The Conquest of Mexico is typically explained in terms of European military superiority, and although this offered an advantage to the forces arrayed against the Aztecs, it was merely part of a broader picture required to understand their downfall. Indigenous political circumstances played the key role in the Conquest, which can best be understood as an Indian victory over other Indians. The Spaniards represented less a conquering force, with which other native groups opportunistically allied, than an opportunity for groups opposed to the Aztecs to employ the relatively minor Spanish forces to multiply their own superior military strength. The Spaniards recognized their own pivotal role and shifted much of the timing of the conquest to sustain it. Other circumstances of the Spanish arrival, including the massive population loss from the accompanying smallpox, did play a role, but one that was primarily understood and used against the Aztecs by the allied Indians. So ultimately, the Conquest can be best understood as an Indian victory over other Indians, but with the Spaniards manipulating the outcome to ultimately win the peace.
From a geographically, environmentally, linguistically, and ethnically highly variable Mesoamerica, Spain created a core region within her American territories. But for New Spain’s indigenous inhabitants (Mexica or Nahua, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Maya), despite experiencing demographic catastrophe, political and religious subjugation, and labor exploitation during and after conquest, native cultural patterns and agency influenced the reshaping of governance and community (the latter into pueblos de indios), economy, and spiritual and social life during the period of colonial rule. Because environments, indigenous languages, patterns of political, economic, and spiritual organization, ways of structuring family life, varieties of cultural expression, and forms of interrelationships with Spaniards varied so much, indigenous people did not experience a single New Spain. Instead, a multiplicity of New Spains emerged. These indigenous New Spains would play different roles during the independence period, which led to a protracted struggle, further impoverishment, and growing isolation in the new nations of Mesoamerica but cultural survival as well.
Regarded as an ethnohistorical treasure, the Popol Wuj narrative has been read exclusively as a freestanding, self-contained text used to inquire into a history far removed from when it was actually created. Consequently, the colonial context of the text itself has been minimized, including the central role of Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez as transcriber and translator of the only copy in existence. The present study delineates a historical trajectory of the Popol Wuj, reframing the narrative within its colonial ecclesiastic context. It explores the physical structure of Friar Ximénez’s 18th-century manuscript, preserved as MS 1515 by the Newberry Library in Chicago, to demonstrate that his work was first and foremost a series of religious treatises intended to carry out the conversion of the K’iche’ to Christianity. As a cautionary word, rather than revisiting the old, biased approach of questioning the authenticity and authorship of this Popol Wuj narrative, the current study suggests a broader reading, addressing the complexities intrinsic in this text, particularly the fact that the narrative was the result of the cultural contact between mendicant friars, whose main objective was to evangelize, and indigenous groups, who strived to maintain their cultural continuity by recording their oral history in the face of such a threat. Finally, this study invites scholars to ponder on the implications that the present structure of Ximénez’s manuscript (MS 1515) presents for future Popol Wuj studies as the narrative enters the age of electronic information and digital imaging.
Digital Resources: Power of Attorney, A Digital Spatial History of Indigenous Legal Culture in Colonial Oaxaca, Mexico
“Power of Attorney in Oaxaca, Mexico: Native People, Legal Culture, and Social Networks” is an ongoing digital research project that constructs a geography of indigenous legal culture through digital maps and visualizations. The
“Power of Attorney in Oaxaca, Mexico: Native People, Legal Culture, and Social Networks” is an ongoing digital research project that constructs a geography of indigenous legal culture through digital maps and visualizations. The Power of Attorney (
The multiscalar narrative of the Power of Attorney project speaks to multiple audiences, and the digital multimedia format allows visitors to further tailor their interactions with information. The site operates on many levels. It provides maps and visualizations based on original research, data culled from primary sources that can be used as a research tool, historical and geographical background information, information about how to read letters of attorney, and microhistorical narratives of power of attorney relationships. For undergraduates learning about the relationship between Spanish administration and pueblos de indios, the maps and visualizations provide an at-a-glance overview of the spatial and social connections among Indian towns, ecclesiastical and viceregal courts, and the court of the king in Madrid from the perspective of an indigenous region rather than a top-down perspective. Graduate students and scholars interested in the production of notarial records in native jurisdictions, social history and ethnohistorical methodology and the relationship between local and transatlantic processes can explore the maps, visualizations, and data in greater detail. An educated general audience interested in the history of Oaxaca’s native peoples can find a general introduction to the region, its history and geography, and the long-standing relationship between Mexico’s native people and the law.
Susan Elizabeth Ramirez
The Inca (also Inka) Empire, called by the Andeans themselves “Tawantinsuyu,” referred to its four parts: the Chinchaysuyu, the Antisuyu, the Collasuyu, and the Cuntisuyu. Inter-disciplinary research pictures an assemblage of ethnic groups under a dynasty of rulers, believed to have supernatural origins. This multi-cultural state, overseen by a decimally-defined administrative system, was united by kinship ties; the worship of the sun, the moon and ethnic ancestors; negotiation; reciprocity; and force. At its height, it spread from Northwestern Argentina, through Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, and included about half of Chile and the southern frontier of Colombia. Troubles began in the 1520s as a strange disease decimated the native population, claiming the emperor himself. Yet, the Inca’s jurisdiction continued to expand until circa 1532, the date when Francisco Pizarro and his followers and allies marched across the Andes and confronted the Andean emperor Atahualpa in the plaza of the highland ceremonial center of Cajamarca.
