Mixtec History? by John Pohl



[00:00:00] Mixtec codices were created by the Mixtec nobility to celebrate the history and achievements of the royal ancestors. They are aristocratic or heroic histories of royal marriages, succession of rule. These are the sacred materials for presenting history as live dramas, poems, and songs, much like a Homeric tradition. The Spaniards tell us that they hung these codices on walls, and court poets would have used them as visual illustrations for their songs. To me, this is not unlike the use of story boards in planning an animated film today.

This heroic history was a kind of sociopolitical tool of an aristocratic class. It would allow individual kings and queens and their families to sit down and tell their own narratives as they best [reflected] their own political interest. So it’s a usable history, but it is purposefully meant to be manipulated in specific ways that serve the people who were in power at the beginning of the sixteenth century. I think archaeologically we can prove a kind of process of how these kingdoms got started.

The chronology in the Mixtec codices can be correlated with the Julian calendar from the 1500s back to the middle of the tenth century, so you’ve got five hundred years of history and genealogy in there. Going back to ethnohistorical sources, these codices come out in land disputes, and we have Mixtec noblemen claiming that their kingdoms were founded about five hundred years before the Spaniards arrived. So, therefore, you do have an interesting conjunction between oral reports in the early 1500s and the chronologies in the codices. From that perspective, there seems to be some indication that these were treated as valid historical accounts, and the Spaniards in many cases accepted them as that. This makes Mixtec codices the longest continuous Indian history in the Western Hemisphere.

History or Divinity?

[02:02:00] On the other hand, there are contradictions, especially in regard to the first two or three generations of ancestors in Mixtec codices, and this is where we always get hung up with the question: Is this mythic or is this historical? One of the problems is that the progenitors of these Mixtec dynasties don’t appear to be entirely human. They are born from trees, stones, rivers, all kinds of natural stuff in the environment. And these stories are still told by Mixtec people today.

It’s very common to use these creation stories to create a kind of fuzzy chronology to which a real chronology can be attached in subsequent generations. The creation story is propaganda, but it’s a propaganda with a specific intent. They [the Mixtec] want to attach it to a later history that makes these genealogies divine. All they are doing is skewing the creation events, much like you would get in the Bible.

Mixtec kings are probably inheriting this out of Classic Zapotec tradition. In other words, they are trying to refer to their family origins, not as people who come directly from the Classic, but rather as people who are emerging from the ruins of old Classic sites. They are trying to rule by claiming to be, in a sense, divine. So it makes sense that if you are actually kicking off your genealogies five hundred years ago, you’ve got to create some supernatural ambiance for them. There was some sort of enormous factional conflict, for example, and this is what has been written up as “The War of Heaven.” The Stone people, River people, Tree people, or whatever, all engage in some kind of war with each other, and out of this comes these early marriages.

Codices versus Archaeology

[03:49:00] The archaeological situation at 1000 AD is still something that needs a lot more work in the Mixteca Alta. Somewhere in this fuzzy area between 800 and 1100 AD we see the transition between the old Classic period city-states, like Monte Alban, or, in the Mixteca Yucuñudahui, centralized places with thousands of people living in them, to the emergence of all these individual little kingdoms, which the codices document. I think that there is a direct connection between that [transition] as an archaeologically observable process and some kind of internal factional war as the codices imply.

The idea that the Post-Classic peoples have an amnesia of what happened in the Classic is somewhat naïve on our part. If we actually looked at it from a kind of propagandistic perspective, they are intentionally obscuring the Classic by turning it into a “never-never land.” The Aztec do the same thing with Teotihuacan. They turn Teotihuacan into some kind of “land beyond time,” rather than setting up a program of official recognition of whoever was at Teotihuacan. If you identify the intentions, then you can identify the sociopolitical behavior behind it, and that gives you a reflection of social organization, which is why I think we are studying these texts in the first place.

Why the Propaganda?

[05:16:00] Now what I have been trying to propose more recently is: Why would the sixteenth-century people skew these documents the way they do? Why did they come up with all of these conflicting narratives? These codices, for the most part, don’t document any single kingdom or any single family; rather, they document different versions of a core story from the perspective of alliance groups. We’re looking at certain kingdoms, selecting a version of this master saga and telling it in the most beneficial ways. So we are actually getting the social and political rationale for why it is used in this particular way as propaganda.

The one thing that brings us all together is to try to use these resources, and this is where I think that a good anthropological or a good ethnographic analogy is important. I think we have got to be asking questions of historical events as social process. What do these things tell us about aristocratic relationships, because obviously there are different agendas involved. So, if we can isolate these agendas and understand “why the propaganda?,” then we can begin to understand why these guys are at the apex of their society.