On the eve of the Spanish conquest, and in the decades immediately thereafter, the indigenous population of Tlaxcala, in the Valley of Puebla, east of the Basin of Mexico, was grouped into four kingdoms (tlahtocayotl or altepetl, generally called cabeceras in Spanish) of pre-Hispanic origin. Within each cabecera, the basic social and political units were lordly houses (teccalli), each headed by a lord (teuctli) and including junior nobles and nonnoble commoners who worked the lands of the house and provided it with other services. The proceedings of a number of early colonial legal cases indicate that the lands of a teccalli were of two kinds: collectively held lands of the teccalli as a whole and individually held lands of particular nobles of the house. Collectively held lands were passed down over generations undivided and served to maintain the integrity and power of the house. Individually held lands, which were held by women as well as men, were frequently transferred from one house to another and recombined upon marriage, linking the noble houses; they served to maintain the unity and power of the state as a whole.

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