Dividing the Earth
FIGURE 1. Image of Tlaltecuhtli on the base of a greenstone cuauhxicalli (large stone bowl) in the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin. The goddess faces upwards, with a flint knife emerging from her open mouth. Her clawed hands and feet have eyes, and she wears human skulls around her wrists and knees.
FIGURE 2. The five directions of the Aztec empire, as discussed by Johanna Broda (1977).
FIGURE 3. The four symbols of the component altepetl of Tlaxcala, from the main scene of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
Sometime in the middle of the 1500s, cosmographer André Thevet wrote down (in a French translation) a number of sacred histories from Central Mexico. Thevet’s manuscript found its way into the National Library in Paris, where it can be seen today. One of the tales in this manuscript describes how the surface of the earth was created through violence.1
Two male deities, Quetzalcoatl (“Feathered Serpent”) and Tezcatlipoca (“Smoking Mirror”) brought the earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli (“Earth Lord”) down from the heavens (Figure 1). They found the surface of the earth covered by water, with no dry land. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca transformed themselves into serpents, coiled around the arms and legs of Tlaltecuhtli, and ripped her in two. Half of her body stayed below, and formed the surface of the earth, surrounded by water on all sides. (One Nahuatl term for the region of Mexico seems to have been Anahuac, “beside the water”). The other half of her body was carried into the heavens.
Tlaltecuhtli was not very pleased by all of this, and so the other gods transformed her broken body into a living geography, hoping to console her. The goddess’ hair became trees, flowers, and grasses. Other grasses and flowers were created from her skin. The eyes and mouths that had covered her body turned into wells, rivers, and caves. Her shoulders became mountains. Transformed into the fertile surface of the earth, the body of Tlaltecuhtli would provide food and other resources for human beings (who had not yet been created).
But the earth goddess agreed to provide these resources from her body only if she were fed in turn. She demanded to be watered with the blood of sacrifice. In other words, humans could consume the resources of Tlaltecuhtli’s earth-body on the condition that they fed her with sacrifices in return. Cosmic reciprocity, such as that set in motion by Tlaltecuhtli’s transformation, was found throughout prehispanic Mesoamerica. It is still important in some regions of the area today.2
At the beginning of time, then, the surface of the earth and its geographical features were created through violent divisions. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Central Mexicans divided up the earth’s surface in a number of other ways. As discussed in the introductory tutorial to the Matrícula de Tributos, the Aztecs imagined their empire as being made up of five parts, one for each of the five directions: North, South, East, West, and Center (Figure 2)3. This five-part division of Anahuac was probably not widely shared. It was an imperial vision, a view of the Aztec empire as seen from its capital. This geographic vision was probably important for people living in Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco and other towns around the shores of Lake Texcoco, near the center of the empire. But for most people living in Central Mexico, the body of Tlaltecuhtli and the earth’s geography were divided into a much more fragmentary patchwork.
The basic unit of Central Mexican political organization was the altepetl, a kind of city-state.4 The word altepetl probably derives from the words for two geographic features, atl, water, and tepetl, mountain. Each altepetl had its own name, its own rulers and ruling families, and its own sense of identity. Most were centered around one main settlement. At the core of this settlement was a main plaza surrounded by temples and a royal palace.5 These were then surrounded by the houses and orchards and gardens of the common people, with larger fields beyond. Most Central Mexican altepetl would have looked very rural, without a lot of closely-packed buildings. The altepetl was a kind of city-state, but very few of them would have been centered on dense urban centers, the way we typically think of cities today. The capital of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco was an exception. This island metropolis was indeed a massive city, but it was very unusual.
A few Central Mexican polities were actually “complex altepetl.” This means that they were composed of more than one altepetl, and were probably created through the unification of several once-separate city-states. Tlaxcala, for example, was composed of four main altepetl.6 The symbols for each of these altepetl are depicted at the top of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala: four battle standards taking the form of a crane, an eagle, a feathered headdress, and the headdress of a supernatural named Xolotl (Figure 3). Rulership of Tlaxcala was cyclical, with a leader from each altepetl assuming power for a specific amount of time before passing control on to a different leader from a different altepetl. Significantly, this system of rotating corporate rule did not disappear with the coming of the Spaniards. It continued throughout the sixteenth century.7
Even in prehispanic times the altepetl system was resilient. When the Aztec empire began conquering neighboring communities around 1427, it conquered one altepetl at a time. Once a rival altepetl was conquered (or surrendered), it was left more or less intact. Local rulers were expected to recognize the authority of Tenochtitlan, and to provide the Aztec conquerors with regular tribute. But as long as these basic conditions of submission were met, the Aztecs were not interested in interfering with local politics. The Aztec empire was created by amassing hundreds of once-separate altepetl.
It is doubtful that many of the people living under Aztec rule thought of themselves as members of an Aztec empire. Instead, the identity of most people in Central Mexico was focused on community membership in a specific altepetl: We are from Texcoco; We are from Malinalco; We are from Tlaxcala. In the minutes of the city council of Tlaxcala from 1556, Lucas García is recorded as saying “Let us consider well what may be required in our altepetl, our home.” 
Because altepetl identity was so strong, when the Europeans arrived the Aztec empire broke apart very quickly into its component altepetl. In turn, the political structure of the colony of New Spain was fundamentally shaped by the political structure of the altepetl. Like the Aztecs , the Europeans were generally not interested in interfering in local altepetl politics.9 As a result, many altepetl endured in Central Mexico for hundreds of years after the fall of Tenochtitlan. Altepetl remained important for both social and political organization up until the nineteenth century.10
Pictures representing the names of hundreds of separate altepetl are recorded in both prehispanic and colonial documents from Central Mexico. Aztec tribute lists—such as the Matrícula de Tributos—divided the Aztec empire into large-scale tribute provinces, but these provinces were each made up of dozens of separate altepetl. Similarly, the Lienzo de Tlaxcala describes the conquest of much of Mesoamerica as the conquest of dozens of individual altepetl.11 Pictorial documents help us learn a lot about prehispanic and colonial political organization, especially when such documents are combined with archaeological fieldwork on the ground.12 In order to better understand how Anahuac was divided into altepetl, the next section will look at Central Mexican place signs in more detail.
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1 Garibay 1965, 14-16, 108; Markman and Markman 1992, 212-213; Matos Moctezuma 1997.
2 See John Monaghan’s commentary in the Scholars section of Mesolore, as well as Monaghan 1990.
3 Broda 1978.
4 Lockhart 1992, 14-58.
5 Lockhart 1992, 18-20, 68; Smith 2003, 172-191.
6 Lockhart 1992, 20-28.
7 Gibson 1952, 1-16, 89-122.
8 Restall et al. 2005, 73.
9 There are, of course, some exceptions to European non-interference, but even these point to the resiliency of the altepetl as a unit; Lockhart 1992, 28-35.
10 Lockhart 1992: 57-58.
11 Political forms very similar to the altepetl existed outside of Central Mexico: the ñuu in the Mixteca, and the cah in the Yucatan; Restall et al 2005.
12 One example from Central Mexico is Mary Hodge’s correlation of colonial maps from Coatepec with archeological survey data from the same region; Hodge 1994, 47-52.