Were the world’s earliest medical illustrations made in ancient Mesoamerica?

A few days ago, while perusing the online catalogue of Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, I stumbled upon a curious figurine fragment–a terracotta head with two faces and three eyes, the central eye being shared between the two faces (left). According to the catalogue, this figurine probably originated in Tlatilco, a large farming village that flourished in the Basin of Mexico between about 1200 and 200 BC. A little online snooping further revealed that double-faced figurines are a relatively common find at Tlatilco, and are thought to date to between 1200 and 700 BC–although it’s unclear how many of these figurines were excavated by looters and how many were unearthed by professional archaeologists, so I couldn’t get a sense of where in Tlatilco these figurines would have been found. It seems that ancient Tlatilcans (?) used to bury one-faced figurines under fields, perhaps believing they would make their crops grow faster–but there’s no word on where Tlatilcans placed two-faced figurines. So we don’t really know what these double-faced figurines mean, or how they were used.

Double faced head. Central America, Mexico, Tlatilco. Middle Pre-Classic period (1200-900 BC). Earthenware, traces of red pigment. h. 4.5 cm. Acquired 1973. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. UEA 136.

Fig. 1: Double faced head. Central America, Mexico, Tlatilco. Middle Pre-Classic period (1200-900 BC). Earthenware, traces of red pigment. h. 4.5 cm. Acquired 1973. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. UEA 136. Photo from the SCVA website.

BUT. I did come across this interesting theory, by one Gordon Bendersky (2000), that the Tlatilco double-faced figurines were the world’s earliest medical illustrations–and, more specifically, the world’s earliest medical illustrations of a rare congenital disorder known as diprosopus.

Science-wise, diprosopus is caused by the mutation of the “Sonic Hedgehog Homolog” protein (SHH), which controls facial expansion during foetal development. The way it works is that, if the SHH protein is longer than it should be, this leads to face duplication. However, there are many different possible lengths to which SHH can stretch, which means that, for example, particularly long SHH can lead to two fairly distinct faces, while slightly shorter SHH can lead to two faces that share a large central eye. There’s a whole spectrum of possibilities (Fig. 2).


Schematic representations of documented diprosopus cases (Bendersky 2000: 482).

Now, the interesting thing is that Tlatilco double-faced figurines seem to reflect this same spectrum of possible different types of facial duplication. In other words, double-faced figurines are not all the same (some have two very distinct faces, some have two faces that share a central eye, etc.), in exactly the same way that cases of diprosopus are not all the same (Fig. 3). It’s because of this that Bendersky believes they were medical illustrations of an actual anatomical phenomenon, rather than fanciful depictions of imaginary supernatural creatures.


Selection of Tlatilco double-faced figurines, ordered according to how distinct the two faces are (Bendersky 2000: 480).

You could say that the term “medical illustrations” is imprecise and anachronistic. The very idea that you can understand how the physical world works by poking and prodding it with science (and, as regards the human body, medicine) is a relatively recent one, and probably did not quite exist in ancient Tlatilco.

However, if these figurines are indeed depictions of diprosopus, they do suggest genuine curiosity and towards a natural anatomical phenomenon, and a compulsion to make sense of it through classification. This is the basis of a lot of scientific research–and it does make them a sort of flickering, short-lived example of “proto-science”, for lack of a better word.

NB A question some of you might have is, if diprosopus is a rare condition, how come it appears so frequently in Tlatilco art, and with sufficiently great variation that it’s probably many different cases being represented rather than the same two or three over and over again? It’s a good question, and Bendersky isn’t sure himself, although apparently “clusters” or “epidemics” of conjoined twins in modern times have been documented in a number of locations worldwide, from Wales to California, from China to Israel, so maybe a similar thing happened with diprosopus in Tlatilco. Also, it’s possible that, for cultural reasons, inbreeding was common in Tlatilco, making an otherwise rare condition like diprosopus more common than it normally is. However, it’s worth saying that no two-faced skeletons have been found at Tlatilco, in case you were wondering, although that may well be because the archaeological record was disturbed by looters–and/or because the remains of diprosopus individuals may have been treated in a special way that prevented them from being preserved properly, or made them very difficult to find (I should probably say now that diprosopus is normally incompatible with life, although I did hear of a pig born with two faces who survived to a relatively old age).


Suggestions for further reading/watching:

1. The Brain Scoop’s Emily Graslie and Anna Goldman have tackled diprosopus recently: check out their two-parter on the dissection of a two-faced calf here and here.

2. Gordon Bendersky was an interesting guy–he was a paediatric cardiologist and amateur historian/archaeologist of medicine, whose academic papers cover a motley array of subjects, from depictions of foetuses in Olmec art to depictions of epilepsy in Raphael’s paintings, from the use of saffron as medicine in the ancient Aegean to sports injuries in ancient Greece. You can read his New York Times obituary here.



Berensky, G. 2000. Tlatilco sculptures, diprosopus, and the emergence of medical illustrations. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43 (4): 477-501.

The last few posts have been a bit dense and rambly–maybe even a bit navel-gaze-y at times–so I thought it would be nice if, this time round, I limited myself to writing a short post whose main message is simply “LOOK AT ALL THIS STUFF! IT’S AMAZING!” Specifically, I want to tell you about the “little El Dorado” (in the words of former director Philippe de Montebello) that is tucked away in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Precolumbian section, and, in particular, the few glass cases containing artefacts from Panama and Costa Rica. I stumbled upon them completely by accident this summer, and could not tear myself away from them, taking pictures and notes and just marvelling at how splendid they were. They mostly date from between the 11th and 16th centuries, mostly depict animals or fantastic beings, and we know overall very little about the people who made them, as they left no written records. The region’s present-day “traditional” inhabitants are often used to cast some light on the beliefs and culture of these extraordinarily skilled goldsmiths, but several centuries have passed, and stuff like Catholicism, US cod-imperialism and extremely rapid technological advancement have happened, so I’m not sure how useful the comparison actually is.

