Meet the Tarascans: Fierce Foes of the Aztecs

TarascanincenseburnerwTlalocheaddressAt the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico (1519-1521 CE), two empires dominated the political and cultural landscape of Mesoamerica: the Aztec Empire and the relatively unknown Tarascan State. The Tarascans were the archenemies of the Aztecs, carving an empire of their own in the contemporary Mexican states of Michoacán, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Querétaro, Colima, and Jalisco. At the center of the Tarascan State was the splendid capital city of Tzintzuntzan–“the place of the hummingbirds”–located alongside Lake Pátzcuaro. From this religious and administrative center, the Tarascan cazonci or “king” ruled a multiethnic empire of 72,500 square kilometers (45,000 square miles), matching the Aztecs in might and power.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. Claudia Espejel Carbajal — professor of History at El Colegio de Michoacán (COLMICH) — an expert on Tarascan ethnohistory and archaeology.

JW: ¡Bienvenido Dr. Claudia Espejel Carbajal! Thank you for speaking to the Ancient History Encyclopedia about the pre-Columbian Tarascan State. I am delighted to have the chance to conduct this interview.

I wanted to begin with a question about the origins of the Tarascan State and the peoples who populated it: What does research suggest about the origins of the Purépecha people — the prominent ethnic group of the historic Tarascan State — and the formation of their empire? Some scholars and linguists have gone so far as to suggest Peruvian or Colombian origins for the Tarascans. What are your opinions?

CE: Thank you, James, for giving me the opportunity to talk about the ancient Tarascan or Purépecha people.

As to the origins of the Tarascan State, there are two main sources of information. One is the “official” story that the Tarascans themselves have constructed about the origin of their kingdom. This account, mythical and legendary rather than historical, was recorded by a Franciscan friar some years after the Spanish conquest in a document known as the Relación de Michoacán. According to this document, a group of warriors came into the north of present-day Michoacán, in Western Mexico, and tried to settle in the region for several generations, first in the north near Zacapu and later in the environs of Lake Pátzcuaro. They attempted to form alliances with the people who already lived there without success; on the contrary, they were constantly harassed by them. Finally, they were able to defeat their main enemies and by means of a huge military campaign, they conquered many towns throughout Michoacán in rapid succession. The dates of these events are unknown, but some can be surmised from the sequence of rulers who governed this ethnic group. For instance, the arrival to Michoacán could have been around 1200 CE, and the conquest campaign can be dated at about 1450 CE.

“The Tarascan State is distinguishable by virtue of its unique relationship with the environment, its artistic and economic modes of production, its language, and its social organization and belief systems.”

The second source of information is provided by archaeological research. Research conducted by a team of French archaeologists in the vicinity of Zacapu has shown that around 1200 CE, there was a significant movement of people. We know that archaeological sites near the Lerma river (north of the Zacapu area) were abandoned, while at the same time, several large settlements were built in a lava field around what is present-day Zacapu, Mexico. This rapid population increase cannot be explained as the result of natural demographic growth, so it has been interpreted as the result of migration. Another interesting fact is that by c. 1450 CE, almost all these settlements were suddenly abandoned in a planned way. Who were these people? Where did they come from? Why and where had they gone? Were they perhaps — at least some of them — the ancestors of the Tarascan kings as the legends tells us? Unfortunately, there are not yet answers to these questions.

The archaeological research conducted by Dr. Helen P. Pollard of Michigan State University, along the southwestern shore of Lake Pátzcuaro, has shown that in this region there was also demographic growth during the Postclassic period (c. 1100-1520 CE). The level of the lake rose simultaneously, so much of the agricultural land was covered by water. Pollard has suggested that this situation triggered a competition for natural resources and the need for them to relocate outside the lake basin, which explains in turn the conquest and rise of a more complex society: the Tarascan State. Regrettably almost no research has been conducted in Tarascan sites outside the Pátzcuaro Lake Basin, so we do not know what happened when the Tarascan expansion started, how the conquered towns were incorporated into the State, and which social and cultural changes occurred throughout this process.

