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Myths and Realities of the Pre- and Post-Conquest Indigenous World: New Avenues of Mesoamerican Ethnohistory

(This guest post is by Bradley Benton, associate professor of history at North Dakota State University, and Peter Villella, associate professor of history at the United States Air Force Academy. It is a version of a bibliographic essay that previously appeared in the “Handbook of Latin American Studies,” Volume 74, Mesoamerican ethnohistory section.)

As demonstrated by the articles and books discussed here, and reviewed for the Handbook of Latin American Studies, the ethnohistory of Mesoamerica remains a fertile and productive area of professional scholarship. Due to the antiquity and diversity of its human traditions and the sheer quantity of its material sources, countless avenues remain to be explored. Meanwhile, given ever-evolving analytical techniques and concerns, there is much to learn by revisiting and reinterpreting more familiar and synthetic sources.

Both of these approaches are evident among the most recently published ethnohistorical scholarship on Mesoamerica. Some works apply proven methods to unstudied communities, while others return to well-traveled paths with fresh questions and interpretive lenses. The overall trend is toward the ongoing diversification of the field, as traditional ethnohistorical concerns and methods provide a springboard for exploring new and innovative inquiries. The result is a field in which practitioners continue to seek out new materials and approaches, while also cultivating ever more sophisticated renderings of established findings.

A ceramic Maya vase from the Guateamalan Lowlands (A.D. 600-900) showing a lord, wearing a flower headdress, sitting in a serpent’s open jaws. This indicates that the lord is dead and has arrived in the Underworld. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book & Special Collections Division.

Scholars continue to produce traditional ethnohistorical examinations of specific Indigenous communities or social groups, following well-defined and broadly understood divisions. As usual, due to the availability of rich and copious ethnohistorical sources from the early colonial period, the peoples of central and southern Mexico continue to receive the lion’s share of scholarly attention, with the Maya cah and the Nahua altepetl, or ethnic polity, continuing as a primary focal point. Exemplifying studies of this sort are “Vida indígena en la colonia,” by María Teresa Jarquín Ortega, and Pilar Gonzalbo’s research into the process by which Mexico-Tlatelolco became socially and ethnically integrated into the burgeoning urban milieu of 18th-century Mexico City. The Acolhua region of the Nahua world, centered around prehispanic Tetzcoco in today’s Estado de México, has attracted a flurry of scholarship lately, as evidenced by recent books by Bradley Benton, Patrick Lesbre, and Benjamin D. Johnson. Lisa Sousa unites proven methods of philology (the study of the development of languages) and gender history to shed light on the diverse experiences of colonial Mesoamerican women, while Edward Anthony Polanco’s essay on Nahua tiçiyotl, or healing arts, reveals that close philological and analytical readings of colonial texts still have much to say about prehispanic culture and society.

Scholars continue to extend ethnohistorical methods pioneered in central and southern Mexico into other parts of Mesoamerica. Multiple new works address the peoples of Michoacán, the Bajío, and Central America. Sarah Albiez’s study of the Tarascan state of Michoacán is of particular ethnohistorical importance, as are Juan Ricardo Jiménez Goméz’s transcriptions and extended analyses of archival documentation pertaining to the Otomí population of colonial Querétaro. See also “Fundación y evangelización del pueblo de indios de Querétaro” (Foundation and evangelization of the Indian peoples of Querétaro) and “Pleitos por las tierras entre españoles e indios…” (Land litigation between Spanish and Indians…). In their article, Prudence M. Rice and Don S. Rice hint at a promising model of interdisciplinary scholarship: by placing archeological evidence and colonial-ethnohistorical sources from the central Petén region in dialogue, the authors perceive deep continuities in leadership structures and spatial organization among the lowland Maya from the classic period to the era of Spanish contact. Going further, Mesoamerica is invariably well-represented in hemispheric studies of Indigenous peoples, such as the recent collection of essays on the native experience in Spanish America edited by Mónica Díaz, or Mark Christensen and Jonathan Truitt’s exposition of Indigenous wills from across the colonial Americas and their ethnohistorical significance.

An illustration from a report of a 1787 Spanish excavation of a Maya ruin near Palenque. The report and its accompanying drawings mark the dawn of scientific archeology in the Americas. From Ricardo Almendáriz. “Coleccion de estampas copiadas de las figuras originales . . . del Pueblo Palenque” (Collection of drawings copied from the original figures . . . of the village of Palenque),1787. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book & Special Collections Division.

As they have for centuries, Mesoamerican religious systems remain a central academic preoccupation, especially precolonial practices and their colonial-era reverberations. Given the nature of the primary source materials available for such analyses—and the fact that the first Spanish clergy confiscated and destroyed many Mesoamerican religious texts—art historians remain at the forefront of these efforts, along with anthropologists and archeologists. Building on generations of research, their works often pursue internal or Indigenous explanations of the spiritual significance of religious practices or cultural phenomena. Patrick Johansson K.’s examination of central Mexican funerary rites exemplifies these efforts, as does a new volume, published by Dumbarton Oaks and edited by Vera Tiesler and Andrew K. Scherer, that explores ritual uses of fire and body-burning across multiple Mesoamerican societies. A second, perennially prominent area in the study of Mesoamerican religion, addresses colonial-era syncretism, how native beliefs and practices influenced Spanish-American Catholicism and vice versa. The increasing sophistication of this approach, which goes beyond overt beliefs and actions, is modeled by Amara Solari’s examination of the “spatial ideologies” of the Maya colonial Yucatan. Scholars are also increasingly interested in “Indigenous Christianities”—that is, the ways that the religious systems imported from Europe became naturalized and transformed when transplanted to American spiritual soil. A new collection of essays, edited by David Tavárez addresses precisely this idea; while Elizabeth Hill Boone, Louise M. Burkhart, and David Tavárez highlight a pictorial catechism from colonial Atzaqualco to derive insights about Nahua Catholicism and community memory.