But, without further ado–let’s start with the eagle pendants. Crazy cool. As you will be able to see though, these creatures bear only a vague resemblance to the birds they’re supposed to represent. It’s not just a question of stylisation–there are whole new body parts, and weird appendages, and jewellery. Could they not be mythical beasts whose names and stories have been forgotten? Then again, another possibility is that what is being depicted is not just eagles, but what is known about eagles. So for, example, you’ll notice that the first eagle has protruding eyes–eagles don’t have protruding eyes, but it might be a way of reminding viewers that these birds have very acute vision.  However, explanations such as this are more difficult to come up with for other stuff–for example, the weird floppy ears that the first eagle has, or the crocodiles coming out of the sides of the second eagle’s head.

This eagle, as you can probably see better in the close-up below, is clutching a squealing tapir or peccary, or perhaps a whining dog, in its sharp beak.

This eagle, as you can probably see better in the close-up below, is clutching a squealing tapir or peccary, or perhaps a whining dog, in its sharp beak. It’s also equipped with weird swirly jewellery on the sides of its face, and huge flapping ears. Panama, Veraguas culture, 11th-16th century. 14 cm tall. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 45.

Check out the protruding eyes.

Check out the protruding eyes.

Steampunk eagle!

Steampunk eagle! But seriously, this could easily have been a steampunk-inspired DIY project–the feet could be paintbrushes, the eyes megaphones, etc. Also check out the crocodiles sticking out of the eagle’s ears: if we’re calling this an eagle, why not call chimeras (lions with an extra goat’s head and a snake instead of a tail, from Greek mythology) lions? Costa Rica, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 14 cm tall. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 45.

This is what I picture the Watcher to look like.

Double-headed eagle, although it seems that the two heads have to share one pair of (hugely protruding) eyes. That’s probably why they both look like they’ve bit into the bitterest of lemons. Incidentally, this is what I kind of imagined the evil vulture-creatures that stand guard at one of the entrances to Mordor to look like (although it turns out they had three heads, not two). And though you might think that this comparison isn’t very useful, I don’t know, I think making outlandish analogies can help, sometimes, when we’re trying to puzzle our way through things that we don’t know much about. Panama, Veraguas culture, 11th-16th centuries. 10 cm tall. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 44.

Antonio Saldaña

Antonio Saldaña, chief of the Bribri people of Costa Rica (see below) and “last king of Talamanca”, between 1880 and 1910. If you squint, you can see that he’s wearing stuff round his neck and down his chest that looks a lot like eagle pendants. It’s not clear, however, if he did this because the tradition of wearing these objects was genuinely passed down from the 11th century all the way to the 19th, or whether it was a retrospective re-claiming of his people’s heritage. Image credit: Wikipedia.

Next, the frogs! These look much more like frogs than the eagles look like eagles, but there’s still some funky stuff going on.


A possible tree frog. Julie Jones interprets the stuff coming out of its mouth as a bifurcated snake’s tongue, but I am not at all convinced. Jones also points out that poisonous frogs are believed by many jungle-dwelling societies to store fire inside their bodies–perhaps what’s coming out of this frog’s mouth is smoke, or the actual fire. Costa Rica, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 10 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 46.


This is a VERY weird frog–again, pretty steampunk-y. The huge eyes are bells. Panama, Parita culture, 12th-16th centuries. 6 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 46.

cat eyes

More smoke/fire scrolls? Fun fact: according to the Bribri of Costa Rica, who may or may not have inherited this belief from the same people who made all this cool stuff, frogs help maintain the boundary between the living and the dead, by sitting on graves at night and preventing the dearly departed to rise again. Panama, Chiriqui (?) culture, 11th-16th centuries. 7 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 46.

And now, the turtles! You will notice that they all have two tails. Jones, who classifies them as turtles, says this is an “unexplained” characteristic, but it makes more sense, again, if you think of these creatures not as realistic turtles, but as mythical animals. Also these are attributed to Panama’s Veraguas culture.

two tailed

This thing is definitely turtle-like. But what turtles has a dragon-like ridge running down its head? And what about that curly double-tail? It could be a stylised representation of water currents being split in two as the turtle swims… but they seem to be attached to the turtle’s body via a series of rings, and the turtle doesn’t look like it’s swimming–more like dragging itself over dry sand (maybe to lay eggs, since that’s the only time turtles ever leave the sea, or so says wikipedia). 6 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 47.

Ram's horns

This turtle even has curly horns! Which may not, however be horns, since there are no curly-horned animals in that part of the world, as far as I am aware. So maybe those are feathers. 10 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 47.


There’s clearly a story here–a “turtle” biting into, or eating, perhaps defeating in some way, or building an alliance with, a monstrous snake with heads at both ends. Who knows! But it’s deliciously tantalising. 6 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 47.

And sharks! These guys actually do look a lot like sharks, although the first one does that have that weird curly moustache-thing.

Panama, Veraguas culture, 11th-16th centuries. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 48.

Panama, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 9.5 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 48.

Panama, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 8 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 46.

Panama, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 8 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 46.

Then there’s a whole series of items that depict creatures with a human-ish body and the head of an animal. It’s not clear whether these items represent mythical beasts, deities, flattering metaphorical portraits of leaders (e.g. as if Queen Elizabeth I had been represented with the head of a lion, for her bravery), or shamans who have transformed, for whatever purpose, into magical animal-human hybrids. Of course it’s possible that one of these possibilities was true for some of the items, another one for some other items, and so on. Personally, it seems to me that, a lot of the time, these animal-headed are shown as if guarding something–standing in pairs, and holding standards or staffs. This suggests that they were mythical beings or (minor?) deities whose task was to protect something or someone–most likely the person wearing them as pendants. Then again, many pendants also show only one animal-human hybrid, so I don’t know. In any case, check them out and see what you think–there are too many for me to include them all, so this is just a selection of favourites.

