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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.

Article

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.

Article

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.

Article

The New Philology and its emphasis on the use of indigenous-language sources for ethnohistorical insights contributes greatly to the study of religion in New Spain. Previous studies primarily employed Spanish-language accounts and reports to understand evangelization efforts. Although providing important insights, histories based solely on Spanish sources are limited in their contributions. The New Philology, however, provides an additional point of view from which to study religion. Indigenous-language texts in Nahuatl (Aztec), Yucatec Maya, Mixtec, Zapotec, and other languages contain a wealth of information on how natives responded, negotiated, resisted, and participated in the spread of Catholicism. The contributions of the New Philology to the study of religion in New Spain, although many, are particularly evident in its re-evaluation of the spiritual conquest; the natives’ role in evangelization; the diversity of religious beliefs, practices, and experiences throughout the colonial period; and through its critical study of the legend surrounding the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Article

Liza Bakewell and Byron Ellsworth Hamann

Mesolore: Exploring Mesoamerican Culture is a variously incarnated bilingual resource for teaching and research on indigenous Mesoamerica. The project’s first iteration began in the late 20th century, when its authors developed a CD-ROM/Internet hybrid and released it on two discs in 2001. This version of the project centered on three interactive primary-source Ñudzavui documents from Oaxaca, Mexico: the prehispanic Codex Nuttall, the Codex Selden (c. 1560), and the Mixtec Vocabulario of Francisco de Alvarado (1593). Ten tutorials on Ñudzavui writing and culture, three introductory video lectures, an interdisciplinary gallery of scholarly portraits, four audio debates, and an atlas supported these core materials. The explosion of broadband Internet at the dawn of the 21st century suddenly made it possible to deliver Mesolore’s high-resolution images and multimedia content online—and simultaneously sounded the death-knell for the CD-ROM as a medium. The second phase of the project therefore worked to gather funding for an online reincarnation and expansion of the project’s core content to include three documents from Nahua Central Mexico: the Matrícula de Tributos (c. 1519), the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (c. 1552), and the Nahua vocabulary of Alonso de Molina (1555). Like their Oaxacan predecessors, these three documents were supported by ten tutorials. Also new for the online relaunch was an archive of hundreds of primary-source alphabetic documents transcribed from physical archives in Mexico, Spain, and the United States. In addition the authors and designers redesigned Mesolore’s atlas to allow for better comparison of the geographic scope of the four core pictorial primary sources (the Nuttall, the Selden, the Matrícula, and the Lienzo). After much drama involving funding agencies, incompetent designers, and incompetent programmers, mesolore.org went live late in 2012, just in time for the non-Apocalypse on December 21. Although Mesolore’s creators now focus on print publications delivered on paper, their efforts to offer democratically accessible, multidisciplinary pedagogical and research materials to any and all users, as well as translate three-dimensional painted manuscripts into the light of computer screens, generated productive inquiry. Furthermore the detailed interpretations of text offered from the outset insights into how those documents communicated visual information at various scales, as well as how the differing scales of their geographical representations connected to 16th-century political claims.

Article

In the middle decades of the 20th century, groups of Concheros dancing in public places began to attract academic attention. However, a much wider interest in their activities developed in the run-up to the celebrations for the so-called “discovery” of the Americas in 1992, when they were invited to participate in some of the commemorative events. Their dance tradition, one among many in Mexico, is often assumed to have been created either in the 1820s after Mexico gained its independence from Spain or more recently after the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Both were periods when central Mexico became more aware of the Aztec past and interested in reviving aspects of it, and the Concheros’ circle dances were thought to have been part of that revindication—an invented tradition. However, their history has more complex roots than this. The predominant myth claims that the dance began in the Bajio region in the 16th century, an area that had not been dominated by the Aztecs. Counter to that, however, are the beliefs that many began to advocate as the movement of Mexicanidad (or Mexicayotl) flourished during the late 20th century, which has led to the eponymous Mexica challenging many of the Concheros’ beliefs and practices.

Article

While several indigenous languages from the Americas have been alphabetized and written, no Native American language has such an extensive corpus of historical texts as Nahuatl, the language of the Nahuas or Aztecs of central Mexico. Writing in Nahuatl but using Latin letters, colonial Nahua scribes or tlahcuilohqueh produced an unparalleled outpouring of texts throughout the colonial period. Prior to the Conquest, the Nahuas recorded information in codices, which consisted of pictographic glyphs painted on sheets of bark paper, analogous to European books. They thus readily perceived the parallels between their pictographic codices and European alphabetic texts and quickly saw the utility and potential of the new technology. All that was needed was an introduction to European writing techniques. For the most part, this came in the form of friars, some of whom established schools for elite Nahuas, such as the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in the latter part of the 1530s. Some Nahuas likely also learned writing from professional Spanish scribes as well. These students of the friars and lay Spaniards would soon teach other Nahuas to write, such that only a few years after the opening of the Colegio, Nahua scribes, working entirely on their own, were producing written texts. These scribes then taught others, and by the 1550s Nahuatl alphabetic writing became a self-sustaining, independent tradition that touched nearly every corner of the Nahua world. Alphabetic writing overtook indigenous glyphs, and by the 17th century most Nahuatl texts were entirely alphabetic. Last wills and testaments made up the bulk of scribal output, along with other “mundane” Nahuatl documents of financial, legal, or governmental matters, which have proven highly illuminating to historians. There were also annals; local histories stretching back to preconquest times; and plays, songs, and speeches (huehuehtlahtolli). Nahua scribal culture thrived until the 19th century, when opposition to it from both the Spanish Crown and, later, the independent Mexican nation made Nahuatl texts obsolete and superfluous.

