The origin of the Aztecs

Aztlan is the mythical place of origin of the Aztec peoples. In their language (Nahuatl), the roots of Aztlan are the two words: aztatl tlan(tli) meaning "heron" and "place of," respectively. 'Tlantli' proper means tooth, and as a characteristic of a good tooth is that it is firmly rooted in place, and does not move, the prefix of this word is commonly used in Nahuatl to denote settlements, or place names, e.g. Mazatlan (place of deer), Papalotlan (place of butterflies) or Tepoztlan (place of metal). The Nahuatl language is often said to include three levels of meaning for its words or expressions: literal, syncretic and connotative. The connotative meaning of Aztlan, due to the plumage of herons, is "Place of Whiteness." The mythical descriptions of Aztlan would have it to be an island.

You would replace -tlan with -tecatl to identify a resident or person from the given place. So, for the examples above, we have that people from Mazatlan would be Mazatecatl, someone from Tepoztlan a Tepoztecatl, and someone from Aztlan an Aztecatl.

In the origin myths of the Aztecs, they emerged originally from the bowels of the earth through seven caves (Chicomostoc) and settled in Aztlan, from which they subsequently undertook a migration southward in search of a sign that would indicate that they should settle once more. This myth roughly coincides with the known history of the Aztecs as a barbarous horde that migrated from present-day northwestern Mexico into the central plateau sometime toward the end of the first millennium AD, when high civilizations of great antiquity were already well established in the region. It is known that the Aztecs had a sector ("barrio") in the Toltec city of Tollan, and the cultural influence of the Toltecs on the rough-edged Aztecs was subsequently to be very marked. 

On the view of some scholars (e.g., Nigel Davies), all of Aztec cultural development was an effort to recreate the grandeur that they knew at Tollan.

The exact physical location of Aztlan is unknown, other than it must have been located near estuaries or on the coast of northwestern Mexico, though some archaeologists have gone so far as to locate the present town of San Felipe Aztlan, Nayarit, as the exact place.

In Chicano folklore, Aztlan is often appropriated as the name for that portion of Mexico that was taken over by the United States after the Mexican-American War of 1846, on the belief that this greater area represents the point of parting of the Aztec migrations. In broad interpretation, there is some truth to this in the sense that all of the groups that would subsequently become the various Nahuatl-speaking peoples of central Mexico passed through this region in a prehistoric epoch, as attested by the existence of linguistically related groups of people distributed throughout the US Pacific Intermountain region, the US southwest and northern Mexico, known as the Uto-Aztecan-Tanoan group, and including such peoples as the Paiute, Shoshoni, Hopi, Pima, Yaqui, Tepehuan, Rarámuri (Tarahumara), Kiowas and Mayas.




Where's Aztlan

Where Was Aztlan?

Nahuatl legends relate that seven tribes lived in Chicomoztoc, or "the place of the seven caves". Each cave represented a different Nahua group: the Xochimilca, Tlahuica, Acolhua, Tlaxcalteca, Tepaneca, Chalca, and Mexica. Because of their common linguistic origin, those groups are called collectively "Nahuatlaca" (Nahua people). These tribes subsequently left the caves and settled "near" Aztlán.  

Drawing: Chicomoztoc — the place of the seven caves. The mythical origin of the "nahuatlaca" tribes. From the "Historia Tolteca chicimeca". A postcortesian codex from 1550.  

Aztec Migration

 Aztlan is the ancient homeland where the Aztec people began to form as a civilization prior to their migration to the Valley of Mexico. Aztlan is believed to be anywhere from Western Mexico all the way to Utah. However, the exact location and existence of Aztlan remain a mystery. While in Aztlan, the Aztecs were subject to a tyrannical elite called the Azteca Chicomoztoca, according to the Codex Aubin. Guided by their priest, the Aztec fled, and their god Huitzilopochtli forbade them to call themselves Azteca, telling them that they should be known as Mexica. Some say that the southward migration began on May 24, 1064 CE, after the Crab Nebula events from May to July 1054. Each of the seven groups is credited with founding a different major city-state in Central Mexico.The newest translation of the "Anales de Tlatelolco" gives the only date known related to the exit from Aztlan; day-sign "4 Cuauhtli" (Four Eagle) of the year "1 Tecpatl" (Knife) or 1064-1065, and correlated to January 4, 1065. Cristobal del Castillo mentions in his book "Fragmentos de la Obra General Sobre Historia de los Mexicanos", that the lake around the Aztlan island was called Metztliapan or "Lake of the moon." According to Aztec legends, the Mexica tribe emigrated last due to lengthy drought between 1100 and 1300 AD. When they arrived at their new homeland, the present-day Valley of Mexico, all available land had been taken, and they were forced to find refuge on the edge of Lake Texcoco. 

