What can the Aztecs tell us about themselves? The secrets of their ‘indigenous annals’

Views of the indigenous people of central Mexico have long been shaped by accounts written by Spanish invaders and colonial settlers – but, as Camilla Townsend explains, if we focus instead on the Aztecs’ own records, a very different picture emerges

A page of the Codex Borbonicus, an Aztec folding book painted around the time of the Spanish invasion

In 1579, a son was born to a well-to-do indigenous family living in the town of Amaquemecan, New Spain (encompassing today’s Mexico). His parents gave him the Christian name Domingo, but he was also sometimes called Chimalpahin, meaning ‘He Ran with a Shield’ in their language, Nahuatl. It had been his great-great-grandfather’s name.

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The boy had a happy childhood, growing up in a four-sided complex of adobe rooms surrounding a bright, flower-filled patio where much of the women’s daily work of spinning, weaving and tortilla-making was done. Outside the home lay fields of corn and beans in which the men laboured. Chimalpahin’s family was a proud one: they were related to the nobility of the kingdom of Chalco, of which Amaquemecan had been a part. Chalco, though at one time conquered by the Aztecs of nearby Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), had grown to be that people’s close ally. Together they dominated the central valley of Mexico, and the Aztecs governed much of the surrounding land as well. In the 1580s, Amaquemecan might have seemed like a backwater, but Chimalpahin was well aware that it had been a player in the days of the Aztec empire.

Chimalpahin loved his grandmother, who had been a child in the 1530s, the period right after the Spaniards first came. She had stories to tell, and she found a listener in her grandson. She described the old days: the feasts of trussed wild birds and honeyed hot chocolate, the evening concerts with drums and the haunting music of conch shells. But she also recalled the frightening periods of deadly drought, and the wars in her parents’ time when the Aztecs expanded their power and resource base so that the people of their valley need never know hunger again.

The church had been built on the site of the temple pyramid, where prisoners had occasionally been sacrificed to gain the favour of the old gods

There were other subjects that she did not dwell on, because the boy was a devout Christian and loved his friar-teachers. She knew, and perhaps whispered to him, that the town church had been built on the site where the old temple pyramid used to stand. There, on important holy days, prisoners of war had occasionally been sacrificed in a desperate effort to gain the favour of the old gods. It hadn’t worked, she said; the priests had been mistaken in their teachings, and she was still bitter about that.

The grandmother showed the boy the old painted histories used by talented speakers and singers as mnemonic devices helping them recount and dramatise the people’s story during firelit evenings. Another relative showed him some old parchments written in Nahuatl, the words spelled out using the Roman alphabet. The friars’ earliest students, those of Chimalpahin’s grandmother’s generation, had enjoyed taking their new knowledge of phonetic writing and using it to transcribe the old oral history performances. The boy was fascinated by these ageing papers, and never forgot them – nor the attics in which he had seen them.

Church and city

When Chimalpahin, now more and more often called Domingo, was around 11 years old, he went to Mexico City to be educated and to work for the church. He loved to visit the pair of captive jaguars kept in a pretty cage outside a government building not far from where the Aztec emperor Moctezuma had once had a zoo. In his journal, he recorded his sadness when the jaguars were shipped off to Spain as a present for the king.

A map of Mexico City, from a mid-16th-century Spanish atlas. The colonisers built their new capital on the site of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán
A map of Mexico City, from a mid-16th-century Spanish atlas. The colonisers built their new capital on the site of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, which had been razed during the conquest, and destroyed most literary sources pre-dating their arrival (Getty Images/UniversalImagesGroup)

That event notwithstanding, young Domingo loved his life in Mexico City. He enjoyed reading and studying the great European texts (Saint Augustine was a favourite) and was delighted to contribute to spreading the word of God – for his teachers had assured him that, in the eyes of God, all human souls were equally valuable. When he was only 16, he was considered so mature that he was made the manager of the small church of San Antonio Abad, which stood at the gate of the city where Moctezuma and Hernán Cortés had first come face to face in 1519. Domingo continued to be fascinated by his people’s past, and made it his business to collect whatever indigenous histories he could find, whether they recounted the past of Chalco or of the Aztecs of Mexico City. When he went home to Chalco for visits, he began to collect papers there, too – often the ones he had seen during his childhood.