It is possible that during the 13th century CE, perhaps due to climatic changes, Michoacán was invaded by people with a culture centered on war coming from the north of what we know now as “Mesoamerica.” This situation brought about a reorganization of both old and new populations — a process that finally produced a complex society formed by independent towns or city-states — joined under the rule of one single “king.”

Tzintzuntzan01As you mentioned, some scholars have suggested a linguistic relation between Purépecha and the Quechua languages of the Andes, but this seems to be very remote. Similarities in other cultural traits, such as some ceramic vessel forms present in Western Mexico and in South American regions since Preclassic times (c. 1500 BCE), have also been noted. With more certainty, metallurgy was introduced into Mesoamerica from South and Central America through Western Mexico around c. 800 CE. All this suggests some sort of contact between both areas over a long period of time, but I think there is definitely no evidence of a Peruvian or Colombian origin for the Tarascan State.

JW: The Tarascans are noted for their unusual T-shaped pyramids — known as yácatas — and unusual metalworking techniques. Dr. Espejel, I am curious if you could provide with us more information about the more unique features of Tarascan art, technology, or religion? What is it that stands out about ancient Tarascan culture in your estimation?

CE: Roughly speaking, Tarascan art, technology, and religion were similar to those of other Mesoamerican cultures, just different in style. They had their own gods but practiced similar rituals like human sacrifices. They built, as you have said, peculiar pyramids that combine a rectangular stepped section with a circular one, but the building system was more or less the same as that of, let us say, Aztec architecture. Tarascan metallurgy was not more advanced than that of their neighbors, but they did use metal not only to make ornaments but work tools too. On the other hand, Tarascan sculpture, compared to that of the best known Mesoamerican cultures, is simple and rare, and as far as we know, they did not develop a pictographic writing system, painted codices, or use a sophisticated calendar like the Mixtec, Maya, or Aztec civilizations.

Ceramic vessels are perhaps the most remarkable Tarascan feature, inherited from a long local pottery tradition. Spouted jars with spur-shaped handles, sometimes modeled on animal and plant forms, usually highly decorated, using several colors and negative or resist painting, are distinctive, as well as tripod bowls with very large hollow supports, miniature vessels, and long stemmed pipes decorated in the same way. We know from Spanish colonial records that the Tarascans were highly skilled craftspeople, as they still are today. The feather work used to decorate costumes and shields was outstanding!

The Tarascan State is distinguishable by virtue of its unique relationship with the environment, its artistic and economic modes of production, its language, and its social organization and belief systems.

JW: From c. 1450-1520 CE, the Tarascans expanded their empire, which eventually encompassed a large section of the interior of Northwestern Mexico. The Tarascans typically respected the ethnic groups that they conquered and maintained large armies of professional soldiers. The Aztec Empire expanded in tandem with that of the Tarascan State, systematically subjugating neighboring city-states in the Central Valley of Mexico. The Tarascans clashed often with the covetous Aztecs, defeating them in intermittent wars from c. 1460-1520 CE.

What key factors enabled the Tarascan State to expand so successfully?

CE: The Tarascan State was indeed composed of different ethnic groups. Some of them were conquered and others voluntarily asked to become subjects of the Tarascan king. The Tarascans respected at least some customs of these groups.Tarascanaztecstates For instance, ethnic groups maintained their own languages and the right to elect their own local authorities, but all of them were compelled to pay a tribute to the king and, most importantly, to fight in the wars organized by the central government. In this way every new conquest increased the Tarascan ranks, and they were therefore able to defeat other groups more easily. That was true while they fought against small polities such as those that inhabited the region of present-day Michoacán.

However, things were not as easy when they tried to conquer cities belonging to the Aztec Empire. At that time, the expansive waves of both civilizations were stopped by each other, and neither could gain control of any town in their respective enemy’s territory. By the way, I must mention that the Aztecs also used to join up different ethnic groups, and they also maintained large armies at strategic points. As far as I know, everybody, even the less developed groups from the Pacific coast, used very similar weapons such as bows and arrows, clubs, shields, and cotton cuirasses, so in this respect, the Tarascans were no more powerful than their enemies.

