Unformatted text preview: The Tarascans
Relationship with Aztecs The Tarascan
The Among the fertile volcanoes of Michoacan
Lumholtz came across the Purepecha people,
who were called Tarascan by the Spanish.
Enemies of the Aztecs, the Tarascans flourished
from 1100 A.D. to 1530 A.D.
Their origins are still a puzzle, along with their
stirrup-shaped, long-necked bottles and round
temples called Yacatas.
The center of the Tarascan Empire was Lake
Patzcuaro and the nearby site of Tzintzuntzan,
now a much-visited archaeological site Lake Patzcuaro Region
Lake http://www.humanities-interactive.org/unknown/ex085_14.html Origin
Origin Their exact origin remains unknown, but
linguistic similarities to the Quechua language of
South America have been noted.
South America may also have been the source
for the Tarascan pottery styles and metalworking
techniques that were not previously known in
The Tarascan capital city of Tzintzuntzan was
dominated by a huge platform supporting a row
of five temple pyramids called yácatas.
From this religious and administrative center, the
Tarascans waged war against their neighbors. Tarascan History
Tarascan The Tarascans’ own legendary history, as related in the
Relación de Michoacán, picks up the story.
Somewhere around 1325, the great king, military, leader,
and culture hero Taríacuri – one of the uacúsecha, who
had established themselves as an elite lineage –
declared himself as lord and Pátzcuaro as his capital.
He furthermore set his nephews up as secondary rulers:
Hiripan at Ihuatzio, and Tangáxoan at Tzintzuntzan. By
1350, the three of them had begun a successful series of
military conquests in and around the Pátzcuaro Basin;
and, after Taríacuri’s death, his nephews continued to
expand their sphere of influence to the area around Lake
Cuitzeo Tarascan warfare: Exapansion
Tarascan One of the king’s duties was to conquer new
One lands for the god Curicaueri (Fire God). Following a decision to go to war, an important
religious act occurred: The priests at
Tzintzuntzan lit huge bonfires which, when seen,
were to be duplicated by priests at the other
eight administrative centers.
All 91 settlements in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin
were able to see the fires from one or more of
these centers, and thus the message to prepare
for war was received
for Warfare: Threats & Defense
Warfare: Expansion was not the only reason for the
Tarascans to go to war. Threats to their way of life and resource networks could trigger
military action. Lameiras notes a war conducted against
Tarascan allies (pueblos confederados) iin the south of Jalisco
who were attempting to control access to the saltpeter beds at
And of course, defense – primarily against incursions by the
Aztecs – continued to necessitate a standing army and military
network even after the empire had reached an impressive size.
network Traditional weapons used by the Tarascans
included the bow and arrow, lances, and the
atlatl, with some use also of maces and
slingshots. Peripheral Borders
Peripheral In the Río Palos Altos Basin between the
Tarascan controlled ridgeline and the Aztec
fortified line was a no-man’s-land that appears to
have been abandoned as imperial intervention in
the area caused increased militarization.
It is theorized that a 3 km long wall discovered in
the no-man’s-land appears to have been a
Chontal (borderland culture) construction aimed
at defending important cotton and cacao
One end of the wall had an artifact distribution
suggesting that a Prehispanic battle had been
http://www.famsi.org/reports/97014/index.html http://www.famsi.org/reports/97014/index.html Chontal fortress at Ixtepec http://www.famsi.org/
html Natural Defensive Barrier
Natural http://www.famsi.org/reports/97014/index.html Tarascan society
Tarascan Although Tarascan society was socially stratified
with nobility, commoners, and slaves, there is no
archaeological evidence to indicate that the
Tarascan sites were much more than rural
settlements, the exception being their capital city
The Tarascans were excellent craftsmen in
many materials. Their metalworking skills were the most advanced in
Mexico. They were also accomplished at pottery
making and lapidary work.
Their utilitarian domestic pottery contrasted sharply
with the exotic designs of funerary pottery. Tarascan society
Tarascan By the time of the Conquest, the Lake Pátzcuaro
Basin held a population of 60,000 to 100,000
inhabitants, spread among 91 settlements of
To administer this dense population and the
outlying regions, effective social, economic, and
administrative structures were needed.
Indeed, these were in place by the Protohistoric
period (1450-1520), and they continued to
evolve with the expansion of the empire and
incorporation of new peoples, trade goods,
religious philosophies, etc. Social Stratification
Social Kinship was extremely important to the Tarascans.
Social class was essentially determined at birth, with
only minimal movement between classes.
Gorenstein and Pollard have discerned three hereditary
social classes, based on information in the Relación de
Michoacán and on excavations made at Tzintzuntzan:
and the Cazonci, sometimes also called irecha; and the royal lineage
nobility, also known as principales, caciques, señores naturales;
who were connected with and had responsibility in certain
commoners, also called purépecha, la gente baja, gente común
purépecha, There were also slaves, found only in connection with
the royal lineage. Economy
Economy Products such as honey, cotton, feathers, copal,
and deposits of salt, gold, and copper were
highly prized by the Tarascans.
Neighboring regions that possessed these
commodities quickly became a primary target of
When conquered, the peoples of these regions
were expected to pay tributes of material goods
to the Tarascan lord. Tarascan Religion
Tarascan Like the Aztecs, the Tarascans had many deities, each
with their own attributes, requirements, sacred colors,
associated animals, and calendrical days.
The most ancient and revered Tarascan deity was
Curicaueri, the fire god.