Domingo’s father and grandmother both died in a horrifying epidemic of the early 1600s, when multiple diseases hit at once. They were not the only ones. The native population had fallen so dramatically over the course of the previous three generations, ravaged by exposure to European diseases, that many people – Spanish and indigenous alike – believed that they might be on the road to extinction. Domingo thought it was possible. At the very least, it was becoming clear to him that there was almost no one left alive who could understand the painted glyphic histories of the pre-conquest years, and there were even relatively few people who could still truly comprehend the transcribed written histories, because their style was very different from that of European texts. In the evenings, when he had finished his work for the church, he took it upon himself to gather together all the native history he could find and write it out in one grand compendium. He wrote in Nahuatl, and also began to again style himself ‘Chimalpahin’ more regularly.

Victory from defeat

One of Chimalpahin’s favourite stories from the sources concerned Shield Flower, daughter of a late-13th-century warrior chief. (She was sometimes given the even more valiant name Shield-Bearer Flower.) Her ancestors had arrived in the preceding century, among the last of a wave of migrants from the north, from regions known today as Arizona and New Mexico. When they arrived in the central valley of Mexico, they found that all of the best land had already been claimed, so they offered themselves for hire as mercenaries in other city-states’ wars, living hand to mouth. Eventually, Shield Flower’s father had had enough. He declared war on Culhuacan, a leading chiefdom, thinking that his people’s place would be assured – if they won.

They lost. Shield Flower was among many women taken prisoner. She was selected to be sacrificed – a surprising choice: it was usually men who were thus killed. But their enemies dithered and delayed for days, apparently having no taste for the deed. The girl was brave – beyond brave, even. At length, she shouted to her enemies to bring her the feathers and the chalk, the ceremonial items needed to perform a ritual sacrifice. She would adorn herself and do the deed, if they were too cowardly to do so, she said. Someone brought her what she demanded and, as she died, she screamed at her enemies: “People of Culhuacan, I go to where my god lives. My people’s descendants will all become great warriors – you will see!”

After she died, the Culhuas washed away her blood and ashes, but they could not wash away the dread her words had awakened. Indeed, Shield Flower’s people went on to build the magnificent Aztec empire. She had inspired them to fight for their future, to master their fear and overcome their dependence and poverty, to work night and day to accomplish great things. She was quite a woman, Chimalpahin no doubt thought as he scribbled.

Chimalpahin wrote for over two decades, in an era when many other Nahuatl-speaking people likewise participated in the writing of their forebears’ histories, based on the old sources they still had at their disposal. For years afterwards their families treasured their work, but by the 18th century many of the native historians’ descendants were selling their works to European collectors. Some ended up in Mexico City, while others landed in Spain, France or England. Some of Chimalpahin’s most important papers were found in the 1980s in the collection of Britain’s Bible Society, housed in Cambridge University Library; in 2014 they were repatriated to Mexico, to the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. His record of his own time has been translated into English, and is available to read as Annals of His Time: Don Domingo de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin, edited by James Lockhart, Susan Schroeder and Doris Namala (Stanford, 2006).

Revisiting indigenous annals

At first, scholars paid little attention to what they called the ‘indigenous annals’ because, by western standards, they were difficult to understand. Parts of some were translated into European languages, but still they seemed strange, and little use was made of them except to date certain events or to name certain kings.

Only in the past generation have we been able to make much sense of them, as scholars have become able to read not just one but many sets of such annals, and comprehension of classical-era Nahuatl has improved – partly because living speakers were finally asked for help. We can now see the patterns, and recognise Nahuatl modes of telling history. At the time the stories were first told, they made sense to the listeners and little or no explanation was needed, but in modern times we have had to work hard to figure out what they meant. Occasionally, Chimalpahin helps us out by including explanations here and there, but he doesn’t always do so. And, though he was the most prolific writer, he was not the only one.

We have been taught that the Aztecs were a nasty, brutish people - but the texts demonstrate that the Aztecs loved a good joke and a compelling story

The Aztecs and their allies who emerge from these documents bear little resemblance to the people described in Spanish texts of the colonial era upon which historians have, until now, mostly relied. The Spaniards were intent on proving that the Mesoamericans deserved to be defeated; moreover, since they didn’t speak the local language, the Spanish often had no way of understanding what was really going on. We have been taught that the Aztecs were a nasty, brutish people intent on destroying others, who suddenly became convinced that Cortés was a god and thus were content to relinquish power.