Bat dudes

Two bat-headed dudes–an example of the category of items which feature a pair of standing creatures, equipped with both standards and staffs. Panama, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 8 cm. Photo mine.

The Greater Spear-nosed Bat (Philostomus hastatus), which the bat-headed guys in the above photo were probably based on. Image credit: Wikipedia.

The Greater Spear-nosed Bat (Phyllostomus hastatus), which the bat-headed guys in the above photo were probably based on. Image credit: Wikipedia.

Deer dude

Deer dude. Apparently it’s quite rare for deer to inspire goldwork in the region. Check out the extra face on the dude’s belly–whose eyes may double as nipples, and goatee as penis. Jones (2002) points out a number of very interesting things about this item: that the feet look neither human nor cervine, but, with their four long toes, might have been inspired by the hindfeet of a crocodile; and that the deer’s tongue is sticking out, which, in other depictions of the animal from the time, tends to mean that the animal is dead. Costa Rica, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. Photo mine.

Skip Rope Dude

I like this guy because it kind of looks like he’s using snakes as a skipping rope. Also because his pose is reminiscent of classic superhero hovering poses. Also crocodilian-snake creatures are bursting out of his head. Basically, this guy’s awesome. I’d be surprised if he weren’t some kind of god or hero, strangling snakes and torpedoing his foes with the monsters he can shoot out of his head. Photo mine.

Well, I hope you enjoyed that, dear readers. I certainly did, and will try to write more posts like this in the future. If there are any zoologists out there who know of Costa Rican/Panamanian fauna which actually does look like the above creatures (e.g. moustachio’d sharks, double-tailed turtles, fire-breathing tree frogs, it’d be great to hear from them. And as always, I’d be happy to read, and reply, to any comments or questions anyone might have.

Suggestions for further reading/Bibliography

The best thing to do would be to simply visit the Metropolitan Museum. However, if you can’t do that, the Met will graciously allow you to download a free PDF on this stuff, and more stuff besides, here. Incidentally, that’s where I got all the images that weren’t mine or from Wikipedia.

Jones, J. and A. King. 2002. The Art of Precolumbian Gold: The Jan Mitchell Collection. New York: MetPublications.

If you’re a super-museum-nerd and want to find out more about the guy who donated all these objects to the museum, Jan Mitchell, you can read his obituary here.

Grimes, W. 2009. Jan Mitchell, Who Put the ü Back in Lüchow’s, Dies at 96. The New York Times [online] Nov. 30. Available at <; [Accessed on 18th of September 2013].

“As I sat atop the ruins of the main pyramid at Tilantongo years ago, I kept replaying the frightening scenario over and over in my mind, trying to determine where the brutal murders have taken place.”

Blood-bath in a sweat bath (Native American sauna): Lord 8 Deer's brother is brutally murdered at his most defenseless. From Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

Blood bath in a sweat bath (Native American sauna): Lord 8 Deer’s brother is brutally murdered at his most defenseless. From Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

So starts the main section of John Pohl’s (2004: 218) chapter on the Mixtecs, in Hendon & Joyce’s anthology Mesoamerican Archaeology. And indeed, the brightly coloured deerskin “books” left behind by the Mixtecs are rich in the kinds of violence and intrigue that would be at home in any Game of Thrones episode, or good gangster film, today–for example, the scene in which Lord 8 Deer’s half-brother is murdered in a sweat bath (where he was, presumably, naked and weapon-less) is the Mesoamerican equivalent of that scene in Eastern Promises in which Viggo Mortensen’s character is ambushed by Chechen thugs in a sauna.

Clearly, Horrible Histories missed a juicy opportunity when they neglected to make a Mirthless Mixtec book (or even mention them in Angry Aztecs)–but this is exactly what Obscure Pre-Columbians Sundays are for!

Nobles and commoners

The Mixtecs (pronounced meesh-tecs) called themselves tay ñundzavui, the “People of the Rain Place”, and their language dzaha dzavui, “Rain Speech”. “Mixtec” itself is the name the Aztecs gave them, which means “Cloud People”. They lived (and most of their descendants still live) in La Mixteca, in what is today Southern Mexico. This is an ecologically diverse region, with tall, cool mountains looming over hot, tropical shores: and because different altitudes provided different types of resources, many families survived by spreading themselves out to cover as many areas as possible, or made an effort to maintain as many contacts in different areas from their own as possible–which guaranteed a broad resource base, and several back-ups in case a particular area went through a bad patch. This sort of thing is also common in Peru, where it is referred to as the “vertical archipelago” strategy.

Before the aristocracy came along to civilise them, Mixtec peasants were thought to have been ugly little mole-people (Marcus 1993).

Before the aristocracy came along to civilise them, Mixtec peasants were thought to have been ugly little mole-people (Marcus 1993: 276). Keep in mind that this illustration, and the next two, are as colourful as the last image in their original form.

Commoners’ back-breaking work, both in the fields and at home (the traditional method for making tortillas takes up to eight hours, and involves a lot of skeleton-wrecking postures) supported the extravagant lifestyles of their lords and ladies: one of the few depictions of peasants in Mixtec painted documents shows a man and a woman offering tribute to their betters, in the form of cooking skills in the woman’s case (she carries a grinding stone on her back) and a bag of maize in the man’s.