A Tarascan origin myth tells the story of how Curicaueri
and his brother gods founded the settlements around
The pre-Columbian Tarascans believed themselves to
be Curicaueri's descendants.
When rulers and priests dressed in their ritual finery and
performed ceremonial dances, they were affirming the
connection to their ancestor gods. Tzintzuntzan Architecture
Tzintzuntzan There is little of monumental architecture to be found in
the Tarascan empire.
Neither the major cities of the heartland nor the frontier
towns appear to have been fortified in any significant
Though there were trade routes, they were apparently
“unimproved,” as the building of roads and bridges was
one of the first efforts undertaken by the Spaniards.
Only two ball courts are known, and neither is in
Tzintzuntzan where one might expect to find one.
It is this relative lack of monumental architecture which
led many to assume that the Tarascans had not
achieved state-level society … and, that there was not
much interesting to be learned about them.
much Tzintzuntzan Architecture
Tzintzuntzan http://www.rose-hulman.edu/~delacova/tzintzuntzan.htm Tzintzuntzan
Tzintzuntzan The View of Lake
Pátzcuaro from The
Tzintzuntzan Looking east in the opposite
direction from the picture
above, this shows the
construction of the terrace
above the lake. Looking north more of
the huge open plaza
behind the temple
structures. The Yácata
The The Yácata, a typically Tarascan building, appears to
have been used as both a mortuary and a habitation. The structure consists of three parts whose ground plan is
shaped more or less like a capital T: a rectangular stepped
pyramid, a round stepped pyramid that is placed at the mid-point
of the rectangle, and a stepped passageway which joins the
round structure to the rectangle. Carl Lumholtz describes three yácatas which he saw in
the Sierra de los Tarascos: "The mound is built of
stones, without mortar, in the shape of a 'T,' each arm
about 50 feet long and thirty-two feet high. The western
arm terminates in a circular construction, a kind of knob. The sides all rise in regular steps from the ground, and the level
surface on top of the arms is only six feet wide, while the base is
twenty feet broad. These encircling steps make the monument
singularly symmetrical and graceful." Yacata. Line drawing (after
Lumholtz) by Jimmie I. Clubb. http://www.humanities-interactive.org/unknown/ex085_14.html Bowls
Bowls http://www.rose-hulman.edu/~delacova/tarascan.htm Spouted Jars
Spouted http://www.rose-hulman.edu/~delacova/tarascan.htm Olla with painted designs. Clay,
paint. 1100-1500 A.D. http://www.humanities-interactive.org/unknown/ex085_14.html Tarascan Grave Goods
Tarascan All manner of personal objects would have been
placed in Tarascan burials.
Common grave offerings included miniature
pottery vessels; bells, needles, tweezers, and
axes made of copper; long-stemmed clay
smoking pipes; obsidian lip plugs, ear spools,
and knives; shell beads; highly decorated pottery
vessels, some filled with food and drink; and
occasionally even gold ornaments. Jewelry: Earplugs, Shell Pendants,
and a Shell Necklace http://www.rose-hulman.edu/~delacova/tarascan.htm Copper
Copper http://www.rose-hulman.edu/~delacova/tarascan.htm Obsidian Cores http://www.rose-hulman.edu/~delacova/tarascan.htm The Aztecs
The The Aztecs attempted more than once to conquer the
Tarascan lands but never attained their goal.
This left the Aztecs with a major rival on their western
In combat, they repeatedly suffered grievous losses to
the Tarascan armies. For example, in 1478 the ruling Aztec lord, Axayacatl, marched
against the Tarascans.
He found his army of 24,000 confronted by an opposing force of
more than 40,000 Tarascan warriors.
A ferocious battle went on all day. Many of the Aztec warriors
were badly wounded by arrows, stones, spears, and sword
The following day, the Aztecs were forced to retreat, having
suffered the loss of more than half of their elite warriors. Arrival of the Spanish
Arrival The arrival of the Spanish Captain Hernán Cortés and his men on
the east coast of Mexico in April 1519 led to the end of both the
Aztec and the Tarascan Empires.
Knowing that the Spaniards were on their way to the Aztec capital of
Tenochtitlán, the Aztecs sent some emissaries to the Tarascans to
ask for help.
Instead of providing assistance, they sacrificed the Aztec
Tenochtitlán fell in 1520 after a bloody siege.
The Tarascans' turn came in 1522.
The last Tarascan king, Tangaxoan II, offered little resistance.
Once he submitted, all the other Tarascan realms surrendered
After the conquest, the Spanish crown appointed Don Vasco de
Quiroga to govern the Tarascan villages. He decided that each
community should be noted for the production of a specialized art
form. This vision of artistic specialization and commercial production
persists today. Why isn't the Tarascan Empire
better Remarks made by sixteenth century Spanish soldiers and
missionaries give the impression that the Tarascan king was
considered to be second in power only to the Aztec ruler
Some early accounts even rank the two as equals.
Missionaries who served among both the Aztecs and the Tarascans
considered the Tarascans superior to all other peoples in New
Unlike the Aztecs, the Tarascans left no personal documentary
histories, and they had no missionary-historian-defender ready to
write down their story as it might have been dictated at the time of
The best source of historical information is the Relación de
Michoacán compiled by an anonymous Spanish Franciscan friar
The Relación de Michoacán, coupled with archaeological
excavations and a significant body of pottery, copper, and stone
objects affords us a glimpse into the lives of these West Mexican
peoples. The Tarascan Today
The Florentina Dominga, a Tarascan
woman, with a midwife's
offering; August 6, 1978. Tarascan masked dancers,
"owner" (left) and "watcher"
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