Aztec Chinampas

Date: c. 1500
Owner: Art Resource
Source Type: Images


This sixteenth century painting from the valley of Mexico shows Aztecs constructing chinampas, agricultural plots raised in the middle of a lake. After sounding the bottom for an appropriate spot, chinamperos began to pile up mud dredged from the lake on top of a lattice structure of reeds. Although they appear to rest on the surface of the water, earning them the nickname "floating gardens," chinampas were actually built up from the bottom of the lake.

There are several advantages to this system of farming, which began c. 800 CE, most obvious of which is the economical use of space. In effect, the Aztecs made new land in the water, a necessary feat to feed an urban center like Tenochtitlan, which was built in the center of the large Lake Texcoco. Plants sewn on chinampas were also guaranteed a constant source of moisture, as their roots grew directly into mud within the lake. This technological achievement allowed high crop yields despite the arid climate of central Mexico.

The Aztecs employed other farming technologies on these islands, including organic fertilizers, willow trees to control erosion, and seed nurseries, or almacigos, in which seeds were given time to germinate before being transplanted to the center of the isle. Chinamperos rotated the crops on these islets to prevent soil depletion and they were able to produce two or three separate harvests each year. These technological achievements, both in terms of agriculture and terraforming, helped support the massive population of the Aztec Empire and were a source of amazement for the Spanish conquistadors.

CITATION: Pico, Jose Muro. Construction of the Chinampas, garden islands in Mexico's lake. Detail of the Pilgrimage of the Nahuatlacas tribe. Oil on wood. Museum of the City of Mexico, Mexico City, D.F., Mexico. Nicolas Sapieha / Art Resource, NY. ID: ART12471.