From a geographically, environmentally, linguistically, and ethnically highly variable Mesoamerica, Spain created a core region within her American territories. But for New Spain’s indigenous inhabitants (Mexica or Nahua, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Maya), despite experiencing demographic catastrophe, political and religious subjugation, and labor exploitation during and after conquest, native cultural patterns and agency influenced the reshaping of governance and community (the latter into pueblos de indios), economy, and spiritual and social life during the period of colonial rule. Because environments, indigenous languages, patterns of political, economic, and spiritual organization, ways of structuring family life, varieties of cultural expression, and forms of interrelationships with Spaniards varied so much, indigenous people did not experience a single New Spain. Instead, a multiplicity of New Spains emerged. These indigenous New Spains would play different roles during the independence period, which led to a protracted struggle, further impoverishment, and growing isolation in the new nations of Mesoamerica but cultural survival as well.
Rediscovering the Aztecs and Mayas: Field Exploration, Archaeological Exhibits, and National Museums
Kevin M. Gosner
In the last decades of the 18th century, with the visit in 1784 of José Antonio Calderón to the Maya ruins at Palenque and the discovery in 1790 of the statue of Coatlicue and the Stone of the Sun in the central plaza of Mexico City, the study of ancient Mexico entered a new era. In the century that followed, teams of field surveyors, mapmakers, graphic artists, and artifact collectors worked across central and southern Mexico as well as in Guatemala. Some were commissioned by the Spanish Crown or later by national governments; many arrived from England, France, Germany, and eventually the United States. Early on they worked side by side with geologists, geographers, and field biologists as part of natural history expeditions, accumulating collections of artifacts that would be displayed in curiosity cabinets and early museums alongside trays of colorful butterflies and stuffed tropical birds. And then, as foreign travel books won popular audiences in Europe and the United States, and as international investors arrived in Mexico and Central America, archaeology also was taken up by enthusiastic amateurs looking to sell books, build private collections, or organize international trade fairs.
For serious students of ancient history, field exploration and advances in archaeological record-keeping transformed a body of research and scientific speculation that since the 16th century had been dominated by theologians, historians, and philologists, who studied Spanish chronicles and native language annals but paid scant attention to the remnants of material culture. In the process, Aztecs and Maya were rediscovered as historical subjects, their histories disconnected from that of contemporary Indian peasants and recast as rivals to the great civilizations of the Old World. Ruins of monumental architecture, recovered artifacts in sculptured stone or finely crafted metals, and ancient texts inscribed on wooden lintels and bark cloth were reclaimed as part of national patrimonies to be protected by new state agencies and displayed in modern museums. On January 20, 1911, the International School for American Archaeology and Ethnology formally opened in Mexico City, and this formative period in the archaeological study of ancient peoples ended. Manuel Gamio introduced the study of stratigraphy to fieldwork practices in Mexico and the discipline was transformed once again.
When the anthropologist Paul Kirchhoff proposed a new definition of Mesoamerica in a landmark study from 1943, the first common characteristics he identified were technological and agricultural: the use of the digging-stick (coa) and “the construction of gardens by reclaiming land from lakes (chinampas).” For thousands of years, Native peoples across Mesoamerica drew on their technological innovations to devise bountiful kinds of farming that have been as diverse as the environments in which they were created. All of their farming systems required some degree of intervention in nature, be it through domesticating plants, tilling the soil, or altering the physical environment by making terraces and harnessing water supplies. On an essential level, then, technology and agriculture went hand in hand. Of the many kinds of Mesoamerican farming, the one that arguably modified the environment the most was a distinctive kind of wetland agriculture in which Nahuas—or Aztecs, the speakers of the Nahuatl language—constructed raised garden beds, known as chinampas, in the shallow, freshwater lakes of the Basin of Mexico.
At the heart of this zone of wetland agriculture was the ancient city of Xochimilco. There the raised gardens filled the surrounding lake of the same name, and eventually came to cover a vast area of some 120 square kilometers. The construction and the intensive cultivation of the chinampas required a considerable investment of time and effort, a good deal of technical expertise, and the mastery of specialist skills and knowledge, including hydrology and engineering so as to manage water levels in the lakes through complex irrigation works. The intensive farming of the fertile, well-irrigated gardens, which could be cultivated year round, yielded sizable harvests of maize and other crops. So productive was chinampa agriculture that scholars have considered it one of the most abundant kinds of farming ever devised. As a technological innovation and environmental adaptation, the chinampas were crucial to changes in Mexican history: they generated surpluses sufficient for urbanization and the rise of Tenochtitlan, one of the early modern world’s great cities, as well as the expansion of the Aztec Empire. The chinampas remained important for the provisioning of the capital long after the Spanish conquest, and in spite of the desiccation of the Basin of Mexico, they are still cultivated in a few places today.