The Nahuas after the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries

By James Lockhart | Go to book overview
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2
Altepetl

AT THE HEART OF the organization of the Nahua world, both before the Spaniards came and long after, lay the altepetl or ethnic state. Indigenous people thought of the entire countryside of central Mexico in terms of such entities. We find it said of a preconquest spectacle that "the whole land assembled, the altepetl inhabitants from all around came to behold." 1 In a sixteenth-century Nahuatl history, the indigenous inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico in preconquest times are described as "the people in the altepetl." 2

The word itself is a slightly altered form of the metaphorical doublet in atl, in tepetl, "the water(s), the mountain(s)," and thus it refers in the first instance to territory, but what is meant is primarily an organization of people holding sway over a given territory. 3 A sovereign or potentially sovereign entity of any size whatever could be considered an altepetl, and on occasion the wide-ranging Nahuatl annalist Chimalpahin actually puts Japan, Peru, and the Moluccas into that classification. 4 In central Mexican conditions, though, the altepetl was perhaps comparable in size to the early Mediterranean city- states. In the smallest, such as Huitzilopochco (Churubusco), just south of Mexico City, the territory might be measured in terms of a few thousand yards. The largest entities to be called altepetl, such as the great power of Tlaxcala, occupying most of today's Mexican state of that name, were actually confederations lacking a single head, and everything again came back to their constituent altepetl, which shared all duties and benefits among themselves. Preconquest empires were conglomerations in which some altepetl were dominant and some subordinated, but the unit either giving or receiving tribute was always the altepetl. While empires and even large ethnic confederations came and went, the smaller constituent states tended to survive in some form through the centuries. After the conquest, the altepetl if anything gained in importance. Everything the Spaniards organized outside their own settlements in the sixteenth century--the encomienda, the rural parishes. Indian municipalities, the initial administrative jurisdictions--was built solidly upon individual, already existing altepetl. 5

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