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Rethinking Anthropological Perspectives on Migration$

Graciela S. Cabana and Jeffery J. Clark

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780813036076

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813036076.001.0001

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Power, Agency, and Identity

Power, Agency, and Identity

Migration and Aftermath in the Mezquital Area of North-Central Mexico

(p.147) 7 Power, Agency, and Identity
Rethinking Anthropological Perspectives on Migration

Christopher S. Beekman

Alexander F. Christensen

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

The study of migration among complex societies, even ancient ones, requires careful consideration of how power relationships impact on migrant identity and its expression through material culture. The vulnerability of migrants or their social persecution can result in a lack of concordance among biological, linguistic, and archaeological datasets by intensifying the use of material culture to express or downplay social difference. This chapter thus uses linguistic and ethnohistoric data at the regional scale to identify a migration by Nahuatl speakers and their subsequent interactions with Otomi speakers in first millennium ad Mesoamerica, and the material culture is then interpreted in light of its role in affirming or obscuring social affiliation. The initial migrants were only briefly visible archaeologically before an accommodation was reached that obscured separate identities at the local level. Nahuatl speakers later achieved a position of prominence in a politically based ethnic hierarchy that lasted several hundred years.

Keywords:   power, identity, migration, complex societies, Mesoamerica, Nahuatl, archaeology, language, ethnohistory

Cabana and Clark ask in their introductory chapter, “Why migration?” For our part, the theoretical value of migration lies in its exaggeration of the otherwise common event of culture contact. This forefronts fundamental questions about the relationship between biology and ethnicity and the factors affecting the material expression of cultural identity. The central discipline of our inquiry is archaeology, which has long sought to develop techniques for distinguishing migration from other possible explanations for changes in material culture. But when the problem is defined theoretically rather than methodologically (e.g., Blench et al. 2008), the failure of past approaches is understandable. Migration is not a unitary phenomenon and does not have a single material correlate or formula. Given its dynamic nature, migration itself is not even visible to archaeologists and it is instead the changed situation at the destination that we are actually interpreting. It is thus the social practices created or disturbed by a migration rather than migration itself that are visible in the archaeological record. What archaeological studies of migration require is a middle-range theory for different social strategies (Raab and Goodyear 1984). We cannot do this if all forms of movement are treated in the same way.

For these reasons we accept the editors' theoretical definition of migration as a “one-way residential relocation to a different ‘environment’” but argue that archaeology must be complemented with other datasets to distinguish the many ways this can occur. In this chapter we use a case study from late pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (specifically highland Mexico) to investigate the central role of identity after a migration brought together more than one substantial cohesive community across ethnic and linguistic boundaries. In the spirit of this volume, we draw upon additional linguistic, biological, and ethnohistorical data to understand our case study. We will present our theoretical (p.148) and methodological orientation, discuss the evidence we use to infer that a migration took place in north-central Mexico, and use that inference to interpret shifting patterns of identity in the wake of that migration.

Assumptions, Theoretical Orientation, and Methodological Approach

Much of the research on migration by archaeologists focuses on aligning biological populations with ethnolinguistic groups and/or with material remains, typically in early farming populations lacking authoritative power structures. Attempts to correlate material, ethnic, linguistic, and biological datasets present one set of problems when studying less complex societies (e.g., Bellwood and Renfrew 2003; Matson and Magne 2007; Renfrew 1987). However, complex societies present a social environment in which institutions based on inequalities can more forcefully promote or resist the use of different languages, religious beliefs, or lifeways and produce a lack of concordance among datasets (see Heggarty 2007, 2008 for linguistic examples). The study of migration in ancient complex societies thus forms a bridge between most archaeological studies of migration and the distinct population movements in the modern world.

Our perspective situates the social practices of individuals and groups within political, ideological, and economic formations; we argue that their decisions regarding migration and its aftermath are made with reference to those broader structures. This is especially evident in the decision to express group identity. Archaeologically speaking, people can actively use material culture to situationally express their social identities (Hodder 1977, 1979). Individuals can emphasize or deemphasize ethnicity, for example, by changing clothing, ceramic or house types, language, or behavior to better meet social goals while interacting with other groups (Barth 1969; Wobst 1977; see Hamerow 1997 for an archaeological case). Even so, the individual will seriously consider only a limited number of choices based on their understanding of acceptable behavior (Bourdieu 1992; Jones 1997). We are less likely to create new identities than to adopt, modify, or reject ones that already exist. Furthermore, ethnicity is not the only form of identity; it is selectively expressed alongside gender, age, kinship, class, nationality, and so forth at different times and in different social contexts (e.g., Berreman 1972). Whether the choice to express identity differently is accompanied by an internal sense of changed identity is another question.

