History, Myth, and Migration in Mesoamerica
Alexander F. Christensen
Department of Anthropology
Box 6050-B, Vanderbilt University
Nashville, TN 37235
Please send comments to the author at email@example.com
Paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Society for Ethnohistory, Portland, OR, November 7, 1996
© 1997 by Alexander F. Christensen. All rights reserved.
Two features stand out sharply in nearly all theories
of origins (and there have been thousands of them) that have been put forward
at every opportunity. These theories have a genealogical character and
they incorporate some kind of migration. All peoples originated but few
seem to have originated where they actually were when speculation on their
origins took place. (Henige 1982:91)
Mesoamerica is distinguished from all other parts of the Americas by the presence of a well-developed Precolumbian writing system. One important use of this system was the recording of history (Boone 1994, Florescano 1994). Although only a few historical texts survived the Conquest, many more were produced in the decades that followed, drawing upon both the indigenous and European historiographical traditions. Over time, these narratives became increasingly secondary in content and European in structure, and by the mid-seventeenth century they contained little if anything of primary source value to modern historians. Only the most European of these works were printed prior to the nineteenth century, when several early accounts, written by natives, mestizos, and missionaries, were discovered in manuscript. Many others have subsequently been published, and they provide a more indigenous history, often narrated in Nahuatl or Maya. However, early analyses treated them as any other historical sources, without understanding the peculiar biases of the native tradition.
More recent studies have recognized numerous distinctive elements in indigenous narratives, which appear to varying degrees in the hybrid accounts of the Colonial period. The defining characteristic of these sources is the different nature of Mesoamerican time (e.g., Edmonson 1982). Most indigenous histories place a strong emphasis on chronology, but this is not the continuous, progressive time of the European tradition. Rather, time was composed of several interlaced cycles. For the Maya, the emphasis was on the twenty-year katun cycle. In the Classic period, the katuns were fit within the progressive Long Count, but in the Postclassic this seems to have largely disappeared, to be replaced by the Short Count, a cycle of thirteen katuns. In Central Mexico, the fifty-two year Sacred Round was primary, and no longer form of reckoning ever seems to have been developed. In both cases, any given period of time was strongly associated with all previous and later periods that bore the same same. For the Mexica Aztec, similar events could be expected to occur in any year Ce Acatl, or One Reed-- among other things, the year in which the man-god Quetzalcoatl was born. For the Yucatec Maya, the same held true for the katun 8 Ahau, when disaster struck and cities fell. When historical events were assembled into a narrative, they were hung onto this framework, which may often have distorted their precise Western calendrical position.
As in most cultures other than our own, myth and history were not clearly distinguished (Florescano 1994). Recently, the reality of the history/myth separation, and the value of making it, has been questioned by some, who feel that since the ancient sources made no distinction between the two types of information, history is always coded into myth and inseparable from it (e.g., Bricker 1981, Lincoln 1990). This perspective is tangentially supported by modern interpretations of the material, some of which are barely recognizable as having been derived from the same sources (witness Lincoln's  comparison of Roys' and Edmonson's translations of the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, in which not even the proper names are the same). Nonetheless, this paper argues that it is possible to separate out that which probably did occur, or "history," from subsequent manipulation of that event, or "myth."
Even a distinction as sharp in the West as that between man and god is not clear in Mesoamerican accounts. Leaders were seen, both in their own lifetimes and after, as incarnations of deities (e.g., Gruzinski 1989). Their acts mirrored those of the deity in his present and future avatars. Thus a series of leaders might bear the same name or title, and at least in theory perform some of the same deeds. In Colonial accounts, whether in Spanish or an indigenous language, repetitions of the same individual or event were easily conflated. This probably did not seem a problem within native culture, as the eternal role was more important than the temporal individual (for an African example of this, see Miller 1972). To the modern ethnohistorian who is attempting to sort historical "reality" from myth, it is a problem, and a frequently overlooked one at that. Perhaps the best example of such confusion in Mesoamerica is Quetzalcoatl (Davies 1977:70-4). In central Mexico, the first conflation is that of the god with a historical ruler of Tollan, Hidalgo. The second appears to be between two such rulers, one at or near the beginning of Tollan's florescence, the other at its end. In the Maya area, where the same deity appears as Kukulcan, there are probably as many if not more conflations occurring, but the separation of god and man has proven quite difficult (Seler 1990, Davies 1977:191-5).
