This is my final exam response(s) for a Mesoamerican anthropology class I took as an undergraduate in 2010. It addresses Mexika migration, the “myth” of Aztlan, cannibalism, and other topics. It’s in the form of short responses to exam essay questions. Although, it’s not an in-depth analysis on any of the subjects, it might be useful to someone seeking cursory information on them. –tlak
May 8, 2010
The history of Aztekah, or Mexikah, culture is one that is very personal to me, and one that continues to drive my desire and interest in academic research. For me, the question of Mexikah origins, as it relates to Aztlan, is a loaded one that carries with it both sociological and sociopolitical baggage not pertinent to the class, and therefore will not be introduced here. However, I will do my best to deliver a scientific and detached response to the questions of origin, migration, myth, propaganda, and imperialistic hegemony that have been outlined.
The concept of Aztlan was introduced to me at an early age when I was reading anything and everything pertaining to the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 70s. Aztlan, I learned, was the “mythical’ homeland of the Aztekah, and in Chicano ideology, it came to represent the land Mexico lost in the Mexican-American War of 1848, the present day Southwestern United States. Further reading revealed that there is an ongoing debate as to whether the place ever actually existed, and if it did, where exactly. Adding to this debate are also the varying accounts of the migration story itself which allow for further doubts over its actual historicity.
These doubts have given archeologists room for plenty of speculation and varied interpretations, and of these, the most interesting one I have come across so far is one articulated by Elizabeth Hill Boone. In essence, her argument is that the Aztekah migration story is a form of ritualized and stylized propaganda wrapped in dramatic sensationalism that goes beyond the simplistic “rags to riches” explanations that others have expressed (Boone 1991). Boone states that, “It has all of the trappings and stylizations of a ceremony, and I think it most similar to a ritual performance” (1991:122). Using Spanish sources, such as the Codex Borturini, Codex Aubin, and the Mapa Siguenza, she proceeds to briefly relate the migration account and then explains her position (Boone 2005).
In the migration according to Boone (1991:144), Witzilopochtli becomes the “director of the drama,” and she argues that, “Like a performance the migration is circular, highly structured, and ritualized to a great degree.” She further argues that the circularity of the story is evidenced by the fact that it begins and ends “at the island of Aztlan/Tenochtitlan,” making both places one and the same (1991:144). Her circular argument equates Teokolwakan with Kolwakan and Koatepec with Chapultepek; Tollan, being in the middle of the story and the place where the prototype for Tenochtitlan was constructed, becomes “a conscious reflection of the points of beginning and ending” (Boone 1991:145). Although, it makes for an interesting argument and topic for discussion, her theory is flawed, and will be addressed later. All interpretations aside, we do know that a migration occurred, and by their own admission, we also know that the Mexikah were Nawatlatoa Chichimekah. The actual migration route is also a contentious topic, but scholars agree that they indeed came in contact with the ruins at Tollan and became wholly enamored with Toltekah artistic achievements. Tollan was the power seat of the Toltekah, their god “Quetzalcoatl…is credited with the creation of arts and crafts,” and henceforth “toltecca” became synonymous with master craftsmen (Berdan 2005:31).
As the Mexikah trekked through Central Mexico in search of their promised land, the Post-Classic Toltekah and the Classic Teotiwakah made a tremendous impression on them. Coe and Koontz (2008:126) believe that a reason for the Toltekah city of Tollan’s rarity of god iconography can be attributed to “Aztec collecting expeditions,” underscoring the Mexikah affinity for Toltekah culture. Soustelle (1995:183) explains that royal lineage was traced matrilineally and that “Ilancueitl brought the Toltec lineage of Colhuacan to Mexico, thus allowing the Aztec dynasty to claim descent from the famous line of Quetzalcoatl.” As a result of these claims, the emerging Mexikah nobles began to see themselves as the direct heirs of the Toltekah tradition and equated themselves with the Olmekah, a group that had never been barbaric and who were “never called Chichimecs” (Soustelle 1995:220).
In conventional thought, it appears that the Aztekah-Chchimekah, or pre-Mexikah Nawatlatoa, had no real knowledge of Teotiwakan’s previous glory nearly six hundred years earlier, yet it left a profound impression on them. Soustelle (1995:xv) states that, “Their knowledge of the past went back no more than a few hundred years; for them the pyramids of Teotihuacan…were built by the gods at the beginning of the world.” It could be argued that this statement suggests that during Teotiwakan’s supremacy, the Aztekah-Chchimekah were nowhere near central Mexico or within its periphery, and nor were they aware of Teotiwakan’s existence and had to have been at least as far north as the present day U.S.-Mexico border. If this is true, then the idea that Aztlan was located somewhere in or near the Southwest begins to have more merit than the accepted site of Mexcaltitlan (Tlapoyawa 2002:7). Interpreted differently, it could be argued that to the Mexikah, “The City of the Gods” represented their great forefathers of yore, similar to the Western obsession with the Greeks as the great founders of its culture.