When migration brings different groups into closer contact with one another, it is the nature of this interaction that impacts the decisions to express or not express that particular form of identity (e.g., Collett 1987). Archaeologists (p.149) must therefore study the social and environmental context to understand the causes and results of migration rather than use migration to explain a material culture pattern. In our prior work (Beekman and Christensen 2003), we used a coordinate and contextual approach to migration that integrates linguistic, archaeological, ethnohistorical, and biological data and makes use of their various strengths and weaknesses. We studied a migration by first bracketing the time period using different datasets and then analyzing the material remains within that period following the perspective outlined above. This necessitated a more dense treatment of the contextual data, though we were still directed by generalized theoretical principles.

Some of our methodological assumptions were implicit in our earlier work and we wish to make them explicit here using a series of studies by Stone 2003, 2005; Stone and Lipe in press) as a framework. Starting from assumptions very similar to ours, Stone used examples from the American Southwest to define and illustrate major structural factors that should lead to varying degrees of emphasis upon group identity in the wake of migration. Her factors that encourage greater expression of ethnic identity are (1) size and cohesion of the migrants relative to the indigenous population, especially with regard to how difficult it is for the migrants to insert themselves into the new milieu and obtain access to space and resources; (2) more rigid social categories among both migrants and indigenes; and (3) lack of prior contact between the migrants and the group in the destination area.

Hence, large and complex groups that are able to reestablish their prior social structures (the “recovery of community” that Shami [1993] describes), are more directly in competition with their new neighbors, and have had little prior contact with the inhabitants of their migration destination are the most likely to express group identity openly. Small groups such as individuals or households that slip in easily among populations with whom they had prior contact, are largely outnumbered by the indigenes, and are expected to conform to local social roles are more likely to assimilate quietly. When identity is further paired with linguistic difference, the additional barrier to communication can enhance some differences between migrants and local populations. On the other hand, Clark (this volume) describes the possibility of a syncretic accommodation between migrants and indigenous populations, perhaps in situations of relative parity or interdependence. He describes a case in which the initial strategies among both migrants and locals were to strongly express opposing identities in ceramics and architecture, accompanied by suggestions of social tensions. Within a century, a new and syncretic material culture emerged in the area even as population decline left both groups struggling to maintain independent social institutions. While Clark does not describe a (p.150) strict ethnogenesis, this nonetheless suggests that transculturation could occur and that a more stable accommodation between the two groups could emerge in time.

Our case study takes place within a more socially complex milieu than that investigated by Stone or Clark and that affects the variables for interaction and provides additional motives for both emigration and immigration (see also Ogundiran 2009; Usman 2009). For instance, political persecution or dissidence was frequent and therefore a common motive for emigration, as cited in Mesoamerican indigenous records (Beekman and Christensen 2003). Alternately, while immigration policy as understood today did not exist (e.g., Fahrmeier et al. 2003), political authorities had much to gain by attracting populations to their cities through public statements of ideology. This was demonstrated in Mesoamerica through the use of state-sponsored art programs as mass media. Larger considerations such as the location of migrants within core-periphery networks may also provoke migration and impact the ensuing conditions of interaction (Beekman and Christensen 2003). Social complexity also influences Stone's variables for migrant-indigene interaction. Social categories may define access to property or rights (Brumfiel 1994) and are likely to be more strongly defined and less flexible than in the American Southwest. Higher demographic profiles may make competitive relationships more likely as immigration pushes local populations closer to resource limits. Furthermore, the presence of centralized polities opens the door for Marxist models of ethnicity. Migration puts a potentially disadvantaged population alongside a more established one, and migration has long been recognized as contributing to hierarchical relationships (Kopytoff 1987). The state may promulgate ethnic stereotypes, increasing the possibility of resistance. Although this should result in strongly expressed identities, extensive persecution may cause groups to minimize identities that may in turn reemerge later as social conditions change. Finally, the relative prestige associated with one language or another or one ethnic group or another presents individuals and groups with social ideals to be emulated. The possibilities sketched here require further exploration, but we will refer to several of them as we consider our example of a migration in north-central Mesoamerica.

