Introduction

FIGURE 1. Partially submerged alligator, seen from above. Image courtesy of Wikisource.

FIGURE 1. Partially submerged alligator, seen from above. Image courtesy of Wikisource.

FIGURE 2. Central Mexico in Mesoamerica: the Valley of Mexico (green), the Valley of Puebla (red), the Valley of Morelos (black), and the Valley of Toluca (blue). The location of Oaxaca City and Aute (Jaltepec, home of the Codex Selden) have been added.

FIGURE 2. Central Mexico in Mesoamerica: the Valley of Mexico (green), the Valley of Puebla (red), the Valley of Morelos (black), and the Valley of Toluca (blue). The location of Oaxaca City and Añute (Jaltepec, home of the Codex Selden) have been added.

Seen from above, an alligator’s back is covered with row upon row of pointed scales. These become shorter and more widely spaced as they move out from the spine and down to the creature’s smooth sides and underbelly (Figure 1). The geography of Mesoamerica is quite similar. In the interior, tall volcanic mountains surround deep valleys. To the north and south, the rugged landscape of this continental backbone gradually smoothes into flat coastal plains, ending in the beaches of the Caribbean and Pacific.

The three Nahua documents included in Mesolore were created by people living in the rugged interior highlands of central Mexico. They were written in two adjacent valleys: the Valley (or Basin) of Mexico, and the Valley of Puebla. The authors of these documents spoke the same language—Nahuatl, a word that means “pleasant sound”—and shared many customs and ways of life. Scholars today often describe the indigenous inhabitants of these two valleys (and of the Valley of Morelos and the Valley of Toluca, to the south and west) as Nahuas (Figure 2). Other ethnic groups lived—and still live—in these valleys, and other languages were (and are) spoken. Otomi speakers still live in the Valley of Puebla, for example.1 Nevertheless, Nahuatl was the dominant, shared language throughout the central Mexican highlands in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Yet despite these similarities of language and custom, relations between the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico and the Valley of Puebla were often tense.

The prehispanic Matrícula de Tributos (probably created around 1519) and Alonso de Molina’s Vocabulario en la lengua castellana y mexicana (first published in 1555) were created in the Valley of Mexico, on the island-capital floating in the valley’s central lake. In contrast, the circa 1552 Lienzo de Tlaxcala was created in the Valley of Puebla, beyond the peaks of snow-capped volcanoes immediately to the east of the Valley of Mexico. When the Europeans arrived, these two valleys were home to two political rivals.

In the center of the Valley of Mexico was Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec empire. Around 1427, the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan (who called themselves the Mexica) formed an alliance with two of their neighbors, both altepetl (city-states) located on the shores of Lake Texcoco. To the northeast was the altepetl of Texcoco (whose people called themselves the Colhua). To the northwest was the altepetl of Tlacopan (whose inhabitants called themselves the Tepanecs). In 1438, after a decade of consolidating their control within the Valley of Mexico, the Mexica, Colhua, and Tepanec warriors of this Triple Alliance began to conquer more distant regions, starting in the Valley of Morelos immediately to the south. For the rest of the century, the Triple Alliance expanded its control beyond the volcanic walls of the Valley of Mexico, conquering communities to the north, south, east, and west (see the “Landscapes: Water, Mountain” Nahua tutorial). Today, the conquest state created by this dynamic Triple Alliance, and ruled from the city of Tenochtitlan, is usually referred to as the Aztec Empire.2

But the warriors of this Triple Alliance were not always successful. To the east, in the northern part of the Valley of Puebla, the altepetl of Tlaxcala managed to maintain its independence from the Aztec Empire. When the Europeans arrived in 1519, the people of Tlaxcala allied themselves with Hernán Cortés. The Lienzo de Tlaxcala records this alliance in detail, showing how an army of Tlaxcalan and European warriors defeated Tenochtitlan, before going on to conquer much of Mesoamerica in the name of the Spanish crown.

This tutorial describes some of the basic features of life in Central Mexico in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. We will focus on evidence from the Valleys of Mexico and Puebla, and on Aztec and Tlaxcalan documents. But we will also consider archaeological materials from Nahua communities in the Valley of Morelos, the first region outside the Valley of Mexico to be conquered by the Triple Alliance.

Beside the Water >
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1 According to the 2000 Mexican census, 1.45 million Nahuatl speakers live in Mexico today. Most are in the central highlands surrounding Mexico City, in the state of Guerrero along the Pacific coast, and in the Huasteca region of Veracruz—although other communities of Nahuatl speakers are scattered throughout Mexico, and in El Salvador as well. The same census recorded some 240,000 speakers of Otomí. Most lived to the west and north of Mexico City, as well as in the town of Ixtenco in Tlaxcala. See also Brumfiel et al. 1994.

2 Mundy 1998, 22-23; on the term “Aztec Empire,” see Barlow 1945.