Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Geographical Origins of the Tarascans

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Geographical Origins of the Tarascans

Article excerpt

Shortly after Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, fell to the Spanish in 1521 the conquistadores turned their attention westward to Michoacan, which was reputed to be rich in gold and silver. At that time the inhabitants of the region received the name by which they are generally known today, Tarascan, although this misnomer perpetuates a misuse by the Spanish. On the demand of their conquerors, the hapless natives proffered their daughters to the Spanish with the word tarhaskua (father-in-law) to legitimize the relationship. However, when the Spanish at best insensitively and at worst derisively used the word to identify the natives, they quickly came to regard it as a term of derogation and a cause of embarrassment.

Perhaps only after the conquest of Michoacan was completed did the Spanish begin to perceive how different the people were from their neighbors to the east. In some ways the former were far more primitive than the Aztecs. They depended on hunting and fishing to the degree that the Aztec term for the region, Michoacan, meant "place of the fishermen." Their religion centered on the worship of fire and of the moon, and they had a rudimentary counting system based on five. Their calendar was a simplistic copy of that used by their neighbors. The temples they constructed looked like nothing else in Mesoamerica; their language was unrelated to that of any people in the region; and their manner of dress differed markedly from all other indigenous peoples in Mexico. Yet in one impressive way they were more advanced than any of their neighbors. They were skilled workers of gold, silver, and copper who possessed weapons and tools of metal, in contrast with all other Mesoamerican peoples who employed obsidian and flint for those purposes. Already perplexed by attempts to reconcile the presence of people in the New World with Biblical accounts of the lost tribes of Israel, the Spanish realized that the Tarascan question added an entirely new dimension to the debate about human origins in the western hemisphere.

THE MIGRATION LEGEND

Soon after the initial excesses of the conquest, certain Spanish clerics began to inquire into the background of the Tarascans. Notable among them was Don Vasco de Quiroga, known to the Indians as Tata Vasco, or Father Vasco, who as their champion and protector literally became their patron saint. At that time the Spanish learned that the Tarascans called themselves Purepecha, which in their tongue meant "the latecomers" or "the recent arrivals." The term piqued the Spaniards' curiosity, and they immediately set about questioning the elders of the tribe as to where they had come from and when. As a preliterate people totally dependent on oral tradition, the Purepecha had no way to record their history in written form, except by drawing pictures. Consequently the Spanish had them summarize the legend of their migration on a piece of linen called the Lienzo de Jucutacato, which was not rediscovered until the 1870s (Craine and Reindorp 1970, x). It purports to explain how the Purepecha journeyed from a homeland far to the south to their current abode in Michoacan. Though historically the Lienzo is considered a priceless document, geographically it has to be one of the most farfetched reconstructions.

Identifying Cuzco, Peru, as the point of origin - largely, it seems, at the suggestion of the Spanish interrogators - the Purepecha elders asserted that their forbears had wandered for many moons before reaching the mouth of a great river. The Spanish concluded that it must have been the Orinoco, whence the journey continued by sea, reputedly on the backs of turtles. The Spanish dismissed that naive explanation as poetic license, and their next question sought to pinpoint the location of the landfall. In turn, the Purepecha quickly identified it as Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico. When asked how they passed through the territory of their mortal enemies, the Aztecs, on the way westward to Michoacan, the Purepecha responded that the Aztecs had come with them, a suggestion that the two groups had once been friendly. …

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