In traditional Mexicanist thought, the Mexikah departed from Aztlan and were led by a warrior priest named Mexihtli-Witzilopochtli, a leader so revered that he would later become their principal deity and patron god of war. During the migration Mexihtli had a vision, and he “predicted that the vision’s appearance would reveal to them a new homeland” (Tlapoyawa 2002:9). After Mexihtli, there was a succession of leaders, such as Kuauhtlekezki, Akazitli, and Tenoch, and under this last one the Mexikah witnessed “the sign they had been waiting for, and a small settlement was established on the islands” of Lake Texkoko (Tlapoyawa 2002:14-17).
As they became stronger and increasingly influential, the Mexikah sought ways to obtain legitimacy and consolidate power, prompting them to inter-marry among the Toltec diaspora along the southern shores of Lake Texkoko (Handout 14). Akamapichtli, the first official Tlahtoani, was born of a “Neo-Toltec Colhua” mother allowing him to claim “descent from Quetzalcoatl” and in effect initiating the royal line (Handout 16). After a series of family feuds, assassinations, and plots suitable for a soap-opera, the Mexikah orchestrated and led what we have now come to know as the Aztec Triple Alliance (Lecture Notes).
In addressing my problem with Boone’s theory, I will channel the late scholar Dr. Vine Deloria Jr. Suspicious of archeologists, Deloria (1995) explained that they liked to play with findings and material sources until the data suited the purposes of their arguments. In the same way, Boone chooses to ignore some important stops along the Mexikah migration account because they do not fit nicely into her theory. For example, she fails to mention Chikomoztok, a place central to the migration because it is there where they were legitimated by Toltekah leaders and ceased being mere Chichimekah (Handout 15). Tlapoyawa (2002:10) tells us that, “At Chikomoztok [they] experienced their first major division [and that] those faithful to the original prophecy remained loyal to Mexihtli-Witzilopochtli…These followers were anointed with the name ‘Mexikah’.” Soustelle (1995:1) supports this stating that “Mexitl [was] another name for Uitzilopochtli.” In my opinion, the epic account of Mexikah migration, humble beginnings, and their subsequent rise to power is a superb combination of history, myth, and propaganda.
The ethnohistoric sources tell us that from their humble beginnings, the Mexikah managed to forge a vast empire largely sustained by tribute, conquest, constant warfare, and human sacrifice. Above, I discussed how the Mexikah cleverly legitimized their position by assuming Toltekah descent and effectively transforming themselves from rejects to noble supremacy. The following will discuss some of the factors that led to their next major transformation – from simple city-state to a well oiled imperialistic enterprise – and some factors that facilitated and enabled this well coordinated power grab by Mexikah leadership.
In order to understand the complex Aztekah governmental institutions and the military structure of their society, we should begin by looking at the altepetl concept, or city-state. Berdan (2005:106) states that “the prevailing mode of political organization in central Mexico during at least the fourteenth through the early sixteenth centuries” was the city-state. She further adds that “the surrounding districts were politically and militarily dependent…providing considerable amounts of tribute in goods and services” (Berdan 2005:106). It appears that the Mexikah quickly cornered the city-state “market” and gained the upper hand by the mid fifteenth century. Their supremacy had them engaging in skirmishes and great battles in order to maintain their power, accrue more wealth, and secure captives for the purported sacrifices (Class Notes).
It has long been held that warfare and conquest was extremely essential to the Mexikah because they served to maintain a steady supply of captives for sacrifice and other rituals. In its most ritualized form, Mexikah warfare was known as Xochiyaoyotl, or the “Flowery War,” which was said to have been for military training and taking captives for consequent sacrifice; it has even been suggested that the captives were also ritually cannibalized and used as a source of protein, a contentious topic that will be discussed later. Berdan (2005:107), following the lead of scholars before her, does not question the traditional explanation of the Xochiyaoyotl, and she writes that it “trained the combatants and provided human victims to be sacrificed to the gods.” To be fair, she does mention that the Mexikah might have had a difficult time trying to dominate the Tlaxkaltekah, a probable response to Isaac (1983) who critiqued her for not being more critical of the Mexikah explanation used to conceal their inability to subjugate the “Tlaxcalan” and the other independent states lumped together under the same term (Berdan 2005:118).
The term Tlaxcalan, used in early Spanish sources, seems to have been an all encompassing term for a number of other states antagonistic towards the Mexikah. For example, Isaac (1983:419) believes that Duran’s usage of the word was “perhaps a shorthand for the three kingdoms in the area,” referring to the Tlaxkaltekah, Cholultekah, and Wexotzinkah. Of all their opponents, it is said that if a Mexikah warrior captured “from the Tlaxcalla-Huexotzinco, he gained great renown and prestigious goods” (Berdan 2005:118). Whether they were a formidable geopolitical adversary, as Isaac (1983) describes, or willing participants during the Xochiyaoyotl, we do know that the Tlaxcalans played an important role in Mexikah history, both before and after the fall of the empire.
