Aztlán (also spelled Aztlan or sometimes Aztalan) is the name of the mythical homeland of the Aztecs, the ancient Mesoamerican civilization also known as the Mexica. According to their origin myth, the Mexica left Aztlan at the behest of their god/ruler Huitzilopochtli, to find a new home in the Valley of Mexico. In the Nahua language, Aztlan means “the Place of Whiteness” or “the Place of the Heron.” Whether it was a real place or not is open to question.
What Aztlan Was Like
According to the various Mexica versions of the stories, their homeland Aztlan was a luxurious and delightful place located on a large lake, where everyone was immortal and lived happily among abundant resources. There was a steep hill called Colhuacan in the middle of the lake, and in the hill were caves and caverns known collectively as Chicomoztoc, where the ancestors of the Aztec lived. The land was filled with vast quantities of ducks, herons, and other waterfowl; red and yellow birds sang incessantly; great and beautiful fish swam in the waters and shade trees lined the banks.
Aztec Gods and Goddesses
At Aztlan, the people fished from canoes and tended their floating gardens of maize, peppers, beans, amaranth, and tomatoes. But when they left their homeland, everything turned against them, the weeds bit them, the rocks wounded them, the fields were filled with thistles and spines. They wandered in a land filled with vipers, poisonous lizards, and dangerous wild animals before reaching their home to build their place of destiny, Tenochtitlan.
Who Were the Chichimecas?
In Aztlán, the myth goes, the Mexica ancestors dwelled in place with seven caves called Chicomoztoc (Chee-co-moz-toch). Each cave corresponded to one of the Nahuatl tribes which would later leave that place to reach, in successive waves, the Basin of Mexico. These tribes, listed with slight differences from source to source, were the Xochimilca, Chalca, Tepaneca, Colhua, Tlahuica, Tlaxcala and the group who were to become the Mexica.
Oral and written accounts also mention that the Mexica and the other Nahuatl groups were preceded in their migration by another group, collectively known as Chichimecas, who migrated from the north to Central Mexico sometime earlier and were considered by the Nahua people less civilized. The Chichimeca do not apparently refer to a particular ethnic group, but rather were hunters or northern farmers in contrast to the Tolteca, the city dwellers, the urban agricultural populations already in the Basin of Mexico.
Stories of the battles and interventions of the gods along the journey abound. Like all origin myths, the earliest events blend natural and supernatural events, but the stories of the migrant’s arrival at the Basin of Mexico are less mystical. Several versions of the migration myth include the story of the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui and her 400 Star Brothers, who attempted to kill Huitzilopochtli (the sun) at the sacred mountain of Coatepec.
Many archaeologists and historical linguists support the theory of an occurrence of multiple in-migrations to the basin of Mexico from northern Mexico and/or the southeastern United States between 1100 and 1300 CE. Evidence for this theory includes the introduction of new ceramic types in central Mexico and the fact that the Nahuatl language, the language spoken by the Aztec/Mexica, is not indigenous to Central Mexico.
Aztlan was a source of fascination for the Aztecs themselves. The Spanish chroniclers and codexes report that the Mexica king Moctezuma Ilhuicamina (or Montezuma I, ruled 1440–1469) sent an expedition to search for the mythical homeland. Sixty elderly sorcerers and magicians were assembled by Moctezuma for the trip, and given gold, precious stones, mantles, feathers, cacao, vanilla and cotton from the royal storehouses to be used as gifts to the ancestors. The sorcerers left Tenochtitlan and within ten days arrived at Coatepec, where they transformed themselves into birds and animals to take the final leg of the journey to Aztlan, where they re-assumed their human form.
At Aztlan, the sorcerers found a hill in the middle of a lake, where the inhabitants spoke Nahuatl. The sorcerers were taken to the hill where they met an old man who was the priest and guardian of the goddess Coatlicue. The old man took them to the sanctuary of Coatlicue, where they met an ancient woman who said she was the mother of Huitzilopochtli and had suffered greatly since he left. He had promised to return, she said, but he never had. People in Aztlan could choose their age, said Coatlicue: they were immortal.
The reason the people in Tenochtitlan were not immortal was that they consumed cacao and other luxury items. The old man refused the gold and precious goods brought by the returnees, saying “these things have ruined you,” and gave the sorcerers waterfowl and plants native to Aztlan and maguey fiber cloaks and breechcloths to take back with them. The sorcerers transformed themselves back into animals and returned to Tenochtitlan.
