Land and Living
IN THE MAINLY Nahuatl sources of this book, documents in annual series with precise specifications of prices and other quantities are rarely found, nor is there much detail on techniques of production and distribution, so that without using altogether different materials it would be difficult to undertake economic history in the usual sense, and such is not my intention. Yet some aspects of economic life, often related to the kinds of social and political organization discussed in the previous chapters, emerge clearly enough and will be treated here at some length. Since the documents are much more expansive on land tenure than on all other aspects of the indigenous economy, the pages that follow are necessarily heavily weighted toward that subject.
It was ultimately a rich, intensive, permanent-site agriculture that gave central Mexico at the time of the conquest preeminence in population size and many other respects over areas of southern Mesoamerica better provided with prestige goods, from jaguar skins and the plumes of tropical birds to the crucial quasi-staples cotton and cacao. Although the plant varieties and growing techniques that had developed over centuries, not to speak of the climate, were at least as important as the land itself in the flourishing of central Mexican agriculture, they were constants, equally available to all, so that land became the principal determinant and attribute of wealth as well as the primary basis of taxation. Elaborate vocabulary and procedures evolved (presumably all or nearly all with long-standing Mesoamerican precedents) to classify, measure, and allocate land and to record tenancy. Preconquest practices related to land were as relevant to postconquest land tenure as the altepeti was to postconquest political life, so it will be necessary to give the preconquest situation ample discussion.