How Do We Know That a Migration Took Place and When It Took Place?

The northern extent of Mesoamerican complex societies coincides largely with the presence of the minimum rainfall needed for maize agriculture as the primary resource base (Figure 7.1), making this frontier a potentially shifting (p.151)

Power, Agency, and IdentityMigration and Aftermath in the Mezquital Area of North-Central Mexico

Figure 7.1. Proposed distribution of language families across the northern frontier of Mesoamerica at the time of the migration. Inset box around Tula shows the area covered in Figure 7.2.

one (Armillas 1969). The Mezquital Valley in the state of Hidalgo lies just 75 km north-northwest of Mexico City and at the southern edge of this frontier. Otomi has been spoken throughout the valley since at least the Spanish Conquest to today, while a smaller population of Nahuatl-speakers was known from the eastern Mezquital in the sixteenth century (Gerhard 1993). Early colonial archives (see Table 7.1 for time periods) demonstrate that Otomi was used for documents in the western Mezquital and Nahuatl in the east (Christensen 2002; Figure 7.2). Otomi pertains to the Oto-Manguean language family, which exhibits a largely continuous distribution from central through southern Mexico, suggesting a long period of diversification in its current locations (Winter et al. 1984). The major branches of Oto-Manguean are each centered on a highland valley with a lengthy archaeological tradition, and Oto-Manguean languages have likely been spoken continuously there since the earliest permanent settlements. By contrast, linguists are largely in agreement that Nahuatl is a comparatively late introduction into central Mexico from its nearest Southern Uto-Aztecan relatives to the northwest (p.152)

Table 7.1. Schematic representation of the archaeological, ethnohistoric, and linguistic data at different scales

Mesoamerican Time Periods

North-Central Mexico (Fig. 7.1)

The Mezquital (Fig. 7.27.5)


Early Colonial A.D. 1520–1650

Spatial distinction in language families between western and eastern Bajío (Fig. 7.1)

Distinction in use of Nahuatl for written documents in east, Otomi documents in west (Fig. 7.2)

Ethnic hierarchy-Nahua dominance

Late Postclassic A.D. 1150–1520

Poorly known archaeologically but primarily hunter-gatherers

Political distinction between Nahua-dominated polities in east, Otomi-dominated polities in west (Fig. 7.3)

Early Postclassic A.D. 850–1150

Political distinction between Nahuadominated Tula polity in east, unincorporated Otomi in west (Fig. 7.4)

Ethnic distinction and hierarchy; changing expressions in ceramics, residential space, and trade links but single public architectural locus

Epiclassic A.D. 650–850

Multiple small polities across the region experiencing localized population growth and collapse. Spatially distinct expression of identity in portable material culture, architectural forms, and long-distance contacts between western Bajío and eastern Bajío (Fig. 7.1).

Expressed difference between Tula-related sites in east and Xajay-related sites in west (Fig. 7.5)

Accommodation with unexpressed differences in ethnicity; single ceramic complex but two separate public architectural loci

Late Classic A.D. 550–650

Multiple small polities across the region; spatially distinct expression of identity in portable material culture, architectural forms, and long-distance contacts between western Bajío and eastern Bajío (Fig. 7.1)

Migrants in hills with diverse Bajío-related material culture distinct from Teotihuacan-related material culture of sites in plains

Classic A.D. 200–550

Teotihuacan-related sites

Power, Agency, and IdentityMigration and Aftermath in the Mezquital Area of North-Central Mexico

Figure 7.2. Early Colonial (A.D. 1520–1650) language use in the Mezquital Valley according to parish records (based on Christensen 2002).

(see Dakin and Wichmann 2000; Kaufman and Justeson 2007). Nahuatl has disappeared from the Mezquital Valley since the conquest while numerous dialects of Otomi remain, further highlighting the ephemerality of Nahuatl and the established nature of Otomi in the valley.

