Nahuatl is the Latin American indigenous language having the largest number of colonial documents. As with other colonial documents, the study of these manuscripts requires mastery of the language as well as the relevant historical and philological sources. The emergence of digital repositories in Mexico, the United States, France, and other countries has made hundreds of digital images available to scholars who would not have had access to these sources otherwise. Digital repositories also contain additional tools such as morphological parsers and dictionaries. These allow users to upload new images, transcriptions, and translations, turning digital archives into veritable platforms for scholarly exchange. The irruption of digital repositories promises to effect substantial changes in the field of Nahuatl studies.
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.
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.
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.
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).