In fact, the Aztecs were relative newcomers to the region. On first arrival in central Mexico, they had had no land and few resources. Eventually, they began to win some wars, but hunger still dogged them until they launched an imperialistic campaign that left them almost in sole charge of much of Mexico. Like other people in powerful positions, they sometimes behaved badly, by sacrificing many enemies to make a political point. They saw themselves as people who had always demonstrated courage and made the best of their situation, and they weren’t going to turn back, nor allow themselves to be defeated again; they had Shield Flower’s prophecy to live up to.

Aztecs make a ritual offering of birds to avert drought, 16th century illustration
Aztecs make a ritual offering of birds to avert drought – a common and serious threat – depicted in an illustration from the 16th-century Tovar Codex (AKG Images)

Texts such as those by Chimalpahin demonstrate that the Aztecs loved a good joke and appreciated a compelling story. After the Spaniards came, they certainly never believed that Hernán Cortés was a god; rather, they knew that they had lost a very human war. In the history they knew, that was a rather old human story. Chimalpahin, a devout Christian and a good man, felt respect and admiration for his forebears and, the more he learned about them, the sentiment only grew.


The Aztecs: legacy, lineage and laughter

Indigenous sources reveal that Aztec life wasn’t as unfamiliar as we might expect…

The Aztecs had a history of their own

The indigenous historical annals reveal that prior to conquest, the Aztecs had a well-documented and detailed history, complete with wars, rising and falling kings, political marriages, palace plots and executions. Men always ruled, but women were important, for in a world where each prince had many wives, the question of the succession was extremely complex. Which of the wives’ family backgrounds was powerful enough to ensure that one of her sons would inherit? The political intrigues never seemed to end. Henry VIII probably would have found it all very familiar!

Without these sources, we tend to imagine that the Aztecs’ history is lost in the mists of time, or that they lived in an unchanging world. With these sources, for at least two generations before the conquest, we have historical facts at our fingertips.

The Aztecs valued mutual respect

The Aztecs are famous for having conquered so many other city-states or altepetl (pronounced al-TE-pet) that we refer to their ‘empire’. At the peak of their power, they did not take ‘no’ for an answer, so we have not tended to think of them as being especially talented at exhibiting mutual respect. But indigenous sources reveal that, as with all Nahuatl-speaking cultures, each altepetl was very careful to ensure that all parts of the community felt included and none overly burdened.

For example, in recitations of their people’s history, each neighbourhood would designate a performer who would step forward to offer their perspective on events as one of a sequence of renditions. And each neighbourhood would take it in turn to assume responsibility for chores such as repairing the local temple or removing weeds from a port. In some Nahua city-states, even the chieftainship passed circularly among different family lines.

The Aztecs loved to make each other laugh

Archaeological evidence has suggested that the Aztecs were a sombre people, and this was true in some regards and at some moments. But Nahuatl-language sources have taught us that they also loved a good joke. In their myth-history recounting the deep past, one of the worst kings, a man who caused terrible rifts and wars among the people, was nicknamed Huemac (WAY-mak), which means ‘big gift’. Some gift he was! Funny names weren’t just for kings, either. One little girl hated baths so much that she was nicknamed ‘She’s-not-a-Fish’.

Another story tells of a local chief who was nearly driven crazy when his enemies arrived, because they persisted in cooking savoury ducks, whose delicious smell rose up to him on his hill and reminded him how hungry he was. When the people gathered for performances of their history, scenes like this would have been especially welcome.

The Aztecs had their own fear of epidemics

European diseases brought devastation to the New World because none of the people there had acquired any immunity to them. Smallpox had an especially high rate of mortality, and the Mesoamericans were among the first to suffer. Nahuatl-language sources demonstrate that before the conquest, when a person lay dying, the single most important element was to know that he or she would be remembered by loved ones and their descendants. Thus, when the epidemics began and children were taken in large numbers, destroying hope for posterity, the pain was almost unfathomable. In a record that one man kept in the midst of a later whooping cough epidemic, listing each person who died in his community, he wrote one Sunday, “No one’s child died today.”


Camilla Townsend is distinguished professor of history at Rutgers University, New Jersey, and author of Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (Oxford University Press, 2019). Listen to her discuss the Aztecs further on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast

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This article was taken from issue 21 of BBC World Histories magazine