The Aztecs dominated Central America from the 14th to 16th centuries. They founded the magnificent floating city of Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City) and – more importantly – were among the first people to make chocolate.
We haven’t done much hands-on history lately, but discovering that the Aztecs used cacao beans as money captured our imaginations, and soon we were off on a delightful rabbit trail.
Here are some of the activities we enjoyed during our hands-on Aztec history day.
The Aztecs used a base 20 number system. Numbers were represented with combinations of dots and symbols, grouped together in any order.
The Aztec calendar
The Aztec calendar consisted of three calendar wheels. The two wheels of the religious calendar interlocked in 260 different combinations, making up the 260 day sacred calendar.
The Aztecs also used a 365 day agricultural calendar. The two cycles together formed a 52 year “century”.
I’ve seen beautiful artwork based on the Aztec calendar and I was tempted to suggest that we have a go ourselves. But since we didn’t study how the calendar works in any detail, I didn’t want to dumb down a fascinating but complex subject with an over-simplified art project. We’ll enjoy exploring the maths of the Aztec calendar another time.
My kids love this sort of thing, and spent ages playing with the daysign calculator, working out the “daysign destinies” of everyone they know.
The Aztecs were among the first people to mix ground cacao seeds with seasonings to make a spicy, frothy drink they called chocolatl. Cacao beans were such a luxury commodity that they were used as currency, so chocolatl was reserved for special occasions and important people.
Cacao or cocoa?
Have you ever wondered whether there’s a difference between cocoa and cacao? It seems that the word “cocoa” probably came about by mistake – a sort of linguistic typo that stuck. Today, we tend to refer to raw “cacao,” but processed “cocoa”.
From bean to bar
We watched this video about how cacao beans are harvested and processed. I like that it shows the cacao beans being pulled from the fruit.
The next video shows how cacao beans are processed and made into chocolate bars.
After watching all that chocolate being made, our mouths were watering.
Tesco sells chocolate made with beans from individual named countries. Each bar even comes with accompanying tasting notes.
We used all our senses as we tasted, noticing how each type of chocolate looked, how it smelled, how it felt and sounded as it broke, and – of course – how it tasted. As we tasted each bar, we looked up where its beans came from on our world map.
I recorded some of the children’s descriptions. J(8) described the chocolate from Côte d’Ivoire as “Nutty, creamy, and smooth”. C(10) thought it was “musty”!
The children both liked the chocolate from Ecuador best. My favourite was the Peruvian chocolate, which tasted like berries.
What about cocoa nibs?
Cocoa nibs are small pieces of cacao beans that have been roasted and removed from their husks. Cocoa nibs can be eaten raw (we weren’t impressed), or added to recipes as a healthy chocolate substitute.
C(10) decided to grind a spoonful of cocoa nibs into powder using a pestle and mortar. An hour later, she had new-found respect for the people who used to do this before modern machines were invented!
After all that grinding, C(10) decided to save the tasting for another day. 🙂
Aztec poetry tea
We drank Aztec-style hot chocolate for poetry tea. The recipe comes from the British Museum, but we were doubtful how closely this delicious beverage resembled the spicy drink consumed by rich Aztecs!
BBC Education (KS2) – The Aztec Empire – Good quality clips covering a variety of topics, including where the Aztecs came from and why they made human sacrifices (J(8)’s favourite).
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