Indigenous Manuscripts and the Historiography of Early Mexico

(Rebecca Horn)

Many Mexicos

Mexico remains today a nation of tremendous diversity, evident in its extremes of topography and climate and also in the complexity of its cultural, linguistic and ethnic landscape.[1] The diversity of Mexico's contemporary population reflects the enormous range in the nature of indigenous societies present when Spaniards arrived along the Gulf Coast in the early sixteenth century. Whereas the Spaniards generally shared an emerging, common cultural framework and language, this is not true of the societies they encountered, which ranged from the settled agriculturalists of Mesoamerica to the many small groups of hunter-gatherers inhabiting the far reaches to the north. This diversity that Spaniards encountered in the 1500s profoundly shaped the emerging colony of New Spain and indeed continues to characterize Mexico today.[2]


Traditionally, the region modern scholars call Mesoamerica has received the greatest scholarly attention. At contact, this region extended in the south from the northern edge of present-day Central America (including Guatemala and parts of El Salvador and Honduras) to the upper limits of central Mexico. Through centuries of interaction, the region came to share certain cultural features, including intensive, permanent agriculture, dense populations, pronounced social stratification, complex polities, elaborate trade and tribute systems, massive public labor works, and such impressive cultural achievements as monumental architecture, fine craft production, sophisticated writing/painting traditions, and a long-count calendar. For all these reasons, Mesoamerica proved enormously appealing to Spaniards, who in the sixteenth century concentrated their activities there, along with the Andean highlands, the only other region of the Americas that boasted such complex indigenous societies; Mexico and Peru became the two great centers of the early Spanish American empire.[3]