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"Mesoamerican Anomaly? The Pre-Conquest Tarascan State"

Julie Adkins (Department of Anthropology, SMU, Dallas TX 75275)

"Within days of the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, Cortés wrote to Charles V that there was a lord of a very great province called Michoacán, which extended to the Pacific Ocean" (Gorenstein 1993:xiii).

In reality, the Tarascans had only a colony on the Pacific coast, at Epatlán (Warren 1985:3). Even so, the Spaniards already had certain knowledge of and interest in the Tarascan kingdom. The Aztecs knew the Tarascans all too well, having attempted unsuccessfully on several occasions to expand their empire into Tarascan territory. Until recently, however, modern-day historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and other scholars – even within Mexico – have had little knowledge of or interest in the Tarascans. From the information available, they seemed much less interesting than the Aztec or the Maya; some doubted whether they had in fact ever attained the level of a state society. Recent investigations, particularly over the past twenty years, have revealed a complex culture far more interesting than anyone had imagined. Not only did the Tarascans rule a substantial empire at the time of the Conquest, second in geographical size only to the Aztec – they had also created a culture which was in many ways unlike anything else in Mesoamerica.

 Sources of Information

One of the great advantages of studying societies in existence at the time of European contact is the documentary record left by colonial explorers, missionaries, and administrators describing a prehistoric world. In the case of the Tarascans this is especially valuable because they kept no written records them-selves, despite their knowledge of such documents in other parts of Mesoamerica (Pollard 1993:17).

It is unclear from Pollard’s comment whether the Tarascans had no written language at all at the time of the Conquest, or whether they simply felt no need to keep records Given the intricate economic and political network they administered, the former seems more likely. Had they had a system of writing, surely it would have been pressed into service, for purposes of accounting if nothing else. Given the absence of such primary source documents, those interested in learning about the Tarascans have depended on four major sources of information (Gorenstein and Pollard 1983:55):

- extrapolation from 20th-century data

- extrapolation from the early Hispanic period (1520-1550)

- evidence from archaeology

- evidence from ethnohistorical records

The first two sources have primarily to do with environmental/geographical issues; e.g., we can make estimates about the size and shape of Lake Pátzcuaro in the Prehispanic period based on what we know of its size and shape today. We can guess what towns and hamlets might have existed before the Conquest by observing what is present a few years after the Conquest. Current data on rainfall, agricultural productivity, fish catches, wildlife present in the region, etc. should help us to ascertain what conditions were five hundred years ago.

Evidence from archaeology is intriguing but still fairly sparse. Gorenstein and Pollard comment, “Considering that the existence of the Prehispanic Tarascans of the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin is well known to Mesoamericanists, it is remarkable how little archaeological work has been done in the Basin” (1983:9). More recently, however, Pollard has noted that archaeologists’ attention has turned away from the relatively-few monumental works left by the Tarascans, and toward excavations which hope to reveal more about the everyday life of the common people (personal communication). Indeed, a Web search for the words “Tarascan” and “archaeology” together yields several hundred hits, including Web pages for a number of young archaeologists investigating the region. The recent meeting of the American Anthropological Association held a session on Tarascan studies, with archaeologists reporting on the use of obsidian (Healan 2001), copper production (Maldonado 2001), ceramic analyses (Hernández 2001), and surveying of the empire’s southeastern frontier (Silverstein 2001). One can only hope that this trend will continue, providing more depth and breadth of information from the field of archaeology.

At present, however, the richest source of information on the Tarascans is the early Spanish colonial documents, particularly the Relación de Michoacán, which was recorded in 1540-1541 in Tzintzuntzan, the capital of the Tarascan empire. Fray Jerónimo de Alcalá, a Franciscan priest, attempted to capture the stories and culture of the indigenous people through a process of transcribing and translating the narratives and information given him by a group of Tarascan noblemen, including one of the last of the royal family (Pollard 1993:17). Additional useful documentary sources, according to Pollard, are [1] documents written within the Tarascan regime as part of the early colonial administration, [2] various 16th-century dictionaries and grammars of the Tarascan language, and [3] relevant documents from other parts of Mexico, especially the Basin of Mexico, which make reference to the Tarascans (1993:18-19). Needless to say, one must always use caution when utilizing the documentary records of the conquerors to try to understand the conquered (cf. Roskamp 2001). Nevertheless, particularly in the absence of records from the Tarascans themselves, these early Spanish records have at the very least helped modern-day scholars to discern what kinds of questions they need to be asking of the other kinds of data available.

Tarascan Origins and Rise of the State

It is possible that less is known about the origin and historical antecedents of the Tarascan indios than of any other important Mexican group (Foster 2000, translation mine).

