Aztlan is the legendary ancestral home of the Aztec people. Astekah is the word for “people of Aztlan” in Nahuatl, the language of a group of peoples native to southern Mexico and Central America.
It is mentioned by several sources that date from the colonial period. All of the sources claim that varying lists of different tribes moved from Aztlan to central Mexico, so it seems for these people Aztlan was a very real place. The sources themselves are ethnohistorical.
It is these tribes that claim to have found and built Tenochtitlan, the historic center of Mexico City. Many historians and scientists have attempted to locate Aztlan in North-western Mexico or the Southwest of the United States, however, no strong evidence exists.
Could this near-legendary homeland for the great Aztec people still be out there, hidden in the jungles and plains of Central America? Did it ever exist at all?
Aztlan: What was it Like?
According to the stories and legends, the homeland of Aztlan was a splendid place filled with luxury situated on a large lake. The people who lived there were immortal and were very happy in their land of abundance. In the middle of the lake, there was a large hill named Colhuacan which housed Chicomoztoc, the place of the seven caves.
In these seven caves were the ancestors of the Aztecs, along with an unexpectedly large number of ducks, herons, and waterfowl that sang consistently. Beautiful fish swam in the waters, and shade was provided by the trees on the banks. The people here fished and tended their gardens which floated on the lake. They grew maize, peppers, beans, and tomatoes.
There are no accounts of why they decided to leave. However, it was clear that when they migrated, the people of Aztlan struggled. Weeds began to scratch them, rocks wounded them, and the fields turned from lush crops to thistles and spines. Whilst they began to wander, they came across poisonous lizards and dangerous animals until finally they reached Tenochtitlan, where they would found a great city.
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It all sounds a little allegorical, doesn’t it, and the parallels to the Garden of Eden are clear. The myth reveals that the ancestors of the Mexica people lived in the seven caves. Each cave was lived in by one of the Nahuatl tribes. They all left in various periods to reach the fabled Basin of Mexico.
These tribes were the Xochimilca, Chalca, Tepaneca, Colhua, Tlahuica, Tlaxcala and the group who were to become the Mexica. Accounts of this period also mention that these groups migrated but before they did, there was a previous migration by the hunters and northern farmers known as the Chichimecas.
The myths and legendary stories reveal battles and encounters with gods along their journey to the Basin of Mexico. Similar to other myths, these stories are a mix of tangible natural events as well as mystical.
Many versions of the story include the myth of the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui and her Star Brothers, who planned and tried to kill the Sun, Huitzilopochtli at the site of the sacred mountain of Coatepec. Archaeologists and linguists believe that the language used points towards the occurrence of multiple migrations from Northern Mexico to the Basin around 1100 and 1300 AD.
So, we know what happened, albeit in an idealized fable. We can trace when it happened, less than a millennia ago. But did it ever actually take place, and was Aztlan real?
Searching for Aztlan
Aztlan has not only fascinated foreign explorers but the Aztecs themselves. Spanish chroniclers and sources report that the Mexican king Moctezuma I, who ruled between 1440-1469 AD, sent an expedition to search for the mystical land of abundance.
Sixty magicians and sorcerers were brought together for the trip and were gifted valuable items like gold, feathers, cacao, and vanilla from the royal storehouses to be used as gifts for their ancestors. As the story goes, they gathered in the city of Coatepec within ten days and transformed themselves into birds to get themselves to Aztlan.
Upon their arrival in Aztlan, the magicians found a hill in the middle of the lake and spoke to the ancestors. They were taken to the hill where an old man guarded the goddess Coatlicue, the mother of gods.
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The magicians were taken to the sanctuary of Coatlicue and introduced to an old woman who claimed to be the mother of Huitzilopochtli. She revealed that she had suffered greatly as Huitzilopochtli had left and not returned despite promising to do so. She also revealed that the people of Aztlan were immortal and could choose their age.
One reason why the people who had left Aztlan were not immortal was because of their impurities. They consumed luxuries like vanilla and cacao. The gifts that the sorcerers had brought were rejected.
Instead, the old priest gave them waterfowl and plants that were found at Aztlan to take back to Tenochtitlan. Upon receiving their gifts, the sorcerers left and returned home by transforming into animals and making the return journey.
Did it Really Exist?
This is fanciful stuff and far from conclusive proof, and many historians and archaeologists have debated the validity of Aztlan’s existence and origins. Many of the written accounts left by the Aztecs tell of a large migration. It was reported as oral history before being written down by Spanish chroniclers.
The Aztecs told the Spanish that they had arrived in Mexico around 300 years before the Spanish arrived. There is indeed some evidence of a large migration from the archaeological record.
It is possible that the histories reveal a movement of multiple different ethnic groups including but not limited to those people called the Mexica. Michael E. Smith claims that the people arrived in the Basin of Mexico in four waves.
The first was non-Nahuatl-speaking groups after 1175 and the fall of Tollan, the Toltec capital. The next groups were all Nahuatl speaking groups who settled in the 12th, then 13th, and 14th centuries. However, as of yet, there has not been a specific area located that would be suitable to be called Aztlan.
As of yet, it is impossible to know if Aztlan, the mythical birthplace of the Aztec people, ever existed. Written records show that there was a definite migration and this tradition lived on in oral history until the Spanish arrived and recorded it. What is interesting is that this story bears resemblance with other origin myths around the world. It is not out of the realms of possibility that Aztlan exists somewhere in the South American landscape.
Top Image: The Aztec claimed to come from their lost homeland of Aztlan, but did it ever exist? Source: Radu Costinas / Adobe Stock.
By Kurt Readman