On this page we will be assembling content and potentially helpful resources relating to the language we use and specific terms and their meaning when discussing Mesoamerican cultures and their histories. We would love to discuss this content in our home room sessions if it interests you. What we write here is subject to your input and amendment! More to come….
Amatl: This is an indigenous paper made from the bark of a type of ficus (fig) tree native to Mesoamerica. The term became Hispanized as amate.
Aztecs: This is an ethnic label, the English translation of the Nahuatl azteca, and the Spanish aztecas, which originally referred to the people of Aztlan, a mythical place of origin. It was not used by the people for whom this label is known today worldwide. We do not really know of a word in Nahuatl or Spanish that truly applied to the people called Aztecs today — i.e. the inhabitants of the Aztec empire. Mexica (mexicas in Spanish) was a Nahuatl word that referred only to the people of Mexico (city), so it does not really suffice as a broad cultural designation, although the Mexica built the empire. Nahuas (in English and Spanish) refers to the people who spoke Nahuatl and practiced the culture that we associate with the Aztecs. There were pockets of Nahuas, such as the Tlaxcalteca (people of Tlaxcala) who were not a part of the empire. Thus, the label Nahuas is more culturally inclusive and is gaining popularity in scholarship and teaching.
Classic Period: This is a label used for discussing a period of cultural florescence among Mesoamerican peoples. It was when urban state societies emerged, population densities were achieved, sophisticated glyphic texts were common, and kingships were institutionalized. There is a judgement implied in this label, of course, that pre-supposes a superiority in the nature of life in this period. But as Pre-Classic communities are studied, the line between them and the Classic-period communities becomes increasingly blurred. Please see John Pohl’s further discussion of this type of periodization and his timeline.
Codex: This is the English word, in the singular, that refers to a pre-Columbian pictorial manuscript (and sometimes to early Spanish-colonial era manuscripts authored by indigenous peoples). In the plural, in English, we say codices. In Spanish, the singular is códice, and the plural is códices. So, the plural forms in both English and Spanish are very similar, but the singular terms at the ones that can cause confusion. Terms for colonial-era manuscripts authored by indigenous people range widely in terminology, and in English we often use the Spanish labels, such as lienzo (cloth), mapa, and maybe tiara (strip; rarer). A mapa, in colonial Spanish, was not necessarily a map, although it often has cartographic features.
Colonial: In Mesoamerican history, this term usually refers to the Spanish colonial period (1521–1821), but for indigenous peoples, colonialism did not really disappear with political liberation from Spain. Some people believe that an internal colonialism would continue in some respects, and global economic and cultural forces would also come into play, increasingly, after so-called Independence from Spain.
Conquest: This is usually a term used to refer to the Spanish seizure of power in Mesoamerica in the early sixteenth century. In Mexico, the invasion was launched in 1519 and the political defeat came in 1521. Some people associate total destruction with “conquest,” so it can be a problematic term, because while there were lives lost and some destruction with the seizure of power, indigenous cultures survived. The demographic collapse, due to diseases inadvertently introduced by Europeans, was more devastating, but culture groups even survived this, too. How they coped and survived is a big part of our collective inquiry in this summer institute. It is also interesting to note that for some indigenous peoples Spanish colonialism was not their first experience with political domination, nor would it be their last — neocolonialism and cultural imperialism are topics worthy of consideration in the period after political independence from Spain was achieved in 1821.
Ethnobiology: This is the interdisciplinary study of plants and animals and how human cultures interact with them. It can have a historical perspective that takes in cultural heritage. It can show an interest in a stewardship over the environment and a protection of native plants and animals (for the sake of diversity and for cultural preservation).
Ethnobotany: This is a subdivision of ethnobiology. It has human interaction with plants, more specifically, as its focus.
Ethnomusicology: This is the interdisciplinary study of music as a social process within a cultural context. This line of study examines the construction of music — what it is and how it has developed in a particular time, a place, and within a certain group. In Mesoamerica, this tends to involve the examination of multiple types of cultural influences in musical forms, whether they are indigenous, African, or European, for example. Musical instruments will be seen as products of the social processes and cultural contexts.