Given their complexity, esotericism, and sheer diversity, much scholarship pertaining to Mesoamerican ethnohistory directly addresses the field’s sources. Multiple new works highlight a particular document or material source—or a collection of sources—and seek to explain its historical and cultural significance. Maya epigraphy, or the study of ancient inscriptions, remains a major area of study, as evidenced by Catherine Burdick’s article on depictions of prisoners in late classic Maya sculpture. Mesoamerican maps and pictorial documents, whether precolonial or colonial, also continue to draw attention, with Baltazar Brito Guadarrama’s study of a colonial codex and Néstor I. Quiroga’s reinterpretation of the “Popul Vuh” exemplifying this kind of research.

The Codex Quetzalecatzin, also known as the Mapa de Ecatepec-Huitziltepec (1593), depicts genealogical and land ownership information for the Nahuatl “de Leon” family. The codex shows a mix of Spanish and Indigenous cultural references and language usage, such as Catholic churches, Latin script and Nahuatl glyphs. Geography & Map Division.

Above: The codex shows churches, Spanish place names, roads and other images suggesting a community adapting to Spanish rule.
Below: Lord-11 Quetzalecatzin (in red) sits in a jaguar fur chair with a gray scarf on his neck. Both are details of The Codex Quetzalecatzin.

Colonial alphabetic documents by native authors or about Indigenous culture and history also continue to receive attention. Some new English-language translations of colonial works of ethnohistorical relevance have appeared, such as Stafford Poole’s translation of Lorenzo Boturini Benaducci’s 18th-century “Idea of a new general history of North America: an account of colonial native Mexico,” which call for a reinterpretation of Mesoamerican history by way of native-authored sources. There is also a host of new research into the life and works of the 16th-century Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún—sometimes considered the first ethnographer of the Americas—much of which derives from a series of investigations at the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Pilar Máynez and José Rubén Romero Galván have edited a wide-ranging collection of essays by UNAM’s Sahagún scholars. Senior collaborator Miguel León-Portilla brought his considerable experience to a generously illustrated edition that essentially replicates the Sahaguntine project for a modern audience.

For various reasons, there has been a resurgence of interest in the 17th-century collector and historian Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl. Descended from Spanish settlers and Nahua nobility, Ixtlilxóchitl is a source for both precontact history and for the colonial world in which he lived. Amber Brian, Bradley Benton, and Pablo García Loaeza recently translated Alva Ixtlilxóchitl’s chronicle of the Spanish conquest told from the perspective of a native leader who allied with Hernando Cortés. In a separate work, Brian interprets the compilation and posthumous fate of Alva Ixtlilxóchitl’s “archive” of ethnohistorical materials, an epistemologically powerful source of knowledge about Nahua history that continues to substantially influence the trajectory of Mesoamerican studies. Complementing these works, a special issue of “Colonial Latin America Review,” edited by Camilla Townsend and dedicated to Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, assesses his life and works from multiple angles (see the “Introduction” by Townsend; “The Last Acolhua” by Villella; “The Outsider” by Benton; and “The Original Alva Ixtlilxochitl Manuscripts at Cambridge University” by Amber Brian.

Another group of works reassesses colonial history in the light of Mesoamerican ethnohistorical sources more generally. Most prominently, on the strength of his knowledge of recently rediscovered and reinterpreted colonial Indigenous accounts of the Spanish invasion of 1519–21, Matthew Restall  questions the very notion of a “conquest”—a five-centuries-old idea—finding it to be a largely self-justifying and triumphalist Spanish invention of later generations rather than an objective description of the historical event itself. Such reinterpretations of familiar materials are certain to continue paying scholarly dividends in coming years.

One of a series of 17th-century paintings depicting the 1521 Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, this painting shows the artist’s rendering of the first meeting of Moctezuma, leader of the Aztec empire, and Hernán Cortés. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book & Special Collections Division.

The field of Mesoamerican ethnohistory clearly remains strong and growing along several trajectories—conceptually, regionally, and methodologically. As more sources are uncovered in archives and collections throughout the region and abroad, and as innovative academic frameworks are applied to previously analyzed artifacts and writings, new discoveries and lines of inquiry continue to emerge. Scholars are also extending established methodologies into heretofore under-researched regions—a process that frequently lends itself to comparative analysis, and therefore challenges the seemingly settled assumptions about more studied communities. Due to the nature of its sources, Mesoamerican ethnohistory invites participation from multiple academic disciplines, including history, art history, archeology, literary studies, and anthropology. Greater scholarly collaboration and interdisciplinarity are sure to yield ever more innovative conclusions. It is also clear from new research that Mesoamericanist scholars are helping to situate the region’s place within universal global history and anthropology as an autonomous cradle of human civilization—an effort exemplified by the recent work of Miguel López-Portilla. All four trends suggest that the field remains vibrant and productive, with many routes yet to traverse.

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