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Aztlán, The Mythical Homeland of the Aztec-Mexica

Aztlán: History or Myth?

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The Aztec/Mexica leaving Aztlan from the Codex Boturini, 16th century

The Aztec/Mexica leaving Aztlan from the Codex Boturini, 16th century

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According to written and oral accounts, Aztlán is the mythical homeland from which the Aztec/Mexica migrated, along with other Nahua tribes, at about AD 1113, to reach the Valley of Mexico in the 13th century. The term Aztlan means “the place of whiteness” or “the place of the heron”.

Aztlán: Myth or Historic Place?

The migration of the Aztecs from their homeland is narrated in many indigenous and colonial sources. Modern scholars have long debated whether Aztlán was a real place or simply a myth. The Mexica told the Spanish that their ancestors had reached the Valley of Mexico about 300 years before, after having left their homeland Aztlán-Chicomoztoc, traditionally located far north of Tenochtitlan.

In Aztlán, the Mexica ancestors dwelled in the place of the seven caves called Chicomoztoc (Chee-co-moz-toch), where each cave corresponded to one of the Nahuatl tribes which would later leave that place to reach, in successive waves, the Valley of Mexico. These tribes, with slight differences from source to source, were: the Xochimilca, Chalca, Tepaneca, Colhua, Tlahuica, Tlaxcala and the group who were to become the Mexica.

Oral and written accounts also mention that the Mexica, and the other Nahuatl groups, were preceded in their migration by another group, collectively known a Chichimecas, who migrated from north to Central Mexico some time earlier, and were considered by the Nahua people less civilized. 

Archaeological and Linguistic Evidence for the Aztlán Migration

Archaeology and historical linguistics actually support this traditional account. It seems now clear that the Mexica were the last of many tribes who migrated toward the Valley of Mexico from what is now Northern Mexico and/or the Southeastern United States due to a period of serious droughts, between 1100 and 1300 AD. This evidence includes the introduction of new ceramic types in central Mexico, about the same time of the Mexica arrival, and the fact that the Nahuatl language, the language spoken by the Aztec/Mexica, is not original of Central Mexico.

The Quest for Aztlán

The migration from Aztlán, which according to the Mexica tradition was commanded by their patron deity Huitzilopochtli, is narrated in many codices, mainly the codex Boturini o Tira de la Peregrinacion, and reported by several Spanish chroniclers like Bernal Diaz del Castillo and Bernardino de Sahagun.

These same chroniclers tell us that in the mid-15th century one of the Mexica kings, Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, sent an expedition to search the mythical homeland and that they reach the land of La Florida, broadly corresponding to what is now New Mexico and Southeast United States.

In modern Chicano culture, Aztlán represents an important symbol of spiritual and national unity, and it has been often paralleled to the territories ceded to the United States by Mexico with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Aztec Civilization, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Smith, Michael, 1984, The Aztlan Migrations of the Nahuatl Chronicles: Myth or History? Ethnohistory, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 153-186

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