Though a great deal more is known now than when Foster first published those words in 1948, it seems likely that they are largely still true. For a number of reasons, the Tarascans’ origins are still shrouded in mystery and likely to remain so for some time to come. Their own tradition, as recorded in the Relación de Michoacán, does not trace their beginnings back to their arrival in Michoacán (Warren 1985:7), and this is where the mystery begins.

Noted Mesoamericanist Richard W. E. Adams notes that the Tarascans “are anthropologically famous for having a language that is unrelated to any other known Mesoamerican language” (1991:324). Swadesh concluded that its closest cognates are Zuni, in the North American Southwest, and Quechua, in the Andes (cited in Pollard 1993:15). Indeed, both the linguistic similarities and commonalities in metallurgical technology – along with the notable differences in both from surrounding cultures such as the Aztec – have led to some interesting theories about a Tarascan origin from among seafaring people of the Andes’ coastal plain (Torres Mendez and Franco Velásquez 1996). Greenberg has hypothesized that Tarascan belongs with the Chibchan language group, found in lower Central America and modern-day Colombia. He notes, however, that linguistic differences suggest that the divergence of Tarascan occurred no later than the Archaic Period, ca. 7000-2000 B.C. (cited in Pollard 1993:15-16). In either case, linguistic issues offer us more questions than answers in our search for the Tarascans’ origins.

In addition, the lack of written records from the Tarascans themselves has led to a different, but related, problem: We are not even certain what the Tarascans called themselves. We do know that they were not called “Tarascans” until after the Conquest, and that the name apparently arose from a misunderstanding. Their word tarascue means “son-in-law” or “father-in-law,” and its application appears to have arisen out of the early marriages of Spaniards to daughters of the Tarascan caciques: when some of their new family members were introduced to them as tarascue, the Spaniards incorrectly interpreted this to be the name of the entire people (Warren 1985:6). It seems still to be the term most commonly used by scholars today, but always with the caveat that whatever the people called themselves, this was not it.

According to the 16th-century Franciscan linguist Juan Baptista de Lagunas, “all of the natives do not call the province and language anything but the province and language of Cintzuntza” [i.e., Tzintzuntzan, the imperial capital] (Warren 1985:5). I have not found other sources for this claim; however, it is true that we also do not know the name which the Tarascans gave to their land, their empire. The name Michoacán derives from the Nahuatl, meaning “the place of the fish” – referring to Lake Pátzcuaro – and it was the Aztecs’ name for the region, not the Tarascans’.

Another frequently-encountered name for the Tarascans is uacúsecha (“eagles”). This name refers specifically to a group of Chichimec believed to have arrived in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin fairly late, who became the founders of the Tarascan empire and were themselves the lineage of the royal family (Castro-Leal 1986:182). However, the current majority of opinion seems to be that the closest we can approximate to a “native” name for the Tarascans is Purépecha (or one of its variant spellings: Purhépecha, P’urhépecha, Phurépecha.) The Relación de Cuitzeo of 1579 states that this was the name which they used for themselves, and that it held the meaning of “working men” or “common men” (Warren 1985:7).

Somewhat less mysterious is the question of the Tarascans’ more recent arrival and expansion into the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin, where the empire was ultimately centered, and of the emergence of Tarascan culture as a distinguishable entity. Adams hypothesizes a starting point possibly as early as A.D. 1000, noting that things certainly must have been well under way by 1250 in order to have reached the level of complexity at which the Spaniards found them (Adams 1991:322). Incidentally, we should note in passing that although the term “Tarascan” is used to refer to the entire empire and all its people, there was in fact a small elite of “pure Tarascans” which comprised about 10 percent of the population, and who dominated the rest (Coe 1994:154). Gorenstein and Pollard describe four major ethno-linguistic groups found in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin, from which combination the kingdom arose (1983:111):

- indigenous Basin people, who probably spoke a “proto-Tarascan” language

- Nahuatl speakers (naguatatos)

- early-arriving Chichimecs

- late-arriving Chichimecs, the uacúsecha mentioned above.

To complicate the picture somewhat, lest we begin to feel too much certainty about any-thing having to do with the Tarascans, Michelet has challenged this picture somewhat, asserting that the Tarascans were a pseudo-nomadic group which appropriated for itself the Nahuatl term “chichimeca,” and which migrated fairly late to the Zacapu Basin and even later to the Lake Pátzcuaro region (1996:124). We may look forward to the publication of some of Pollard’s most recent work, about which she claims, “Archaeological, ecological, and ethno-historic research of the last decade is now making it possible to discern the deeper cultural roots of the regional populations …” (Pollard 2001). Perhaps a few of the mysteries will begin to be solved.