This was only fair: according to Mixtec origin myths, before the aristocracy came along, peasants spoke no Mixtec, and had no laws, no respect for their ancestors, and, effectively, no religion, as they did not practice ritual bloodletting. Indeed, they were little more than animals: Mixtec sources depict them as tiny mole-like creatures with bumpy bald heads made of stone, who had crawled into the Mesoamerican daylight out of the very centre of the earth. Nobles, on the other hand–they were born from the trees on the bank of the sacred Apoala river, and some of them were able to shapeshift: 9 Wind “Serpent” could turn himself into an eagle that was so swift it basically had the power of invisibility, while his brother 9 Wind “Caves” could transform into a very small winged snake, and use this body to slither inside the narrowest cracks in cliffs and stone walls.

The Mixtec nobles are shown being born from a tree, at the beginning of time (Marcus 1993).

The Mixtec nobles are shown being born from a tree, at the beginning of time (Marcus 1993: 275).

Though nobles were eventually able to civilise the Mixteca mole-people, the two remained separate species, as suggested by the completely different anatomical terms used to describe the noble’s bodies, compared to commoners’ (which we know of partly from the codices–see below–partly from Spanish-Mixtec vocabularies compiled by Friars in the 16th century). For example, lords and ladies had no ordinary legs, but swift “arrows”. They had no fingernails: instead, turquoise ornamented the tips of their fingers. Their teeth were made of flint, lactating noblewomen stored honey in their breasts, and lords and ladies alike are often represented with smoke or flames coming out of their eyes or brows. It is even possible they had a secret language that they only used amongst themselves, like the Zuyua used by Maya elites, but, if they did, it died out with them.

The Mixtec aristocracy was a relatively populous one–it seems that only once, and briefly, the Mixtecs were united under one ruler, while the rest of the time they were divided into dozens of separate kingdoms (or coupledoms, as suggested by the fact that kings are seldom shown without their queens), vying with one another for power and resources, making and breaking alliances through marriages and backstabbings, respectively, and starting wars over petty insults–as in Lady 6 Monkey’s story, in which she goes to war against the towns “Hill of Moon” and “Hill of Insect” because “cutting words” (represented by little speech scrolls with tiny sharp flints sticking out of them) were thrown at her and her ambassadors.

The tiny flint knives sticking out of these guys' "speech scrolls" indicate that their words are harsh (Marcus 1993).

The tiny flint knives sticking out of these guys’ “speech scrolls” indicate that their words are harsh (Marcus 1993: 383).

And so, just like with the Maya, the non-heir children of Mixtec lords and ladies were schooled in historical and calendrical lore, and taught how to produce the Mixtec codices–eight of which survived Spanish bonfires, and are without the least shadow of a doubt among the most astounding things to ever come out of Central America.

But before I move on to talking about Mixtec books, I’ll just say a few quick words on Mixtec names. Some of you may have been wondering at the above-mentioned “Lord 8 Deer” and “Lady 6 Monkey”. The way it worked among the Mixtec was that your birthday was your name. It’s kind of as if people got their name from the day of the week they were born in, and the number of the month–so, for example, because I was born on August 2nd, 1990, on a Thursday, my name would be 2 Thursday. Only, Mixtec names sounded much cooler than that, because the name of their days were the same as those of animals, plants, and sacred items. Hence 6 Monkey, 8 Deer, 9 Wind, and so on. Interestingly, we know from Spanish sources on the Aztecs that, in Mesoamerican calendars, some days were thought of as auspicious, and others as inauspicious, based on their number-name combination–and studies of Mixtec noble names show that many more nobles had names that indicated auspicious birthdays than you would expect statistically. In other words, it was not uncommon to lie about your birthday.

Just to give you a sense of what these screenfolds are like... this is about half of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, which I got from Cambridge's Haddon Library. The other side is covered in tiny drawings too. Photo by Elsie Powell-Smith.

Just to give you a sense of what these screenfolds are like… this is about half of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, which I got from Cambridge’s Haddon Library. The other side is covered in tiny drawings too.
Photo by Elsie Powell-Smith.

Also, to solve the problem of multiple people having the same birthday, all Mixtec nobles had a nickname. It’s not clear how they acquired it, but examples include “Jaguar Claw”, “Bloody Coyote”, “Sun Jewel”, and, my favourite, “Ballcourt Astronomical-Apparatus” (which I’m sure sounds beautiful in Rain Speech).

The Mixtec screenfolds

It would probably be more correct to refer to the Mixtec codices as screenfolds: unlike European books, they were not spine-bound sets of multiple pages, but very long, continuous strips, usually made of deerskin, and folded back and forth like an accordion (left). Moreover, Mixtec screenfolds do not convey their information through words, but through colourful and oddly cartoonish imagery. And, before I forget, I should say that they were made in the Post-Classic Period, so between about 1000 and 1530 AD.

The Mixtec screenfolds were, on a very basic level, records of the history and genealogy of the aristocracy. A good proportion of them seems to be dedicated to long lists of who married whom and how many children they had and what the children did when they grew up and who they married and so on–though there are also battles, visits to oracles, ritual sacrifices, long foot-journeys and brutal murders. A particularly gripping narrative is that centred around the already-mentioned Lord 8 Deer “Jaguar Claw”, a man who managed to unite the different Mixtec kingdoms under a single throne through a mixture of strategic marriages and ruthless warfare, but was eventually undone by his own greed when he took one of his wives’ family’s land by force, and the survivors led an alliance to avenge Lord 8 Deer’s victims.

British Museum: Codex Zouche-Nuttal, Mixtec

…and this is what the codices look like up close. Again, this is the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, which is currently kept at the British Museum. Photo credit: victoriabernal.

