Beside the Water

Like many Native American peoples, central Mexicans visualized the world as an enormous reptile, floating in the middle of a cosmic sea.3 According to one sixteenth-century account, the surface of the earth was created from the body of the chthonic goddess Tlaltecuhtli, who was ripped in half by the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca (see the “Landscapes: Water, Mountain” Nahua tutorial). Central Mexican people lived on the back of an animate island, surrounded on all sides by water.

This may explain why Nahuas used the words “anahuac” or “cemanahuac” to describe the world.4 Anahuac means “beside the water,” (from atl, water, and nahuac, beside). Molina’s 1555 Vocabulario en la lengua castellana y mexicana defines mundo (the world) as cemanahuac (a world) , and “mapamundi” (world map) as cemanauactli ymachiyo (“a world, its image”).5 Prepared and published in the Valley of Mexico, the Vocabulario was created hundreds of kilometers from the beaches of the Caribbean and Pacific, the watery edges of Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, the highland Valley of Mexico—and the Valley of Puebla, to the east—maintained important contacts with the lowland territories that sloped down to the ocean and the sea.

The Valleys of Mexico and Puebla are over 2,000 meters above sea level. The sun can be hot and intense, but nights can be cold. It can even snow. Because the temperature in these highland valleys can drop so low, many plants and animals cannot live in them. Central Mexicans therefore had to acquire a number of important goods from the warmer, lowland environments. These goods included cacao and cotton, the feathers of tropical birds, even sea salt. At its height, the Aztec Empire controlled territories along both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, and so- as the pages of the Matrícula de Tributos make clear- the people of Tenochtitlan could count on a constant supply of lowland goods arriving as tribute every 80 days. For example, the first region to be conquered by the Aztecs, the Valley of Morelos, is significantly lower in elevation than the Valley of Mexico. It is possible to grow cotton and tropical fruits there, which may be one reason that these lands were so appealing when the Triple Alliance began its expansion beyond the Basin of Mexico. In contrast, the atepetl of Tlaxcala was surrounded by Aztec-controlled territories on all sides, and sixteenth-century sources claim that the Aztecs tried to prevent the Tlaxcalans from gaining access to lowland goods such as cotton and sea salt.6

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3 Taube 2010.

4 Berdan 2001.

5 Molina 1555, 178r, 164v; Boone 1998, 113.

6 Gibson 1952, 12, 15; note that salt was also produced from the saline waters of Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico, though apparently for mostly local use in the Valleys of Mexico and Puebla( Smith 1990, 154). The most valued salt in Postclassic Mesoamerica was made from seawater in Yucatan, and traded widely (Kepecs 2003).