Formative: Please see the term Pre-Classic.
Indian: There is some controversy associated with the use of this term to describe the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. First, it is a misnomer. Columbus had not reached India when he arrived in this hemisphere. It is also politically fraught, as some see it as laden with racism (being the English for “indio,” a pejorative term in Spanish). “Pueblos originarios” (original peoples) is one way people in Mesoamerica today refer to their native communities with respect. “Communidades indígenas” (indigenous communities) is also heard as a respectful term. Terms in indigenous languages for self-labeling tend to be something like “we people here.” Or, people will identify with the place name of their community or the name of their language. Mixtecos (Mixtecs, in English) speak mixteco (the language). Zapotecos (Zapotecs, in English) speak zapoteco (the language). (Worth mentioning here, perhaps, is that reminder that these languages have many variants.) An example of taking the name of the place as as ethnic descriptor, the Mexica were the people of Mexico (city), the Tenochca were the people of Tenochtitlan, and the Tlatelolca were the people of Tlatelolco. The Tlaxcalteca were from Tlaxcala.
Indigenous: This is a term that refers to people or things that are native to the hemisphere. It can be capitalized (Indigenous), as can the word native (Native), out of respect rather than as a result of the word being derived from a proper noun — Indian is capitalized because it is derived from the proper noun, India. There is caution relating to the word native in the plural — because of historically negative connotations such as we see in the old Hollywood phrase, “the natives are restless.”
Lienzo: Please see the term Codex.
Mapa: Please see the term Codex.
Mesoamerica: This is a term that refers more to a cultural zone than a geographic one, but it has geographic dimensions. The peoples of Mesoamerica had (and have) diverse cultural traits, but they also have a certain number in common. As John Pohl writes: “When Mexican historian Paul Kirchhoff first introduced the term “Mesoamerica,” he defined it as a cultural zone where the indigenous inhabitants spoke as many as sixty different languages, but were united by a common history and shared a specific set of cultural traits that made their civilization unique in the world. Among the most significant was the development of both pictographic and hieroglyphic writing as well as the production of books constructed from animal hide or amate paper. A divinatory calendar of 20 x 13 days (tonalpohualli), calculated together with a solar calendar of 365 days, is widely regarded as being more accurate than those of many other ancient civilizations throughout the world. Mesoamerican architecture was also unique and distinguished by preferences for stepped pyramids, stucco floors, and ballcourts. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for development in the Americas, was the cultivation of specialized foods including maize, beans, and squash, together with cacao (chocolate) and fermented beverages made from maguey. Many of these foods became the staples of a world-wide diet we continue to thrive on today.”
Mexica: Please see the term Aztecs.
Nahuas: Please see the term Aztecs.
Nahuatl: An indigenous language of central Mexico and the outposts and some of the colonies of the Aztec empire (e.g. reaching into Central America and the U.S. Southwest). Just a quick note on pronunciation: when you say “Nahuatl,” the “h” is silent and the final “l” is not voiced. You usually only hear the final “l” when the next word in your sentence starts with a vowel. Please also see the term Aztecs.
Native: Please see the terms Indigenous and Indian.
New Spain: This is a translation of Nueva España, the term used to describe the Spanish colony that took in what is now Mexico, Guatemala, additional parts of Central America, many islands in the Caribbean, and most of what is now the U.S. west of the Mississippi and the “Floridas.” The viceroyalty of New Spain (i.e. the political unit that was controlled by a Viceroy, or vice-king, subordinate to the king of Spain) was established in 1535, although the Spanish invasion of what became Mexico began in 1519. It would later come to be subdivided.