Drawing: The Mexica depart from Aztlán. From the 16th Century Codex Boturini. Created by an unknown Aztec hand in the 16th century. 

Ancestral Land

It is not known how far north Aztlan would have been located. It may have been all the way up into Utah, so it is possible that the Aztecs did not originate in Mexico at all, but that their culture was formed in an area that is now the United States, prior to their migration to the Valley of Mexico. Aztlan would have been comprised of the states including California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and Utah. If this were true, descendants of the Aztecs who are in the United States today may assert that they are not undocumented migrants, but descendants of the Aztecs who are merely returning to their home land. 

Even if it turns out that Aztlan was not that far north, the Mexican people still may have a valid right to the southwest land. The clauses guaranteeing the land ownership of Mexican and Indigenous people north of the borderline established by the War of the United States against Mexico 1845-48 and under the protection by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo were violated repeatedly! The Mexican people suffered a campaign of terror and death at the guns of white racist vigilantes, lynchings by White mobs, the mass savage killings by the Texas Rangers, and genocide under the Slave Republic of Texas and under United States occupation and military control that turned the northwestern part of Mexico, into the now Southwest of the United States. The Mexican people have been subjected to violence, national oppression, racist segregation, class exploitation, mass deportations, and inequality. 

However, Mexicans are waking up and realizing that the power to control Aztlan or the Southwest once again be in their hands. Many Mexican people believe that we must recognize the US-Mexico border line and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo of 1848, as null and void due to the default on the Treaty. Also, clauses in the treaty state that a free-trade agreement…promises…if Mexico is to allow the U.S. to invest in Mexico…then Mexico should…be allowed to freely export…Mexican labor. This would mean a re-evaluation of the border between the two countries.

We must decolonize our lands and our people. We should be treated as an internal colony within the entrails of the monster. Rejecting assimilation, corrupt political power, social dominant power, capitalism, imperialism, colonialism and white supremacy, and striving for liberation.

Drawing: This unusual 1704 map, drawn by Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Careri, is the first published representation of the legendary Aztec migration from Aztlan, a mysterious paradise somewhere to the northwest of Mexico, to Chapultepec Hill, currently Mexico City. 


Where do we get our historical accounts and knowledge of the "Aztecs"?

It comes from codexes. Shortly after the Conquest, the Spaniards missionaries had the surviving Aztec people write their account of their peoples history and of conquest they lived through. They first wrote in pictures in binded books. Once they learned the alphabet they were able to write in words.
The Nahuat speaking Aztecs (or Mexicas, as the residence of Mexico-Tenochtitlan called themselves) were taught the alphabet as early as 1528. Then they were able to write their account of the conquest which they were eye witnesses.
In 1524 when the Franciscans arrived, they learned the Aztecs language and grammar and taught th e Aztecs to read and write it.
The Codex Floretino by Bernadino Sahagun and his native informants was originally written in the Nahuatl language in the words of the Aztecs in their own words.
The descriptions taken from an anonymous manuscript of Tlateloco was written as early as 1528 and contains accurate testimonials of the people who personally took part in the defense of the Mexica capital.
Although the missionaries were watchful eyes on what was written, the Aztec people were able to write their testimonies with out censure as they were becoming more independent. By 1550, the Nahuatl alphabet literacy extended beyond the Spanish centers of education and began to take on an independent life of its own in "Indian" towns. The Nahuas became adept not only at telling their own story through Latin script, but at using such stories to protect their privileges and advocate for their interests.
In summary, the information we have about the Aztecs comes from eye witnesses by the Aztecs themselves about their history, religion, economy, schools, laws, government, military, language and of the conquest and fall of their world. 