The Spaniards had little idea of what to expect when they set foot in North America. Mexico, as the region is known today, was in the 16th century a vast territory with a grand history. Inhabited by diverse peoples for millennia, great civilizations had risen and then fallen, only to be supplanted by others.
The term “Mesoamerican” aptly describes the majority of peoples who lived in or near Mexico, for they shared many culture traits that depended not only on local resources but also on their ingenuity in exploiting all that was available. Food, technology, ball courts, monumental architecture, calendars, and record keeping are practices that characterize Mesoamerica. And in most instances, trade, whether local or long distance or by foot or canoe, served to join different groups across the land through an exchange of commodities, ideas, and the people themselves. Best known, and it might be said the first among many, are the Maya and the Aztecs.
Rediscovering the Aztecs and Mayas: Field Exploration, Archaeological Exhibits, and National Museums
Kevin M. Gosner
In the last decades of the 18th century, with the visit in 1784 of José Antonio Calderón to the Maya ruins at Palenque and the discovery in 1790 of the statue of Coatlicue and the Stone of the Sun in the central plaza of Mexico City, the study of ancient Mexico entered a new era. In the century that followed, teams of field surveyors, mapmakers, graphic artists, and artifact collectors worked across central and southern Mexico as well as in Guatemala. Some were commissioned by the Spanish Crown or later by national governments; many arrived from England, France, Germany, and eventually the United States. Early on they worked side by side with geologists, geographers, and field biologists as part of natural history expeditions, accumulating collections of artifacts that would be displayed in curiosity cabinets and early museums alongside trays of colorful butterflies and stuffed tropical birds. And then, as foreign travel books won popular audiences in Europe and the United States, and as international investors arrived in Mexico and Central America, archaeology also was taken up by enthusiastic amateurs looking to sell books, build private collections, or organize international trade fairs.
For serious students of ancient history, field exploration and advances in archaeological record-keeping transformed a body of research and scientific speculation that since the 16th century had been dominated by theologians, historians, and philologists, who studied Spanish chronicles and native language annals but paid scant attention to the remnants of material culture. In the process, Aztecs and Maya were rediscovered as historical subjects, their histories disconnected from that of contemporary Indian peasants and recast as rivals to the great civilizations of the Old World. Ruins of monumental architecture, recovered artifacts in sculptured stone or finely crafted metals, and ancient texts inscribed on wooden lintels and bark cloth were reclaimed as part of national patrimonies to be protected by new state agencies and displayed in modern museums. On January 20, 1911, the International School for American Archaeology and Ethnology formally opened in Mexico City, and this formative period in the archaeological study of ancient peoples ended. Manuel Gamio introduced the study of stratigraphy to fieldwork practices in Mexico and the discipline was transformed once again.
When the anthropologist Paul Kirchhoff proposed a new definition of Mesoamerica in a landmark study from 1943, the first common characteristics he identified were technological and agricultural: the use of the digging-stick (coa) and “the construction of gardens by reclaiming land from lakes (chinampas).” For thousands of years, Native peoples across Mesoamerica drew on their technological innovations to devise bountiful kinds of farming that have been as diverse as the environments in which they were created. All of their farming systems required some degree of intervention in nature, be it through domesticating plants, tilling the soil, or altering the physical environment by making terraces and harnessing water supplies. On an essential level, then, technology and agriculture went hand in hand. Of the many kinds of Mesoamerican farming, the one that arguably modified the environment the most was a distinctive kind of wetland agriculture in which Nahuas—or Aztecs, the speakers of the Nahuatl language—constructed raised garden beds, known as chinampas, in the shallow, freshwater lakes of the Basin of Mexico.
At the heart of this zone of wetland agriculture was the ancient city of Xochimilco. There the raised gardens filled the surrounding lake of the same name, and eventually came to cover a vast area of some 120 square kilometers. The construction and the intensive cultivation of the chinampas required a considerable investment of time and effort, a good deal of technical expertise, and the mastery of specialist skills and knowledge, including hydrology and engineering so as to manage water levels in the lakes through complex irrigation works. The intensive farming of the fertile, well-irrigated gardens, which could be cultivated year round, yielded sizable harvests of maize and other crops. So productive was chinampa agriculture that scholars have considered it one of the most abundant kinds of farming ever devised. As a technological innovation and environmental adaptation, the chinampas were crucial to changes in Mexican history: they generated surpluses sufficient for urbanization and the rise of Tenochtitlan, one of the early modern world’s great cities, as well as the expansion of the Aztec Empire. The chinampas remained important for the provisioning of the capital long after the Spanish conquest, and in spite of the desiccation of the Basin of Mexico, they are still cultivated in a few places today.