Migrations are a prominent theme in many Mesoamerican historical narratives, both those preserved only in alphabetic texts and those recorded in various combinations of pictorial and written elements. The best known example of a migration narrative in the area is that of the Colhua Mexica, or Aztecs, who claimed to have risen from their lowly position as the last arrivals in the Basin of Mexico to their lofty status as conquerors of most of Central Mexico by the arrival of the Spanish. More historical accounts are preserved of the Mexica than of any other Mesoamerican group, and almost all have their migration as a central element. Many attempts have been made to place the events of these accounts within a Western geographic and temporal framework, starting with the earliest chroniclers (Motolinia 1951:83, Durán 1994:3-11) and continuing through numerous secondary studies until the present (Clavigero 1787:112, Seler 1991, Denison 1908, Kirchhoff 1961, Smith 1984). But the Mexica were not alone in their emphasis upon migrations. Most Mesoamerican peoples at the time of the Conquest looked back to a migration event as the foundation of their social unit.
These migration narratives have several distinct sources. First, and
that which has been taken as primary by many ethnohistorians, is historical
fact. Linguistic distributions alone leave no doubt that population movements
on varying scales did occur throughout Mesoamerican history (e.g., Kaufman
1976, Beekman and Christensen in prep.). Second, foreign origin and right
of conquest were asserted by many elite groups as justifications for their
position of authority. Rulers need an ideology to support the distinction
made between them and their subjects; a foreign and superior origin provides
an excellent such justification. Third, the importance of migration narratives
in the Judeo-Christian tradition was quickly recognized by the newly converted
indigenous peoples, who adapted them to their own purposes. This is in
fact simply a post-Conquest variant of the second influence, since Biblical
references served to legitimize any Colonial text in terms of the new dominant
ideology. If we are to understand the first source for such stories, that
is, the actual historical facts that underlie them, we must first try to
understand the second two. Only then can historical reconstructions be
compared to those produced by archaeologists to achieve an accurate understanding
of the role of population movements in Mesoamerican history.
While it may be difficult to explain satisfactorily, it is clear enough that the notion of coming from somewhere else, whether it is somewhere best suited to the preconceptions of outsiders or to members of the society, is one that is uncannily attractive. It seems that there is little glamour in authocthony, perhaps because it often seems desirable to distinguish the ruling classes from the rest of the population. (Henige 1982:96)
A comparison of royal dynastic mythologies from around the world shows
that "foreignness" is almost an essential characteristic of royalty,
or of "stratified" societies as opposed to "ranked"
ones (Henige 1982, Sanders 1989). I am not royal; my brother is not royal;
no one we know is royal. Therefore, royalty are unlike us. To justify the
placement of absolute power within a small group, the assertion of difference
is necessary. And yet, at the same time, to justify the relationship between
a particular royal group and their subject population, some form of similarity
must be evident as well. These two distinct legitimization strategies have
been described as ones of "disconnection" and "connection,"
respectively (Stone 1989). Foreign ties are an important means of disconnection,
but the foreign ruler who does not belong to the subject society lacks
any form of connection. He is thus in a weaker position than the migrant,
who is by his nature foreign and yet native, who has, to some degree or
another, assimilated, while maintaining a distinct identity.
Toltecs and Chichimecs in Central Mexico
In Precolumbian central Mexican history, two ethnonyms were used more frequently than any others: Tolteca and Chichimeca. There has been much debate over the precise meaning of these terms, but it seems clear that both were very complex. At times they did refer to what a modern scholar would consider an ethnic group, but more often they referred to a broader cultural affiliation. "Toltecs" were the long-civilized peoples of Mesoamerica, whether or not they actually lived at Tollan (Davies 1977, 1980). After the fall of Tollan, the term was often associated specifically with Colhuacan, Tollan's former partner. "Chichimecs," on the other hand, were the nomadic groups along the northern frontier of civilization and their settled cousins along the marches (Davies 1980, Gradie 1994). In this sense, the terms were often combined, both with more specific ethnonyms and with each other. One such combination was "Tolteca-Chichimeca," which differentiated the "civilized" Chichimeca from the true, or Teochichimeca. To the settled people of the Basin of Mexico, the Teochichimeca were the quintessential foreigners and immigrants. Late Postclassic central Mexican dynasties claimed to be descended from both lines, drawing youth and strength from the Chichimeca, age and wisdom from the Tolteca (Davies 1980:86). By definition, Chichimec ancestry required some form of migration narrative. Even in cases where this duality is not explicitly stated, it often underlies social structures. In Amaquemecan, for instance, four groups are recorded as the constituent elements of the polity, each with its own migration account (Hodge 1984:39). Two, the Totolimpaneca and Tecuanipa, came from Aztlan. The others, Tenanca and Poyauhteca, came from Teotenango and Tlapallan-Nonohualco respectively, thereby tracing their origins to earlier civilizations within the Altiplano Central. The Mexica themselves, while glorifying their Chichimec ancestry, chose a member of the Colhua royal family, Acamapichtli, as their first tlatoani after the foundation of Tenochtitlan (Davies 1980:198).
