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The Aztecs are an Indian people who dominated central and southern Mexico from the 14th to the 16th century. They established one of the most magnificent civilizations ever. Their empire was still growing when the Spanish, led by Hernan Cortes, took over and destroyed the city-state of Tenochtitlan. This led to the downfall of this once powerful empire.
The name Aztec is derived from a mythical homeland to the north called Azatlan; they also called temselves the Mexica. The Aztec language belongs to the Nahuatlan branch of the Uto-Aztecan family.
After the fall of the Toltec civilization (which flourished during the 10th -11th century), waves of immigrants flooded into Mexico's central plateau area around Lake Texcoco. As late arrivals, the Aztecs were forced to occupy the swampy area on the western side of the lake. They were surrounded by powerful neighbors who exacted tribute from them, and their only piece of dry land was a tiny island surrounded by marshes.
That the Aztecs were able to convert this disadvantageous beginning into a powerful empire within two centuries was due in part to their belief in a certain legend. According to this legend, they would establish a great civilization in a marshy area where they would see a cactus growing out of a rock and, perched on the cactus, an eagle eating a snake. The priests supposedly saw this when they arrived in the dismal swamp. This belief was so strong that even today the eagle, cactus, and serpent appear on all Mexican paper money.