aztecs faced as they grew to build a strong city-state, they began to build chinampas, or artificial islands, in the lakes surrounding their capital of Mexico-Tenochtitlán, which today is Mexico City. Founded in the 14th century, five interconnected lakes were located in the area, including Lake Texcoco, where the Aztecs built Tenochtitlán.
“The city expanded and the number of chinampas grew with it,” writes Resilience.org. “By the year 1519, when the Spaniards arrived, Mexico-Tenochtitlán had a population of over 200,000.”
As the largest city in the Americas and one of the largest in the world, Mexico-Tenochtitlán was larger than any city in Europe at that time. The Spaniards were quite impressed with its vast size, orderliness and cleanliness, despite the fact that the city covered more than 12 square miles. Laid out on a grid, it served as the home base for what had become Mesoamerica’s most powerful empire – thanks in large part to its highly productive chinamapas, each of which produced around four crops annually to supply at least two-thirds of the food that was consumed in the city.
“Another important factor in maintaining that high productivity was the intensive recycling of nutrients,” writes Resilience.org. “The Aztecs disposed of all kinds of organic wastes in the chinamapas, such as food leftovers and agricultural residues, which fertilized the crops.”
This included human excrement, which was also used for tanning leather and dyeing fabrics. Although the Aztecs did not have cattle, sheep, goats or chickens until after the Europeans introduced these species, they did consume animal protein in the form of wild duck, turkey, deer and fish. They also bred a type of dog known as itzcuintli for human consumption and used food leftovers from their own tables to feed the domesticated hounds.
“If released into the environment, organic waste, excrement and urine can cause air, water and land pollution, and pose risks to human health,” writes Resilience.org. “By recovering and recycling this waste, the Aztecs prevented pollution in the lakes that surrounded Mexico-Tenochtitlán.”
The UN study also shows that the Aztecs used scraps from a wide variety of burnable materials to illuminate public spaces at night and showed a remarkable adherence to and reverence for the rule of law and order in their society. In addition, they valued education and rewarded hard work, requiring everyone – regardless of gender or social status – to attend school. Finally, the ancient Aztecs of Mexico worked hard to develop a culture that utilized all available natural resources in the most efficient manner possible in order to survive.
Interestingly, today modern Mexico is once again on the cutting edge of various eco-friendly initiatives, including a variety of new building and real estate projects that are taking sustainability to the next level.
Have you ever been to any of Mexico’s ancient archaeological sites? If so, share your experiences with other readers in the comments section below!