Boone (1991) has interpreted the Mexica migration narratives as representations of a ritual performance that recounted a primitive tribe's testing and progression to a higher stage of development, and thus its charter of legitimacy. This rite of passage proved their worthiness to rule. The migration route in many accounts appears circular (Duverger 1983:95-101): sometimes it actually starts in the Basin of Mexico at Colhuacan (which means "The Place of the Owners of Grandfathers"), which is often disguised as Teo- (or "true") Colhuacan. Other times it begins at Aztlan, situated on an island in a lake whose descriptions are modelled after Lake Tetzcoco (e.g., Castillo 1991, Chimalpain 1991).1 Durán's account of the envoys sent by Moteuczoma Ilhuicamina to locate Chicomoztoc and Colhuacan (1994:212-22) indicates not only that that place was a primitive, idyllic version of Tenochtitlan, but also that the Mexica's passage was irreversible. Once you have fallen from grace into civilization, there is no going back.
The Nahuas were not the only ones to claim dual Tolteca-Chichimeca heritage. In Michoacan, the Tarascan monarchy also looked back to Chichimeca who had settled among the lake dwellers (Seler 1993, Pollard 1993:13-4). Despite the complete absence of any linguistic relationship between the groups, the Michoaque, or Tarascans, are frequently linked with the Nahua and Otomi of central Mexico in migration accounts (e.g., Quiñones Keber 1995:54). One lienzo from Jucutacato in Michoacan depicts the movement of a Nonoalca, or Toltec, group westwards from the Gulf Coast by way of Tenochtitlan (Seler 1993:7-17). The village that they founded was Nahuatl-speaking at the Conquest, although included within the Tarascan state. This charter of Toltec ancestry served to differentiate them from their "Chichimec" neighbors, and presumably the story contained within contributed to their maintenance of Nahua ethnicity.
Teotihuacan and Tulan among the Classic and Postclassic Maya
Although archaeologists have often seen the Maya as insular and isolated from their western neighbors (Coe 1984:7), there is now a large body of evidence for the entrance of foreign ideas, if not people, into the region throughout its history. The majority of these influences have been labelled "Mexican," although the accuracy of this designation is somewhat open to question.2 These borrowings can be seen both in the Colonial ethnohistoric sources and in the sculpted texts and monuments of the Classic period. In the Postclassic period, linguistic borrowings indicate that the majority of these influences were indeed Mexican, that is, Nahuatl. But in the Classic period, despite the assumptions made by some archaeologists (e.g., Wilkerson 1994), Nahuatl was probably not present either in the Basin of Mexico or further south (Kaufman 1976).
