Where Did the Aztecs Come From?

The Aztecs, once Chichimecas, embarked on a complex journey from the deserts of Utah to the Valley of Mexico, where they became an empire. A tale of emigration, myth, and identity, their history is as enigmatic as their many names.

Where Did the Aztecs Come From?
Aztlan, the fabled birthplace of the Aztecs, where myth and history intertwine.

A journey shrouded in myth and mystery, an odyssey of epic proportions, taking us back in time to a world where emigrant tribes roamed across desolate landscapes, leaving behind enigmatic footprints. It's a tale that unfolds in the heart of ancient Mexico, where the Aztec civilization would one day rise to glory.

The Aztecs were a complex people, as elusive as the mists of myth and as tangible as the discoveries of archaeology. They called themselves Nahua, a name tied to their language, Nahuatl. But when they narrate their history, they spin a web of names that could make your head spin. Mexica, Aztec, Tenochcas, chichi-mecas, culhúas – all woven together in a rich tapestry of their past. It's enough to make you wonder: were they just playing name games, or was there a deeper story?

To make sense of this tangled web, we must enlist the help of linguistics – a discipline that's like a historical detective, piecing together clues from the past. The Nahua language, it turns out, has roots in the northern Indian tribes, forming what we now know as the Jute-Aztec family.

The Ute, or Payute, dwelled by the great Salt Lake, next to the Utah desert. Over centuries, emigrant groups from this region moved southwestward, creating waves of tribes, each with its dialects, while retaining the core Nahua language. They were the Chichimecas, hunters and predators on the move, like a wandering band of nomads searching for more hospitable lands.

But before the Aztecs, there were the Toltecs – not so much named after their origin but after the city of Tollan, which they established. They had their gods, most notably Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered serpent” or “of feathers.” These early Nahua tribes were already paving the way for what was to come, unifying lands from the north of Mexico to the fertile central region with its myriad lagoons, known as Anahuac.

It's essential to remember that these emigrant tribes weren't ethnically identical or spoke the same dialects. They were a melting pot of peoples moving southward. And their emigration traditions, the very ones the Aztecs later claimed as their own, were, in fact, shared by all the northern invaders or barbarians.

Now, let's get to the heart of the matter – Chicomoztoc and Aztlán. The former was their point of departure, a rocky landscape where they settled in caves and led a troglodytic existence, leaving behind the legacy of seven or eight tribes, each with its unique name. The name Chicomoztoc itself means “seven mouths” – a reference to the seven caves that once housed these ancient wanderers.

The year was probably 1168, give or take, if we consider the indigenous sources the Spaniards collected. But these Nahua tribes weren't the first to arrive. The Toltecs had been there before them, absorbing the agricultural wisdom of the lands they conquered. They established a dominant rule, unifying tribes from diverse backgrounds, including the earlier inhabitants. Some new invaders, it seems, were influenced by the Toltecs and settled in various places, including a central islet in the middle of a lagoon. This place became Aztlan, the cradle from which the Aztecs derived their name.

Some experts once suggested that Aztlan was a myth, a projection of the insular situation of Mexico-Tenochtitlan in the heart of Lake Texcoco. But according to a more recent hypothesis, it was indeed a tangible place where the Aztecs had their beginnings.

When Tollan, the capital of the Toltec Empire, fell to the barbarian hordes from the north, the inhabitants of Aztlan joined them on their quest for new horizons, leading them into the Valley of Mexico in 1215. And that's where the true story of the Mexica – the Aztecs – begins, in the land they would eventually name after themselves. A tale of emigrants and conquerors, of myth and history, the Aztecs left us a legacy that's as vibrant and enigmatic as their names.

Ancient cave dwellings in Chicomoztoc, the starting point of the Aztec odyssey.
Ancient cave dwellings in Chicomoztoc, the starting point of the Aztec odyssey.

Facts and Data about the Origin of the Aztecs

  • The Aztecs were a Nahua people who spoke the Nahuatl language.
  • They originated from the northern deserts of Mexico, near the Utah desert.
  • They migrated south searching for more benign zones, and settled in the Valley of Mexico around 1215.
  • The Aztecs were preceded by other Nahua peoples, including the Toltecs.
  • The Toltecs had absorbed all the agricultural wisdom of the populations established in the Mexican meta-seta (Mexican plateau) since almost the beginning of the Christian era.
  • The Aztecs may have been dominated by the Toltecs for some time, and settled in various places, including Aztlan.
  • Aztlan was an island in the middle of a lagoon, and is the place from which the Aztecs take their name.
  • When Tollan, the capital of the Toltec Empire, fell, the inhabitants of Aztlan joined other Chichimeca or barbarian tribes from the north and entered the Valley of Mexico.


  • 1168: Wandering bands of hunters settle in Chicomoztoc, seven caves in the rocky cliffs of New Mexico.
  • 1215: The Aztecs migrate to the Valley of Mexico and settle in Aztlan.
  • 1225: The Aztecs are defeated by the Tepanecs and become their vassals.
  • 1325: The Aztecs defeat the Tepanecs and establish their empire.
  • 1521: The Aztec Empire is conquered by the Spanish.