The pre-Columbian world of the Americas is dominated by two peoples. There are the Aztec of the great plains and hills of Mexico, and the Inca in their high mountain strongholds centered around their capital of Cusco in Peru.
Many have also heard of the Maya, long gone as a dominant civilization by the time of Columbus’s arrival. Others, if pushed, might name the ancient Olmec with their giant stone heads, or the culture of Teotihuacan, now lost to time. But few would mention the Otomi.
There are certainly reasons for this. The Otomi were less visible than the great empires of the Americas. But their contribution to the indigenous culture of Mexico, both as a pre-cursor to the later cultures and in their own right, has started to be reassessed.
An Ancient and Widespread Culture
The Otomi group inhabited a discontinuous territory covering a large area in Central Mexico. Their language, while unique, is related to many of the other languages of the region, which speaks of long development and interaction with the other peoples of Mexico. In all, it seems they occupied the volcanic belt which crosses Mexico for several millennia before the rise of the Christian era.
And in fact they are still there, inhabiting a fragmented territory that ranges across much of modern day Mexico, concentrated in the states of Hidalgo and Querétaro. According to a census compiled in 2015 there are some 670,000 Otomi in Mexico, the 5th largest ethnic group in the country. Like the Maya, their culture died but the people survived.
However, only a small number of this number speak their regional language. Taking this into consideration, historians have suggested that there was no single Otomi language but instead many dialects. Hence, the speakers of one variety often face a lot of difficulty in understanding those who speak another.
Hence, the names by which the Otomi call themselves are numerous, from “ñätho” in the Toluca Valley and “hñähñu” in the Mezquital Valley to “ñäñho” in Querétaro and “ñ’yühü” in the Northern highlands of Pahuatlán. Otomi, derived from the Nahuatl language, is only the simplest and most generally accepted collective name for these people.
This diversity in language speaks to the widespread and diffused nature of the Otomi across Mexico, but would have also contributed to a sense of disunity am ong the various factions. Perhaps this is why they are rarely seen as a significant culture in pre-Columbian America: they did not see themselves as a unified people.
History of the Otomi
It is fair to say that the Otomi were poorly treated by those who neighbored them. They seem to have been peaceful pastoralists, able to expand and diversify due to their domestication of maize, beans and other crops.
Where exactly they came from is disputed, but by the 5th millennium BC they were established in central Mexico, where they may indeed have been the first people to colonize the valley. Here they lived in prosperity, growing and integrating with the cultures that developed alongside them.
However a watershed moment appears to have related to the mysterious Mesoamerican culture who built the ancient pyramid city of Teotihuacan. For unknown reasons the city was destroyed by fire in the 6th century AD, and from this moment on the fortunes of the Otomi started to change.
With the disappearance of Teotihuacan and the people who built it, large numbers of Nahuatl-speaking people started to enter the region of the Otomi, who were displaced by the new arrivals. Chief among these peoples were the Nahua, ancestors of the Toltecs and through them, the Aztecs.
Otomi independence seems to have come to an end with these new cultures, but they were absorbed rather than wiped out. The resilient Otomi reportedly picked up the pieces and continued with their lives under new management, as subjects of the mighty Aztec empire.
Life for the Otomi changed drastically again with the arrival of the first Spaniards. The Otomi initially treated the Spaniards as their saviors and sought alliances to help defeat the Aztecs. The Otomi people lent their assistance to the Spaniards as they moved against other indigenous peoples.
However in doing so they soon found that they had replaced one overlord with another. The Spaniards started to apply force to the Otomi and, by the beginning of the 18th century, had begun to subjugate and virtually enslave all indigenous people.
The Spaniards had implemented the encomienda system by this time and under their law following the conquest colonizing Spaniards were granted native laborers. This system was inherently flawed and there are many cases the native workers, including the Otomi people, were treated as slaves and had to work relentlessly.
Luckily, many people belonging to the Otomi community had fled from this system of servitude, and they are known to have relocated to more desolate, desert areas. However, these areas were not ideal for farming and the regions that fell under the control of the Otomi did not have many people.
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Nevertheless, they persevered until once again disturbed by outside conflict, this time in the War of Independence between Spain and Mexico. During this time a great deal of Otomi land was taken away and distributed to members of the ruling classes. The Otomi people were retained to function as laborers, effectively dispossessed once more.
In the 1940s an attempt at redress was made, and the Otomi community people were given back their land. The land was of very poor quality but they managed to turn it to good use, with the situation improving when their damaged lands began to receive runoff from nearby Mexico City that helped in increasing the land’s productivity.
Where Do They Fit into Mesoamerican History?
The Otomi were certainly grand on the same scale as the civilizations which subjugated them. While their cities were co-opted by the Aztecs of other invasive peoples, they too did build grand monuments, pyramids and palaces which are only now being rediscovered.
Their lives however were based on subsistence farming and livestock raising. They dealt in staple crops like maize, beans, and squash. Fields are cleared by conducting the slash-and-burn methods. Planting is done with the help of a coa, a combination of hoe and digging stick.
Settlements for the community vary in composition from the concentrated central village with surrounding farmlands to the dispersed type. Each community family lives on its land and only public buildings are congregated. Crafts are an inclusion for the community and include activities like spinning, weaving, pottery, basketry, and rope making. Dress varies from either completely traditional to being completely modern.
The Otomi groups are known to have followed ritual kinship institutions that are based on a godparent relationship that is established between the adults of one family and a child of another. Some instances prove that this was a central and essentially universal custom.
There were close ties that existed between the parents and godparents of a child, and a series of ritual obligations obtain between them. The Otomí today are Roman Catholic, and, although certain identifications between Christian figures and pre-Christian gods exist, there are major religious rituals, myths, and ceremonies that are Christian, as a part of the Otomi group.
But this is only the surface detail of the Otomi. Their history is one of being subjugated by other cultures, who used them and their land for their own aggrandizement and stole the riches that were theirs by right. But in that way the history of these peoples is the history of the Otomi as well.
And through all this they endured. Through the Mesoamericans of Teotihuacan, through the Toltec and the Aztecs, through the brutal Spanish occupation, they found a way to survive and outlast everyone. The Otomi lived on this land long before these other peoples. Maybe they will be here long after, as well.
Top Image: Modern reproduction of traditional Otomi structures at a ceremonial center in Temoaya. Source: Michael Mees / CC BY 2.0.
By Bipin Dimri