But there’s also a lot of mythology in the screenfolds as well, as elite lineages extended all the way back to a time even before time–I’ve already mentioned how nobles claimed to have descended from people who had been born from trees. And, along with history, genealogy and myth, Mixtec screenfolds were also an important vehicle for aristocratic propaganda, used to legitimate different lineages’ claims to their respective thrones. Indeed, there is evidence for some of these screenfolds (for example, the Codex Vibonensis) having been re-painted with different stories from the original ones they contained, presumably because a new ruler, perhaps even a new lineage, had risen, and they wanted to re-write history so that it cast the best possible light on them.

It’s also worth noting that the screenfolds contain a lot of invaluable information on how the Mixtec nobility dressed for each occasion, how they painted their faces, and the sort of jewellery they wore.

Lord 8 Deer "Jaguar Claw", celebrating his latest military victory by having his septum pierced. This act was important enough to have depicted in three different screenfolds.

Lord 8 Deer “Jaguar Claw”, celebrating his latest military victory by having his septum pierced. This act was important enough to have depicted in three different screenfolds. As you can see, the man’s name is on the top right (eight dots, attached to a deer’s head), while his nickname is on the bottom right (a single jaguar claw). Again, this image is taken from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

Most interestingly, however, the Mixtec screenfolds were not just meant to be read–rather, they were meant to be performed. In a way, then, they could also be seen as dramatic scripts–or even music sheets (this latter analogy is a bit too complex to be properly summarised here, but you should head over to Mesolore if you’re curious). That the sheets were used for performances we can guess from the fact that the Mixtec name for them, tacu, means “book”, “to write”, “to paint” and “to listen”. Apparently, Spanish sources also say that they were used for performances, but, so far, the only source I’ve found is Friar Burgoa, who simply says that the screenfolds were hung up on the walls of nobles’ palaces, as a proud display of their ancestors’ exploits. Still, it was common enough for elites to put up dramatic performances in Mesoamerica (especially among the Maya) that it would not be a gigantic leap to say that the screenfolds were used for that kind of thing too. Also, depictions of elites and priests dancing and singing are fairly common in the screenfolds.

The main question, then, is this: who was the audience? The ancestors, certainly: they were always watching, and, based on their descendants’ actions, and how well they honoured their memory, they would be more or less generous in aiding living kings and queens in their terrestrial affairs. Commoners, perhaps: Spanish sources tell us that Mixtec elites sometimes gave spectacular dances and performances to peasants in exchange for tribute. But, given the fact that the screenfolds were hung up in nobles’ halls, and that, in Mesoamerica generally, there is a good correlation between where a certain performance is depicted and where it had actually been held, the most likely audience for Mixtec performances were restricted audiences made of other elites. A particularly intriguing hypothesis is that the screenfolds were whipped out whenever there were succession problems: on these occasions, different claimants to the throne would have performed their own particular screenfold, or the same one, and the best performance (i.e. the most convincing, or perhaps the most spectacular) would decide who got the throne. Kind of as if the different aspirants to the Iron Throne in Game of Thrones decided to settle the matter not through war, but through a singing contest.

Mixtec codices are full of weird little artistic conventions. Here, a woman is leaving some offerings at the foot of a mountain--so the mountain is depicted with feet. From the Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

Mixtec codices are full of weird little artistic conventions. Here, a woman is leaving some offerings at the foot of a mountain–so the mountain is depicted with feet. From the Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

Another question I’ve been asking myself about Mixtec screenfolds is whether performances consisted in a single performer singing, or a performer singing while elite/dancers played the parts of the different characters, or a small cast of elite/actors sang and danced their parts, like some grave musical.

Summing up

There’s a lot more stuff I could write about the Mixtecs, but this post is slightly too long as it is–though I’d be happy to continue in the comments section if anyone has any questions. I think the main thing about the Mixtecs is this: they are absolutely fascinating, and it’s a crime that they are not as well known as the Aztecs or the Maya. Spread the word then, readers! The best way to do this may be to travel around the country with in an ice-cream van, and when kids and grown-ups run excitedly towards you, surprise them by showing them Mixtec screenfolds instead of giving them ice-cream–they’ll be so astounded by the craftsmanship that went into them, and so dazzled by the intricate, colourful images, that they will soon forget that you deceived them, and will be forever grateful that you unlocked this whole amazing lost world to them.

References and tips for further reading

If you want to know more, you should definitely head over to Mesolore–it’s a wonderful site, with a digital version of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, the most famous screenfolds, to explore (under the Ñudzavui heading). There’s also some cool stuff on the Aztecs and the Tlaxcaltecans.

Also, John Pohl’s website has detailed descriptions of the Selden and Bodley screenfolds if you’re interested.

In terms of books, I would recommend Joyce Marcus’ (1993) wonderfully accessible classic, Mesoamerican Writing Systems, which also includes lengthy sections on the Aztecs, the Maya and the Zapotecs. And, if you can, you should definitely get your hands on a replica of one of the codices.

Finally, if you’re curious to find out what your Mixtec name would have been–I can’t tell you that, but there’s a website that offers to find your Aztec name (i.e. your Aztec birthday), which is close enough. I think mine would have been 4 Flower.

Further references:

Hamann, B. 2004. Seeing and the Mixtec screenfolds. Visible Language 38 (1): 66-124.

Pohl, J. 2004. The archaeology of history in Post-Classic Oaxaca. In Joyce, R. and J. Hendon (eds) Mesoamerican Archaeology pp. 217-238. Oxford: Blackwell.