It is at approximately this point – with the arrival of numerous different settled groups in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin – that the Tarascans’ own legendary history, as related in the Relación de Michoacán, picks up the story. Somewhere around 1325, the great king, military, leader, and culture hero Taríacuri – one of the uacúsecha, who had established themselves as an elite lineage – declared himself as lord and Pátzcuaro as his capital. He furthermore set his nephews up as secondary rulers: Hiripan at Ihuatzio, and Tangáxoan at Tzintzuntzan. By 1350, the three of them had begun a successful series of military conquests in and around the Pátzcuaro Basin; and, after Taríacuri’s death, his nephews continued to expand their sphere of influence to the area around Lake Cuitzeo (Coe 1994:154; see also Pollard 1993:88 for greater detail). 

At some point in this early period of expansion, Tzintzuntzan became the regional capital in place of Pátzcuaro. Located on the south shore of the northern arm of Lake Pátzcuaro, Tzintzuntzan was founded ca. A.D. 1000 as a worship center (Adams:324-325). Gorenstein believes that the change came about because Tzintzuntzan was able somehow to gain control over the major zone of irrigable land in the region. This exclusive access to resources, combined with the presence of resident royal elites, gave Tzintzuntzan the “edge” it needed to bring the four other primary regional polities under its control. From this point forward, those four became administrative centers in the service of Tzintzuntzan, with four others created to serve along with them. Power was not shared among the nine administrative centers but was held exclusively at Tzintzuntzan, which grew to be a “strongly primate urban center” with a population at least five times greater than the next-ranked centers (Gorenstein 1985:3-5).

Dates and personages become somewhat unclear at this point, because, if the Relación is to be believed, both Taríacuri and his nephews reigned and campaigned actively for more than ninety years. This seems unlikely. What does seem fairly clear is that some time around 1440, steps were taken to institutionalize the military gains already made, and to produce a tributary state. A bureaucracy was created to administer these concerns, centered at Tzintzuntzan, and this cleared the way for a period of much broader expansion in the years 1440-1500 (Pollard 1993:88-90) The motivation for this greatly-increased territorial expansion remains unknown, but two results of it were seen quite early: first, it brought a large number and variety of resources into an established economic network, thus helping to maintain a dense core population which was far beyond the carrying capacity of the available land; second, it meant that military defense of the core was carried out at a distance of more than 100 km from the capital (Gorenstein 1985:5).

State Expansion and the Role of Warfare

But most singular, [the Tarascans] played the Aztec warfare game and did not lose. It was the last that captured my attention. The place of investigation was obviously the Tarascan-Aztec frontier. I learned there how the Tarascans ran their frontier and how management skills, not simply military technology, won the wars and kept the territory intact. It is perhaps administrative organization, not cultural traits, that made the Tarascans an anomaly in Mesoamerica. That quality permeated and characterized the Tarascan cultural system, and it is seen clearly on the frontier where the Tarascans did not simply engage in battle but conducted administered warfare (Gorenstein 1985:1).

In the period of approximately eighty years between the creation of the centralized bureaucracy at Tzintzuntzan and the Spanish Conquest, the Tarascan empire expanded greatly, incorporating into itself a diversity of ethnic populations and defending itself successfully against covetous neighbors. The expansion came about primarily, if not exclusively, through the use of warfare against neighboring populations; in fact, Pollard tells us that the Tarascans succeeded through both conquest and intimidation. She notes that according to the Relación de Michoacán, villages which did not surrender but were conquered had their entire populations removed. Infants, the aged, and the wounded were immediately killed (sacrificed) on the battleground; adults were brought back to major temples in the core region (most often Tzintzuntzan) to be sacrificed in major rituals; children also were brought back to the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin and put to work as slaves in the king’s fields. In an interesting glimpse into the mindset of the Tarascans, Pollard adds that they insisted that these slaves were not acquired by warfare, but were purchased in trade with blankets (Pollard 1993:106).

Though the state grew through warfare and aggression, processes of state formation and maintenance were for the most part peaceable and rational. Pollard’s description of Tarascan statecraft is worth describing at some length, because it appears to have been carefully thought out and structured. She postulates two seemingly contradictory ways in which the Tarascans interacted with the different ethnic groups they encountered in their expansion: two concurrent processes, each at work in different regions of the empire – ethnic assimilation and ethnic segregation (Pollard 1993:101-104).

Ethnic assimilation obviously took place in the heartland zone, the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin. Political unity arose through the emergence of a Tarascan identity, which included universal use of the Tarascan language and incorporation of the four groups already there (see above). There was also what she terms a “zone of active assimilation” outside the core, where local groups began to assume a Tarascan identity following their conquest by the heartland. Assimilation in this zone was aided by the resettlement of Tarascans from the core region into these outlying areas.