In Postclassic Yucatan and Quauhtemallan, claims of "Toltec" origin served a legitimizing function similar to that played in Central Mexico. In Yucatan, several lineages, such as the Cocom, Xiu, and Itza, were called dzulob, or foreigners, both by themselves and by others. Our primary texts for the region are the Books of Chilam Balam, mytho-historical chronicles kept in numerous villages by the local priests (e.g., Roys 1967, Edmonson 1982). Unlike the majority of the Central Mexican accounts, these texts present an unabashedly nativist view of history. Their authors do not belong to any of the dynasties whose history they are describing, and thus their accounts of the dzulob show an outsider's or subject's view of this legitimization strategy. It is not surprising that foreignness is less consistently regarded. At times it is an honorific reference, but at other times opprobrious (Stone 1989:166). This tension is probably fundamental to everyone's view of foreigners, with positive or negative aspects of alien identity coming to the fore in different situations-- even in the modern U.S., immigrants and imports are exalted or decried on a case by case basis, usually due less to their own merits than to internal social concerns. While the Itza were seen as unrestrainedly erotic and lewd (Thompson 1970:20-1), they were also seen as divine (Edmonson 1982:6). Understanding of the "language of Zuyua," which may be taken as a general reference to foreign knowledge, was essential for rulers (Roys 1967:192). Advanced military technology was also said to have been introduced by "the Mexicans" (Landa 1978:15). These claims of foreignness were generally associated with some elements of Central Mexican culture, most notably Nahuatl names, but their bearers were largely indistinguishable both linguistically and culturally from the Maya substrate population whom they ruled. In fact, some of these lineages have been documented in the inscriptions of Chichen Itza, indicating their presence in the area for at least 700 years (Ringle 1990; see below).
Several Colonial texts from highland Guatemala, particularly the Popol Vuh (Tedlock 1986) and Annals of the Cakchiquels (Recinos and Goetz 1953), also give migrations a large role in Precolumbian history. But unlike the Chilam Balams, these texts were written by the descendants of the former rulers, and thus migration serves as a self-justification, with none of the negative associations that it has in Yucatan. These groups claimed to have commenced their migrations at "Tulan Zuyua" or a place of seven caves, or Chicomoztoc in Nahuatl. Both Tulan and Zuyua indicate a connection with Yucatan, if not central Mexico (Davies 1977:191-5). The Annals of the Cakchiquels (Recinos and Goetz 1953) refer to four Tulans, superimposing the place upon the cardinal directions and indicating that it had a broader cosmological significance. After a lengthy peregrination, the lineages of the Quiche and their relatives arrived in the highlands of Guatemala and subjugated the existing inhabitants. While there is archaeological evidence that may indicate the arrival of new dynasties in the area (Fox 1980, 1989), this evidence predates the period described in the chronicles by several centuries. Upon examination, it appears that the details of many if not all of the migrations described are only verifiable over fairly short distances (e.g., Hill 1996). Nonetheless, it does appear likely that at least a few of the dynasties involved may have been founded by migrants, even if they were rapidly culturally submerged (Carmack 1981).
While our understanding of Classic Maya history is still incomplete, and the monumental texts are far shorter than the manuscripts from the Colonial period, they nonetheless provide our best source of Mesoamerican history free of Spanish influences. No clear migration narratives appear on the monuments, but the extensive use of "foreign" iconography shows a manipulation of ethnic identity comparable to that found in the Postclassic. One particular set of Classic iconographic elements has been linked with a Teotihuacan warrior complex (Stone 1989, Taube 1992). Perhaps overzealously, Schele and Freidel have dated this adoption by the Maya of the sacred war iconography of Teotihuacan to exactly January 16, AD 378 (1990:130-64).3 On this date, 18.104.22.168.12 in the Maya Long Count, Tikal conquered Uaxactun. The monument which commemorates this event, Uaxactun Stela 5, is the earliest known representation of what they call the "Tlaloc-Venus costume." The strong parallels between this costume and elements of Teotihuacan warrior iconography suggest that the Maya learned this new style of warfare from Teotihuacan.4 These traits continue to occur on Maya monuments through the Terminal Classic, appearing on some of the latest monuments at Seibal in the ninth century. Throughout this span, this costume and associated elements appear to have retained their distinctive foreign identity, and were not simply assimilated into the general Maya iconographic vocabulary (Taube 1992). Stone (1989) has documented how the rulers of Piedras Negras in the seventh and eighth centuries used this costume and other signs of warfare to emphasize their disconnection from their subjects, as opposed to their accession stelae, which used fertility and traditional Maya imagery to affirm their connection.
