Notable chroniclers of indigenous traditions in New Spain, such as Hernando de Alvarado Tezozómoc and Domingo de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin, created rich narratives of the mythical origins of the Nahua in Aztlan-Chicomoztoc. Their stories were reinforced by the imagery appearing in the Codex Boturini, the Ramírez Codex and the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca (History of the Toltec-Chichimecs). As well as helping to unravel the pre-Hispanic past, they have been very useful to anthropologists and historians studying the immense cultural legacy of these groups.
Magnificent and exquisite as the chronicles and illustrated documents of the New Spain period were, and despite drawing the pre-Hispanic oral tradition into the discourse, readers should be aware that there are issues of interpretation concerned with these new means of telling stories about the indigenous world based on European concepts. For this reason researchers should cross-reference textual information with archeological evidence.
Countless archeological sites in the Central Highlands have been identified as Nahua settlements, and equally there are many sites that have been covered by modern buildings, sadly accelerating their process of deterioration and loss. Ancient Tlatelolco, the settlement prior to Tenochtitlan, had the stone blocks of New Spain buildings thrown over it, and then later the cement slabs of a jumble of family homes, a landmark in the history of contemporary Mexico. INAH archeological rescue projects in the historic center of Mexico City have astonished the world with their findings of material remains and buildings which have altered our understanding of the Nahua city.
On the former lake shores endless towns jealously conserve their Nahuatl place names, while beneath the bustling streets and buildings lie items that can help with our understand of spaces once occupied and transformed by the arrival of the Mexica, the last group to arrive in the area and become a regional economic and political power. Places such as Coyoacan, Azcapotzalco, Texcoco, Tacuba, Chalco, Otompan and Ecatepec were once centers of power utilizing the lakes as a means of creating networks of dynamic social and political interactions of all types.
Other Nahua centers sprung up outside the Mexico Basin, with varying degrees of autonomy in relation to the Mexica-Tenochca political center. To the south, in the modern day state of Morelos, different groups lived in the mountains and fertile valleys who were just as valued by the huey tlatoani of Tenochtitlan as by the Spanish conquistadors. The latter went on to erect massive monasteries as their bases for missionary work and to dominate the vicinities of places such as Oaxtepec, Tepoztlan, Zacualpan, Totolapan and Yecapixtla, to name a few.
Further east, in the region that forms the border between the states of Puebla and Tlaxcala, there were centers of power like Tlaxcala, Huejotzingo and Cholula that put up a fierce resistance against the growth of Tenochca hegemony, and which in the end were fundamental to the synergy of the conquest. These were the principal centers to challenge the primacy of the dwellers of the basin over the settlements in their areas of influence.
Finally to the north and the west lay towns which maintained borders with other ethnic groups, particularly with the Ñahñu-Otomi, the Teenek-Huastec, the Purepecha-Tarascans and with a heterogenous group of semi-nomadic communities which the Nahua came to call Chichimecs. It could be said that these borders and their inhabitants represented the most important ethnic otherness against which Nahua identity was shaped, since their narratives appeared discordant and alien to the Nahua way of seeing, living, thinking and shaping culture.
Dr. Clementina Battcock
INAH Historical Studies Department