Ethnic segregation also had two aspects: in the first place, there were numerous ethnic enclaves within the zone of assimilation, groups which maintained their separate ethnic identity while nevertheless being subsumed into the Tarascan political and economic sphere. Secondly, there were large territories along the military frontiers where a variety of ethnic groups lived and were incorporated into the empire system in varying degrees. For example, in her work at the frontier settlement of Acámbaro, Gorenstein discovered that the three separate ethnic-linguistic groups present (Otomi, Chichimec, and Tarascan) maintained separate ethnic identities, residential areas, and social systems. While the Tarascans had full political control of the community – Otomi and Chichimec leaders were appointed by the Tarascan king – there was no attempt to “make Tarascans” out of the other ethnic groups (Gorenstein 1985:22).

Expansion was not the only reason for the Tarascans to go to war. Threats to their way of life and resource networks could trigger military action. Lameiras notes a war conducted against Tarascan allies (pueblos confederados) in the south of Jalisco who were attempting to control access to the saltpeter beds at Sayula (1996:156). And of course, defense – primarily against incursions by the Aztecs – continued to necessitate a standing army and military network even after the empire had reached an impressive size.

Traditional weapons used by the Tarascans included the bow and arrow, lances, and the atlatl, with some use also of maces and slingshots. Weapon points might be made of metal or obsidian, or a combination of both materials (Lameiras 137). Protection against the enemy’s weapons came from shields and cotton armor. Additionally, non-Tarascan soldiers were encouraged to use their traditional weapons, and did so to great effect: the Chichimecs at Acámbaro were skilled archers, and the Otomi were expert with the macana and slings, and in hand-to-hand combat (Pollard 1993:105).

Gorenstein’s work at Acámbaro, on the eastern frontier of the Tarascan empire (and, therefore, the western edge of the Aztec empire), provides one of the best summaries to date of how the Tarascan defense system was planned and administered (Gorenstein 1985). She notes that it appears the Tarascans were very selective about the conquests they made on the frontier, with an eye to holding and maintaining strategic points in the recognition that the Aztec were and would continue to be a formidable enemy, both militarily and politically (108). She surveyed four neighboring settlements along with Acámbaro, and discovered that they were strategically superior. All were on hills, which allowed them a wide field of vision and even permitted them to take surprise offensive action if the need arose. The sites were sufficiently near to one another to be able to coordinate strategy and tactics, through a system of bonfires and smoke signals, or by means of messengers and scouts. “All the settlements of the frontier zone could have been informed of an event or directive within a week and possibly within days depending on the position of the frontier settlement disseminating and receiving the information” (15).

Along with this impressive internal communication network, the Tarascans also maintained a cadre of spies in order to try to ascertain external information – especially along the volatile eastern border (Pollard 1993:105-106). They may also have been long-distance merchants as well (Adams 1991:329); as will be seen below, in the Tarascans’ polity, trade between empires and/or conducted over long distances was the province of paid employees of the king. Therefore, since they were already employed by the government, it would be a small matter to add spying to their job descriptions.

The military and the frontier regions were firmly integrated into the Tarascan economic and political systems. These will be described in greater detail below, but suffice it to say for the moment that the tribute received from all over the empire helped to support its standing army and defenses. In fact, groups such as the Otomi and Chichimec at Acámbaro were exempt from paying product tribute to the heartland; it was recognized that their military service was their tribute. Gorenstein comments:

The relationship between the Tarascan core and periphery was not merely an economic one in which the resources of the periphery were extracted to the accumulative benefit of the core. It was also, and probably primarily, a political one in which the economic periphery became a political frontier to be supported when necessary by the core’s accumulated surplus. The Tarascan government, in this regard as well as others, recognized political interests above economic ones (Gorenstein 1985:104, emphasis in original).

The Tarascans had been correct in assuming that they would need to defend themselves against the Aztec. Both empires were undergoing expansion during the 15th century, and it was inevitable that they would confront one another sooner or later. During the reign of the Aztec king Axayacatl (1469-1481), the Aztec armies tried on several occasions to conquer the Tarascans, and were repelled each time, often with great loss of life (Coe 1994:171). Even in the decades immediately preceding the Conquest, the Aztecs still mounted occasional attacks against the Tarascans’ eastern frontier and were sent home in defeat (Warren 1985:xi). Gorenstein and Pollard discuss the differences between Tarascan and Aztec military organization, with some intriguing implications about why the Tarascans were inevitably able to hold their own against the armies of a larger and more powerful empire:

Among the Tarascans there were professional soldiers who were occupied full time with the military and were considered members of government … The military as an arm of the government was employed to carry out the directives of the administration, which was to extend administration and thereby Basin political control into the territory.