Article

Pulque, the alcoholic beverage of pre-Columbian highland Mesoamerica is the fermented derivative of aguamiel, the juice or sap of the agave known as agave pulquero—principally Agave salmiana. Aguamiel is a sweet, somewhat heavy juice that collects in a scraped out basin in the heart of the agave pulquero and, unless refrigerated, rapidly ferments into the alcoholic pulque. The agents of fermentation are ambient and plant-colonizing bacteria and yeasts. Fresh pulque is a frothy, cloudy brew with a slightly sour taste, usually containing around 2 percent alcohol or somewhat higher, meaning it can be drunk in large quantities without intoxicating the imbiber. Although it is a nutritious drink, consumption was condemned by Spaniards in varying degrees during the Colonial Period. Its popularity in contemporary southern Mexico is increasing after more than a century of persecution and public disparagement. Pulque figures prominently in pre- and post-Columbian Mesoamerican history. Production of tequila and mezcal is completely different from production of pulque. The former are distilled from the pressed juice (tepache) of macerated and roasted hearts of certain agaves. The juice is fermented in vats for several days, then heated in a still, evaporated, and condensed. Tequila, by law is made from A. tequilana, and mezcal by custom is made primarily from A. angustifolia. Both these distillates contain about 40 percent alcohol. Pulque is a naturally occurring product consumed by native peoples for at least two millennia. Tequila and mezcal are industrial products derived from processes introduced into the Americas by Europeans.

Article

Mesoamerica is a culture zone that stretches geographically from approximately north-central Mexico into the northwestern half of Central America. Human occupation of this region dates back thousands of years. The end of the Post-Classic Period (c. 1519) is marked by the invasion of the region by Europeans, who were looking to extract goods, services, and taxes from the Mesoamerican peoples. Spanish occupation stretched into the early 19th century. Neocolonial Mesoamerica, of the 19th and 20th centuries, came to experience increasing influences from the United States, Britain, Germany, and other external powers. The past two centuries have also been marked by a continuing local control by a minority, Euro-originating elite over a majority, indigenous population, even as what we once knew as Mesoamerica faded from view. The division between these ethnicities has grown somewhat less clear as a result of the increasing mixed-heritage mestizo or ladino population across the region. Authoritarian regimes marked much of the 20th century, and civilian rule (still without much or any indigenous participation) came at the end of that century, continuing up to the present. But police and military authorities remain present, concerned with internal dissent and unrest at least as much as external threats. For the present purposes, Digital Mesoamerica has as its focus the region’s indigenous cultures and their histories. Shared cultural traits in the pre-contact era—such as the calendars, glyphic writing, the ball court, human sacrifice, certain legends and religious beliefs, agricultural methods, art, and technologies—set off the many peoples of Mesoamerica from other parts of the Americas. The history of the culture zone is rich for exploring the rise of civilizations, social, economic, and political systems, gender ideologies and practices, religions, land tenure and agricultural systems, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, calendrics, and language diversity (among many other themes). Colonization and its dimensions—such as the impact of epidemic disease, the nature of hybrid religions, evolving tribute and labor systems, struggles over land, efforts to defend some measure of local autonomy, and more—is another arena of great scholarly interest. Contemporary studies are marked by human rights and cultural survival issues, ethnography, mining and other environmental crises, and fair trade, among many other topics. The most popular and numerous digital resources supporting research and teaching related to Mesoamerican cultures and their histories tend to center on indigenous-authored manuscripts and maps, some of them pre-contact and most of them colonial. These sources are located primarily in Mexican, Guatemalan, U.S., and European repositories, where institutional funds are supporting the creation of open-access digital collections of such materials, along with audio demonstrating language use, videos of all kinds, educational units, and photographs of three-dimensional cultural heritage materials. We are also witnessing moves toward the aggregation of digital content across multiple repositories, such as we see with the World Digital Library, the Internet Archive, and the Getty Research Portal, among others, which increasingly represent Mesoamerica along with other regions of the world. Individuals are also submitting their full-text publications to such aggregators as Academia.edu, announcing their public talks and publications on listservs, Twitter, and Facebook pages, or creating their own robust, one-of-a-kind Web-based projects (with funding from host institutions or national endowments).

Article

In the late 19th century, Mexico’s ancient ruins captivated much of the world. European and American explorers trekked through what was often touted as an “American Egypt” in search of pre-Columbian artifacts to display in private collections and museums. Mexicans similarly hunted after the remains of the Indian past, as their country witnessed a heightened interest in the excavation and exhibition of ancient artifacts during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, the period commonly known as the Porfiriato (1876–1910). The Díaz regime embraced the indigenous past in order to present Mexico as a nation with ancient and prestigious roots. It took control of pre-Hispanic relics and ruins through archaeology, a discipline that was thought to give Mexico the coveted aura of a scientific, cosmopolitan, and modern nation. The Díaz regime gave unprecedented support to the National Museum in Mexico City, the nation’s most important institution for the study and display of Indian antiquity. Museum scholars such as Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, Alfredo Chavero, and Antonio Peñafiel, worked on building and organizing the archaeology collection as the government intensified the process of accumulating artifacts in the capital. One of the central figures in this process was Leopoldo Batres, the head of the General Inspectorate of Archaeological Monuments of the Republic. Batres brought antiquities to the museum, helped organize the archaeology collection, and built the Gallery of Monoliths, the nation’s premier showcase of pre-Columbian relics. He also carried out excavations at ruins throughout the country and reconstructed several archaeological sites, including Xochicalco and Mitla. His most famous (and most controversial) work took place at Teotihuacán, where he rebuilt the Pyramid of the Sun, turning Teotihuacán into the nation’s first official archaeological site, a project made to coincide with the centennial celebration of Mexican independence in 1910.