Similarly, the four stelae that surround Structure A-3 at Seibal, erected in AD 849 to commemorate the 10.1.0.0.0 period ending, depict two individuals in traditional Maya form and two in a "Mexican" costume (Christensen 1991, Graham 1990:25-40, Schele and Freidel 1990:387-9). Many have seen these as depictions of different individuals, and taken them (and the other, amazingly eclectic monuments of the site) as proof for the coexistence of two ethnic groups, natives and conquerors (e.g., Graham 1973, 1990). However, the texts indicate that all four stelae bear portraits of Ruler E, a.k.a. Ah-Bolon-Tun-Ta-Hun-Kin-Butz', (Mathews and Willey 1991, Schele and Freidel 1990). On the monuments he appears in four different costumes, associated with war, rulership, fertility, and the underworld, the first two more "Mexican" and the latter "Mayan" (Christensen 1991, Schele and Freidel 1990). On the second, he also records the presence of lords from three other major sites, Tikal, Calakmul, and Motul de San José, who came to watch, or perhaps participate in, the ceremony. Thus, at the end of the first katun of the new baktun, Ruler E confirmed his power in a way no other Maya ruler ever did. He dedicated a new sacred space in the center of the South Plaza, aligned to the four directions, and performed different rituals for each axis. Foreign lords came to witness the rites, perhaps even to participate. These rituals were then memorialized in an array of stelae, in which Ruler E portrayed himself as everything a ruler could or should be: war and fertility, life and death, foreign and native. Why did he do all of this, after decades of inactivity at the site? By 10.1.0.0.0, the last two other Pasión drainage sites erecting monuments, Itzan and Machaquila, had both ceased (Mathews and Willey 1991). The lord of Seibal was certainly subject to the same stresses that had caused his neighboring dynasties to collapse. By memorializing himself as the exemplar of all aspects of Maya kingship, he sanctified his power enough to keep his subject's support. Ruler E's legitimization campaign clearly worked. For at least forty years after 10.1.0.0.0, his successors could still get their subjects to erect them monuments, if not on as grand a scale, and thereby they outlasted almost all other Classic Maya rulers.
One city that did flourish for some time after even Seibal, and which appears in the Yucatec ethnohistoric sources as well, is Chichen Itza. There has been much debate over the archaeology of this site. While some of the monuments and architecture are clearly in Maya style, others are very reminiscent of Central Mexico. Early interpretations held that the "Toltec" stage was subsequent to the "Maya" stage, which many have seen as clear proof of a Toltec invasion of Yucatan (Tozzer 1957), but more recently it has become clear that the two styles overlap largely, if not completely (Lincoln 1990). In addition to the stratigraphical evidence for overlap, murals depict "Toltec" and "Maya" warriors together, frequently in combat. Much if not most of the iconography is derived from Classic Maya prototypes, and although there are clear foreign influences, these seem to have been integrated within an overall Maya framework (Schele and Freidel 1990:346-76). This new artistic fusion was used to support a transformed political structure, unlike any previously known from the Maya area, in which several individuals shared power (ibid.:359-62). Some of these individuals bore names which recur throughout the Books of Chilam Balam, such as Cocom, Cupul, and Kauil (Ringle 1990). In the later ethnohistoric sources, these lineages were generally considered foreigners. The monumental art of Chichen shows that, seven or eight centuries before the Conquest, these lineages were already carefully manipulating indigenous and foreign imagery to justify their rule to a native Maya audience, whether or not they were originally migrants themselves. Their use of foreign associations proved so successful, in fact, that they continued it for centuries.
The Ultimate Alien
With the arrival of the Spaniards, the dynastic use of foreign origin backfired against its practitioners, for the Spaniards were demonstrably more foreign than any inhabitants of the until-then-known world. The Books of Chilam Balam consider the Spanish another set of dzulob, whose turn it was to rule (Edmonson 1982). Moteuczoma's awe and fear of the conquistadors, and subsequent mishandling of the politico-military situation, can easily be explained in these terms. The stories of Quetzalcoatl's white skin and promised return from the East may or may not date to before the arrival of the Spaniards, but the structural principle underlying them was clearly fundamental to Mesoamerican legitimization. In the construction and backdating of specific prophecies to predict and understand the end of the world as they had known it, native writers took this general principle and cast it in terms that the Spanish would understand: the return of a bearded, white god. Even without such prophecies, the arrival of people who looked different from any that had been seen before, from a direction whence none had come before, would be enough of a challenge to the indigenous dynasties.
This equation of European-ness with legitimate power has continued through
the present, both aiding and abetted by the political dominance of criollos
and ladinos in all of Latin America. The assimilation of native gods to
Christian saints left most indigenous holy images with white faces. Even
in the contemporary resistance movement that most strongly adheres to traditional
Maya values and ideology, that of the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación
Nacional, the most prominent leader is a university-educated creole, not
an Indian (Gossen 1996). Subcomandante Marcos thus continues a strong Maya,
and Mesoamerican, tradition of appropriation and use of the powerful "other"
within indigenous society.