Linguists do not have widely accepted chronometric methods of fixing the arrival of Nahuatl and must usually rely upon dated inscriptions. Possible Nahuatl loanwords appear in southern Mesoamerican inscriptions from A.D. 650 to 750 (Macri and Looper 2005). More tentatively, rebus writing exists that suggests that Nahuatl speech is known from two central Mexican Epiclassic cities (Dakin and Wichmann 2000; Wichmann 1998). Claims for a still earlier presence for Nahuatl begin to founder at this point, as they are based on the presence of just three dated loanwords whose linguistic association is under dispute (Dakin and Wichmann 2000; Kaufman and Justeson 2007). (p.154)

Power, Agency, and IdentityMigration and Aftermath in the Mezquital Area of North-Central Mexico

Figure 7.3. Late Postclassic (A.D. 1150–1520) political geography in the Mezquital Valley (based on Smith and Berdan 1996).

Biological evidence provides another perspective and supports physical migration as one mechanism of language expansion. Nonmetric and metric skeletal data document a significant population influx into central Mexico from the northwest sometime during the Classic to Early Postclassic (Beekman and Christensen 2003) or Epiclassic to Early Postclassic (González-José et al. 2007). DNA analyses from the important Tula site in the Mezquital Valley suggest members of a different population by at least the Early Postclassic (Fournier and Vargas Sanders 2002; Vargas Sanders and Salazar Campos 1998), although the very general data presentation and the small sample sizes and their undisclosed context do not allow further consideration.

Ethnohistoric texts add considerably more detail. Late Postclassic political geography in the Mezquital closely coincides with the use of Otomi and Nahuatl in colonial-era written records (Figure 7.3). The towns of the western (p.155)

Power, Agency, and IdentityMigration and Aftermath in the Mezquital Area of North-Central Mexico

Figure 7.4. Ethnohistoric reconstruction of settlement associated with the northern portion of the Early Postclassic (A.D. 850–1150) Tula polity (based on Davies 1977).

Mezquital paid tribute to one kingdom where Otomi was the dominant language, while the eastern Mezquital was divided up into three provinces where Nahuatl formed the status language for written texts (Gerhard 1993; Smith and Berdan 1996). But one must keep in mind that this is elite language use, not the spoken language of the entire region.

This pattern of linguistic dominance, in turn, has still deeper roots in the Early Postclassic. During this period, the eastern Mezquital became home to a major regional polity based at Tula. According to a diversity of Native documents (summarized in Paredes Gudiño 1990) and widespread agreement among ethnohistorians, Tula was a multiethnic city dominated by Nahuatl-speakers. Nahuatl place names, shared gods and myths, and other ties speak to the strong cultural links between this “Toltec” state and the succeeding Nahua societies of central Mexico. Indigenous documents present numerous (p.156)

Power, Agency, and IdentityMigration and Aftermath in the Mezquital Area of North-Central Mexico

Figure 7.5. Relevant archaeological settlement in the Mezquital Valley during the Epiclassic period (A.D. 650–850) (based on several sources listed in text).

redactions of the city's founding, using Native calendrics to give various possible Epiclassic or Early Postclassic dates for the event (Paredes Gudiño 1990). Many remain skeptical of the historicity of these dates (Smith 2007), and in any case Nahuatl may have been introduced prior to the foundation of Tula. The boundaries of the Tula polity, as reconstructed through ethnohistoric analysis (Davies 1977), correspond very closely to those of political and linguistic dominance already introduced (Figure 7.4). The founding of Tula will play a central role in our analysis.

