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Native conquistadors: the role of Tlaxcala in the fall of the Aztec empire

The Spanish invasion of Mesoamerica, leading to the collapse of the Aztec empire, would have been impossible were it not for the assistance provided by various groups of Native allies who sensed the opportunity to upend the existing geopolitical order to something they thought would be to their advantage. No group was more critical to these alliances than the Tlaxcaltecs. From their city-state of Tlaxcallan, roughly corresponding to the contemporary Mexican state of Tlaxcala (figure 1), the Tlaxcaltecs had successfully resisted incorporation into the empire for decades prior to the Spanish arrival. They made the fateful decision to join the bearded foreigners and offer tens of thousands of seasoned warriors, tactical knowledge of the local landscape and military practices, and food and safe harbor during the Aztec-Spanish War. Following it, the Tlaxcaltecs advocated for their semi-autonomy from Spain as a recognized “Indian Republic” during the remainder of the sixteenth century, while also continuing to assist in wars of conquest from Central America to the Southwestern United States. Who were these key actors and how does their initial encounter with the expedition, led by Hernando Cortés, dispel common myths in what has traditionally be known as the “conquest of Mexico”?

Figure 1. Map depicting entry route into Tlaxcala, with battle sites of Tecoac and Tzompantepec, and continued route to Tenochtitlan, retreat to Tlaxcallan, and final assault on the Aztec capital by the joint Spanish-Mesoamerican forces. Map by David Carballo.

I have been fascinated by researching Tlaxcala over the last twenty years, and doing so inspired me to write a book on the violent encounter between Spaniards and Mesoamericans that took place five hundred years ago, titled Collision of Worlds. As an archaeologist, my lens on these events emphasizes elements of the physical world, such as material culture and landscape, and a temporal depth that considers the millennia of societal development on both sides of the Atlantic prior to the typical focal period of 1519–1521. The relevant texts from the period have been reinterpreted by historians since the sixteenth century and remain critical to any retelling of these events. Yet through archaeology we also gain the tangible authenticity of a historical understanding that includes the houses people lived in, the things they used in their daily lives, and the terrain they navigated (figure 2). Together with colleagues such as Keitlyn Alcantara and Aurelio López Corral, I have considered the archaeology of this encounter and its legacies today in how people commemorate and identify with it.

Figure 2. Landscape of the entry point into Tlaxcala near Tecoac. Photo by David Carballo.

Among the prevalent myths that historian Matthew Restall calls out in his book Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest is that Cortés and a mere 500 Spaniards toppled the Aztec empire, due to some combination of superior military technology, tactical skill, and courage. This blatant falsehood ignores the contributions of tens of thousands of Mesoamericans in driving historical change, whether as skilled guides, fierce warriors, or savvy translators. The myth of the small but heroic group of Spaniards emerged from historical narratives penned by Europeans and Euro-Americans. Within Mexico and other parts of Mesoamerica, the contributions of Native peoples have been appreciated for centuries but, in pushing back against the narrative, have generated a corollary myth: that Native allies, especially the Tlaxcaltecs, were “traitors” to their people. The initial encounters between the people of Tlaxcala and the Spaniards provide an excellent example of how a more critical reading of history that includes archaeology can help us to dispel these sorts of myths.

Eyewitness accounts by Cortés and other conquistadors report that they entered Tlaxcallan in early September of 1519, having begun this part of the expedition from the town of Ixtacamaxtitlan—still occupied today in the north of Puebla. They arrived through a forested pass called Iliyoacan (“place of abundant alder trees”) where they encountered a few Otomis, who inhabited Tlaxcala’s northern frontier and whose descendants in the area today call themselves Hñähñu or Yühmu. This initial encounter was followed by battles with the Otomi and the larger forces of the Nahuatl-speaking Tlaxcaltecs at Tecoac and Tzompantepec, the latter still a town in central Tlaxcala. Our archaeological excavations have focused primarily on earlier time periods, but populations in central Mexico were the highest during the Postclassic (“Aztec”) period and, as a result, we have also recovered pottery and other materials from sites just outside of Tecoac and Tzompantepec (figure 3). The analysis of the first by Laura Heath-Stout shows that the northern Otomis had slightly different trade contacts from the Tlaxcaltec but were very much tied into the commercial and stylistic networks of the day; they were far from peripheral ruffians. The prehispanic alliance between these two groups also attests to the sorts of indirect control that Native politics observed—where one city-state, even Tenochtitlan as an imperial capital, might build its power through alliances or conquests but didn’t seek to directly control the politics, religions, or economies of others, just to establish their own dominance and tax their subjects. This was a very different model from the direct control empire that Spain was beginning to impose in the Americas, and the difference in understanding of how politics worked explains why Native allies to the Spaniards expected different outcomes from assisting the foreigners.

Figure 3. Pottery types excavated near Tecoac. Photo by Laura Heath-Stout and used with permission.

To counter the Eurocentric narratives of these events we can look to pictorial manuscripts illustrated by Otomi and Tlaxcaltec scribes, often with accompanying hieroglyphic and alphabetic texts. The most textually detailed of these is the Historia de Tlaxcala, compiled by the mestizo (mixed ancestry) historian Diego Muñoz Camargo, who sailed from Mexico to Spain in order to present a history of his people to the King Phillip II. This was part of a larger effort on the part of the Tlaxcaltecs to portray themselves as having been steadfastly loyal to Spain, as a means of negotiating some autonomies within the exploitative system of colonial New Spain. The text is accompanied by illustrations such as the entry through Iliyoacan (figure 4), depicting an alder tree as a place-name, Cortés on horseback, the Native translator Malintzin as interlocutor, and local inhabitants (Otomis or Tlaxcaltecs) gifting provisions, rather than the armed conflict we know occurred from other sources.

Figure 4. Depiction of initial encounter at Iliyoacan from the Historia de Tlaxcala, showing locals of Tlaxcala provisioning Cortés with turkeys and other local foods and Malintzli and an alder tree in center. Drawing by Pedro Cahuantzi Hernández and used with permission.

We are presented with a very different image of this initial armed encounter at Tecoac and Tzompantepec in the Otomi-authored Huamantla Map, a large (23 x 6 ft) rendition of the history and sacred landscapes of the people of this region, dating from the later sixteenth century but illustrated on bark paper in a very prehispanic style. David Wright-Carr discusses how the large size of the map would have lent itself to oral accounts of Otomi history and its embodiment through performance with the map as a backdrop. By scrolling through the digitized document, one can appreciate a narrative that includes the origins of the Otomi as a people in a sacred cave located somewhere to the northwest (page 6); their migration eastward passing the ruined pyramids of the pre-Aztec city of Teotihuacan, where the Fifth Sun of creation was set into motion (page 1); various episodes of Otomi political history (pages 2-4); and the arrival of the Spaniards (page 5). The painted scene on the upper right corner of this page presents a very different history from the Tlaxcaltec depicted in illustrations of the Historia de Tlaxcala and related Lienzo de Tlaxcala. Native peoples also engaged in the diplomacy of gifting and supplying the Spaniards but are also shown being decapitated by bearded conquistadors on horseback, in what is a much bloodier rendition of the initial encounter, one indicating armed conflict and resistance prior to the alliance and eventual invasion of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.

The combination of archaeology and Native texts from Tlaxcala thereby provide a counternarrative to Eurocentric history and simplistic myths of courageous conquistadors or treasonous Tlaxcaltecs—one in which Indigenous and colonizing understanding of alliance were misaligned and where strategic actors marshalled history in navigating this violent encounter and its colonial aftermath.

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