Other Obscure Pre-Columbians Sunday posts

The Wacky Huastecs

The Tenacious Tarascans

On the 26th of September, 1983, gaming company Atari dumped loads of unsold and/or defective surplus stock in a landfill near Alamogordo, New Mexico, after “grinding it to mulch and sealing it into a concrete tomb” (as one of the commenters on this article put it). This included thousands of copies of their apparent epic fail of a game E.T. (based on the film), their version of Pac-Man that you could play at home instead of at an arcade (whose novelty soon wore off), and, allegedly, prototypes for a “Mindlink controller” (a headband which would have allowed gamers to play WITH THEIR MIND by reading their “myoneural signal voltage to muscles in the users [sic] forehead (or elsewhere) and interpret[ing] them into commands onscreen”–is it just me or does that “elsewhere” sound a bit weird?). Canada-based filmig company Fuel Industries has recently been granted a permit to excavate the site, presumably with the plan of making a documentary in time for the event’s 30th anniversary.

This news got me thinking about games in the past, and whether we know much about them. I’m not thinking so much large-scale, public, heavily ritualised games like the Mesoamerican ballgame, or the chunkey beloved of ancient Mississippians–rather, I’m thinking more the sort of games you play in small groups, if not by yourself, like video games, or board games.

It turns out that we do have information on a lot of ancient board games. This both from textual sources (including an Icelandic saga in which a Viking board games-enthusiast by the name of Thorbjorn Angle strangles his mother for stabbing him in the face with a game piece, after suggesting that his pastime was a frivolous one) and material ones (such as little game pieces and a big chunky stone board from the Harappan site of Mohenjo Daro, India).

Bao players in Zanzibar. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Bao players in Zanzibar. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Finding out about these sorts of small-group/private games is important because they help us reconstruct the everyday lives of ordinary people, or imagine the leisure moments enjoyed by military leaders, political administrators, priests, and tribute collectors.

But games might also reveal something about the social and political organisation of past communities. One of my favourite passages from McIntosh’s (1999) seminal article on alternative forms of socio-political complexity in Sub-Saharan Africa is the bit in which she suggests that the difference between European and African notions of power is reflected in differences between chess and the family of traditional African board games known as mancala. Specifically, in chess, a hierarchically-organised set of pieces aims to capture the king of another hierarchically-organised set of pieces, with the implication that, once this happen, the winner will rule over the loser’s territory. Conversely, in mancala games, such as Bao, each piece in a set has the same value as every other piece, and the aim of the game is not to conquer territory, but convert your rival’s pieces into your own. In other words, chess reflects notions of power that coincide with being atop a set hierarchy, and ruling over a particular territory, while mancala games reflect a system in which power is about influecing people, not controllig land, and society is not rigidly hierarchical, but more fluidly organised.

Not entirely relevant to this post, but I had just had to include a photo of the Lewis Chessmen's equivalent of a rook: the berseker, a bearskin Icelandic warrior so wild, he is chewing on his own shield. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Not entirely relevant to this post, but I had just had to include a photo of the Lewis Chessmen’s equivalent of a rook: the berseker, a bearskin Icelandic warrior so wild, he is chewing on his own shield. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Some of the "Lewis Chessmen". The piece furthest to the right, in the second row from the top, is a pawn. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Some of the “Lewis Chessmen”. The piece furthest to the right, in the second row from the top, is a pawn. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Different versions of chess itself can also reflect cultural traits that are particular to the different places in which the game is played. For example, McGregor observes that, among the Lewis Chessmen (a group of 78 12th century chess pieces found on the Isle of Lewis, off the coast of Scotland), while all the hierarchically important pieces are wonderfully anthropomorphic, pawns are completely featureless small ivory slabs, which tells us something about how insignificant foot-soldiers, and by extension peasants generally, were in that cultural context. Weirdly, pawns are also surprisingly few, compared to other types of pieces. Similarly, documentary sources say that, in the Middle Ages, the queen could only move one space at a time, which may reflect Medieval misogyny.

What about Mesoamerican board games? A quick search reveals that patolli was possibly the most popular board game in the region for several centuries–one of those things, along with human sacrifice, the 260-day calendar, and a Rain God, that most Mesoamerican cultures seem to have shared. This we know from Spanish accounts, the depictions of patolli boards in native manuscripts, and patolli-like “boards” carved on stone floors at a number of sites.

Here’s how it worked:

  •  the board is cross-shaped, and divided into squares
  • there are two players, each one with six pieces
  • each one of your pieces needs to race around the board faster than your opponent’s
  • you move a piece across a certain number of squares depending on the score you get when you throw specially marked black beans
  • some squares have special properties: for example, the ones at the centre give you the power of pushing your opponent’s pieces off the board
  • you win a round when you manage to get all the pieces to do a full circuit of the board, and exit it
  • there is always a prize: each player will have bet a number of items at the start of the game, and the entirety of the loser’s “treasure” go to the winner.
English: patolli Game

A patolli game presided by its patron deity, Macuilxochitl. From the Codex Magliabechiano. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

The game seems to be associated with Mesoamerican notions of time and space–the board is divided into four sections, and the number of squares is often 52. At the same time, Verbeeck (1998) suggests that, though the game may have originally been used mostly for divination, it progressively became more and more about gambling, as suggested by Spanish sources describing Aztec games. However, it’s entirely possible that the heavy emphasis on gambling that we find in Spanish descriptions of the game may have been exaggeration on the part of the colonisers.

A sample of different patolli boards: from top to bottom, left to right, Aztec

A sample of different patolli boards: from top to bottom, left to right, Aztec, El Tajin, Maya, Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza, Aztec. As you can see, there is a lot of variation (Veerbeck 1998: 84).