The Migration in the Epiclassic: Data from the Source

Contact-period linguistic data put the nearest Southern Uto-Aztecan languages, of which Nahuatl should have been a neighbor, in northeast Jalisco, western Guanajuato, and the southeast edge of the Sierra Madre Occidental (p.157) (Figure 7.1) (Barragan Trejo and Yáñez Rosales 2001; Herrera Muñoz and Quiroz Moreno 1991; Hill 2001; Moctezuma Zamarrón 2001). One of these languages, Cazcan, is even considered a variant of classical Nahuatl. Our archaeological understanding of a part of this area, known as the Bajío for its low-lying valleys, wetlands, and lakes, continues to improve, and we can make some tenuous suggestions about the origin of the migrants. Similar public architecture based on enclosed patios and ceramic complexes of red on buff and postfiring engraved types are found across the region (e.g., Cárdenas García 1999; Castañeda López et al. 1988), but two general material culture spheres have been identified for the Classic period (A.D. 200–650) (Brambila 1993, Figure 7.5; summarized in Wright Carr 1999). The western sphere incorporates more orange ceramics, larger sites on hilltops with agricultural terraces, more complex variations on the enclosed patios, columned architecture, greater use of cut stone in all sites, and contacts with western Mexico. The eastern sphere incorporates more redwares and white-striped ceramics, greater use of cobbles for architecture in all but the largest sites, valley-floor agriculture, and contacts with central Mexico.

The north-south dividing line between these distinct forms of material expression lies between the Guanajuato and Laja rivers, strikingly close to the sixteenth-century border between the range of Southern Uto-Aztecan languages mentioned above and the range of Oto-Manguean languages in eastern Guanajuato and Querétaro (Figure 7.1) (Moctezuma Zamarrón 2001). At the time of European contact, these groups were hunter-gatherers and occasional agriculturalists, but they likely are descendants of earlier farming populations. Assuming some territorial stability, this distribution suggests that the migrant Nahuatl-speakers came from western Guanajuato and that the migrants traversed a straight-line distance of up to 200 km before arriving in the Mezquital, likely dislodging or incorporating Oto-Manguean-speakers in the process. Similar incursions were being made across the Lerma River into other states (Beekman 1996; Beekman and Christensen 2003; Michelet et al. 2005) at similar times, so the Mezquital was not the only targeted destination. Unfortunately, we do not have a sufficiently refined chronology to evaluate the tempo of the migration.

We do have a likely motive for the migrants. Paleoclimatological data accumulated over the past 25 years form a chain of sequences across the Mexican highlands, including the Bajío (Metcalfe and Davies 2007). One of the clearest patterns is the gradual desiccation over the Classic period, reaching a peak in the period A.D. 700–1200, which two of the principal researchers describe as “probably the driest of the Holocene” (Metcalfe and Davies 2007:169). A lake core from Laguna Azteca just east of the Mezquital shows an opposing process (p.158) toward greater humidity during this same time period (Metcalfe and Davies 2007), suggesting a pull factor attracting migrants from the Bajío toward the Mezquital Valley. There are conflicting claims as to whether the Bajío experienced a peak of occupation and political centralization (e.g., Castañeda López et al. 1988) or a rapid decline after A.D. 700 (Filini and Cárdenas 2007). There was substantial volatility in settlement at this time and sites such as Cerrito de Rayas (Ramos de la Vega and Crespo 2004), La Gloria (Moguel Cos and Sánchez Correa 1988), Plazuelas, Cañada de la Virgen (Castañeda López et al. 2007), Barajas (Pereira et al. 2001), and El Cerrito (Crespo 1991) each experienced a brief spike of occupation followed by abandonment. The evidence at the destination indicates that entire social communities made the move and that community leaders likely made the decision to migrate. This process was as much social as it was environmental, and some major sites in the neighboring mountains fluoresced well into the Postclassic, supported by cinnabar and red-ochre mining (Herrera Muñoz and Quiroz Moreno 1991; Mejía 2005).

There is suggestive evidence for the route and mode of migration. A long band of semi-desert in northeastern Guanajuato forms a wedge separating agricultural populations to the north and south as it angles down through central Querétaro and into the northern Mezquital. Archaeological surveys have found virtually no evidence of sedentary populations in this area (Viramontes Anzures 2000). This would have restricted the movement of migrating farmers to the valleys between this band and the Lerma River, and the river itself was always a likely route to follow. The evidence at their point of arrival indicates that the migrants formed cohesive groups that leapfrogged along this route, establishing a chain of social communities (Anthony 1990) rather than a continuous spread of evenly distributed population. The Mezquital received the first of these communities, but others stretched right through central Mexico and beyond (Beekman and Christensen 2003; Fowler 1989).