In contrast, among the Aztecs,

… military organization was essentially part of the social system and the develop-ment of the military as a professional specialization was subverted to the interests of maintaining the social elite. Military functions were carried out through the social system often with ineptitude and always inefficiently. The goal was not to extend administration, but to extend the economy (1983:130).

Thanks in large part to this capable and efficient military, the Tarascan empire had expanded, by the time of the Conquest, to include virtually all of the present-day state of Michoacán, as well as pieces of Jalisco and Guanajuato (Warren 1985:3). Pollard describes the Tarascans as spanning the area between two of Mexico’s greatest rivers: the Lerma-Santiago on the north, and the Balsos to the south (1993:24). When the Spaniards arrived, the Tarascan empire was second only to the Aztec in terms of geographical size.

Political, Economic, Social, and Religious Organization

[The king] has his governor and a captain-general in the wars and [he was] equipped as the Cazonci himself. He had in place four very prominent men on [the] four frontiers of the province; and his kingdom was divided into four parts. He had in every town caciques whom he had placed [there] and they were responsible for bringing firewood for the qués (“temples,” in Tarascan), with the people that each one had in his town, and for going with their people into wars for conquest.  There were others called acháecha, who were chiefs that continually accompanied the Cazonci and were his court. Likewise, most of the time the caciques of the province were with the Cazonci; these were called caráchacapacha. There are others called ocánbecha who have charge of counting the people and for gathering them together for public works and for receiving the tribute; each one of these has a barrio entrusted [to him] (Alcalá 2000:558; translation mine).

By the time of the Conquest, the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin held a population of 60,000 to 100,000 inhabitants, spread among 91 settlements of varying sizes. To administer this dense population and the outlying regions, effective social, economic, and administrative structures were needed. Indeed, these were in place by the Protohistoric period (1450-1520), and they continued to evolve with the expansion of the empire and incorporation of new peoples, trade goods, religious philosophies, etc. (Gorenstein 1985:3).

Underlying and supporting the social, political, and economic structures of the empire was its state religion, which probably assumed its final form within the last 150 years before the Conquest (Coe 1994:156). The Tarascan religion centered on adoration of the god Curicaueri, who was identified with the sun and whose name meant “Great Bonfire” (Warren 1985:11). Other important deities were Cuerauáperi, the goddess who produces clouds, and who apparently also controls fertility, as her name means “she who causes to be born;” and Xaratanga, an agricultural goddess. There were innumerable other deities as well, a veritable pantheon of gods of the heavens, the earth, and the underworld (Warren 1985:16), each with his/her own temples and sacred locations throughout the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin. Coe notes that in several aspects the Tarascan religion was “remarkably un-Mesoamerican:”  they had no rain-god equivalent to the Aztec Tlaloc, and no Feathered Serpent. In addition, their calendrical system did not use the 260-day count found widely throughout Mesoamerica, and they did not use the calendar for divinatory purposes (Coe 1994:156).

Tzintzuntzan was the major religious center, as well as being the political and economic center of the empire. (I can find no evidence to support the claim made by Cabrera V. and Perez González [1991:27-28] that, while Tzintzuntzan functioned as the “political capital,” the religious capital was at Zacapu and the military capital at Pátzcuaro.) Here the king or Cazonci (alternately spelled Kasonsí, Caçonçi, or the Nahuatl Caltzontzin) functioned as a representative of Curicaueri whose principal duties were to conquer land in the god’s name, and to ensure that the perpetual fires in the temples were kept supplied with wood (Warren 1985:11). Here, human sacrifices in great number were made, with the usual victims being prisoners of war. These were believed to be taking on the personality of Curitacaheri, the messenger to the gods, and were therefore venerated. Given almost enough strong drink to knock them out, they were taken to the stone of sacrifice, and their hearts cut out and offered to the sun (Warren 1985:14-15).

Although the civil and religious hierarchies were defined separately from one another, in actuality there was a tremendous amount of overlap. The Cazonci was also a member of the priestly hierarchy whose function it was to sacrifice the human victims (Warren 1985:11); in addition, the high priest, the petámuti, was expected to exercise the office of judge in the name of the Cazonci (Warren 1985:16). Priests in general were distinguishable by their gourd container for tobacco, worn strapped to their backs. Unlike the Aztec priesthood, Tarascan priests were not expected to be celibate (Coe 1994:155).

