Cultural affiliation

The Mexica in the Context of Central Mexican Cultures

The Mexica and other Nahuatl-speaking peoples migrated from the most northerly parts of Mesoamerica to the center of Mexico in the thirteenth century AD. Upon arrival, they encountered numerous societies, which despite their ethnic, linguistic and political differences were bound by a powerful shared history of trade, warfare and religion. Their final destination was the Mexico basin, whose area approaches 3,000 square miles, recognizable by its five great lakes and three basic socio-political units. Azcapotzalco was the capital of the Tepanecs settled on the western edge; Texcoco was the base for the Acolhua-Chichimecs, whose central area was on the eastern edge and Colhuacan ruled over the fiefdoms belonging to the Colhua ethnic group, which included the southern towns of Xochimilco and Cuitlahuac.

Against this complex background, the Mexica’s best choice of a site to found their capital, called Mexico-Tenochtitlan, was on a meager and inhospitable little island on the Texcoco lake. Since the island was in Tepanec territory, the Mexica became tribute payers to Azcapotzalco from 1325. The situation would change 100 years later, however, when the Mexica armies beat them in 1430 and set in place the last Excan Tlatoloyan, or Triple Alliance. This consisted of Tenochtitlan alongside Texcoco and Tlacopan. The Excan Tlatoloyan was an overarching organization, above the levels of the states, on a large scale and in the context of endemic warfare. Its principal function was to settle disputes between the political entities which came under its jurisdiction, but it was also responsible for monitoring the security of its domains and integrating reluctant states into the coalition. This was the pretext for the military expansion of the three capitals, with an initial aim of controlling the lake basin, and then the large surrounding territory.

In the Toluca and Ixtlahuaca valleys to the west of the Mexico basin, other Chichimec groups had attained a high level of economic, cultural and political development. These groups formed an interesting linguistic mosaic, above all with Otomi languages (Otomi, Mazahua, Matlazinca and Ocuiltec) and Nahuatl. When the Mexica began their stage of expansion, the Triple Alliance could conquer its western neighbors, who at the time were highly divided. The Chichimecs had also developed very important centers of power to the east in the Puebla-Tlaxcala valley. Notable among these were Tlaxcala, Cholula, Huexotzinco and Tliliuhquitepec, cities which joined forces to resist the continuous hostility of the Excan Tlatoloyan, succeeding to maintain the region’s independence in this way. To the south in the hot climate of the valley of Morelos, there were Chichimec groups who spoke Nahuatl, above all Xochimilca and Tlahuica. The Mexica coveted the cotton they produced from the very early days. This drove them to start a very long war against the city of Cuauhnahuac, which they eventually conquered. Political entities of very diverse ethnic groups and levels of development were annexed in this rapid process. At the end of the day, the imperial frontiers of the Triple Alliance went from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and from the Tarascan empire to the modern border between Mexico and Guatemala.

Tributes rather than territorial expansion were the main objective of the dominant expansionism of the Excan Tlatoloyan. Exclusive rights to certain natural resources were also an objective, as well as the reorganization of trade and the control of important markets. In most cases the conquered cities handed their tribute over, and were also obliged to cede free access to traders protected by the alliance, and to assist the armies of the conquerors with troops and victuals. Nevertheless their legal and political regimes remained their own, as well as their gods. Even so, they had to live in a situation that was burdensome and insecure, the inevitable result of institutionalized violence. Only in cases of extreme opposition would the Triple Alliance impose a governor as well as tributes, or lay waste to rebel lands, occupying them as their colonies. On occasions, the tribute givers would not only deliver locally produced goods, but they would also pay debts with goods they acquired through exchange with their neighbors. This was how the capitals of the alliance obtained resources from beyond the borders of the empire.

The Excan Tlatoloyan reached the height of its expansion in the early years of the sixteenth century, albeit precariously. The political situation became very unstable, as the subjugated populations became increasingly unhappy. Many of them viewed the arrival of the Spanish as an unparalleled opportunity to recover their freedom and they joined them in support of the conquest. Obviously the final result did not meet their expectations.

Dr. Leonardo López Luján
INAH Templo Mayor Project


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