The Aftermath of Migration: Gradual Accommodation and a Multiethnic Identity

The sixth century A.D. in the Mezquital shows, as expected, the establishment of entire new communities whose material culture and site location differ from the indigenous settlements (Mastache and Cobean 1989; Polgar Salcedo 1998). The older towns were frontier communities associated with the urban state of Teotihuacan to the south (Díaz Oyarzabal 1980; López Aguilar 1994). The migrants, whom various scholars have argued originated in the Bajío based on artifact similarities (López Aguilar 1994; Mastache and Cobean 1989), initially settled in the hills of the southern Mezquital where they (p.159) used material culture distinct from that of contemporary settlements on the valley floor (Mastache et al. 2002). The new hilltop sites described to date (particularly Cerro Magoni and La Mesa) are of short-term occupation but are quite large and internally diverse, with public buildings and residences. The La Mesa site has three distinct sectors, each with its own ceremonial architecture (Mastache and Cobean 1989). These settlements incorporated multiple communities with their own social institutions, though they may have been separate during the physical process of migration. They moved into a controlled social landscape that had little room for new migrants with few local social ties, and the migrants may have found it easier to settle with one another in the less-hospitable hilltops.

Mastache and colleagues (Mastache et al. 2002; Mastache and Cobean 1989) describe the new settlements as varying greatly from one to the next. They have disparate residential architecture in the form of isolated round or square houses using a slab construction technique and distinct architectural forms such as columned halls and sunken patios. The inhabitants made use of a wide range of architecture and ceramics, pointing to diverse origins for the migrants (Mastache et al. 2002). Ceramics show variation from one site to the next as well. These authors have argued that the migrants came from the Bajío on the basis of similarities in lithics, ceramics, and architecture, which we interpret more correctly as claims of affinity, but we have no reason to think those claims are false. We agree that the different lines of evidence point to an origin in western Bajío for the migrants and we also find the smaller-scale variability expressed from site to site to be of central importance. The material culture represents a tense field of competing expressed identities in these earliest migrant settlements, where the migrants were confronted with a complex social environment.

By the Epiclassic period, the new center of Tula Chico had been founded around two nuclei of formal ceremonial architecture corresponding to two social communities with their own public institutions (Mastache et al. 2002; Sterpone 2000–2001). An emerging ceramic complex known as Coyotlatelco had achieved a local conformity we interpret as a resolution of the earlier tensions. The ceramic complex is composed of red on buff, reduce-fired pottery with incised or engraved designs, and other decorative types that show general connections to the earlier pottery of the Bajío. While some subset of the ceramics and residential architecture of the immigrants continued into the Epiclassic, the material culture of the earlier indigenous residents did not. Coyotlatelco ceramics were used throughout most of the Mezquital, and we doubt that the Otomi-speaking residents had simply moved out. It is more likely that the symbolic capital of the visual corpus associated with the Teotihuacan state, (p.160) which collapsed at about this time (e.g., Cowgill 2000), held no further value. Those Otomi who stayed in the Mezquital area ceased to assert their separate identity through maintaining an older material culture. The same thing happened in the former seat of power to the south, where the reduced population of Teotihuacan elaborated its own local version of the Coyotlatelco complex (Rattray 1966). There were few incentives to maintain a social identity associated with the failed former state and perhaps more than a few reasons to embrace the new arrivals.

Similar public architecture and ceramics reminiscent of Coyotlatelco extend westward (see the contributions in Solar Valverde 2006) that link source, destination, and adjacent areas of western Mexico (Beekman 1996). The distribution of the new material culture could hardly correspond strictly to the migrating peoples alone. But the Coyotlatelco-like artifacts and public architecture may cloak an ongoing process of ethnic accommodation (suggested for the Tula area by Mastache and Cobean 1989) and the expression of new identities based not only on language or ethnicity but on membership in explicitly multiethnic and perhaps political groupings. Actual language change lagged considerably behind the material expression of new identity and would not expand laterally until Nahuatl became the status language of later regimes (Beekman and Christensen 2003).