The Lost Tribe
On first receiving this legend, I was inclined to doubt its genuineness and to consider it as a paraphrase or adaptation of the Biblical account.... But a larger and better acquaintance with Hawaiian folklore has shown me that, though the details of the legend, as narrated by the Christian and civilised Kamakau, may possibly in some degree, and unconsciously to him, perhaps have received a Biblical colouring, yet the main facts of the legend, with the identical names of places and persons, are referred to more or less distinctly in other legends of undoubted antiquity. I am compelled, therefore, to class the legend among the other Chaldaeo-Arabico-Hebraic mementoes which the Polynesians brought with them from their homesteads in the West.... (Fornander 1878:99-100, cited in Barrère 1969:32)
One important aspect of the European colonial enterprise throughout the world was the accomodation of the peoples, places, and things encountered within a Western intellectual framework. The modern discipline of anthropology is one of the products of this endeavor. In many, if not all regions, of the globe, the fundamental structure within which indigenous peoples had to be fit was the Bible. Early speculations on the Biblical origins of different groups often appear obscure if not lunatic to modern scholars. But many of these hypotheses, in Mesoamerica as well as South America and the Pacific, found strong supporting evidence in what appeared to be wholly indigenous mytho-historical accounts.
The Spanish Conquest irrevocably altered the social context in which Mesoamerican historical texts were created. The most fundamental historiographical change was the imposition of a new dominant ideology. Just as they had in the Prehispanic period, histories served to legitimize their authors, but the grounds upon which they did so were different. Texts had previously served to justify the elite's superior position to their subjects; now, they served to justify the native nobility's intermediate position to their new rulers and prevent them from being lumped in with the commoners. This was a notably more difficult task, and most caciques had only limited success. The first aim of most colonial histories was to demonstrate one group or dynasty's territorial claims, often before the Spanish courts (Duverger 1983:50-61, Florescano 1994:110ff.). Such demonstrations may frequently have entailed alterations of the historical record. The most parochial of such texts are the local títulos, which provide a late Colonial community history that generally bore at most a faint semblance to objective reality. Others had a slightly broader perspective, such as the many documents from Cuauhtinchan, which are important historical sources but served similar local juridico-political purposes (Reyes 1976, Leibsohn 1993). Some histories, however, had higher aims and tried to justify the Indian's place in the European world. This justification was best provided by the use of Spanish traditions. While references to many aspects of the European tradition were integrated into indigenous sources (see, for instance, Haskett 1996), the most potent were those to the Bible, the central, ultimate authority to a medieval Spaniard (Florescano 1994:126ff., Christensen 1996). These adaptations had many earlier European precedents. Lives of the saints, for instance, were often modelled after specific Biblical events (Alford 1992).
One element in the Biblical narrative that must have been instantly intelligible to the native audience was the story of Exodus. The ancient Hebrews, like so many of their New World cousins, employed a migration as the central element of their self-justificatory history. They were the chosen people, those who had been led into the wilderness and the promised land by Moses, acting at his god's command. It took little reworking to phrase the traditional legitimization myths in the new language. The most extreme example of this was the work of Cristóbal del Castillo, who wrote his Nahuatl account of the Mexica peregrinations at the turn of the seventeenth century (Castillo 1991, Christensen 1996). His text follows Exodus so closely that there seems to be little of "historical" value left. Nor are there many traces of Prehispanic legitimization, such as other sources impart by their listing of different ethnic groups and the genealogical relationships between their leaders. Instead, this use of the Bible in structure and content served, at least in the mind of its author, to legitimize all of the Indians in the eyes of the Spaniards. The Historia's present obscure and fragmentary state indicates how well it succeeded in this endeavor.