What Evidence Supports the Reality of Aztlan and the Migration?
Modern scholars have long debated whether Aztlán was a real place or simply a myth. Several of the remaining books left by the Aztecs, called codexes, tell the story of the migration from Aztlan—in particular, the codex Boturini o Tira de la Peregrinacion. The tale was also reported as oral history told by Aztecs to several Spanish chroniclers including Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Diego Duran, and Bernardino de Sahagun.
The Mexica told the Spanish that their ancestors had reached the Valley of Mexico about 300 years before, after having left their homeland, traditionally located far north of Tenochtitlan. Historical and archaeological evidence shows that the migration myth of the Aztecs has a solid basis in reality.
In a comprehensive study of the available histories, archaeologist Michael E. Smith found that these sources cite the movement of not just the Mexica, but several different ethnic groups. Smith’s 1984 investigations concluded that people arrived in the Basin of Mexico from the north in four waves. The earliest wave (1) was non-Nahuatl Chichimecs sometime after the fall of Tollan in 1175; followed by three Nahuatl-speaking groups who settled (2) in the Basin of Mexico about 1195, (3) in the surrounding highland valleys about 1220, and (4) the Mexica, who settled among the earlier Aztlan populations about 1248.
No possible candidate for Aztlan has yet been identified.
In modern Chicano culture, Aztlán represents an important symbol of spiritual and national unity, and the term has also been used to mean the territories ceded to the United States by Mexico with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, New Mexico and Arizona. There is an archaeological site in Wisconsin called Aztalan, but it is not the Aztec homeland.
The Aztec Empire
For five centuries, North Americans have been fascinated and intrigued by stories of the magnificent Aztec Empire. This extensive Mesoamerican Empire was in its ascendancy during the late Fifteenth and early Sixteenth Centuries. The Aztec Empire of 1519 was the most powerful Mesoamerican kingdom of all time. This multi-ethnic, multi-lingual realm stretched for more than 80,000 square miles through many parts of what are now central and southern Mexico.
The Aztec Empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf coast and from central Mexico to the present-day Republic of Guatemala. Fifteen million people, living in thirty-eight provinces and residing in 489 communities, paid tribute to the Emperor Moctezuma II.
However, by the time that Hernán Cortés and his band of Spanish mercenaries arrived on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz in 1519, omens of impending doom had begun to haunt Emperor Moctezuma II and his advisors in their capital city, Tenochtitlán. With an incredible coalition of indigenous forces, Cortés and his lieutenants were able to bring about the fall of one of the greatest indigenous American empires in only two years.
The Uto-Aztecan Linguistic Group
The Empire that the Aztecs amassed makes them unique among Amerindian peoples. But, in at least one respect, they are far from unique. The Aztecs and other Náhuatl-speaking indigenous peoples of Mexico all belong to the Uto-Aztecan Linguistic Group. Spoken in many regions of the western U.S. and Mexico, the Uto-Aztecan languages include a wide range of languages, stretching from Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming all the way down to El Salvador in Central America.
While the Aztecs of the Sixteenth Century lived in the south central part of the present-day Mexican Republic, a wide scattering of peoples who presently live in the United States could probably be described as “distant cousins” to the Aztecs. If you belong to the Shoshone, Ute, Paiute, or Gabrielino (Tongva) Indians, you may very well share common roots with the famous Aztecs of central Mexico.
How is it that we can conclude that these relationships exist? Studies in historical linguistics have analyzed the Uto-Aztecan tongues — and the Náhuatl language in particular — have determined that Náhuatl was actually not native to central Mexico. Instead, it was carried south from lands that are believed to have been in the northwestern region of the present-day Mexican Republic and — before that — the United States. Most of us have already heard the story of Aztlán and the Aztec journey from that mythical homeland to central Mexico.
As a matter of fact, the various Aztec cultures uniformly asserted that they had come from the north during an estimated period of 200 to 800 years before the Spanish conquest. In addition, linguists such as Dakin (1983) and Kaufman (2001) have also concluded that Náhuatl was not native to central Mexico.
