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Summary

In November 1519, Hernando Cortes walked along a causeway leading to the capital of the Aztec kingdom and came face to face with Moctezuma. That story - and the story of what happened afterwards - has been told many times, but always following the narrative offered by the Spaniards. 

After all, we have been taught, it was the Europeans who held the pens. But the Native Americans were intrigued by the Roman alphabet and, unbeknownst to the newcomers, they used it to write detailed histories in their own language of Nahuatl. Until recently, these sources remained obscure, only partially translated, and rarely consulted by scholars.

For the first time, in Fifth Sun, the history of the Aztecs is offered in all its complexity based solely on the texts written by the indigenous people themselves. Camilla Townsend presents an accessible and humanized depiction of these native Mexicans, rather than seeing them as the exotic, bloody figures of European stereotypes. 

The conquest, in this work, is neither an apocalyptic moment, nor an origin story launching Mexicans into existence. The Mexica people had a history of their own long before the Europeans arrived and did not simply capitulate to Spanish culture and colonization. Instead, they realigned their political allegiances, accommodated new obligations, adopted new technologies, and endured.

©2019 Oxford University Press (P)2020 Tantor

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Profile Image for Jeffrey D
  • Jeffrey D
  • 24-03-21

Ethnocentric ethnohistory

The narrator is good, and is able to pronounce Spanish and Nahuatl words. Excellent!

It is a clever conceit to write a book on the Aztecs that starts before the conquest, deals with the Spanish conquest itself, and then extends beyond the conquest. The author thereby shows that the conquest is neither the end of the Aztecs, nor the beginning of a non-Aztec culture. The book is interesting, and does tell the story of the Aztecs and of the coming of the Spanish, although it does tend to be excessively (to my taste) about military conquests and political successions. And, somewhat in tension with her desire to keep the focus on the Aztecs, the narrative of the conquest is the most detailed part of the book.

I do not see it as a serious book about the Aztecs. It is an attempt, rather, to show that we are all people, after all, and the Aztecs are our equals, and we are all pretty much the same, aside from elite polygyny on the part of the Aztecs. The Aztecs are said to engage in Realpolitik, in the end, just as though they were good Europeans. Maybe they did. But I doubt that this is the whole story. If it is, it needs to be proven with evidence, not simply asserted. Very little is said about Aztec cosmology, and whether, in fact, the Aztecs might have been quite different from Europeans and Americans in their culture, philosophy, religions, and in many other ways, including in politics and war. After all, their culture was basically separate from the Old World and its cultures and languages for between 10 and 20 thousand years.

A central puzzle for me is the author’s claim, repeated often, that hers is a new, even revolutionary way of looking at Aztec history, and she is among the first to try to find out what the Aztecs, particularly women and commoners, really were like, as shown through Nahuatl literature, before and after the conquest. I have spent time in Mexico among anthropologists, and there is little new about her approach, although she may in fact be utilizing a broader array of texts, which is all to the good. But in this book we find out very little that is unique about the Aztecs compared to Old World cultures, and contrary to her assertions, the author is not among the first to try. For example, Miguel Leon-Portillo wrote a book called Aztec Thought and Culture, published in 1956, translated into English and published in 1963. The New Philology began in the 1970s. Inga Clendinnen wrote The Aztecs, an Interpretation, in the 1990s. More recently, James Maffie wrote Aztec Philosophy in 2013. These are serious attempts to investigate Aztec cosmology. Townsend’s book is not.

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 16-09-20

Fantastic, but too short!

A really excellent, interesting and unique history and an amazing story. Narration is impressive with lots of difficult Nahuatl names and phrases.

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  • yoanna
  • 28-06-20

I really wanted to like this book

My friend actually recommended this book to me. And I really wanted to like it & history books of ancient civilization were usually my favorites. But for some reason, this one just keeps on putting me to sleep (it works better than even the audible sleep collection). Maybe the paper format would be better?

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 07-07-21

Exceptional. Truly.

Gives voice to the everyday lives of the indigenous peoples and their pragmatic attitudes to their post and preconquest desires to use the new European phonetic alphabet to record, and keep, their rich and largely overlooked history alive. The deftly written timelines between Spanish and indigenous accounts of concurrent events requires a marked perspective attitude of the writer. And did she ever pull it off.

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  • Robert P.
  • 07-07-20

Wonderful History

Detailed account of a great civilization, interesting view of early settlers, the church and the profound on native people.

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  • Christopher Rodesch
  • 02-07-20

Game of thrones for the Americas

This is a stunning story of the evolution of what we now know as the Aztecs. Long before and after Cortez appeared in Mexico, the rich traditions and complex politics, culture and history of the natives is carried on through a series of individuals devoted to the transmission of history. While there is much focus on the obvious carnage brought by the Europeans; concurrently, a detailed story of how the Spanish and indians became intertwined in a way that reveal the complex roots of today's society. This book brings together the stories of a huge swath of history yet maintains an admirable richness by recounting individual stories as might be told between generations.

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  • Paul E. Butler, Jr.
  • 20-11-21

Refreshing

For centuries, scholars have relied on European accounts of the encounter of two worlds that occurred when Indigenous nations allied themselves with Spanish invaders to topple the so-called Triple Alliance of Mexico-Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. Camilla Townsend revisits this story, and widens its scope, to tell it through Indigenous eyes. By relying on Indigenous language sources, she adds to the ongoing work of questioning existing narratives that are driven by Eurocentric perspectives. An additional bonus for this audiobook is the thorough and incredibly helpful bibliography. Independent scholars will find this particularly useful, as sources can be hard to find and difficult to navigate. Lastly, the narrator has obviously taken the time and made a valiant effort when it comes to Náhuatl pronunciation. It is incredibly refreshing to see this degree of diligence and respect paid to the Náhuatl language, it is not unnoticed and very much appreciated. Wonderful book!

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  • Edward M Korry
  • 03-08-21

Good with annoyances

The story of the Aztecs as carefully researched and told is an important one. It provides a better understanding of what transpired rather than the Spanish mythologizing. My one criticism is the audible version where the unfamiliar names are spelled out repeatedly thereby interrupting the flow of the story.