Other texts also draw upon Exodus, although not to the same extreme as del Castillo. Most borrow individual topoi rather than the entire structure. The most striking example of this, although perhaps not the most common, is that of crossing the waters, which may or may not part before the migrants. It is possible that conflation may be occurring here as well, because a source which shows as little European influence as the Tira de la peregrinación (1944) still commences with the Mexica leaving Aztlan by boat. Certainly all accounts of Aztlan describe a watery location, and the mere name of Tollan, Place among Reeds, implies the same. But when a parting of the water is specifically described, as in the Popol Vuh (Tedlock 1986:177), Christian influence is assured, as recognized a century ago by Seler (1991). Another recurring theme is the forty years in the wilderness. While del Castillo adapts this to an Aztec context by lengthening it to fifty-two years, the length of one sacred round, the Book of Chilam Balam of Tizimin describes how "the Itza went on, beneath the trees, beneath the bushes, beneath the vines, where they suffered, 6 Ahau (1224), 4 Ahau (1244): forty years, then they came and established their homes again" (Edmonson 1982:7). The Popol Vuh, which many have seen as a fundamental source for both Postclassic and Classic Maya religion, has at least one other possible Biblical borrowing in its migration account. When the peoples came to Tulan, they all spoke one language, yet "the languages of the tribes changed there; their languages became differentiated. They could no longer understand one another clearly when they came away from Tulan" (Tedlock 1986:171). This is rather reminiscent of the Tower of Babel.
In several accounts, the migrants spend some time as captives of another group. Del Castillo begins with the Mexitin enslaved by the Azteca Chicomoztoca, who are clearly modelled after the Egyptians of Exodus. In many other accounts, so much so that it can be taken as the standard version, the Mexica are enslaved in Colhuacan between their stay in Chapultepec and the foundation of Tenochtitlan (Boone 1991). This may well have actually occurred, in some form or other, because it is recorded in a number of early texts, including the Tira de la peregrinación (1944:24-5). But its importance was certainly reinforced by yet another Biblical parallel: not to Egypt this time, but to the Babylonian exile.
Even authors whose data do not appear on the surface to be notably influenced by Christianity may have secondhand biases, on account of the borrowing, usually uncredited, of one author's work by another. A good example of this is Chimalpain. Although his Relaciones are an incredibly valuable source for the history of the Chalco region (Schroeder 1991), they can only be trusted as far as his sources. In most cases, these are unknown, but at least two significant passages of the Memorial breve (Chimalpain 1991:30-2) were clearly lifted directly from the Historia of del Castillo. Given the overtly Christian structure of the work of the latter, the significance of these passages for any study of the Precolumbian past is dubious.
Over time, there have been numerous interpretations posited for such Biblicisms (Christensen 1996). Even in the sixteenth century, while some saw them as proof of the descent of the Indians from the Hebrews or a related group (e.g., Durán 1994), others saw them instead as evidence for a conscious, diabolical mockery of Christianity (e.g., Olmos 1990). Olmos, for one, shifted from one viewpoint to another over the course of his life (Baudot 1995). With the decline in theological influence on scholarship, these views have fallen out of favor. More recently, scholars have either ignored these parallels or seen them as religious universals, symbols and themes that are fundamental to many independently developed sacred traditions. Both of these approaches are clearly flawed. To understand native history and religion on their own terms, these early borrowings need to be recognized and accounted for.
By the time that Durán and Sahagún collected their source materials, in the first generation following the Conquest, such stories had already been integrated into the native tradition, and neither the friars nor the later indigenous chroniclers such as Chimalpain and Ixtlilxochitl were conscious of the interpolations. This process parallels that documented in the Pacific. There some Maori inserted the name Noa in their genealogies and tied their ancestors in to the Old Testament (Kelly 1940). In Hawai'i, one classic account of native history and mythology received a strong Biblical bias due specifically to two mid-nineteenth century informants (Barrère 1969). Such alterations were not imposed by the Europeans who recorded them, or by those who educated the natives. Rather, they were volunteered by Christian converts seeking to establish an accommodation between traditional ways and the new doctrines (Barrère 1967).
The exact nature of this accommodation varied from author to author. One interpretation is that the equation between Indians and Jews was a justification of paganism, since the Jews prior to the coming of Christ could not be blamed for not being Christians (Christensen 1996). This fits with the Franciscan millenarian model, held by some of the earliest evangelizers, that the conversion of the "Jews," whom they too took to be the Indians, was a sign of the arrival of the new millennium (Baudot 1995). However, a more nativist interpretation is also possible. From this perspective, which may or may not have been consciously held by any Colonial Indian authors, the Spanish did not represent the coming of Christ; rather, they represented the Roman occupation of Palestine. In this prophetic interpretation, the foreign conquest was a sign that a new messiah was to be born among the conquered-- a role that several individuals did attempt to play (Bricker 1981, Gruzinski 1989). In either case, the writing of history to highlight its parallels to earlier events, and use these for prophetic purposes, was a direct development from Precolumbian practice.
