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Part 7 Part 9

The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (8)


We know frustratingly little about the social organization of the early towns around the lake. They clearly had leaders —kings, if one wants to use the term— with the ability to marshal armies of some kind. But almost certainly there was a far more elaborate system of subordinate social statuses.

We are told that the Mexica were divided into twenty calpólli, literally, "great houses." (The same word is both singular and plural, since plurals are used in Nahuatl only for animate nouns.) It is by no means clear whether the term refers to buildings, descent lines, military orders, or something else. Most scholars assume that, in the earliest times at least, the calpólli were probably something between tribes and clans. Each calpólli had some leaders, although we do not know how they were selected. One writer describes them this way (Lewis 1999: 42):

Each calpulli existed as a minor state in its own right and consisted of up to 200 nuclear families: a man, his wife, their unmarried children, and the households of their married sons or brothers. The land, communally owned, was shared out for cultivation between the households. By the nature of their environment, rural calpulli were found in smaller towns or in a group of villages. Larger calpulli were confined mainly to the larger Aztec towns and the cities, where they occupied neighbourhoods. Each clan had its own ruling council, selected from the heads of the households, and a tlatoani [leader] of its own who normally belonged to a leading family. Each calpulli paid group taxes to the central government … . Each owed duties to the government, providing obligatory unpaid labour for agricultural, construction and other projects and performing military service.

photo by DKJ
Visitors to Mexico are inevitably impressed by enormous periodic markets, like this one at Uruapán in the state of Michoacán, directly west of Mexico City. The picture shows only a small section of the part devoted to pottery sales. Although the market at Tlatelolco was the largest and most famous in Aztec Mexico, we must assume that impressive markets were common throughout central and southern Mexico.

Slightly to the north of Tenochtítlan there was a marshy region of the same island of Acatzíntlan that had resisted settlement. In 1358 a land dispute in Tenochtítlan seems to have driven some of its inhabitants to settle these northern swamps, which came to be called Tlatelólco ("place of the embankment"). The two towns of Tenochtítlan and Tlatelólco were soon quite similar, each engaging in some trade, each fishing and farming their chinampas, and each suspicious of the other.

From its founding in 1358 until it was invaded and assimilated in 1473 (see below), Tlatelólco had separate institutions, parallel to those at Tenochtítlan. However its market grew much larger, and as the Mexica throve and emerged as a political power, the market of Tlatelólco grew until it was the largest market in Mesoamerica. Remarkably, it still exists. (Bernal Díaz' famous account of this market at the time of Cortés' arrival is available on this web site. Link)

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