This post comes to us from Cheryl Lederle of the Library of Congress.
In a court case between the Spanish government and indigenous residents of a small town in Mexico, who do you think would win? The answer to that question was a mystery for centuries until a researcher at the Library of Congress made a chance discovery.
The document behind the question, eight colorful pages called the Huexotzinco Codex, arrived at the Library of Congress as part of a collection donated in the late 1920s. Historians knew that they had been created in 1531 as part of a court case in which the people of Huejotzinco, Mexico (current spelling) sued representatives of the Spanish colonial government, claiming they were paying excessive taxes, but they didn’t know the outcome of the trial.
To learn more about the document and the history behind it, I visited Dr. Everette Larson of the Library of Congress. Dr. Larson carefully pointed out that this sheet, one of eight, documented the materials required to create a banner of the Madonna and Child for a military campaign. He called it the “most important page” because scholars believe it to be among the earliest, and perhaps the very first, image of the Madonna produced by indigenous peoples in the Americas.
The images record both materials required to create particular products, such as feathers to create the banner, and those paid directly, such as turkeys and chia. (Some of us remember chia from commercials on television, but the plant was once used as food.)
When I asked for an interpretation of how to read the page, Dr. Larson explained that the system of counting for the natives was based on the number 20 (“ten fingers, ten toes, makes sense right?”) and 20 x 20 =400, and 20 x 400=8,000, so those numbers are represented in the images. A symbol representing each number is attached to a symbol representing the item paid as tax.
Dr. Larson underscored that the document is important because it records the first time an indigenous American group used a Western system of law to address an injustice. They submitted this and other documents as a record of taxes paid. The outcome? They won!
Students can unlock the mysteries of the Huexotzinco Codex and then apply what they learn to their own lives.
They could study a page from the Codex and guess what some of the symbols represent. Then pairs or small groups, working together, could calculate quantities of various materials on one or more pages using the explanation of the Nahua Numbering System. Finally, they could draw their own symbols for objects and numbers and produce a record of something familiar (lunch dishes, shirt colors, cars vs. trucks in the school parking lot).
See the complete Library of Congress lesson plan, The Huexotzinco Codex, for more teaching ideas.
What questions does your class have about this old document?
This post was prepared with assistance from Christina Restrepo and Maritza Gonzalez, who are both currently interns at the Library of Congress.