Historical excursus on the aquarium hobby, Part 4 – Pre-Columbian

By Natasha Khardina

When Cortez discovered the Aztec Empire in the year 1519, he found 200,000 people living on an island in the middle of a lake. Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, was the biggest and best-fed city in the world, and this fortress city was completely surrounded by water.

On the other side of the Pacific ocean the American civilizations, like Aztec, Maya and Inca, were continuations of the earlier civilizations with well-developed urban settlements and monumental architecture, with extensive road and irrigated agriculture systems, with organized long-distance trade to obtain exotic luxury items, including feathers, jaguar hides and teeth, shark teeth, stingray spines, shells and impressive animal, including fish, collections.

Aztecs were already practicing a form of agriculture above ground around their capital Tenochtitlan, located in the middle of Lake Texcoco.
Aztecs were  practicing a form of agriculture above ground around their capital Tenochtitlan, located in the middle of Lake Texcoco.

The Aztec civilisation (1345-1521) was pictographically literate, artistic, agricultural, and strong in astronomy and civil engineering. Aztecs possessed good understanding of animals, plants and minerals.

When Hernando Cortes arrived, in 1519, he found throughout the old capital Tezcuco and the surrounding countryside extensive gardens that contained water basins stocked with various fish, flight cages with a variety of birds and other animals. Aztecs even had laws to ensure the preservation of the royal gardens and forests.

The canals separating the strips of land are stocked with fish and shellfish supplying much more animal protein per square meter than land-based animal systems.
The canals separating the strips of land are stocked with fish and shellfish supplying much more animal protein per square meter than land-based animal systems.

King Montezuma had several residences in the new capital Tenochtitlan, each one had several gardens of flowering plants, fragrant shrubs and medicinal plants that also contained freshwater and saltwater pools. Describing those gardens Cortes observed: “There are also ten pools of water where kept every kind of waterfowl known in these parts, freshwater being provided for the river birds, salt for those of the sea, and the water itself being frequently changed to keep it pure: every species of bird, moreover, was provided with its own natural food, whether fish, worms, maize or the smaller cereals” (Kisling 2000).

The Floating Gardens of the Aztecs.
The floating gardens of the Aztecs.

Indeed, at the beginning of the 2nd millennium, the Aztecs were already practicing a form of agriculture above ground around their capital Tenochtitlan, located in the middle of Lake Texcoco. This lake, partly marshy, was the ideal place to develop on a large scale a marginal cultivation technique used by the farmers of the bordering lakes Xochimilco and Chalco: the Chinampas.

Chinampas are artificial islands structured by an arrangement of reeds spread out around stakes of wood planted under the surface of the water and which thus formed an underwater fence. Inside, there is a tangle of mud and aquatic vegetation accumulated up to one metre above the surface and which form fertile soil cultivated thereafter. On the surface, willows or cypress trees can be planted at each corner of the installation to secure it.

The construction of these artificial islands was at the time accompanied by an irrigation system allowing the circulation of water, sediments and of course, fishes between chinampas.

The crux of the chinampa system is to build small islands and/or peninsulas that are separated by canals.
The crux of the chinampa system is to build small islands and/or peninsulas that are separated by canals.

Aztec and Maya societies were essentially agricultural. Thus, their main preoccupation was fertility, which they tried to maintain through the cult of gods associated with water and earth. Human life was impossible without earth, plants, animals and fishes. In a world where the sacred was conceived in terms of deified forms of the cosmic human and vegetal cycle, gardens, like the one in Huaxtepec, became important spaces for ritual celebrations.

The Aztecs valued education – boys learned agricultural and fishing skills from their fathers.
The Aztecs valued education – boys learned agricultural and fishing skills from their fathers.

The Incas also had quite impressive garden and animal collections, both alive and artificial that were fabricated in silver and gold.

Maya is another major Central American civilization that still existed when the first Europeans arrived (ca. 250-925) that also had gardens, fishponds and pets.

Tikal – one of the most prominent Mayan cities of the first millennium CE, nowadays in Guatemala.
Tikal – one of the most prominent Mayan cities of the first millennium CE, nowadays in Guatemala.

The recent discoveries of the Pre-Columbian settlements, or maybe civilizations, in the Amazon region are still the object of speculation and research (Bleher 2004). As well as the hypothesis if this populations ever kept or even bred fish for whatever purposes.

Representation of the pre-Columbian landscape in SW Amazonia around 3,500 years ago.
Representation of the pre-Columbian landscape in SW Amazonia around 3,500 years ago. © Illustration by artist Kathryn Killackey.

And this was happening almost at the same period of time the first written mentioning of ‘ornamental fishes’ appeared in Europe

To be continued…

Bibliography:

Blatrix Rumsaïs et al., The unique functioning of a pre-Columbian Amazonian floodplain fishery, “Scientific Reports” Volume 8, Article number: 5998 (2018).

Bleher Heiko, Aquarium History, in “NUTRAFIN Aquatic News”, Vol. 4 (2004), p. 13.

Erickson Clark L., Pre-Columbian Fish Farming in the Amazon, in “Expedition”, 43(3):7-8 (2001).

Granziera Patrizia, Huaxtepec: The Sacred Garden of an Aztec Emperor, Landscape Research, Volume 30, 2005 – Issue 1.

Kisling Vernon N., Zoo and Aquarium History: Ancient Animal Collections To Zoological Gardens, New York, CRC Press 2000.

Wells Robert, Study Sheds Light on Pre-Columbian Life in Understudied Area of SW Amazon, University of Central Florida.