Although Tula Chico may have represented the accommodation of migrants and indigenes in a single settlement, the picture at the scale of the valley is quite different. As indicated earlier, Early Colonial written documents, Late Postclassic political geography, and the Early Postclassic Tula polity divide the Mezquital along a consistent north-south boundary (Figures 7.27.4). Archaeology demonstrates that a version of this boundary first appeared during the Epiclassic period, when a distinction in settlement pattern and domestic wares separated western and eastern sites in the Mezquital during Tula Chico's tenure as the urban center of the region (Figure 7.5). The western Mezquital sites extend into Querétaro and are known as the Xajay Development, while the eastern sites share Epiclassic ceramics with Tula Chico. The Xajay Development is distinguished by distinctive pottery (Crespo and Saint-Charles Zetina 1996; Solar Valverde 2001, 2002) and mesa-top ceremonial centers (Solar Valverde 2001, 2002), while the majority of the population lived on the flat bottomlands (Polgar Salcedo 1998). The eastern sites are larger and were part of a more intensely modified landscape of agricultural terraces. Their ceramic assemblages are close enough to those of Tula Chico itself that they follow the same chronological sequence (Fournier and Bolaños 2007; Solar Valverde 2001, 2002). This discontinuity does not simply correspond to groupings of indigenous Otomi to the west and Nahua migrants to the east, for recall that (p.161) Otomi-speakers should exist on either side. Rather we interpret the eastern pattern as associated with a new multiethnic Otomi-Nahuatl identity emerging around Tula Chico and being deliberately contrasted with their western neighbors.

We can compare our approach to another reconstruction of the period. Fournier and Bolaños 2007) argue for continuity in material culture corresponding to Otomi-speaking peoples in the Mezquital from the Epiclassic straight through to the present day. These authors emphasize the changes of Early Postclassic Tula (discussed below) to argue that Nahuas did not arrive in the Mezquital until that time and were essentially limited to Tula itself. We feel that this proposal clashes with the wider regional evidence for the presence of Nahuatl at an earlier date (previously discussed), but it also treats linguistic and ethnic groups as isomorphic with archaeological data and essentializes “Otomi” and “Nahuatl” material culture. We interpret Nahuas and Otomi as being present from the Epiclassic but suppressing that difference until the Early Postclassic, when some Nahuas achieve a position of political dominance. We consider this change below.

The Aftermath of Migration II: Accommodation Turns into Ethnic Hierarchy

The accommodation we envision for the eastern Mezquital ended with the burning of one of the architectural complexes at Tula Chico at the end of the Epiclassic and the expansion of the second locus into the sole political center for the city now referred to as Tula Grande (Sterpone 2000–2001). Tula Chico was left abandoned, mute testimony to a struggle of mythic proportions for succeeding generations. Mastache and colleagues (2002; Mastache and Cobean 1985; Mastache and Crespo 1982) have long seen a link between the archaeological data and a factional dispute described in stories told over the next few centuries. In these stories, Topiltzin, a wise and beneficent ruler of Tula, was tricked into public humiliation by his rival Huemac and was banished from the city in a major upset that is far more opaque in the original documents than in Mastache's reconstruction (Davies 1977).

There is nothing to specifically suggest that the factional dispute was isomorphic with Nahuatl and Otomi identities, but this is a plausible interpretation. Major shifts occurred internally toward greater categorization, by which we mean the establishment of distinct categories and dualities within Tula's archaeology during the Early Postclassic (see also Jones 1995). A set of cream-wares of distinct affiliations emerged within the ceramic complex and became more important with time; contiguous apartment compounds were joined (p.162) by and ultimately replaced with multistructured residential groups as more appropriate domestic space; trade in obsidian moved from western to eastern sources as old ties were abandoned and new ones were established (Mastache et al. 2002). While these changes need not correlate in any neat way with changing populations, they do indicate a rejection or reformulation of the prior multiethnic identity of the Epiclassic. The dualities in the ceramic assemblage and the residential architecture tentatively suggest that a distancing between groups took place that had not been overt before. The ethnohistoric record makes it clear that Nahua-speakers dominated the eastern Mezquital from this point on, so these changes must be interpreted in this light.

Emerging expressions of difference in the material culture were accompanied by more obvious manipulations of art and architecture for political aims. The new elites quickly adopted a mixture of traditional politics from the long-defunct center of Teotihuacan alongside a new political message (Mastache et al. 2002). Inspired by Teotihuacan, the new elites shifted Tula's site orientation and built a form of ceremonial precinct that deliberately harked back to the older state symbolism (Mastache and Crespo 1982; Mastache et al. 2002). But they also developed a new iconography that emphasized death and warrior imagery. The hybrid ideology seems to have worked, as the city as a whole grew to perhaps 40,000 people over the next few centuries. Its ruling dynasty had such high status that succeeding empires strove to establish marital alliances with it to legitimize their own political ambitions (Davies 1980). A “Toltec” identity had indeed become desirable apart from its ethnic or linguistic origins.

