Image - Cacao Pod Vessel - K6706 © Justin Kerr FAMSI © 2007:
Jonathan D. Amith

Nahuatl Cultural Encyclopedia: Botany and Zoology, Balsas River, Guerrero
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Figure 5. Oapan Nahuatl: Kohketspalxoxo:hki photographed on cha:chaya:tsi:n tematsakaltik / Ctenosaura pectinata on Senna argentea (Kunth) H.S. Irwin & Barneby.

Research Year:  2004
Culture:  Nahuatl
Chronology:  Colonial
Location:  Guerrero, México
Site:  Balsas River Valley

Table of Contents

Biological Inventory
Textual Documentation: Audio and Transcription
Granting Agencies
Scientific Institutions and Individual Academic Researchers
Indigenous Communities, Associations, and Individuals
Community Outreach
List of Figures
Sources Cited


Although extensive documentation of Aztec natural history was produced in the colonial period (e.g., de la Cruz, 1940; Hernández, 1959; Sahagún, 1963) there has been virtually no comprehensive research on modern Nahuatl ethnobiology. Attempts (dating to the nineteenth century) to identify in scientific nomenclature the plants described in the aforementioned colonial sources have relied on library studies, not fieldwork. There exists no comprehensive study of modern Nahuatl ethnozoology to shed light on the prehispanic culture in this domain. This situation can be compared to Mayan studies, which has been pioneering and intensive and has contributed greatly to our understanding of this culture, both before and after conquest (see Alcorn, 1984, Berlin and Berlin, 1996; Berlin, Breedlove, and Raven, 1974; Breedlove and Laughlin, 1993; Hunn, 1977; Orellana, 1987; Roys, 1931; to name but the most well known).

The present FAMSI award was to begin to fill this lagunae in primary data and, in addition, for the production of an electronic and written corpus of Nahuatl language materials on the natural history (botany and zoology) of the Balsas River Valley in central México. The project involves two major phases:

  • The development of a floristic and faunistic inventory of the natural environment in the Nahuatl-speaking region of the Balsas River Valley, particularly those taxa that are specifically named in Nahuatl culture.
  • An ethnobiological study, through digitally recorded and transcribed exegetical texts, of the cognitive aspects of nomenclature and categorization as well as an exploration of utilitarian and cultural (e.g., "mythical") aspects of the local flora and fauna.

The final results of this long term research project will be:

  • A comparative Nahuatl ethnobiology that will be gradually developed as research is extended into new areas (some of which have already been visited and worked in, e.g., Tlanicpatla and Atliaca, Guerrero; Cuetzalán, Puebla; and the municipality of Chicontepec, Veracruz and Huejutla, Hidalgo).
  • A large corpus of digitally recorded and transcribed texts that will document ethnobiological knowledge in speakers' own words. This corpus will be integrated into both the lexicon and cultural encyclopedia of the Nahuatl Learning Environment and provide basic learning materials for use in Nahuatl bilingual education (see Figure 1).

Despite both the importance of Nahuatl (in terms of number of actual speakers and the existence of ethnobiological materials from the early colonial period) (e.g., Sahagún and Hernández) there has been little done on Nahuatl ethnobiology except in the Sierra Norte of Puebla, where Pierre Beaucage and Alfonso Reynoso Rábago have worked closely and co-published with the Taller de Tradición Oral. Besides the works already published (e.g., Maseualxiujpajmej. Kuesalan, Puebla/Plantas medicinales indígenas. Cuetzalán, Puebla. Puebla, México: DIF) there is still an immense amount of unpublished material. The present FAMSI-supported project will complement the Sierra Norte de Puebla studies and research and yield important comparative data.

While Sahagún and Hernández have an immense amount of material on Nahuatl (Aztec) ethnobotany and ethnoornithology, material on insects and fish is less abundant. The Balsas Nahuatl material will therefore yield both material for comparative study (with Aztec and Sierra Norte de Puebla ethnobotany) and new nomenclature and identifications for fauna not previously studied.

Finally, the present study makes use of language documentation methodology to digitally record and then transcribe extensive texts on a domain of cultural knowledge that will probably be lost forever after the passing of the next generation. This material will not only be stored in regular depositories (such as the Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America) but integrated into an electronic learning environment for easy searching (e.g., on scientific name, Nahuatl name, life-form, etc.), display of text in various formats (e.g., time-coded transcription, publishable text, and 3-line interlinear format), and links to digital images (e.g., macro photographs of the flora and fauna).

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Submitted 03/07/2007 by:

Director: México-North Program on Indigenous Languages
Research Affiliate: Gettysburg College, Department of Sociology and Anthropology;
Yale University;
University of Chicago

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