The Rise of the Aztecs

The migration, settlement, and establishment of the Mexica

Aztlan in the southwest

Langueage similarities give a possible origin of Aztlan

While the Aztecs of the Sixteenth Century lived in the south central part of the present-day Mexican Republic, a wide scattering of peoples who presently live in the United States could probably be described as "distant cousins" to the Aztecs. If you belong to the Shoshone, Ute, Paiute, or Gabrielino Indians, you may very well share common roots with the famous Aztecs of central Mexico.How is it that we can conclude that these relationships exist? Studies in historical linguistics have analyzed the Uto-Aztecan tongues - and the Náhuatl language in particular - have determined that Náhuatl was actually not native to central Mexico. Instead, it was carried south from lands that are believed to have been in the northwestern region of the present-day Mexican Republic and - before that - the United States. Most of us have already heard the story of Aztlán and the Aztec journey from that mythical homeland to central Mexico.Legend states that the Aztec and other Náhuatl-speaking tribal groups originally came to the Valley of Mexico from a region in the northwest, popularly known as Atzlan-Chicomoztoc. The name Aztec, in fact, is said to have been derived from this ancestral homeland, Aztlan (The Place of Herons). According to legend, the land of Aztlan was said to have been a marshy island situated in the middle of a lake.For nearly five centuries, popular imagination has speculated about the location of the legendary Aztlan. Some people refer to Aztlan as a concept, not an actual place that ever existed. However, many historians believe that Aztlan did indeed exist. The historian Paul Kirchhoff suggested that Aztlan lay along a tributary of the Lerna River, to the west of the Valley of Mexico. Other experts have suggested the Aztlan might be the island of Janitzio in the center of Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, with its physical correspondence to the description of Aztlan. Many anthropologists have speculated that the ancestral home of the Aztecs lay in California, New Mexico or in the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa.The idea that Sinaloa, Sonora, California, and New Mexico might be the site of Aztlan is a very plausible explanation when historical linguistics are considered. "The north-to-south movement of the Aztlan groups is supported by research in historical linguistics," writes the anthropologist, Professor Michael Smith of the University of New York, in The Aztecs, "The Náhuatl language, classified in the Nahuan group of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages, is unrelated to most Mesoamerican native languages." As a matter of fact, "Náhuatl was a relatively recent intrusion" into central Mexico.On the other hand, if one observes the locations of the indigenous people who spoke the Uto-Aztecan languages, all of their lands lay to the northwest of the Valley of Mexico. The northern Uto-Aztecans occupied a large section of the American Southwest. Among them were the Hopi and Zuni Indians of New Mexico and the Gabrielino Indians of the Los Angeles Basin. The Central Uto-Aztecans - occupying large parts of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Sonora in northwestern Mexico - included the Papago, Opata, Yaqui, Mayo, Concho, Huichol and Tepehuán. It is reasonable to assume that where there is a linguistic relationship there is most likely also a genetic relationship. Thus, it is very possible that the legendary Aztlan ­ or another ancestral home of the Aztecs - was located in the Southwestern United States.It is important to note, however, that the Aztlan migrations were not one simple movement of a single group of people. Instead, as Professor Smith has noted, "when all of the native histories are compared, no fewer than seventeen ethnic groups are listed among the original tribes migrating from Aztlan and Chicomoztoc." It is believed that the migrations southward probably took place over several generations. "Led by priests," continues Professor Smith, "the migrants... stopped periodically to build houses and temples, to gather and cultivate food, and to carry out rituals."The migrating groups included many Náhuatl-speaking peoples who became associated with the Aztec Empire: the Acolhua, Tepaneca, Culhua, Xochimilca, Tlahuica, Matlatzinca, and the Tlaxcalans - all of whom settled in the Valley of Mexico or adjacent valleys that are now in the surrounding states of Morelos, Tlaxcala, and Puebla.

