Cultural affiliation

The Otomi Groups

The Otomi form part of the Oto-Pamean group of languages which includes Otomi, Mazahua, Matlazinca, Ocuiltec, northern Pame, southern Pame and Chichimeca Jonaz. In turn these are part of the great Oto-Manguean family (Wright, 1997). Depending on the region they came from they call themselves Hñähñü, Ñuhu, Ñhato or Ñuhmu, and they are currently spread across the Mexican states of Mexico, Queretaro, Hidalgo and Guanajuato, with isolated groups in the states of Tlaxcala, Michoacan and Veracruz. After the Mexica, they were the most numerous group in the center of Mexico in the Late Postclassic, and their presence goes back at least to the Classic period. The available information points to Xilotepec, or Mandenxi in Hhähñü, being the core Otomi area, from which they migrated to other areas such as Tlaxcala and Puebla in the east and to Michoacan in the west.

Once Tula had fallen Xilotepec may have become an independent state. Later on the Tepanecs came to rule over the whole Otomi region and they came under the Triple Alliance before the arrival of the Spanish. During the Chichimec war, the Otomi of the ancient Xilotepec-Chiapan fiefdom gave support to the bellicose aims of the Spanish and they also peopled the new centers in the Bajio and north of Mexico such as Queretaro, San Juan del Río, San Miguel Allende and San Luis la Paz. For a long time they were considered a marginal group, which although subordinate to the great centers of power, oscillated between the Mesoamerican cultures and the hunter-gatherers. The majority of the historical chronicles which mention this group were focusing on subjects like the Mexica, so in this sense there are only a few documents providing more extensive information on Otomi culture, such as the Huichapan, Huamantla and Jilotepec codices, and a few geographical accounts such as the description of Queretaro. Traditional anthropological research on the group has focused on linguistics, ethnographic monographs of specific Otomi communities and some works on physical anthropology such as folklore and craft studies. There have been very few archeological studies.

Large scale archeological research of an Otomi region began for the first time in the 1970s, specifically looking at Huamango in the state of Mexico (Piña Chan, 1981). Since then, the 1980s saw new archeological projects at a regional level in the Mezquital valley (López Aguilar and Fournier, 2009; Fournier, 2007). Work was carried out in the Jilotepec area (Brambila,1997) in the 1990s and early 2000s and also at Chapa de Mota (Sánchez Alaniz, 2009). Excavations in the Jilotepec area and at Chapa de Mota have made it possible to identify three ecological enclaves: the mountains, the area covered with ravines and the intermontane valleys. Evidence of pre-Hispanic occupation has been found at all of these, which begins to suggest a dynamic and complex relationship between the inhabitants and their environment over a prolonged time sequence (Sánchez Alaniz, op. cit.).

The sites located in the supper part of the ravines and the hills share certain features, like following the principal lines of the topography, being close to water sources such as rivers and streams, having terrace systems as well as adapting construction to the shape of the land. Another feature is that there would appear to be a distribution pattern in the settlements, since they are often located on equidistant lines than run from 1,100 to 1,600 yards. This dispersed but equidistant model clearly remains in place in some communities spread on the upper section of the ravines, such as El Arenal, La Cañada, and Los Oratorios in the municipality of Villa del Carbón in the State of Mexico. The dates for these sites are widely spread, from La Capilla in the Middle Preclassic, Las Moras, El Mogotito and La Palma from the Epiclassic and La Cantera and the village of Quelites from the Early and Late Postclassic. Of all these, Las Moras, with its location, spatial distribution, complex terrace system and abundance of ceramic and stone materials, might have been one of the leading sites of the Epiclassic.

Information gathered in the field shows that there was a type of corridor, or local route, from Tepeji del Río to Chapa de Mota with settlements demonstrating a strong Mexica presence, although there is also evidence of an older occupation, as we have pointed out. This route connected the southwest part of the Mezquital valley with the northern sector of the valley of Toluca by means of a natural pass or “doorway” in the Sierra de las Cruces, which is located around the modern town of Chapa de Mota (Sánchez Alaniz, 2009). The mountain sites are typified by their locations on the heights between 9,100 and 10,200 feet above sea level, and they ranged from simple shrines, where offerings were left, to sites with complex architecture formed by leveling platforms and several structures with a building system based on amorphous igneous rock infill and cladding consisting of wedge shaped slabs laid one on top of the other. In general natural high ground and rocky outcrops were chosen as the site for building their structures. The privileged location of these sites is also a notable feature since they often gave a commanding view of the surrounding areas. To date many of these sites are points of reference or territorial divisions between towns and are considered to be sacred places. Chapa el Viejo and Iglesias Viejas, occupied in the Late Postclassic, are without a doubt the most representative because of their location, spatial distribution and complex architecture.

Sites situated in the intermontane valleys are on flat land and are located between large mountains with an altitude varying between 7,900 and 8,500 feet. Given that they are located in favorable sites for agriculture and human settlement, they are often mostly destroyed. Nevertheless, we found two sites with architectural traces on the border between Tepeji del Río and Villa del Carbón. One of those, San Mateo Buenavista, has signs of Mexica occupation. The other is situated in the town of Quelites and has an occupational sequence which started in the Classic and continued with material from the Early and Late Postclassic. The settlement known as La Esperanza was discovered in the valley of Chapa de Mota, with the remains of an architectural structure and a large quantity of Aztec III type ceramic material. There are two sites with significant examples of rock art. One of these, at Villa del Carbón, has a sequence of zoomorphic, astronomical and anthropomorphic paintings on different panels. The other site is the rocky overhang at Matlavac, Chapa de Mota, with rock carvings representing elaborate zoomorphic and anthropomorphic designs related to the attributes of Quetzalcoatl.

Finally, one of the key questions facing the archeology of the Otomi regions is concerned with the classification of the material culture of these groups. In other words we are still a long way from defining the Otomi on the basis of material remains. Ceramics are not the only things that can provide data and other aspects such as architecture must be considered. To understand pre-Hispanic Hhähnü culture in greater depth we must also consider the pattern of archeological site location, the ritual context, samples of rock art and we should use ethnographic information without being rigid about it. However this area of work has barely started.

José Ignacio Sánchez Alaniz
Office for the Public Register of Monuments and Archeological Sites


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