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Nahuas, a people bound together by a shared culture and language (Nahuatl) dominated central Mesoamerica in 1519. The best-known members of this group are the Mexicas of Tenochtitlán (popularly referred to as Aztecs), but there were a large number of individual Nahua states in the Basin of Mexico and adjacent areas, including Texcoco, Cholula, and Tlaxcala.

The Nahuas were originally non- or perhaps semi-sedentary people, collectively known as Chichimecs, who entered central Mexico in waves from a northern region known in legend as Aztlán. Each succeeding ethnic group learned sedentary ways from the center's native inhabitants; the Mexicas claimed descent of this sort from the Toltec. Over time, the Nahuas developed a complex polity, whose basic corporate building blocks were the Altepetl (regional states), the Calpulli or Tlaxilacalli (altepetl subdivision), and the family. Society was heavily stratified, from the altepetl ruler (Tlatoani) and nobility (Pipiltín) to the commoners (Macehualli), who were internally ranked from the relatively wealthy Pochteca (merchants) to slaves. Most commoners fell in between, and owed tribute in goods and services to the state, formed the rank and file of armies, and received access to land by virtue of calpulli membership.

The two centers of Nahua life were the market and the temple compound, which was the site of outdoor ceremonials, including various forms of human sacrifice dedicated to the many deities of the intricate Nahua religion. Inter-altepetl warfare, sometimes waged to capture sacrificial victims, was endemic, but by the late fifteenth century the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopán (dominated by the Mexicas) had formed an extensive empire.

Yet the Nahuas remained a micropatriotic people, a fact that undermined the cohesion of this empire; lacking any collective identity, individual ethnic groups, such as the Tlaxcalans, made alliances with Cortés against the Mexicas, unwittingly bringing about their own subjugation. The Nahua altepetl bore the brunt of reorganization under the congregación program, the imposition of Iberian-style municipal government, and the replacement of temple compounds and deities by Catholic churches, the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. The Nahuas were among the first to suffer the terrible effects of European epidemic diseases, which drastically reduced population by the early seventeenth century.

Yet the Nahuas and their culture survived. They continued to control their altepetl, even when traditional structures were modified by colonial innovations, and elites learned to manipulate the imposed legal system (which granted them certain rights) to their own and the corporate entities' benefit. The fact that Nahuatl came to be written in European script, and that much of the business of the indigenous world was carried out in this language, facilitated survival. Historian James Lockhart has identified three major stages in this process: in the first, during the initial post-Conquest generation, little changed in Nahua organization; in the second, to the mid-seventeenth century, an increasing number of Spanish elements were adapted to preexisting traditions; and in the third, continuing stage, expanding contact with outsiders created a more thorough cultural mixture.

See alsoAztecs .


The definitive study of the Nahuas, especially after 1519, is James Lockhart, The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries (1992). Otherwise, there are more important works dealing with specific groups among the Nahuas: Bernardino De Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble, 12 vols. (1950–1982); Charles Gibson, The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule (1964); George A. Collier, Renato I. Rosaldo, and John D. Wirth, eds., The Inca and Aztec States: Anthropology and History (1982); Susan D. Gillespie, The Aztec Kings: The Construction of Rulership in Mexica History (1989); Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs, an Interpretation (1991); James Lockhart, Nahuas and Spaniards: Postconquest Central Mexican History and Philology (1991); and Miguel Léon-Portilla, The Aztec Image of Self and Society: An Introduction to Nahua Culture, edited by J. Jorge Klor de Alva (1992).

Additional Bibliography

León-Portilla, Miguel. La filosofía náhuatl estudiada en sus fuentes, 3a ed. México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Histó ricas, 1966.

López-Austin, Alfredo. Cuerpo humano e ideología: las concepciones de los antiguos nahuas. México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, 1980.

Ward, Thomas. "Expanding Ethnicity in Sixteenth-Century Anahuac: Ideologies of Ethnicity and Gender in the Nation-Building Process." MLN 116.2 (March 2001): 419-452.

                                      Robert Haskett