However, digging a bit deeper reveals that, in fact, there is a lot of variation in the patolli boards that have been found at different sites–to the point that one starts doubting whether this game was indeed popular cross-culturally, or if archaeologists are simply interpreting anything vaguely boardgame-like they find as patolli, even when it actually wasn’t, simply because it’s the Mesoamerican boardgame we know most about. Verbeeck suggests that, like mancala, perhaps patolli was a family of similar games, rather than only one game. An idea I’ve had is that a study of the differences and similarities between the patolli boards found in different cultural contexts may tell us something about the relationships between different cultures–things like who borrowed what from where. And for cultures that were broadly contemporary (for example, Aztecs, Mixtecs and Zapotecs) differences and similarities may give us a richer idea of diplomatic relationships between them. I wonder–could be that, like table tennis in 1970s US-China relations, patolli was used in Mesoamerican diplomacy? I don’t know, I haven’t carried out this study, but it would be an interesting thing to look into.

References (beyond the ones already linked in the text):

McIntosh, S. K. 1999 Beyond Chiefdoms: Pathways to Complexity in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

and for those who read Spanish, this article, though old, seems to have a lot of information on patolli:

Swezey, W. and B. Bittman. 1983. El rectángulo de cintas y el patolli: nueva evidencia de la antigúedad, distribución, variedad y formas de practicar este juego precolombino. Mesoamerica: revista del Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamerica 6:373-417.

Tepoztecatl, god of drunkenness and fertility. Not sure if the prominent incisors are meant to allude to his rabbit-y inclinations. Illustration credit: Wikipedia.

Tepoztecatl, god of drunkenness and fertility. Not sure if the prominent incisors are meant to allude to his rabbit-y inclinations. Illustration credit: Wikipedia.

The online Mythology Encyclopedia known as Godchecker has probably one of the best Pre-Columbian-inspired puns out there: in reference to the minor god Tepoztecatl, they say, “[h]e certainly wasn’t Teetotl”. It’s funny because Tepoztecatl is the god of drink and drunkenness. Get it??

Sometimes, Tepoztecatl took the shape of a rabbit. Not just any rabbit: he would be one of the four-hundred rabbits known as Centzontotochtin (Nahuatl for, er, “four-hundred rabbits”). These rabbits were the children of the agave goddess Mayahuel, which means they just couldn’t get enough of pulque, a delicious alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant’s fermented sap. As wikipedia dryly informs us, the four-hundred rabbits “[met] for frequent parties”, at which lavish quantities of this very Mesoamerican alcohol (remember the Huastecs?) were consumed.

Perhaps because he was rabbit-y, or perhaps because, as Godchecker puts it, “even the most hideously ugly people will begin to seem alluring and delightful” after a few drinks, Tepoztecatl was also a fertility god.

El Tepozteco, complete with tourists resting their legs after the long climb. Photo mine.

El Tepozteco, complete with tourists resting their legs after the long climb. Photo mine.

In July 2011, the day after seeing some amazing Xochicalco sculptures at Cuernavaca’s Palacio Cortes (read the full post here), I visited El Tepozteco, a hilltop shrine dedicated to Tepoztecatl, near the charming town of Tepoztlan, in the Mexican state of Morelos. It’s a 45-minute up-hill walk from Tepoztlan to El Tepoztteco, and, once we got there, I must admit that I was underwhelmed. For one thing, the shrine was swarming with tourists. But, most importantly, El Tepozteco is tiny, and almost entirely devoid of any sort of decoration–barring, if I remember correctly, a couple of stone blocks carved with very simple geometric patterns.

And yet, according to the Internet, pilgrims from as far as Guatemala would come all the way to El Tepozteco in the Post-Classic period (900-1521 AD, so between the fall of places like Xochicalco and the Spanish invasion). Google Maps says the quickest route from Guatemala to Tepoztlan today would take a bit more than eleven days on foot (265 hours). Assuming that Google is not taking into account rest periods, we can estimate that it took a bit less than a month to get there. Counting the return journey as well, and perhaps a few days at Tepoztlan itself, that’s two months away from home–two month not spent farming, or producing crafts you can trade at the market or offer your overlords as tribute. All for a pretty uninspiring little shrine.

Granted, it would probably have been more impressive in the past–for example, there used to be a statue of the god inside. But El Tepozteco remains very small, and with little space for elaborate ritual display inside or just outside it.

We had to climb all the way up there to get to El Tepozteco--took about 45 minutes. Photo mine.

We had to climb all the way up there to get to El Tepozteco–took about 45 minutes. Photo mine.

Perhaps it is the fact that you could only worship in small groups that made Tepozteco worth the journey. Perhaps it offered a nice contrast to the loud, violent and disorienting ritual displays that went in on in urban plazas and pyramids–maybe people felt a more genuine connection to the gods here. Or perhaps it was the location, which was pretty elevated: judging from the popularity of pyramids for ritual use, it was a widespread notion in Pre-Columbian societies that we could get closer to the gods by being physically closer to the heavens they inhabited. I remember seeing, from El Tepozteco, several birds of prey patrolling at altitudes just beneath us.

It seems a bit weird that people would care so much about a comparatively minor god like Tepoztecatl. But, considering that he was not just the god of drunkenness, but also fertility, I can imagine couples who wanted children but couldn’t have them having a pretty strong emotional motivation for going on a super-long trek to ask a god for help. Maybe couples travelled together, maybe only the husband, or only the wife, went.

There’s also the fact that Tepoztlan itself was believed, at the time, to have been the birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent god, one of the main players in the Mesoamerican pantheon. Did people think, oh, two deities for the price of only one journey, bargain-licious? Or, come for the major god, stay for the minor one?

But perhaps the most interesting thing about El Tepozteco and places like it is the fact that Mesoamerican elites invested so much effort in producing spectacular architecture and art in order to convince people of their legitimacy, often failing (most big Mesoamerican cities were short-lived, and there are reasons to believe, for the Aztecs and the Maya at least, that commoners weren’t particularly taken in by state propaganda generally), while humble little places like this could exert their influence more than a thousand kilometres away.


Cerro Aguilar, G. 1998. El Tepozteco, Morelos (Miniguia). Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia.