To summarize, worsening climatic conditions in the western Bajío during the Classic period either crippled subsistence agriculture or created such unstable social conditions that multiple communities of Nahuatl-speakers moved eastward along the Lerma River until they reached the Mezquital Valley (Figure 7.1). Faced with complex social institutions backed by the Teotihuacan state, the migrants clustered into hilltop centers. Perhaps associated with the decline of Teotihuacan, migrants and indigenes reached an accommodation in a multiethnic community at Tula Chico that preserved separate activity spaces even as they expressed a joint identity through portable material culture. A frontier between opposing expressed identities formed between Otomi-speakers in the western Mezquital and the multiethnic Otomi-Nahuatl polity to the east (Figure 7.5). This relationship ended with the destruction of Tula Chico at the end of the Epiclassic and the forging of the Toltec state (Figure 7.4). A series of dualities in the Early Postclassic archaeological record accompanied the ascendance of Nahuatl-speakers or just a faction of them. A new Toltec identity formed that symbolized civilizing influences rather than a (p.163) particular language or ethnicity, although negative stereotypes of Otomi were widely promulgated at the time of the Spanish conquest (Brumfiel 1994). The linguistic predominance of Nahuatl among the elite continued in the Late Postclassic successor states in Tula's old territory (Figure 7.3) and even for a time after the Spanish conquest (Figure 7.2), before Nahuatl's eventual decline and disappearance in the Mezquital.


This volume's editors' definition of migration as “one-way residential relocation to a different ‘environment’” encompasses a range of possible human movements that we should not expect to be equally discernible in the archaeological record. It includes, for example, the initial colonization of unoccupied lands such as the Pacific islands, the Americas, or the Australian continent. Discerning a migration in these cases is comparatively simple. But the definition also includes invading and wresting territory away from other groups (as in the European migration to the Americas) or establishing a relationship with prior claimants to the land (the most common result of migration worldwide). In complex societies, the importance of material culture for the definition of group identities is heightened and so are the social pressures to amplify or suppress visual cues. The potential range of material consequences to migration is thus too great to rely on archaeology alone.

Our example builds upon a wider-ranging case study (Beekman and Christensen 2003) that considered a series of migrations over a period of several hundred years and many thousands of square kilometers. One of the difficulties that emerged from the original study was how the visibility of a migration might vary from one place to another based upon local factors that influenced the relationship between migrants and those who came before (the “messiness” of migration discussed in Peregrine et al. 2009). Our theoretical perspective suggests that this is to be expected, and it drove us to pursue the problem here on a more local scale. Our more detailed analysis of that same late pre-Columbian migration into the Mezquital region has used theoretically derived principles to interpret complex context-specific data. Methodologically speaking, the scalar approach was one of the most productive aspects of this study. Our analysis required the wider perspective previously developed in order to correctly interpret the local situation. Without that broader picture, we might easily have reached other conclusions. Similarly, our study at the scale of the Mezquital region gave us a quite different understanding of identity politics than did the analysis of the city of Tula alone.

While the evidence for a substantial Epiclassic migration out of the Bajío (p.164) continues to accumulate, there is little that directly ties this migration of population to the Nahuatl language. There is no Nahua artifact assemblage nor will there be, however detailed the analysis, because of the shifting and relational aspects of identity. But the linguistic, biological, and ethnohistoric evidence combined with the archaeology narrowly restrict the range of potential interpretations by rejecting other possibilities. Studies of past migration have tended to be highly empiricist, without a developed body of theory, and expectations have tended to be unrealistic as a consequence. Now that Cabana and Clark (this volume) have established a working minimal definition of migration, advancing our theoretical understanding requires us to emphasize the differences between cases. Migration among complex agrarian societies is one such variation, presenting issues that show more parallels to modern movements than to cases of migration among societies with less-institutionalized power structures and social identities.


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