Aztlan in Mexico

An Expedition to Locate Aztlan

 Friar Diego Durán (c. 1537–1588), who chronicled the history of the Aztecs, wrote of Aztec emperor Moctezuma I's attempt to recover the history of the Mexica by congregating warriors and wise men on an expedition to locate Aztlán. According to Durán, the expedition was successful in finding a place that offered characteristics unique to Aztlán. However, his accounts were written shortly after the conquest of Tenochtitlan and before an accurate mapping of the American continent was made; therefore, he was unable to provide a precise location.
There is a lake around Cerro Culiacan, Lake Yuriria, that makes the mountain look very much like an island when photographed from the water, and is similar to the illustration at right. In 1887, Mexican anthropologist Alfredo Chavero claimed that Aztlán was located on the Pacific coast in the state of Nayarit. While this was disputed by contemporary scholars, it achieved some popular acceptance.
Eduardo Matos Moctezuma presumes Aztlán to be somewhere in the modern-day states of Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Michoacán.Indeed, scholars are all consistent in naming the measures of "150 leagues" from Tenochtitlan that were documented by the Spanish scribes taking notes from conquered Mexica as the distance to the place of origin, coinciding in all ways at Chicomoztoc, "Cerro del Culiacan", which is indeed a humped mountain when seen from the south face. 


Tovar Codex

Chicomoztoc: The Origins of the Tribes that Settled in or Close to Mexico The Tovar Codex, attributed to the 16th-century Mexican Jesuit Juan de Tovar, contains detailed information about the rites and ceremonies of the Aztecs (also known as Mexica). The codex is illustrated with 51 full-page paintings in watercolor. Strongly influenced by pre-contact pictographic manuscripts, the paintings are of exceptional artistic quality. The manuscript is divided into three sections. The first section is a history of the travels of the Aztecs prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The second section, an illustrated history of the Aztecs, forms the main body of the manuscript. The third section contains the Tovar calendar.  

The 7 Caves from the Codex

 This illustration, from the second section, depicts Chicomoztoc, with men and women. Chicomoztoc, which means "seven caves," the place from which the Aztecs believed they came, was the Nahautl word for the mouth or womb. In the Aztec myth of creation, the Mexica left the bowels of the earth and settled in Aztlán, from which they acquired the name Aztec and from where they undertook a migration southward in search of a sign for where they should settle once more. 


The formation of civilization at Aztlan comes from legend. According to Nahuatl legend, there were seven tribes that once lived at Chicomoztoc – “the place of the seven caves.” The seven groups, left their caves and settled as one group near Aztlan. According to some accounts, the seven groups’ arrival at Aztlan was preceded by the arrival of a group known as the Chichimecas, who were considered to be less civilized than the seven Nahua groups. The Mexica were the last group to travel to Aztlan, and may have been slowed down due to a lengthy drought between 1100 and 1300 AD.

Anazasi - The Ancient Onces

Pueblo Indian Ancestors

The Anasazi ("Ancient Ones"), thought to be ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians, inhabited the Four Corners country of southern Utah, southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and northern Arizona from about A.D. 200 to A.D. 1300, leaving a heavy accumulation of house remains and debris.

Wooden Headdress

Wooden Headdress found resembling Moctezuma's. 

Sun Dial

Chaco Canyon; a single shaft of light, moving downward to bisect the petroglyph signals the start of summer. The device reflects the intellectual capacity and achievement of the prehistoric Anasazi, who utilized the midday sun to record time’s passage.

A ruin northwest of Santa Fe, NM

A principal source of water for Anasazi farms

Little Colorado River

A once Anaszi built dam created a reservoir of what is now known as The Little Colorado River

Four Corners

The strong evidence of linguistic similarity in the Nahuatl language and the Ute-Aztecan language supports that Aztlan would have been where the four corners  of the states Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah are now and mostlikely the surrounding area. If this were true, descendants of the Aztecs who are in the United States today may assert that they are not undocumented migrants, but descendants of the Aztecs who are merely returning to their home land.

Aztlan Reconquista

We are back in Aztlan!