When the Mexikah were not fighting the Tlaxcalans, they were busy amassing the vastest empire ever known in Mesoamerica up until that point, and their most effective strategy in keeping imperial control was the division of the subject provinces into two types, tributary and strategic (Handout 17). Strategic provinces, like Tepeacac, served as buffer zones that were used as boundaries and provided military support for the state; by contrast, tributary provinces were primarily responsible for supplying the goods demanded of them by the Triple Alliance (Class notes). These goods consisted of fancy cloaks, loin cloths, women’s tunics, warrior’s costumes, paper bundles, bowls, beans, maize, precious feathers, jade, turquoise, gold, cacao, and (Berdan 2005:41), of which the Mexikah took the greatest share.
Under Itzkoatl, the fourth Mexikah Tlahtoani, a major occurrence takes place in the Basin of Mexico. It is at this time that the Triple Alliance is formed between Tenochtitlan, Texkoko, and Tlacopan, with the Mexikah and Itzkoatl at its head. Itzkoatl is also responsible for several significant changes such as the expansion of territory; changes in the social, legal, and administrative structure; and the burning of existing texts and rewriting of history (Handout 16). Tlakaelel, appointed second in command by Itzkoatl, was placed in charge of the destruction of the historical records and ordered them rewritten in a propagandistic fashion (Class notes). In addition, art and education became highly controlled by the state, and Witzilopochtli was elevated to supreme deity – associated with warfare, the sun, and human sacrifice (Handout 16).
There are numerous factors that are believed contributed to the ideological prominence of human sacrifice. They range from the conventional idea of nourishing Witzilopochtli with fresh hearts for his journey through Miktlan, to the more contemporary debate over whether there existed a protein deficiency in Mesoamerica that contributed to the practice of sacrifice and cannibalism. Harris (1977:109-110) argues that because there was a shortage of large land animals, human sacrifice became an institutionalized and religiously sanctioned way of acquiring protein and essential amino acids, and that the priests essentially were skilled butchers. Sahlins (1978) challenges this by explaining that there was plenty of meat to go around in the forms of quail and turkey; he also states that after calculating the population size in the Basin of Mexico with the number of possible sacrificial victims, the amount of actual human flesh per capita would have been about one pound a year per person, a trivial amount of protein source.
Personally, until I see some hard, physical, and undisputable evidence of cannibalism, I will continue to question its presumed widespread practice. Even the ethnohistoric records seem to contradict themselves on this matter. In the account of the Spanish siege of Tenochtitlan, Berdan (2005:124) quotes Montellano stating that during the siege, “people were starving on the streets and eating anything from adobe to leather, but human bodies lay all about, uneaten.” If indeed the Mexikah were cannibals, then starvation would have forced them to eat their own.
The siege of Tenochtitlan signaled the inevitable defeat of the Mexikah by the Spanish and their indigenous allies almost two years after Cortez and his men landed near Zempoala in June 1519, at a place they named La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, and after a two year war and the eighty day siege, the Mexikah finally surrender on August 13, 1519. The usual question asked is how exactly was it possible for the Spanish to accomplish the defeat of the great Mexikah who had come to dominate over most of central of Mexico in less than two centuries? Most of the surviving texts come to us from the Spanish who were writing many years later, in some cases up to fifty years, or from native scribes who wrote in retrospect, under supervision, and influenced by Church doctrine. This has encouraged Mexicanists to question the truthfulness of the ethnohistoric record and to press for a revision of the conventional interpretations.
Fortunately for us, there are current scholars who are beginning to doubt the official and popular accounts of the European invasion of Anawak. Restall questions seven popular myths of the encounter in an impartial and neutral method. One such myth was made famous by the nineteenth century historian William Prescott; “The Conquest of Mexico…was ‘the subversion of a great empire by a handful of adventurers’ ” (2003:3). In the years following the Spanish “conquest,” accounts were grossly inflated with inaccuracies, ignoring the fact that these “handful of adventurers” could not have achieved their victory without the help of their indigenous allies and without the use of treachery, as we shall see below.
For example, we know that the Spanish were helped tremendously by the Totonakah and the Tlaxkaltekah, the former were upset over their subject status and the latter were ardent enemies of the Mexikah and likely envious of their power, influence, and wealth. Referencing Ross Hassig, Restall (2003:47) tells us that “the final siege and assault on the Mexikah capital was carried out with 200,000 native allies.” That must have been a very impressive amount of indigenous warriors at Cortez’ disposal, compared to the approximately 6,000 he initially had when they were ousted from Tenochtitlan on the Night of Victory. Portilla said it best, “On several occasions the Aztecs probably could have wiped out the Spaniards to the last man – their best chance of all was on the Night of Sorrows – but the ceremonial elements in their attitude toward war prevented them from taking full advantage of their opportunities (1992:xliii).