Post-Classic: This label refers to a period in Mesoamerican cultural evolution when, according to John Pohl, “regional governments became highly segmented and commercially oriented… [with a] proliferation of an unequaled level of art and craft production…. The technology for smelting gold, silver, and copper, was introduced from Central and South America, while turquoise mined in the American southwest was exchanged for the plumage of Scarlet Macaws.” Trade for items of preciosity spanned great distances and eventually drove an imperialistic impulse. Pohl continues, “by 1450, the Méxica, now the most powerful of seven original Aztec groups, incorporated their former rivals and together they conquered an empire.” Please see John Pohl’s further discussion of this type of periodization and his timeline.
Pre-Classic: This label refers to a period in Mesoamerican cultural evolution when agricultural peoples were able to produce a surplus sufficient to support specialists. Spiritual leaders came to have what we might call political authority. Organizing farming could lead to the organization of warfare for the purpose of solidifying or expanding political influence by the elite. Public political and ceremonial spaces became more prominent and writing systems began to take shape, at least in an incipient way. Please see John Pohl’s further discussion of this type of periodization and his timeline.
Pre-Columbian: This label is used to describe things in the Americas prior to the landfall of Christopher Columbus in 1492. It is a rather Eurocentric term that marks time according to European perspectives, but it nevertheless lives on in the literature as a convenient divide for those interested in cultures as they existed prior to (and after) contact.
Prehispanic: Also sometimes written as Pre-Hispanic, this is a label that divides time in Mesoamerican history between prior to (and after) contact with Spanish culture. As with the term pre-Columbian, it is a rather Eurocentric term that marks time according to European perspectives, but it nevertheless lives on in the literature as a convenient divide for those interested in cultures as they existed prior to (and after) contact.
Savage: This term is probably obviously problematic, but we do still hear such pejorative labels applied, for example, to the Aztecs’ use of human sacrifice. The plural, “savages,” is never used today by any serious scholar to refer to indigenous peoples.
Syncretism: This label, especially as applied to religious change, was popular in scholarship from the mid-twentieth century, and continues to live on in some classrooms. It typically refers to a fusion of indigenous and European beliefs and practices that emerged as a result of missionary practices and increased contact. In the last quarter of the twentieth century scholars began seeing complexities in the process of change and the nature of religious forms that were emerging. Change was not simply seen as a spontaneous fusion, but was being seen as the result of indigenous agency, as people mediated what they would accept or reject. Christianity was taken on with modifications (whether conscious or not), leading to a new label, “Indigenous Christianity.”
Tradition: One thing to bear in mind is that it is not just indigenous peoples who have “customs” and “traditions.” All peoples do. Also, traditions can be relatively recently developed (stemming from cultural innovation) or can have deep history. Traditions can be valued (e.g. by elders), but they might also be shunned (e.g. by youth). It is not for outsiders to decide what traditions need protecting and which are dispensable. Some scholars would like to spray indigenous cultures with some kind of fixative that preserves them in perpetuity as museum cultures. They might see “pure” cultural forms in pre-Columbian traditions, and those forms that incorporated European ways as “corrupted” or impure, when the people of these communities were actually involved in a process of negotiating change, rejecting some things and accepting (even welcoming) others. This process of change is a fascinating one whose complexities and nuances are what we seek to elucidate in this institute.
Tribe: We do not use this word in association with Mesoamerican societies, which were sedentary peoples who lived in permanent, concentrated settlements with monumental architecture, social hierarchies, a ruling class, priestly class, writing systems, and complex economic systems. While many people gathered and hunted, they principally farmed for their subsistence and for the provisioning of a surplus.
Tributes: These were payments in kind, and eventually in cash, that colonized peoples of Mesoamerica paid to their overlords. It was a system that the Spanish colonizers tapped into, leaving largely intact at first, but then gradually shifting the content of the tributes and finally asking for coin. Provisioning tributes to Spanish overlords became a huge hardship for Mesoamerican peoples when their populations declined precipitously as a result of new germs coming into this hemisphere for which they did not have natural immunities.
Viceroyalty, viceregal: These are terms relating to the Spanish colonial jurisdiction in Mesoamerica. Please see the term New Spain.