Wednesday, January 4, 2012

How the Aztecs Organized Themselves (Part 1)

Fig A. Mural by the famous Diego Rivera of Mexica (Aztec) Civilization. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber. Click to Embiggen. 
     When the enterprising Spanish finally did meet the high civilizations of Mesoamerica, after spending several unrewarding decades invading the contrastingly meager Carib and Taino chiefdoms of the Greater Caribbean Sea, they found orderly, structured societies with qualities alien to their medieval sensibilities. Among those qualities were a series of polytheistic religions that happen to promote ritualistic human killings, densely populated stone cities built and maintained without the aid of domesticated work animals, and a nutritious crop base wholly incomparable to that of the greater Eastern Hemisphere. For these Spanish, it represented a drastically alien context than that of their native Iberian Peninsula.
Fig B. Diego Rivera Mural of Tenochtitlan. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber.
Click to Embiggen. 
However, regardless of what may have seemed like an infinite gulf of differences between them, the invading Spanish and the American world increasingly dominated by the Mexica (Me-SHE-ka...who we now call the Aztecs) did share recognizable similarities. State-level, centrally controlled societies were obvious from the first moments Hernan Cortes and his predecessors (expeditions under Francisco Hern├índez de C├│rdoba and Juan de Grijalva) stood on Mexican beaches. In the Spanish and greater European areas of the time period, similar sorts of societies were the normal course of human organization. So, in the establishment of colonial Spanish existence and the reorganization of native institutions and traditions to suit that existence, the Spanish, their reluctant newly-conquered subjects and willing allies, did not wander far from the native political structures being utilized in Mesoamerica nor did they replace them completely with an all-Iberia model. As time wore on, the Spanish understanding of political organization was interwoven with that of the Mesoamerican order to produce a unique Mesoamerican-Castilian hybrid, which was born out of the varying circumstances, chaos, compromises, and aims of post-Conquest Mexico.So, let's start at the beginning: what was the Aztec organization like? How did they divide themselves into "states" and "counties" and "parishes"? What did the map look like to them?

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Holy Grail of North American Maps

The  Voegelin & Voegelin (1965) language classification, one of the best linguistic maps of 1491 North America. 

The above map depicts the arrangement of linguistic language groups in North America believed to be present in 1492 when Christopher Columbus's first voyage accidentally landed upon an area of the world that was decidedly not China (they were looking for a sea route to the Far East from Western Europe). The changes that began in that year altered the map of North America in ways that had never happened before.

Map of Virginia in 1624
To be fair, changes in human boundaries and political organization have always been in a state of flux for North America, as they were in any other part of the world. Empires rose and fell, ethnic groups dispersed and concentrated, and new systems of organization were developed and tested with more or less the same regularity as the rest of humankind. However, the scale and speed of these changes intensified, for a time, when Europeans began to settle the Americas. This happened for many reasons that this blog will touch on from time to time, but the primary reason appears to be disease. Wide-ranging, epic diseases may have contributed more to our modern map arrangement than most other factors. This accelerated circumstance, combined with the general lack of records in pre-Columbian North America (and there were records), creates blank spots on any map we create of pre-Columbian America. Thus, any map claiming to represent North America as it was at 1491 or earlier is both incomplete and a bit suspect.