The Legend of Aztlán
Legend states that the Aztec and other Náhuatl-speaking tribal groups originally came to the Valley of Mexico from a region in the northwest, popularly known as Aztlán-Chicomoztoc. The name Aztec, in fact, is said to have been derived from this ancestral homeland, Aztlán (The Place of Herons). According to legend, the land of Aztlán was said to have been a marshy island situated in the middle of a lake.
For nearly five centuries, popular imagination has speculated about the location of the legendary Aztlán. Some people refer to Aztlán as a concept, not an actual place that ever existed. However, many historians believe that Aztlán did indeed exist. The historian Paul Kirchhoff suggested that Aztlán lay along a tributary of the Lerna River, to the west of the Valley of Mexico. Other experts have suggested the Aztlán might be the island of Janitzio in the center of Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, with its physical correspondence to the description of Aztlán. Many anthropologists have speculated that the ancestral home of the Aztecs lay in California, New Mexico or in the Mexican states of Nayarit, Sonora and Sinaloa.
The North-to-South Movement
The idea that Sinaloa, Sonora, California, and New Mexico might be the site of Aztlán is a very plausible explanation when historical linguistics are considered. “The north-to-south movement of the Aztlán groups is supported by research in historical linguistics,” writes the anthropologist, Professor Michael Smith of the University of New York, in The Aztecs, “The Náhuatl language, classified in the Nahuan group of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages, is unrelated to most Mesoamerican native languages.” As a matter of fact, “Náhuatl was a relatively recent intrusion” into central Mexico.
On the other hand, if one observes the locations of the indigenous people who spoke the Uto-Aztecan languages, all of their lands lay to the northwest of the Valley of Mexico. The northern Uto-Aztecans occupied a large section of the American Southwest. Among them were the Hopi and Zuni Indians of New Mexico and the Gabrielino Indians of the Los Angeles Basin. The Central Uto-Aztecans — occupying large parts of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Sonora in northwestern Mexico — included the Papago, Opata, Yaqui, Mayo, Concho, Huichol and Tepehuán. It is reasonable to assume that where there is a linguistic relationship there is most likely also a genetic relationship. Thus, it is very possible that the legendary Aztlán or another ancestral home of the Aztecs – was located in the Southwestern United States.
The Aztlán Migrations
It is important to note, however, that the Aztlán migrations were not one simple movement of a single group of people. Instead, as Professor Smith has noted, “when all of the native histories are compared, no fewer than seventeen ethnic groups are listed among the original tribes migrating from Aztlán and Chicomoztoc.” It is believed that the migrations southward probably took place over several generations. “Led by priests,” continues Professor Smith, these large groups of migrants “stopped periodically to build houses and temples, to gather and cultivate food, and to carry out rituals.”
The Original Náhuatl People
The migrating groups included many Náhuatl-speaking peoples who settled in the Valley of Mexico and adjacent valleys that are now in the surrounding states of Morelos, Tlaxcala, and Puebla. The seven Náhuatl-speaking tribes comprised the following:
- The Xochimilca — The Xochimilca were the first Náhuatl tribe to arrive in the Valley of Mexico, settling around 900 A.D. in Cuahilama, near what is now Santa Cruz Acalpixca (in Mexico City). They were eventually subdued by the Mexica and became part of the Aztec Empire.
- The Chalca of Chalco — The Chalca were the second tribe to arrive in the Valley. They established themselves east of the Xochimilca about 25 km (16 miles) east of Tenochtitlán. Chalco was conquered by the Aztecs around 1465.
- The Tepaneca — The Tepanecs or Tepaneca were the third tribe to arrive in the Valley of Mexico in the late 12th or early 13th centuries. They settled in Azcapotzalco on the northwest shore of Lake Texcoco. In 1428, Tepaneca became part of the Aztec Empire.
- The Acolhua of Texcoco — The fourth tribe to arrive in the area, the Acolhua, settled on the northeastern shore of the Lake Texcoco. They occupied most of the eastern Basin of the Valley of Mexico, with their capital in Texcoco. Today, Texcoco is a city and municipio located in the State of Mexico, about 25 km (15 miles) northeast of Mexico City.