Also, when large tribal movements are studied at close quarters there sometimes emerges such a welter of small individual groups moving apparently in all directions that any picture of a coherent general movement is obscured. To this extent the near view is unable to see the woods for the trees. (Southall 1954:140)
What are we left with after indigenous and Hispanic legitimation are removed from the migration narratives? Perhaps a reflection of the actual historical reality. It is clear that many migrations did actually occur in the Precolumbian period. The linguistic map alone of Mesoamerica shows many disjunctions and dispersions.5 But linguistics alone cannot reveal the details of ancient migration processes (Rouse 1986). Physical anthropology, which might provide a better indication, has yet to be used extensively in Mesoamerica to address the question (for one example, see Christensen 1997). Thus archaeology provides the best proof of any population movements.
Unfortunately, across all of Mesoamerica it seems that the murkiest period in the archaeological record is the Early Postclassic, when most of the documented migrations would seem to have taken place. It is clear that it was a time of transition and change everywhere, but specific evidence for population movements is hard to come by. The situation is best in central Mexico, where an Epiclassic archaeological horizon has been defined that seems to correlate very well with what is known linguistically and historically about the Nahua migrations (Beekman and Christensen in prep.). However, this pre-Toltec horizon antedates most of the ethnohistorical sources. A careful examination of these texts indicates that many, if not all, refer to the movement of a large number of very small groups of various linguistic affiliations. No clear archaeological signature has been found for any of these groups, although there are some promising efforts (Smith 1983).
In the Maya area, there is clear ceramic and artistic evidence for increased foreign influence in the Terminal Classic, but the significance of these influences remains unclear (Christensen 1991). Some populations probably did move, but the strong overall cultural continuity indicates that the migrants were limited in number and probably at least as "Maya" as they were "Mexican." Migration may be a less appropriate term than population shift in this case, as the geographical and cultural distances traversed were probably not very large. The evidence from the Guatemalan Highlands is similar (Fox 1989). There small migrant groups may be responsible for the lowland-related architecture and ceramics that appear in the Early Postclassic (Fox 1980), but the ethnohistorically known migrations are most verifiable on a very small scale (e.g., Hill 1996).
In all of these cases, there is some agreement between the ethnohistorical
sources and the archaeological ones. But the time frames are different.
The best archaeological data refers to the end of the Classic and beginning
of the Postclassic, perhaps the last two or three centuries of the first
millennium AD. The ethnohistoric accounts may not realistically be extended
back further than the first few centuries of this millennium, a period
when there does not appear to be nearly as much archaeological evidence
for migrations. Thus the amount of historical "truth" found in
the sources is probably low. Rather than a precise record of historical
events, they best serve to demonstrate the importance of migrations and
otherness within the Mesoamerican tradition. While it is true that migrations
would probably never have become this important historiographically if
they did not actually occur, one cannot assume that a historic migration
is at the root of each individual migration narrative.
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1. This passage from the Memorial breve, like at least one other in the same work, was apparently borrowed directly from del Castillo without any acknowledgement.
2. The exact referent of this term is uncertain. If pronounced with a soft "x", this strictly refers to the members of the small Nahuatl tribe which founded Tenochtitlan; with a hard "x," it refers to the modern Estados Unidos de Mexico. Only the fourteenth and fifteenth century remains from within the Aztec empire belong in the first category; a large portion of all Maya sites belong in the second. These Maya sites include, logically enough, those in which the most "Mexican" influence has been seen. So, by (anachronistic) definition, the entire population of Chichen Itza, the Puuc sites, and Palenque, to name a few, were Mexican.
3. Maya dates are here rendered into the Gregorian calendar, according to the 584285 correlation.
4. Schele and Freidel suppose that new strategy, tactics, and technology were a part of this shift (1990:145-9). This clearly hearkens back to the Cocom's introduction of bows, axes, lances, and armor to Yucatan, as described by Landa (1978:15).
5. While language change and population movements do not always correlate, they often do, whether due to large-scale population replacement or the superimposition of a small elite group.