Taking all of this into account, I think that the number of soldiers was the main factor that explained their success in warfare. A high number of soldiers means of course that there was a superior military organization. Apart from this advantage, it is possible that the Tarascans used to deceive their enemies in some remarkable ways; namely, through sabotage. For example, once the Tarascan troops left a lot of food in the field and hid nearby. When their enemies found the food, they left their weapons in order to eat, and then the Tarascan soldiers fell on them and killed them all. On other occasions, a small groups of soldiers pretended to be ill or wounded in order to be followed by the enemies to a place where the rest of the army could ambush and kill them.

JW: Mutual suspicion and hostility certainly prevailed on both sides; the Aztecs contemptuously referred to the Tarascans as “Michhuaque,” meaning “the lords of the fishes,” while the Tarascans rejected a plea of aid from the Aztecs in their fight against the Spanish conquistadores, led by Hernán Cortés (1485-1547 CE).

I was curious, however, if we know anything about Aztec-Tarascan relations outside the sphere of combat: Were there commercial or even cultural exchanges between the two adversaries? Or did the Tarascans prefer to trade and conduct alliances with other foes of the Aztecs?

ChaacMoolCE: Very little is known about Tarascan commercial activities. Archaeological finds indicate that the elites used several ornamental items made with raw materials from sources outside the Tarascan kingdom: turquoise from the the present-day Southwestern United States and other green stones from Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Zacatecas in Northern Mexico; amethyst from Guerrero, south of Michoacán; crystal rock probably from Guerrero and Oaxaca or from Chihuahua; sea shells from the Pacific Ocean; and green obsidian from Pachuca to the east or from Jalisco to the west. It is possible that these artifacts or the raw materials had been acquired by long distance commercial exchange. According to the Relación de Michoacán, there was a group of servants who obtained gold, silver, and precious stones for the Tarascan king by means of trade. It is important to notice, however, that these materials were used in Michoacán long before the rise of the Tarascan State. For example, most of them have been found in shaft tombs from El Opeño (dating from the Early Preclassic period or c. 1500 BCE).

Curiously, there is no substantial evidence of cultural exchange between Tarascans and Aztecs. For instance, no Aztec ceramics have been found in Tarascan territory and Tarascan artifacts have not been found in archaeological sites in Central Mexico. It is also important to emphasize that before the emergence of the Tarascan State, the inhabitants of Michoacán had had more contact with Central Mexico. We know that the ceramics of the Chupicuaro culture — dating from 500 BCE to 300 CE and centered northeast of present-day Michoacán — have been found in several sites in the Mexico Basin. Obsidian from Ucareo-Zinapécuaro sources, near Lake Cuitzeo, have been also found in many Mesoamerican sites as far away as the Maya regions from the Preclassic to Early Postclassic periods (c. 2000 BCE-1000 CE). In addition, during the Classic period (c. 300-900 CE), Teotihuacán’s influence is obvious in some Michoacán sites, such as Tingambato near Uruapan and Tres Cerritos on the shores of Lake Cuitzeo.

We must keep in mind that the Tarascan State had control over a rich and varied ecological territory, so they could get several luxury and bulk products by tribute or from local markets. Cotton, copper, fruits, cacao, salt, and the feathers of tropical birds were obtained from the hot lowlands along the Balsas River. Obsidian was extracted from the north, primarily from sources in Ucareo-Zinapécuaro, as well as salt from Lake Cuitzeo. The struggles between the Tarascans and Aztecs may have been rooted in control over these natural resources. Tarascan efforts to conquer the Colima and Jalisco regions to the west may also have been aimed at obtaining such valuable goods.

JW: Given their bloody rivalry with the Aztecs and their unique sociocultural traits, it comes as a surprise that the Tarascans are not better known outside of Mexico. Why is this?

CE: There are many factors that explain why Tarascans are not better known. On the one hand, since early colonial times, Spaniards paid more attention to the Aztec Empire which had controlled a wide area in Central and Southern TarascanCoyoteStatuetteMexico. The conquest of this great empire was the main action carried out by Cortés, and the seat of the Spanish government was established at its capital, México-Tenochtitlán, so there are many more records about the Aztecs than any other Mesoamerican group.

