Obscure Pre-Columbians Sunday: The Tenacious Tarascans

The location of the Tarascan state in relation...

The location of the Tarascan state in relation to the Aztec Empire in Mexico. Illustration credit: Wikipedia.

If you’ve ever reading anything about the Aztecs, chances are you’ll have come across a mention of the Tenacious Tarascans. This hardy folk was able to repeatedly repel Aztec invasion attempts throughout the 15th and early 16th centuries, despite the fact that the Aztecs were pretty good at warfare (or so it seems–see below). Not only that, but they were the second largest political entity in Mesoamerica at the time of the Spanish conquest, after the Aztec Empire: their state was about the size of Ireland. And yet, few people know anything about them, except for a relatively small number of specialised scholars–and, presumably, the modern-day inhabitants of the Tarascan region, known today as Michoacan.

Well, dear readers, get ready to become part of this restricted circle, as it’s time for a new installment of Obscure Precolumbians Sunday! (cue the theme tune–man I should really come up with a theme tune, shouldn’t I?)

The basics

Let’s start with the when, and the where. The Tarascan State was probably founded some time in the 14th century, in the Lake Patzcuaro Basin, in modern-day Western Mexico, and expanded throughout the 15th century. They fell to the Spanish not long after the Aztecs, around 1521.

Tarascan Stone Sculpture from the Lake Patzcua...

Could this be Cuerarauperi, the Mother Goddess? The first humans and gods were judged to be rubbish, and made to drown in a big flood (probably because they originated from balls of ashes mixed with some god’s ear-blood–can’t be a good start, ever); then Cuerarauperi herself was created, or popped out of somewhere, and, after four attempts, managed to create a more satisfying world than the previous one (Pollard 1991). Photo credit: mharrsch.

Then there’s the who. The Tarascans did not call themselves Tarascans–this is the name the Spanish gave them, after a misunderstanding arising from the marriage of conquistadores to Tarascan women: apparently some of their new family members were introduced to the Spanish as tarascue, which means “in-law”, and the Spanish simply thought that the Tarascans were saying “this is a Tarascan. This is another Tarascan. This is also a Tarascan.” Some scholars seem to prefer to refer to the Tarascans as Purepecha, but Adkins says that this meant “common men” in the Tarascan language, therefore excluding the nobility (though I did like the ring of “the Pugnacious Purepecha”). I think the most likely way the Tarascans thought of themselves was as “those who were ruled by Tzintzuntzan”, the imperial capital: this is what a 16th century Franciscan linguist by the name of Juan Baptista de Lagunas said they called themselves (Adkins), and it fits with the fact that who ruled over you was does seem to have been an important factor in people’s identity in Mesoamerica.

As for the origins of the Tarascans, they are shrouded in mist. Because the Tarascan language (which, incidentally, we know of from 16th-century Spanish-Tarascan dictionaries–the Tarascans themselves left no written records) is so different from other Mesoamerican languages, it is possible that they came from somewhere else entirely. Some have pointed out similarities with Quechua, a language spoken in the Andes, and suggested that the Tarascans descended from seafaring Andeans (imagine pirates with llamas perched atop their shoulders). There’s very very little evidence to support this, but many have pointed out strange similarities between West Mesoamerican art generally and that of prehistoric Peru (including the use of bronze, and stirrup-spout vessels) (Miller 2012). There’s also the fact that the Tarascans lacked many of the things most Mesoamerican cultures seem to share (for example, a Rain God, feathered serpent imagery, male and female versions of each god, proper cities, a calendar that had 260 days or that was used for divination), although this might reflect relative cultural isolation rather than non-Mesoamerican origins (Adkins, Pollard 1991).

A yacata from Tzintzuntzan. Apparently, photos don't really give a good sense of what they're like. Photo credit: wikipedia.

A yacata from Tzintzuntzan. Apparently, photos don’t really give a good sense of what they’re like. Photo credit: wikipedia.

The Tarascans ruled their land through a combination of strategies. First, they were ruthless with those who refused to surrender–killing infants, the elderly and the wounded immediately, sacrificing adults at the capital, Tzintzuntzan, and turning the children into slaves (Adkins). Second, they allowed those who surrendered to maintain their ethnic identity, and generally seemed not to have messed much with tradition: from pottery, figurines, burials, basic technology, food remains, and household organization of labor, it doesn’t seem that the political and economic changes that came with the Tarascan empire changed how people led their daily lives much (Pollard 2008). Third, the Tarascans would organise great gatherings, mostly at their capital, in which elaborate rituals were performed atop yacatas (left; they’re kind of like stepped pyramids, but with keyhole-shaped plans) celebrating the king (cazonci), who claimed to be a representative of the Sun God, Curiacueri (Pollard 1991). I always find it difficult to believe, whenever I hear similar stories of new rulers appearing, rewriting religion and claiming a divine right to rule, that people would have actually believed them. But I guess that, if the shows the elites were able to put on to persuade people of their claims were truly astounding, they probably had a good chance of capturing hearts and minds. Unfortunately, with the Tarascans, we can only guess how astounding their rituals were, because all we have in terms of visual evidence is a fairly crummy illustration from Franciscan friar Jeronimo de Alcala’s Relacion de Michoacan (below; incidentally, this book is our main source on Tarascan culture).