This leads us to question the motives of the Mexikah and why it is that they allowed the Spanish to get away to come back to fight another day. Deciding factors in all of this were the Mesoamerica protocols or war, some of which involved the ritual sending of weapons and shields as “gifts” announcing a declaration of war (Class notes). On a similar fashion, the Mexikah did not pursue the Spanish and their allies as they fled because the rules of engagement were different from that of the Spanish who were used to the European mode of complete slaughter as opposed to that of Mesoamerica, which were designed for the capture of enemy combatants (Class notes). Berdan (2005:114) seems to counter this idea of ritualized warfare by stating that “enemy warriors were frequently enticed into clever ambushes and traps,” leaving the question unanswered and lacking in good explanation.
The story of the conquest has survived in both Spanish and indigenous accounts, and Portilla’s book, The Broken Spears, is a good source to find both versions of the same event. The accounts are relatively the same, only differing in minor details important to the particular person describing the incident. One poignant difference comes to us via Sahagun’s informants who were mainly Tlaltelolkah. It is clear that in their efforts to place blame on the outcome of the “Spanish-Mexica War” (Restall 2003:64), the “anonymous authors of Tlatelolco” faulted the Tenochkah, whom they described in a cowardly and unflattering light while making themselves appear valiant and worthy of respect; for instance they said, “the whole time we were fighting [the brigantines], the warriors of Tenochtitlan were nowhere to be seen” (Portilla 1992:134).
In the Codex Ramirez, an account allegedly based on an older and now lost Nawatl text, Cortez is quoted as saying, “We have come to your house in Mexico as friends. There is nothing to fear” (Portilla 1992:65). We now know that the Spanish hunger for gold would render these courtly words meaningless, for once inside Motekuhzoma’s extravagant palace, Cortez took him prisoner under false pretext, after being shown the great treasures of Tenochtitlan (Class notes). Betraying the trust of the Mexikah, Cortez makes Motekuhzoma his hostage and through him tries to control the city. After the Massacre of Toxkatl, Cortez forces Motekuhzoma to calm the enraged Tenochkah who were seeking retaliation for the treacherous slaughter of the peaceful celebrants. Motekuhzoma then instructs Itzkuauhtzin to deliver this message, “We must not fight them. We are not their equals in battle. Put down your shields and arrows” (Portilla 1992:78). The enraged crowd slings rocks and shoots arrows at them, and Motekuhzoma supposedly dies from wounds said to have been inflicted by his own people. Diaz del Castillo states that certain Mexican Captains who carried his body out to show the people “were present at his death…and they told Cuitlahuac…how his own people killed him with blows from stones (1956:311). It has long been held by skeptics that Cortez killed Motekuhzoma, but the fact is that no one is exactly sure how he died (Portilla 1992:83).
After Motekuhzoma’s death and the Spanish flight during the “Night of Sorrows,” the Spanish and their allies return to defeat the Mexikah a year later. Kuauhtemok, the last Tlahtoani, is still celebrated as the last Mexikah hero that commanded the final resistance against the Spanish. The defeat left a deep scar in Mexico, and its repercussions are still felt today. Besides the obvious changes that took place, like cultural and religious syncretism, one of the deepest wounds still festering today is the shame of having indigenous ancestry. The Spanish developed a complex system of blood quantum and castes that ingrained the idea that the “whiter” you are, the better off you are as well, and so to this day, calling someone “indio” is a huge insult and equated with ignorance and backwardness. This is why most Mexicans prefer to call themselves “mestizos,” as a way to accentuate their whiteness and downplay their indigenous ancestry.
Indigenous people in Mexico are still at the bottom of the ladder, and this fact was made explicitly apparent on January 1, 1994 when the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional rose up against the Mexican government after the signing of NAFTA. I was a senior in high school when this happened, and it made a big impact on my psyche; I began to wonder about my identity. After years of research, and to my delight, I encountered many like minded people that were interested in the old traditions and sought to immerse themselves in indigenous culture. I soon learned that there are pockets throughout Mexico and the Southwest that continue to practice some of the rituals and customs of the “ancestors,” and that there are still over a million people that speak Nawatl today. Despite the violent encounter between Spain and Mexico, the culture has survived through its food, customs, and traditions, but most important of all, through the indomitable spirit of its people.
WORKS CITED LIST
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Coe, Michael and Rex Koontz.
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2002 We Will Rise; Rebuilding the Mexikah Nation. Trafford Publishing: Victoria, Canada.