As noted above, one of the king’s duties was to conquer new lands for the god Curicaueri. Thus, it is not surprising to find that religion and warfare were intimately linked together as well. Following a decision to go to war, an important religious act occurred: The priests at Tzintzuntzan lit huge bonfires which, when seen, were to be duplicated by priests at the other eight administrative centers. All 91 settlements in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin were able to see the fires from one or more of these centers, and thus the message to prepare for war was received (Gorenstein 1985:4). We have already noted above how the fires were frequently used to communicate messages between border settlements; it now becomes apparent how the fires of war were symbolically linked to the “Great Bonfire” himself, Curicaueri. Many personnel of the religious centers were also actively involved in the conduct of war: some moved out with the army, carrying statues of the gods, and remaining throughout the fighting; others led captives/prisoners of war back to the religious centers; still others executed or sacrificed the captives and performed the related rituals (Gorenstein and Pollard 1983:124).

Not only on the field of war, but also infusing much of the state’s life, the religion of the Tarascans gave meaning and structure to the way they lived. “What is remarkable about the Tarascan religious system,” notes Gorenstein, “is how much it was devoted to carrying out political decisions and to working within the administrative system” (1985:4).

No doubt help in any form was welcome in the administration of an empire of over 25,000 square miles, incorporating many various ethnic and linguistic groups. At the top of the administrative structure was, of course, the Cazonci. There is some disagreement even within the Relación de Michoacán itself about whether the kingship was inherited or elected. Don Antonio Huitziméngari, son of the last Cazonci and one of the nobles who provided information for the Relación, stated that kingship had been inherited by the eldest son in his family for more than 700 years. This might be more plausible if there were any evidence at all that the Tarascans had been around for that long … at any rate, another section of the Relación narrates a change in leadership where one king was elected as his father’s successor. Still another section may provide a way out of the dilemma: it suggests that an aging Cazonci would choose one of his sons to be his heir, and that after his death the council of nobles and officials would confirm the choice (Warren 1985:10).

Regardless of how one got to be Cazonci, once the role had been achieved it was all-encompassing. As mentioned above, the king functioned in the priestly hierarchy and as a representative of the gods; he was also war chief and supreme judge of the nation, and was the ruler of the city of Tzintzuntzan. He was in large part responsible for the conduct of diplomatic affairs, when such became necessary: on at least one occasion, it is recorded that rulers from the Tarascan kingdom attended coronation festivities for a new Aztec emperor (Coe 1994:174). Apparently the two polities were not in a constant state of war! The royal court was large, with a wide variety of officials and other functionaries in residence, such as the king’s zookeeper and the head of his war spies; and also including the heads of various occupational groups: masons, drum-makers, doctors, makers of obsidian knives, anglers, silversmiths, and decorators of cups (Coe 1994:155). The Relación describes in detail the funeral of at least one Cazonci: accompanied with music and elaborate rituals, the king was carried to his final resting place attended by Tarascan and foreign lords. “Accompanying him in death” were seven important women from the palace, including the “keeper of the gold and turquoise lip-ornaments” and the “keeper of his urinal,” the cook, and the wine-bearer. Also sacrificed were forty male attendants, including, in this case, the doctor who had failed to cure the Cazonci of his final illness! Clearly, it was believed that the royal court was to be replicated for him in the land of the dead (cited in Coe 1994:155).

As suggested by the debate over succession to the role of Cazonci, kinship was extremely important to the Tarascans. Social class was essentially determined at birth, with only minimal movement between classes. Gorenstein and Pollard have discerned three hereditary social classes, based on information in the Relación de Michoacán and on excavations made at Tzintzuntzan:

- the Cazonci, sometimes also called irecha; and the royal lineage (lords, señores)

- nobility, also known as principales, caciques, señores naturales; who were connected with and had responsibility in certain settlements

 - commoners, also called purépecha, la gente baja, gente común

There were also slaves, found only in connection with the royal lineage. Each class could be distinguished by dress, household structure, marriage, wealth, responsibilities and privileges accorded, and access to occupations. There also appear to be certain connections between social stratification and the religious system: for example, the level of engagement in religious activities by señores suggests that there were certain religious responsibilities incumbent upon persons in this class. In addition, and somewhat interestingly, a priest’s presence was required at marriages of royalty and nobility but not at the weddings of commoners (Gorenstein and Pollard 1983:75-76; Pollard 1993:60).