Additionally, Mexican archaeology has been focused on tourism, so large archaeological sites with huge monumental structures are more “attractive.” In the context of Mesoamerican studies, Tarascan archaeological sites are not as impressive as the Maya, Zapotec, or Aztec sites, so there has been less institutional interest and financial support to do archaeological research in Michoacán. Outside Mexico, it is also more profitable to study the more famous Maya or Aztec cultures. Finally, there are scant research results in fewer publications, less knowledge, and therefore less interest in the subject.

JW: Following the collapse of the Aztec Empire in 1521 CE, the Tarascans maintained a rather unusual relationship with the Spanish when compared to those of other Mesoamerican peoples. What happened to the Tarascans following the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, and how do descendants remember the Tarascan State today?

CE: In 1522 CE, Hernán Cortés sent an army conducted by Cristóbal de Olid (1487-1524 CE) to conquer Michoacán. A short time before, the Tarascan king, Zuangua (r. 1510-1520 CE), died of smallpox — the first epidemic brought to Mexico by the Spaniards — and his son, Zinzicha Tangaxoan (r. 1521-1529 CE), was elected to govern the kingdom. In the middle of the succession crisis, the Tarascans received the Spaniards peacefully and accepted becoming vassals of the Castilian Crown. Soon after, towns were distributed among the conquistadores and encomiendas, and Franciscans started to baptize the Indians and preach the Gospel. Zinizcha Tangaxoan, who took the Spanish name “Don Francisco,” kept a degree of power. After a while, he was accused of maintaining ancient customs, such as human sacrifices, and in 1530 CE, Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán (c. 1490-1558 CE) — who governed New Spain and was the president of the Primera Audiencia — judged and condemned him to death.

The social order, disturbed by the death of Zinizcha Tangaxoan, was pacified by Vasco de Quiroga (c.1470-1565 CE), the first judge of the Segunda Audiencia and later bishop of Michoacán. By the middle of the 16th century CE, the Spaniards were quite well established in Michoacán, and the Tarascan people were more or less integrated into the new government and converted to Catholicism. It is worth pointing out that Don Antonio Huitzimengari (c. 1490-1562 CE) — younger son of the last Tarascan king — grew up in Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza’s palace in México City. Don Antonio Huitzimengari studied in the university founded by the Augustinians in Tiripetío, Michoacán, learning Spanish, Latin, and Greek. He lived and dressed as a Spaniard and was even governor of Michoacán from 1543 CE until his death in 1562 CE.

The present-day Purépecha — as natives prefer to be called — still have a very strong ethnic identity. Many people have read the Relación de Michoacán and consider it to be a legacy of their ancestors. Even more, some Purépecha scholars have studied this and other historic documents. Since 1983, the Purépecha community celebrates an important annual ritual known as New Fire — or “Kurhikuaeri K’uinchekua” in the Purépecha language — which is symbolically related to the pre-Hispanic past. But broadly speaking, knowledge of the ancient Tarascan State is neither widespread nor is it invoked in modern indigenous culture.

MichuacaLienzoJW: I cannot complete this interview without devoting at least one question to the Relación de Michoacán. What is it and why is it fundamental to one’s understanding of the ancient Tarascan State?

CE: The Relación de Michoacán is a document attributed to Jerónimo de Alcalá, a Franciscan friar who lived in Michoacán for several years and learned the native language. In 1539 CE, Don Antonio de Mendoza (c. 1495-1552 CE), first viceroy of New Spain, asked him to write about the native ancient government and religion. Following this request, Alcalá questioned the old indigenous priests to get information about their past.

The document was divided in three parts: the first, now lost, was devoted to religious matters; the second recorded the official history of the kingdom; and the third dealt with Tarascan customs, detailing marriage, war, justice, funerary traditions, and ends with the story of the Spanish conquest. Additionally, the document was illustrated with 44 paintings. The only known manuscript is located in El Escorial Library in Madrid, Spain, and there are several published editions, both in Spain and Mexico, plus translations in English, Japanese, and French, the latter made by Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Jean-Marie Le Clézio.