- The Tlahuica — The Tlahuica were the fifth Náhuatl people to arrive in central Mexico. They were organized into about 50 small city states located in what is now the state of Morelos; their largest cities were Cuauhnahuac (modern Cuernavaca), about 85 km (53 miles) south of Mexico City, and Huaxtepec (modern Oaxtepec), about 60 km (37 miles) south of Mexico City. The Tlahuica eventually became part of the Aztec Empire.
- The Tlaxcaltecans (Tlaxcalans) — The Tlaxcalans settled to the east of the Valley of Mexico. Their major city, Tlaxcala, is 125 km (78 miles) to the east of Mexico City today. The Tlaxcalans opposed the Aztec Empire and their nation evolved into an independent enclave deep in the heart of the Aztec Empire. By 1519, Tlaxcala was a small, densely populated confederation of 200 settlements with a population of about 150,000, surrounded on all sides by the Aztec Empire.
- The Mexica — The Mexica, according to Professor Smith, were “the inhabitants of the cities of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco.” They were the last of the Náhuatl-speaking groups to arrive in the Valley of Mexico and they eventually became the masters of the Aztec Empire.
The Existing Uto-Aztecan Languages
SIL International (formerly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics) states that there are sixty-two existing Uto-Aztecan languages spread throughout the U.S., Mexico, and Central America.
The Northern Uto-Aztecans of the American Southwest
The Northern Uto-Aztecans, inhabiting several American states, speak thirteen of the sixty-two languages. But the Southern Uto-Aztecans – almost all of whom make their homes south of the present-day U.S.-Mexican border – speak 49 languages.
The Northern Uto-Aztecans are best known as the “Great Basin peoples,” and the majority of them belong to the Numic subdivision of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages. The Numic Division is divided into several branches. The Western Numic consists primarily of the Northern Paiute, who inhabit Oregon, California, and Nevada.
The Southern Numic Division includes the Southern Paiute and Ute Indians. The Southern Paiute originally inhabited southern Utah, southern Nevada and northern Arizona. The Ute tribe once lived over much of Utah — which was named after them — and all of western Colorado. It is believed that they even stretched into Nebraska and New Mexico.
The Central Numic family is made up of the Panamint, Shoshone, and Comanche tribes. The Shoshone Indian people traditionally lived on lands in the east-central area of California to the east of the Sierra Nevada range, including Owens Valley and the lands south of it, which includes Death Valley. The Shoshone language is very closely related to the Paiute language, and some Shoshone tribes today live as far north as Idaho and Montana, representing the northernmost stretches of the Uto-Aztecans.
The Numic Family also includes a great many California tribes: the Serrano, Cupan, Luiseno, Cahuilla, Cupeno, Kiowa and Gabrielino, among others. It is noteworthy that one of these tribes — the Gabrielino Indians, who were given their name by the Spaniards because they occupied the lands near the San Gabriel Mission — are the primary indigenous group that occupied the Los Angeles Basin. The Gabrielino Indians are today known as the “Kizh Nation,” which is believed to be a word from their language meaning “People of the willow houses.” Because they speak a Uto-Aztecan language, the people of the Kizh Nation can be considered distant relatives to the Aztecs.
The Southern Uto-Aztecans of Mexico
The Southern Uto-Aztecans have a very large representation spread over a large area. An important branch of the Uto-Aztecans is the Sonoran Family of Languages, mainly spoken by indigenous peoples of Sonora, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Durango, and Arizona. This group is represented by several tribal groups that are well-known to most Americans. The Corachol Family is represented in the present day era by the Cora and Huichol Indians of Nayarit and Jalisco.
Another Sonora subdivision is the Tepiman Family (spoken by the Papago, Pima Bajo, and Tepehuán of Sonora, Chihuahua and Durango). And the most well-known Sonoran division is the Taracahitic Family (spoken by the Mayo, Yaqui and Tarahumara of northwestern Mexico). As you might expect, a family is a group of languages that are genetically and culturally related to one another.
When the Spaniards arrived in Sinaloa in 1523, a large number of Taracahitic peoples inhabited the coastal area of northwestern Mexico along the lower courses of the Sinaloa, Fuerte, Mayo, and Yaqui Rivers. The Yaqui Indians of Sonora are the best known tribe of this family because they continued to resist the Spanish Empire and the Mexican Republic well into the Twentieth Century. The Mayo Indians, closely related to the Yaquis, also resisted the central authority of Sonora well into the Nineteenth Century and today number some 40,000 citizens, inhabiting the border regions of northern Sinaloa and southern Sonora.