Kinship also functioned, as noted above, to restrict access to occupations and political office, which sometimes went hand-in-hand. Political succession was somewhat flexible, with consideration given to personal ability and leadership qualities, but also “organized by a form of ambilateral kin reckoning still imperfectly understood by scholars” (Roth-Seneff and Kemper 1995:244). The eight administrative regions in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin – those secondary in importance to Tzintzuntzan – were governed by señores (i.e., hereditary nobility) who reported directly back to the Cazonci.These centers were located at Pareo, Eronguarícuaro, Pechátaro, Urichu, Pacandan-Xarácuaro, Itziparamucu, Uayaneo, and Pátzcuaro; each region contained a number of dependent villages and hamlets (Pollard 1993:82). As suggested by the reading from the Relación which began this section, many other minor civil and military officials had jobs throughout the empire such as overseeing the workers’ guilds. These offices were hereditary within the family that held them (Warren 1985:12) – there may have been some choice as to who within the kinship system would inherit a particular office, but there was no question that the job would remain within the family.

Of course, there would be little use for such a carefully-crafted administrative and political structure without an economy of some type to manage. There were three major markets known in the empire: two within the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin at Tzintzuntzan and Pareo, and one just outside the Basin to the northwest at Asajo (Gorenstein and Pollard 1983:64). Commoners in particular obtained most of their goods and services either through their own subsistence activities or in these regional marketplaces. The elite, on the other hand, received most of their goods and services, whether local or from afar, through government-controlled agencies such as the tribute network (Gorenstein and Pollard 1983:104). Noting this and other issues, Paredes suggests that further study needs to be done on the question of markets, especially in the outlying/border regions. How did commoners who were far from the core obtain goods and services they could not produce for themselves? If they could not benefit from the tribute network, perhaps they held markets and traded with other culture groups in their area (Paredes 1992).

Trade and tribute were both centrally administered through Tzintzuntzan. Long distance trade in particular, as mentioned in the section on warfare, was the province of government-appointed civil servants. They were not a private guild as were the Aztec pochteca (Gorenstein 1985:104), and they may in addition have been spies in the king’s service. The tribute network was “fundamentally a political institution,” with goods passing through various levels, from various regions of the territory, to Tzintzuntzan, where they were placed in central storehouses. Tribute consisted of both goods and services, and was collected on a regular schedule. The entire system was under the control of the royal family, and it was their responsibility to oversee the receiving, storage, and distribution of all that was received. Usual recipients of goods received as tribute would be the royal family themselves, the bureaucracy, religious functionaries, foreign emissaries (as gifts), local populations in times of emergency, the army in times of war (Gorenstein and Pollard 1983:101). Items commonly received in tribute were: maize, cotton cloth, clothing, slaves, sacrificial victims, metal objects, armaments, tropical fruits, cacao, raw cotton, gourds, animal skins, tropical bird feathers, gold, silver, and copper (Gorenstein and Pollard 1983:102).

Though the tribute collection worked one-way most of the time, trade was moving in both directions, to and from the heartland of the empire. Exports from the Basin area include dried fish, and small quantities of bird feathers from waterfowl. Otherwise, the area exported only manufactured goods such as baskets, mats, ceramics, and metal objects (Gorenstein and Pollard 1983:109-110). Transport networks within the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin consisted of dendritic networks which extended from hill slopes to the basin floor, and circuit routes that connected the dendritic networks to one another (Gorenstein and Pollard 1983:75). A few routes extended outside the basin, but given the density of population within the core, there was far more need for the movement of goods within the central region.

Material Culture and Monumental Architecture

Probably [the Tarascans] were the only Mesoamerican culture who arrived at the bronze age before the Spaniards’ arrival, for they used this alloy to manufacture agricultural implements (spades, hoes, puyas) and tools for work (axes, chisels, punches, fish-hooks, needles, etc.)  (Torres Montes and Franco Velásquez 1996:86, translation mine).

There is little of monumental architecture to be found in the Tarascan empire. Neither the major cities of the heartland nor the frontier towns appear to have been fortified in any significant way. Though there were trade routes, they were apparently “unimproved,” as the building of roads and bridges was one of the first efforts undertaken by the Spaniards. Only two ball courts are known, and neither is in Tzintzuntzan where one might expect to find one. It is this relative lack of monumental architecture which led many to assume that the Tarascans had not achieved state-level society … and, that there was not much interesting to be learned about them.

The yácatas, however, are another story. Roth-Seneff and Kemper suggest that the Tarascans are unique in their use of rounded monumental structures (1995:244). There are five at Tzintzuntzan, seated atop a rectangular platform of approximately 425m by 250m (Warren 1985:16). Gorenstein and Pollard provide the best description to help visualize them for someone who has never seen them (even photographs, being two-dimensional, somehow fail to capture the shape): the “ground plan approximates a keyhole and in cross-section it is a stepped pyramidal platform. Its rubble core was faced with dressed stone slabs some of which were incised with spirals, circles, and other geometric designs” (Gorenstein and Pollard 1983:9). Coe further notes that the finely-fitted stone slabs – now missing – “recall the perfection of Inca masonry in South America,” and that the yácatas which have been investigated contain richly stocked burials (Coe 1994:156).

