A quiet methodological revolution is taking place among the anthropological ethnohistorians of Mesoamerica, bringing them closer to the approach and subject matter of colonial Spanish American history as it has been practiced for about the last twenty years. The present volume represents the movement in midstream, gathering momentum and producing excellent results, but not yet quite ready for summation. Thirteen chapters by authors of various nationalities deal with aspects of social and economic organization in almost as many different Mesoamerican regions (with emphasis on central Mexico) in late preconquest and early post-conquest times. Most of the essays stem from papers given at a symposium which Pedro Carrasco chaired as part of the forty-first International Congress of Americanists. Quite a few of the chapters had origins in one of Carrasco’s seminars, and he has been the pioneer, publishing scattered articles in a similar vein during the past decade and more.
The contributions vary in type and quality. Some, including one or two very good ones, are cast in a more traditional mold, but I will concentrate on the work of those who, as someone expressed it at the 1974 session, “got tired of Zorita and Sahagún.” Not that they are unaware of the inexhaustible value of the great chronicles. Rather, in order to better interpret those synthesizing, idealizing, retrospective writings, they have changed their research strategy, doing the synthesizing themselves directly out of records which are contemporaneous with that of which they speak, dealing with specific regions and specific individuals. This is, of course, exactly what colonial historians have been doing for some time now. There is one difference. Since there are no records of this kind for the preconquest period, which remains the anthropologists’ primary concern, they must come into the early postconquest period to carry out the main part of their study, then extrapolate backward. However they may view their own work (the title insists on pre-hispanic Mesoamerica), they in fact, in the first instance, are doing early colonial ethnohistory.
Having once taken this tack, the new ethnohistorians are, not unwillingly, forced by the nature of the records to adopt a regional, subimperial approach. It is high time they did so on general grounds, but aside from that, their thrust coincides with the growing regionalism of colonial historians, and points to the locus of the most important continuities stretching across the sharp breaks of the conquest.
In the work seen here, the records used are mainly detailed local censuses, or padrones, and a certain amount of litigation about the rights of nobles. Much of the material is in Nahuatl, which brings investigation far closer to the true categories of social organization than it has ever been before. The results are remarkable. Where we had been taught to distinguish between ordinary commoners and a serf-like group called mayeque who worked for the nobles, the Nahuatl sources prove to lack such a term almost entirely, generally using the same words for both groups. It is indeed quite clear that the two groups are essentially one. We had been taught that the calpulli was an all-encompassing unit at the village and sub-village level, but it proves to be shot through with independently organized teccalli or noble houses, to the extent that in many places the people and lands of the latter far outweigh those of the calpullis.
Because there are so many different writers and regions, the book can give a superficial impression of chaos. But if the reader will give close attention to the contributions of Carrasco, Anguiano and Chapa, and Dyckerhoff and Prem, he will have the elements needed to arrive at realistic models of central Mexican indigenous social types and provincial organization, as well as a notion of their principles of variation and evolution.