The Relación de Michoacán is the main written source available to us about ancient Tarascan culture. In fact, most of our knowledge about the Tarascan State is based on this sole document. Recently many scholars have questioned the authenticity of the stories and descriptions of Alcalá and his native informants. On the one hand, the story of the kingdom seems to be in part an origin myth of the elite, who governed just before the Spanish conquest, and in part a legend about the heroes who founded it. On the other hand, I myself have made a detailed analysis of the document showing that Alcalá interpreted the Tarascan administration in such a way that it looks very similar to medieval, feudal European monarchies. Because of these revisions, attention has turned from the time and circumstances in which the document was made to the intentions of the authors (both Alcalá and the native priests), and, in general, to the document’s meaning and role in the early colonial era. The need to study other historical documentation and to do more archaeological research have also been noted.

It is worth mentioning that the Relación de Michoacán is delightful reading! The Tarascan kingdom’s story was actually a long speech narrated every year by the chief priest, capturing the attention of the audience over the course of a whole day. The main character of the story is Tariacuri, whose adventures are described in minute detail. His personality, thoughts, feelings, moods, concerns, and sense of humor are extraordinarily well transmitted, in addition to those of many other characters. Myths, social relationships, daily life, and landscape are also very well depicted. The same can be said about the story of the Spanish conquest.

YacatatztztzJW: Finally, I wanted to know what was it that first drew you to the Tarascan State? Additionally, what are your future research plans?

CE: My first introduction to the Tarascan State was when, as a student of archaeology, I received fieldwork training in and around Lake Pátzcuaro. I then conducted my own research about old Tarascan roads for my BA degree, and later I wrote my doctoral thesis on the Relación de Michoacán.

Now I am trying to understand how and to what extent ancient Tarascan culture was transformed under Spanish rule. For this project, I am combining archaeological data and historical information from several colonial documents.

JW: Dr. Espejel Carbajal, I thank you so much for your time and consideration! It has been a pleasure to learn more about this fascinating pre-Columbian civilization. We wish you many happy adventures in research.

CE: Thank you James! I hope this information contributes to awakening interest in ancient Tarascan culture and in the archaeology of Michoacán.

Image Key:

  1. A Tarascan incense burner showing a deity with a “Tlaloc headdress,” c. 1350-1521 CE, from the Snite Museum of Art (University of Notre Dame). This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Image created by Madman2001, December 2007.
  2. The archaeological site of Tzintzuntzan in Michoacán, Mexico, the capital of the Tarascan State. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Image created by Hajor, March 2005.
  3. The location of the Tarascan State and Tzintzuntzan in relation to the Aztec Empire and México-Tenochtitlán in modern Mexico. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons that has been released into the public domain by its author. Image created by Maunus, September 2010.
  4. A Tarascan chacmool. This item can be found in the “Cultures of the West Chamber” in the National Museum of Anthropology, in México City, Mexico. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Image created by FernandoFranciles, March 2010.
  5. An anthropomorphic coyote (male human with a coyote head) from the Tarascan State. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Image created by Madman2001, April 2007.
  6. Image depicting the Spanish conquest of the Tarascan State by Nuño de Guzmán (c. 1490-1558 CE). This is a faithful photographic reproduction from Wikimedia Commons of an original two-dimensional work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain. Image created by AndresXXV, September 2013.
  7. Image of Tarascan yácatas at Tzintzuntzan in Michoacán, Mexico. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Image created by Thelmadatter, November 2009.


fotoclaudiaespejelDr. Claudia Espejel Carbajal has been a professor of History at the Colegio de Michoacán in Zamora, Mexico since 2005. Her chief research interests include the Tarascan State, pre-Hispanic cultures in Michoacán, the history of the Spanish conquest, and the subsequent legacy of Spanish colonization in Michoacán. Dr. Espejel’s research has been widely published in both Mexico and the United States of America in both Spanish and English. In recent years, her research on Tarascan ethnohistory and archaeology and has been published by the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI) and Arqueología Mexicana.

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners. Unauthorized reproduction of text and images is prohibited. Special thanks is extended to Ms. Karen Barrett-Wilt for her assistance. Translations from Spanish to English were provided by Mr. James Blake Wiener. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.

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James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.