Tarascan architecture in general is less stunning than the yácatas, but does hold some surprises. As might be expected, the principal construction materials are wood and stone. To date, however, no remains or evidence have been found of the use of stucco, either for floors or walls, a significant difference from the rest of Mesoamerica (Pastrana 1999:13-14).

Craft specialists in the Tarascan empire did particularly impressive work in ceramics, featherwork, bronze, copper, and gold (Adams 1991:325). Different investigators highlight different types of objects, depending on their what catches their particular attention:  Gorenstein and Pollard describe ceramic vessels with distinctive combinations of form, finish, and decorative motifs; highly specialized lapidary work in obsidian and rock crystal with turquoise mosaics; metal artifacts shaped by both hammering and casting, and decorated with numerous different techniques (1983:11). In addition to noting the Tarascans’ use of bronze, Torres Montes and Franco Velásquez highlight their use of gold plating, another technique unused by any other group in Mesoamerica (1996:86). Pastrana appears to enjoy the highly stylized zoomorphic and anthropomorphic sculptures of volcanic rock (1999:16); Coe highlights the bimetallic objects of silver and gold and, “most astonishing of their productions,” paper-thin obsidian earspools and labrets, faced with sheet gold and turquoise inlay (1994:156-157).

What Happened to the Tarascans?

With the distribution of the encomiendas in Michoacán the Spaniards had achieved what the Aztecs had failed to do: they had made Tenochtitlán-México the capital and had reduced the kingdom of Michoacán to a tributary province. The compelling decisions regarding Michoacán would henceforth be made in Mexico City, and the wealth of the province would make its way to the new Spanish capital of New Spain and across the ocean to a monarch whom the natives would never see (Warren 1985:80).

At first glimpse, it seems a strange question: what happened to the Tarascans? The Conquest happened to them! Even their interactions with the Spanish, however, are somewhat different from those of many other Mesoamerican peoples.

On February 23, 1521, the first Spanish soldier appeared on the borders of Michoacán (Warren 1985:xiii). Even before this, however, the effects of the Conquest had begun to be felt among the Tarascans. The previous year, a slave infected with smallpox had come ashore with the army of Pánfilo de Narvaez and triggered an epidemic that was apparently quite widespread. The Tarascan cazonci Zuangua (Tzuiangua) died in that epidemic of summer-fall 1520 (Warren 1985:28). Measles also came along with the earliest Spaniards, and led to further reductions in population (Roth-Seneff and Kemper 1995:244). Partly as a result of these devastations, when the first Spanish soldiers did arrive, the young, newly-invested cazonci Tzintzicha Tangaxoan chose to accept Spanish suzerainty rather than suffer the fate of Tenochtitlan. As evidence of his submission, he accepted baptism and brought Franciscan missionaries into the region (Warren 1985:xii).

It is unclear whether the new, young king did not fully understand the Spaniards’ intentions and how their system worked, whether he thought he could pull the proverbial wool over their eyes, whether he was poorly advised, or some combination of these. Clearly, the Spanish had intended to allow him to keep some symbolic measure of autonomy for himself and “his” empire as a reward for his cooperation. But when they discovered that he was continuing to receive tribute from his subjects – again, whether he was keeping goods back from the Spaniards or had figured out a completely separate, parallel system to theirs is unclear – they had him executed. On February 14, 1530, the last native king of the Tarascans was put to death at the hands of the conquerors (Warren 1985:xiii).

Descendants of the Tarascans remain in Michoacán, particularly in the Lake Pátzcuaro area. The language is still spoken, though only by a fraction of the population. Tzintzuntzan remains on the shore of Lake Pátzcuaro, still producing ceramics and tule-reed weaving. The present-day town has a population of less than one-tenth of the Tarascan capital at its height, and it continues to lose many of its young people to migration in search of a better life.

According to Roth-Seneff and Kemper, anthropologists are of two minds concerning contemporary Tarascans (1995:244). Group one, which they call the “Hispanist” point of view, argues that the Tarascan remnant has become primarily a Spanish peasant culture. Though they have maintained their language and some of the basic Mesoamerican cultural elements (e.g., a diet of beans, squash, chilies, maize), with regard to their religious lives, the economy, and their forms of traditional or “folk” knowledge they have become Hispanicized. The second group, in contrast, is more persuaded by the continuities they see between traditional Mesoamerican culture and the modern-day life of the remaining Tarascans, particularly in the areas of relationship between language and culture, gender relations, socialization, cosmology, and ethnoscience.

What happened to the Tarascan empire? Cortés happened. What happened to the Tarascans? The end of the story is not yet written.

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