The Náhuatl Speakers of Mexico in 2000
The Aztecan or Náhuatl-speaking peoples of central and southern Mexico speak almost thirty languages and are the single largest linguistic group in Mexico. In the 2000 census, 1,448,936 individuals five years of age and older were classified as Náhuatl-speakers, representing 24% of the total indigenous-speaking population. Many dialects of Náhuatl are spoken throughout Mexico and all are believed to be derived from a common source, perhaps thousands of years into the past.
Through time, all cultures and languages evolve. Sooner or later, a homogenous cultural group, responding to environmental and social pressures, will experience a cultural divergence of its component parts. As some members of an ethnic group begin to move away from the core group, their cultural and linguistic identity will change and undergo a transformation into a new cultural group. The dialects spoken by similar peoples – once they have been isolated from one another for a period of time – undergo a cultural diffusion until, eventually, the resulting groups reach a point where they speak mutually unintelligible languages.
Language divergence takes place when a language breaks into dialects due to a lack of spatial interaction among speakers of a language, and continued isolation causes new languages to be formed. As an example, at some point in the distant past — probably a few thousand years ago — the ancestors of the Aztecs and the Yaquis were one and the same people, speaking a single language and practicing a single culture. However, in 1519, as Hernán Cortés sailed along the eastern seaboard with his small fleet, the Yaquis and Aztecs were two separate ethnic groups. They now spoke separate languages, practiced religions unknown to each other, and lived 1,300 kilometers away from each other. When two ethnic groups belong to the same linguistic grouping, we infer that they are in some way related.
So, the big question is “How and when did the Aztecs diverge from the Great Basin Indians and from the Yaquis and Mayos of Sonora?” Although studies have been done in attempt to determine the chronology of Uto-Aztecan cultural divergence, most of the experts do not agree on the numbers.
The First Uto-Aztecans
In the 1930s, the linguist Dr. Robert Mowry Zinng wrote that the Shoshone Indians of the Southwestern U.S.A. probably represent the closest thing we will ever find to the first Uto-Aztecans — the proto Uto-Aztecan culture — because they had not migrated as far as other Uto-Aztecan cultures, such as the Yaquis, Mayos, and Aztecs who are now far-removed from their probable ancestral homeland in the Great Basin of the United States.
Other authors have agreed with this analysis, stating that ultimately the roots of all Uto-Aztecan cultures will be found in the north. However, some theories have suggested that Southern California was the original home of the first Uto-Aztecans and that the Paiute and Shoshone diverged from the main group by migrating eastward into the Great Basin.
Early Uto-Aztecan Differentiation
Half a century ago, both Sydney M. Lamb and Morris Swadesh hypothesized that about fifty centuries ago (circa 3000 B.C.), the Proto-Uto-Aztecan culture was becoming “dialectically differentiated, perhaps somewhere around the Arizona-Sonora border.” Utilizing the linguistic term “minimum centuries ago” as a tool for measuring divergence, Lamb stated that the Numic and Aztec languages probably diverged 47 minimum centuries ago (circa 2700 B.C.).
Separation of the Aztecs and Yaquis
Once the Northern and Southern Uto-Aztecan Groups diverged, the ancestors of the present-day Aztecs, Yaquis and Mayos apparently made their way into the territory of Sonora in the present-day Mexican Republic. Dr. Lamb hypothesized that the Cáhita (Mayo and Yaqui) ancestral language diverged from the Aztec ancestral language 27 minimum centuries ago (circa 700 B.C.).
However, the late Wick R. Miller concluded that glottochronological estimates placed the divergence of the Aztecan linguistic group from the Sonoran at before 4500 B.C. (much earlier than Lamb’s theory). It is important to recognize, however, that many linguists do not agree on the validity and accuracy of glottochronology and lexicostatistics in determining linguistic differentiation. And some archaeologists are still studying the Uto-Aztecan migrations and preparing to draw their own unique conclusions.
In the final analysis, however, nearly all experts agree that the Uto-Aztecan trunk is a widespread language grouping, boasting a tremendous diversity of language families spread over a large area. Studying and understanding who speak these languages and where they live provides us for clues in determining who may be related to the Aztecs.