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Montezuma's zoo is a legendary treasure of the Aztec empire

Montezuma's Zoo: A Legendary Treasure of the Aztec Empire


When Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors entered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519, they saw magnificent treasures of the ancient civilization. The wonders of pyramids, gold, and silver overwhelmed the Spanish expedition. However, there was one more surprise in store for them – a garden full of plants and animals. Nowadays we know of this legendary site as Montezuma's zoo.

Mexican archaeologists unearthed the remains of a very unique Aztec (Mexica) site located in the downtown of modern Mexico City. For centuries it was uncertain if the legendary garden full of incredible animals and plants was real. But thanks to a discovery made by Elsa Hernandez, the location of the legendary zoo is becoming more certain.

A Room for Meditation and a Lost Zoo of Legend

During the routine renovation project on a Colonial-era building, experts uncovered pieces of a wall and a basalt floor believed to have been part of a dark room where Montezuma (also known as Moctezuma) meditated. The site is a part of Montezuma's palace complex, known as the Casas Nuevas, or New Houses (to distinguish them from his predecessors' palaces.) The palace is thought to be comprised of five interconnected buildings - containing the emperor's office, rooms for children and several wives, and a famous zoo.

Archeologists also discovered the basalt floor which likely belongs to the Casa Denegrida, or the Black House. Spanish conquerors described this place as a windowless room painted black. The emperor Montezuma reflected there on visions described by his seers and shamans. It was also the scene of the beginning of his downfall – here he made the grave mistake of believing the Spanish conquerors to be divine figures.

Illustration of Montezuma’s Palace in the Códice Mendoza (1542).

Illustration of Montezuma’s Palace in the Códice Mendoza (1542). (Public Domain)

Near this room, according to Spanish treasure-seekers, there was also a fantastic zoo. The zoo made such a tremendous impression on them that many members of the expedition wrote in their accounts more about the zoo than they did about any other aspect of the city.

A Paradise for the Aztecs

According to the Spanish writers of the time, the collection of Montezuma’s zoo was so vast that 300 keepers were required to care for the beasts. It was also described as so huge that all of the European rulers of the era would have envied his collection. However, it is hard to say for certain what kinds of animals lived in this zoo as the Spaniards who wrote about them didn't know what many of them were called.

The Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún documented details about the Aztecs in the 16th century. He created a monumental, almost encyclopedic work, that has come down to the ages as the Florentine Codex. Due to his text, much of the ancient knowledge about the Aztecs has survived. In one of the chapters there is an illustration and writing which mentions animals like ocelots, bears, mountain lions and other mountain cats, and eagles.

The ruler’s animals,’ Florentine Codex, Book VIII.  (Mexico Lore )

A chronicler and soldier who witnessed the conquest, Bernal Díaz de Castillo, in his Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España also mentioned deer, fowls, and little dogs in the zoo. Some of them were used to feed other animals.

According to the descriptions by other Spaniards, it is probable that there were also pumas and jaguars. Furthermore, there are descriptions of monkeys, wolves, sloths, armadillos, as well as aviaries full of brightly colored birds. The Spaniards were not familiar with the reptiles of the New World, but there were surely crocodiles, turtles, snakes, and many lizards also found within the zoo. It's also very possible that the Europeans saw a bison for the first time at the legendary zoo – it is more characteristic of North America.

The zoo had 20 freshwater and saltwater ponds which housed a variety of fish and aquatic birds. The menagerie also contained a human zoo with people the Aztecs considered “odd-looking.” Apart from the animals (which are quite easy to identify), the chronicles and diaries of the expedition's members describe a rattlesnake (which is usually treated as a legend) and a mysterious animal called “a Mexican bull.”

Some insight on the animals which may have been included at the zoo appeared in 2015 when archaeologists discovered the people of Teotihuacan were keeping captive animals for ritualistic purposes nearly 1,000 years before the Spanish conquistadors described Moctezuma’s zoo at the Aztec capital. Those creatures included: jaguars, pumas, lynxes, foxes, eagles and rattlesnakes. To feed the animals, over five hundred turkeys were needed daily. Many animals were also fed with portions of the carcasses of human sacrifices.

Aztec human sacrifice as depicted in the Codex Tudela.

Aztec human sacrifice as depicted in the Codex Tudela. (Public Domain)

The Last Real Ruler of the Aztec Empire

Montezuma, or more correctly, Motecuhzoma II Xocoyotzin, meaning “Angry Like a Lord,” was the last fully independent ruler of the Aztec empire. His name has a number of variants in spelling, including Moctezuma, Moteuczoma, and Motecuhzoma. He was the ninth tlatoani or ruler of Tenochtitlan, reigning from 1502 to 1520.

André Thévet’s representation of Motecuhzoma II Xocoyotzin. (1584)

André Thévet’s representation of Motecuhzoma II Xocoyotzin. (1584) (Public Domain)

During his reign, the Aztec Empire expanded their territory as far south as Xoconosco in Chiapas and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and also incorporated the Zapotec and Yopi people. The Aztecs had never had such a large territory before. Nonetheless, many sources describe Montezuma as weak-willed and indecisive, and it is not easy to understand his actions during the Spanish invasion.

Montezuma’s portrayal as the ruler of a defeated nation is the most common representation of him today. When Hernán Cortés marched into the Mexico Valley in 1519, Montezuma believed that the Spaniards were real gods who came to visit him thanks to his prayers. He was killed during the initial stages of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, when Cortés and his men fought to escape from the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. The city and all of the Aztec Empire fell in 1521.

Montezuma's death and cremation from the Florentine Codex. (c. 1540-1585)

Montezuma's death and cremation from the Florentine Codex. (c. 1540-1585) (The Digital Edition of the Florentine Codex/CC BY 3.0)

The Shadow of Tenochtitlan

The city of Tenochtitlan was founded on June 20, 1325 and now shares its location with the modern capital city of Mexico. It was a magnificent example of Aztec architecture. For example, inside a walled square of 300 meters (984.3 feet) across, there was a ceremonial center which held about 45 public buildings and temples.

The most famous of these buildings are: The Templo Mayor (which was dedicated to the Aztec patron deity Huitzilopochtli and the Rain God Tlaloc), the temple of Quetzalcoatl, the Sun Temple (dedicated to Tonatiuh), and the Eagle's House (associated with warriors and the ancient power of rulers). As for the Palace of Montezuma, it had 100 rooms and each one had its own bath. The city has a perfect symmetry, and all constructions had to be approved by a functionary in charge of city planning.

Interpretation of the city of Tenochtitlan by Diego Rivera.

Interpretation of the city of Tenochtitlan by Diego Rivera. (Public Domain)

Mexico City arose from the ashes of Tenochtitlan and is one of the largest cities in the world today. Like many great cities, it too boasts an excellent zoo, featuring native and exotic animals from around the world. Montezuma, it’s fair to guess, would have been delighted.

Top Image: Representation of Montezuma. (matiasdelcarmine /Adobe Stock) Background:’ The ruler’s animals,’ Florentine Codex, Book VIII. (Deriv.) (Mexico Lore )

By: Natalia Klimczak


Germán Vazquez Chamorro, Moctezuma, 2006

Luis González-Obregón, Las Calles de México, 1992

James Lockhart, We People Here: Nahuatl Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico. 1993

Michel Graulich, Montezuma ou l’apogée et la chute de l’empire aztèque, 1994



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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