Noble, J. 2000. Mexico City. Oakland: Lonely Planet.

Wiggling starfish. Photo mine.

Wiggling starfish. Photo mine.

Back in the summer of 2011, when I had not seen the (archaeological) light and was still convinced that I would one day follow into Jane Goodall’s footsteps and become a primatologist, I was sent by my Director of Studies to Mexico to collect some howler monkey poo for DNA analyses. While there, I made a friend, and organised to stay at her place in Cuernavaca for a few days before going back home. And, at Cuernavaca’s Cuauhnahuac Regional Museum (also known as the Palacio Cortes), I saw these beautiful sculptures from the Pre-Columbian site of Xochicalco, which is not far from Cuernavaca itself.

At the time, I was amazed at how alive these sculptures looked, how wonderfully they imitated the soft curves that predominate in nature. There was a starfish, wiggling its arms. There was an iguana, its tail curling upwards, its head turned towards visitors as if we’d disturbed it while it was catching some sun on a rocky outcrop. There was a puma, its body perhaps a bit rigid, but its pricked-up ears and snarling lips fantastically life-like. And, finally, there was the Creator–an anthropomorphic deity, kneeling on one knee, equipped with a hooked nose with flaring wide nostrils, wide-open eyes, protruding fangs, and a double-pronged penis, as well as long flowing dreadlocks and ornamental cacao vines twisting all across his chest and back. The name “Creator” presumably derives from the fact that he seems to have generative powers: besides the double-penis, the vines with which he’s covered look like they’re actually growing out of him.

Lounging iguana. Photo mine.

Lounging iguana. Photo mine. Apologies for the pseudo-arty shading–you can find a better picture here.

Now that I know a bit more about ancient Mesoamerica, I thought I’d revisit these sculptures and see if I can get more out of them beyond mere aesthetic appreciation. So I looked up Xochicalco, and tried to fit these sculptures with the information I found about the site. Judging from the fact that there’s very little about it on Google Scholar, Xochicalco does not seem to be the best published site ever, but there’s plenty of information on the internet, and most of it seems reliable.

Xochicalco’s heyday coincides with the Epiclassic period (650-900 AD), just before and just after the collapse of Mesoamerica’s then-biggest power, Teotihuacan (this is several centuries before the Aztecs rose to power). In other words, Xochicalco was around at a time of massive change and political instability, and, as befitting such a time, the city was heavily fortified, and located atop a cluster of easily defenisble hills. The rest seems to be pretty standard Mesoamerican city-stuff: Xochicalco has its ballcourts, its pyramids, its plazas and markets, its royal palace, its nice stairways.

Snarling puma. Photo mine. Apologies for the wonky angle.

Snarling puma. Photo mine. Apologies for the wonky angle.

The sculptures I saw (excluding the starfish) were found in one of the structures of the Acropolis, the highest bit of the city, where plazas, temples and areas designed for elite activities stood. They probably once adorned the roof of that building: we can tell from traces of weathering on the stucco that covers them, as well as the fact that they were found in the debris resuting from a collapsed roof. Also, there were several copies of each–but they were so broken up that, by the time I saw them, archaeologists had only been able to reconstruct one copy of each. Traces of pigment suggest that the sculptures were once coloured, too: there’s a bit of red on the Creator’s vines, ears and hair, for example.

Though the carvings on the Feathered Serpent Pyramid are beautiful, all other examples of free-standing sculptures from Xochicalco I’ve found are pretty unspectacular–even slightly grubby. How, then, do we explain these amazing works? I like the idea that they were made by a single artist, perhaps some Xochicalcan Michelangelo. Or maybe it was migrant artists from a region in which this style is more common? If it was one artist, would he or she have been renowned for his or her Xochicalco sculptures? I know Maya artists often signed their work, but I am not aware of artists having particularly high status among the Aztecs, which, culturally, were probably a bit closer to the Xochicalcans.

Creator, front. Photo mine.

Creator, front. Photo mine.

And also, what about this Creator? I’m not aware of any similar figures in other Mesoamerican pantheons–which are usually dominated by Rain Gods (Tlaloc) and Feathered Serpent Gods (Quetzalcoatl). Then again, the Aztecs were particular worshippers of a deity that plays a pretty minor role in other parts of Mesoamerica, the warlike Huitzilopochtli, so perhaps this Creator is the Xochicaltec equivalent–a deity which is very minor elsewhere but is honoured with beautiful sculptures here. But it appears that both Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl were prominent in Xochicalcan religion too: for example, intricate stone carvings on the side of a squat but imposing pyramid depict undulating feathered serpents, while the largest structure on the site is dedicated to the worship of Tlaloc, and two more bits of art they displayed at the exhibition were Tlaloc-heads. What we need, then, is more information on the building on whose roof the scuptures would have once stood–information which I was not able to find.

Creator from the back. Check out those flowing locks. Photo mine.

Creator from the back. Check out those flowing locks. Photo mine.

If any readers know a bit more about this than I do, or have any ideas about how to interpret these sculptures, I would be happy to discuss things in the comments section below. I’d be particularly interested to know whether anyone has since similar artworks elsewhere, or knows of a deity that is similar to the Creator, or knows anything about the building where the sculptures were found.

I don’t know where these sculptures are currently housed–I can’t tell whether they’re still at the Cuauhnahuac Museum, or whether that was just a temporary exhibition. Perhaps they’re at Xochicalco’s own on-site museum. If any readers do happen to find out/know where they are, it would be great if they could tell me, so that I can put that information here.

Also, if you are interested in finding out more about the site of Xochicalco, you should head over to its page on the UNESCO website–or, even better, take a photo tour. Also, there’s an article on the exhibition where I took these photos here.

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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