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Unearthing Economic Inequality: Aztec Rulers' Exploitative Legacy in Pre-Columbian Mexico
Economic dynamics in pre-Columbian Mexico reveal that the Aztec leaders were relentless in their exploitation of resources and wealth.
The intricate tapestry of history often conceals tales of wealth and disparity, and the legacy of Aztec rulers in pre-Columbian Mexico is no exception. Recent research by Guido Alfani from Bocconi's Department of Social and Political Sciences and Alfonso Carballo from NEOMA Business School has shed light on the economic relationships that prevailed in the Aztec Empire on the eve of the Spanish conquest. Their groundbreaking study was published in Nature Human Behaviour, and in it they unravel the ruthless exploitation that characterized the socioeconomic structure of this ancient empire.
Long before Spanish conquerors set foot in Mexico, the Aztec Empire was a thriving civilization composed of an alliance of three city-states. These city-states eventually extended their rule over numerous provinces, each required to pay tributes, often in the form of human sacrifices. The empire boasted advanced agriculture but was profoundly labor-intensive due to the absence of the wheel and the non-use of animals in farming.
Socioeconomic divisions within the Aztec Empire were stark, with clear distinctions between the nobility, commoners, and slaves. The elite nobility wielded exclusive control over vital resources, cementing their dominance over the commoners. Provinces paid varying taxes, contingent on their method of incorporation into the empire. Those provinces that resisted Aztec rule faced higher tax rates following their conquest.
Unearthing the income levels of pre-Hispanic Mexico poses a significant challenge due to the scarcity of relevant data. Spanish conquistadors ravaged Aztec archives extensively, leaving little usable information behind. To estimate per capita income in the Aztec Empire, Alfani and Carballo turned to archaeology and exploited variations in population density. Their analysis revealed that the average per capita income on the brink of the Spanish conquest stood at approximately $690 (USD), significantly lower than contemporary Spain.
Beyond the average income, the research delved into the stark income inequality that characterized the Aztec Empire. Before the conquest, the wealthiest 1% of the population claimed a staggering 41.8% of the total income. This figure increased to 50.8% when considering the richest 5%. In contrast, the poorest 50% struggled with a meager 23.3% share of the income. This glaring wealth gap is more severe than the contemporary disparities in our world.
Further analysis by Alfani and Carballo unveiled that the imperial ruling class, provincial ruling class, and non-ruling nobles constituted less than 2% of the total population. Still, they concentrated a staggering 46.6% of the total income. This hierarchy exemplified extreme economic inequality within the empire.
The research also sheds light on a critical historical question: how did a small Spanish army swiftly conquer the vast Aztec Empire? The answer lies in the highly centralized tax collection system, deeply resented by various regions of the empire. These populations, living at subsistence levels, were so disillusioned that they took up arms alongside the Spaniards.
The Aztec Empire's rapacious institutions laid the groundwork for centuries of colonial exploitation. Alfani emphasizes that the unequal conditions that prevailed in Latin America were not solely a consequence of Spanish colonialism but had roots in the extractive system forged by Aztec rulers. The Aztec legacy reminds us that economic disparities have deep historical roots, often influencing the course of civilizations and shaping the world we live in today.
Alfani, G., & Carballo, A. (2023). Income and inequality in the Aztec Empire on the eve of the Spanish conquest. Nature Human Behaviour, 7(8), 1265–1274. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-023-01636-3