Illustration of a state funeral from Alcala's Relacion de Michoacan (Evans 2004: 435). On the right corner, you can see people being sacrificed to accompany the ruler to the afterlife: Adkins writes that this would have included the "keeper of the gold and turquoise lip ornament" as well as the "keeper of the urinal".

Illustration of a state funeral from Alcala’s Relacion de Michoacan (Evans 2004: 435). On the right corner, you can see people being sacrificed to accompany the ruler to the afterlife: Adkins writes that this would have included the “keeper of the gold and turquoise lip ornament” as well as the “keeper of the urinal”.

How they dealt with the Aztecs

But I bet the questions you’re all dying to ask is how the Tarascans managed to repeatedly stave off the Aztecs, who had an empire that was triple the size of theirs. The Tarascans’ particular secret seems to have been great care in how they treated their subjects who lived on the Aztec frontier, the Otomi (gifted hand-fighters, apparently, and skilled with both slings and macanas, that is, wooden clubs with nasty-sharp obsidian) and the Chichimecs (whose warriors were particularly good at throwing arrows). These were the only people in the empire who were not required to pay tribute to the capital. Moreover, part of the tribute the capital received from its empire was rerouted from the capital towards the frontier. In addition to this, the Tarascans placed a lot of care in deciding where to found settlements on the frontier–in the Acambaro region, for example, all settlements were conveniently located on easily defensible hills, and they were sufficiently close to one another that they could easily coordinate their strategies based on relatively rapid exchange of information through bonfires and smoke signals (Adkins).

It’s also worth pointing out that the Tarascans were not unique in their imperviousness to Aztec invasion. There were a number of groups that the Aztecs were never able to subjugate–most notably, the Tlaxacalans (who inhabited a comparatively large region near the very heart of the Aztec Empire) and the people of Cholula (the largest city-state in Mesoamerica at the time of the Spanish Conquest, after the Aztec capital itself). With these groups, the Aztecs were locked in a perpetual state of war, which State propaganda presented as an important ritual activity that wasn’t actually meant to lead to the acquisition of territory, only to get more captives to sacrifice to the gods–although these “flowery wars”, as they were known, may well have been actual attempts at conquest that simply failed, time and again (Conrad & Demarest 1984).

Tarascan Stone Sculpture from the Lake Patzcua...

This stone statue seems to be saying “Is that all you can do, The Aztecs? Oh my, that won’t do at all!” Photo credit: mharrsch.

An Otomi's weapon of choice: the macana. The black bits on its sides are obsidian blades. Illustration credit: Wikipedia.

An Otomi’s weapon of choice: the macana. The black bits on its sides are obsidian blades. Illustration credit: Wikipedia.

It seems the major asset the Aztec military had was the committment of its warriors–some of whom probably believed the State’s insistence that the capture and sacrifice of enemy captives was part of their sacred duty to keep the universe from collapsing, and some of whom were probably after the privileges with which valorous warriors were rewarded (including concubines, the right to drink in public, and a guaranteed afterlife) (Conrad & Demarest 1984). This mostly served the Aztec well–their Empire’s size was not to be laughed at–but, judging from their failure to subjugate Tarascans, Tlaxcaltecans and Cholulans, among others, it seems that even just a tiny bit of strategic acumen on the part of their adversaries was enough to foil their plans for world domination.

So… that’s about it. The Tarascans may not have been as colourful as the Maya, as extreme as the Aztecs, or as Wacky as the Huastecs. But, in a Mesoamerican world in which a lot of cultural stuff was shared, they mostly did their own thing, and that’s cool. In fact, I think there’s a lesson for us all in there–don’t succumb to peer pressure, kids. In other words, you don’t have to build conventional pyramids: they can have keyhole-shaped plans if you want.

Advice for further reading

If you want to know more, you should definitely head over to Adkins’ article Mesoamerican Anomaly? The Pre-Conquest Tarascan State, available here. This has been my main source of information in writing this post.

If you’re looking for slightly more recent stuff, most of what’s been done has been written about in Spanish, but the following articles offer comprehensive overviews on some of the major issues:

Beekman, C. 2010. Recent research in Western Mexican archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Research 18: 41-109.

Pollard, H. 2008. A model of the emergence of the Tarascan state. Ancient Mesoamerica 19: 217-230.

Moreover, if you’re interested in Tarascan religion, there is:

Pollard, H. 1991. The construction of ideology in the emergence of the Prehispanic Tarascan state. Ancient Mesoamerica 2(2): 167-179.

And, if you’re interested in Tarascan cities (or lack thereof, more or less)

Pollard, H. 1980. Central places and cities: a consideration of the protohistoric Tarascan state. American Antiquity 45(4): 677-696.

Further references

Conrad, G. and A. Demarest 1984. Religion and Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, S. 2004. Ancient Mexico & Central America. London: Thames & Hudson.

Miller, M.E. 2012. The Art of Mesoamerica. London: Thames & Hudson.


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