Link to Anthropomorphic hollow clay figure of the "shaft-tomb tradition" representing a horned individual with an object in his hand. Eduardo Williams
Prehispanic West México: A Mesoamerican Culture Area

Prehispanic Urbanization at Tzintzuntzan

Few studies have been undertaken to explore the character and nature of Prehispanic urban life at the Tarascan capital, in marked contrast to other urban centers in Mesoamerica that have received much more attention from scholars, notably central Mexican sites such as Teotihuacán (Millon 1981) and Tula (Mastache et al. 2002). The fact that central Mexican cities are better known than their counterparts in other areas of Mesoamerica has contributed to the creation of a prejudice in the minds of some people, who see urban sites such as Teotihuacán, Tula, and Tenochtitlán -with their peculiar regional traditions and their fundamentally commercial nature- as the model of what a Mesoamerican city should be. This is unfortunate, because they are not, in fact, representative of other Prehispanic Mesoamerican cities (Marcus 1983:196)

Sanders and Webster (1988) define cities as settlements that have three main characteristics: (1) a large population; (2) a dense, nucleated population; and, (3) marked internal heterogeneity. Secondary attributes would include secularism, anonymity and mobility (upward as well as spatial). Heterogeneity refers to a wide variety of ways of life produced by differences in access to political power, wealth, and group affiliation, as well as to the different economic status and roles found among the population (Sanders and Webster 1988:521). Data derived from recent archaeological and ethnohistorical research seem to indicate that Tzintzuntzan amply meets the requirements to be considered as an urban center of great magnitude and complexity (Gorenstein and Pollard 1983; Pollard 1993, 2003; Castro Leal 1986).

Pre-industrial cities such as Tzintzuntzan have been defined as "central places" where several activities are concentrated, which may be political-administrative, economic, or merely ceremonial or ritual in nature. These central places are permanently occupied by people whose activities are different from those of the population at large, and who exercise an unusually great degree of power in decision-making of a ritual, political, or economic nature. Three functional types of urban centers (i.e. royal-ritual city, administrative city, and mercantile city) are found in pre-industrial societies (Sanders and Webster 1988:523). Generally speaking, Tzintzuntzan functioned as an administrative city and probably also as a royal-ritual one, as discussed below. Sanders and Webster (1988) define an administrative city as one whose principal function is political in nature. Administrative cities are the capitals of states or administrative centers within political systems that consist of multiple urban centers. These cities are extensive and complex and the political systems they serve are large, bureaucratically-structured and highly-centralized. Administrative cities serve as the place of residence not only for the ruling family and the hereditary aristocracy, but also for a multitude of officials and their families, together with a professional military class, all of whom are supported by taxes extracted from the rural communities in the territory under the city's political control. The city's internal organization is highly stratified.

Prehispanic Tzintzuntzan flourished on the southern margin of Lake Pátzcuaro's northern arm. The lands occupied by the city in the Protohistoric period were located in two environmental zones: the lake margins and the low hill slopes. According to Pollard (1993), the area covered by the Prehispanic city was at least 6.74 km2, and its population may have been between 25,000 and 35,000 inhabitants, with a density of 4,452 people per square kilometer in the residential areas (Pollard 1993:31-33). Pollard (1993) has identified three distinct urban categories within Tzintzuntzan: (1) residential areas; (2) manufacturing areas; and, (3) public areas. What follows is a brief discussion of each of these zones.

1. Residential areas. These were identified archaeologically by the presence of lithic and ceramic material, which suggested activities linked with the preparation, serving and storage of food. Type I residential areas were interpreted as plebeian barrios inhabited by the city's low-status people.

Research in other areas of Mesoamerica has produced comparative data useful for understanding Tarascan urbanism. At Copilco and Cuexcomate (two provincial Aztec sites in the state of Morelos), for instance, houses were small (with a mean area of 15 m.2) and built of adobe brick walls supported on stone foundations. Every house contained a variety of incense burners and small ceramic figurines for domestic rituals (Smith 1997:60-61). These houses may have been similar to Tarascan plebeian dwellings.

Type II residential areas appear to be associated with Tzintzuntzan's highest-ranking social group, including the cazonci (king) and his family. Tarascan royal palaces may not have been very different from Aztec ones. In Aztec royal courts there was a daily convergence of hundreds of people, including visitors and residents, the king's family members, courtiers and servants. The Aztec palace, or tecpan, combined administrative, residential and courtly functions, as well as activities linked to government, hospitality, ritual and everyday work (Evans 2001).

At Tzintzuntzan, Type III residential areas were interpreted as areas of intermediate status, although this does not represent a "middle class" in the modern sense of the word. Rather, they represent the lower end of the higher status group in the city's social structure.

The city of Tula in central México presents data on urbanism that are useful to complement the scanty information available on Tarascan urbanism. All houses thus far excavated at Tula were rectangular, single-story, multiple-room constructions of stone and adobe, with earth or plaster floors. Household activity areas included kitchens, food preparation areas, ritual activity areas and underground storage rooms (Healan 1993).

Finally, another urban area (Type IV) could have been inhabited by a non-Tarascan ethnic group resident in Tzintzuntzan (probably Otomi or Matlatzinca) (Pollard 1993:34-42). In fact, it would not be surprising to discover that Tzintzuntzan had a large population of people from other parts of Mesoamerica as permanent residents, as this was customary in many Mesoamerican cities. In Tenochtitlán, for instance, there was a large body of residents from elsewhere in the basin of México, and even from other regions within Mesoamerica. They included organized groups of artisans, such as lapidary workers from Xochimilco, and the pochteca (long-distance merchants), who were ethnically linked to populations from the Gulf Coast (Calnek 1976:288-289). During the Classic period, Teotihuacán also had large communities of "foreigners" who hailed from Oaxaca (and had their own "Oaxacan barrio" in the city), the Gulf Coast and the Maya area (Millon 1981:210; Rattray 1979:62-66).

Archaeological remains of habitation areas are very poor in Tzintzuntzan, except for constructions known as "palaces", which correspond to the dwellings of the ruling elite (Acosta 1939). Because the archaeological remains are so scanty, we must turn to ethnohistorical sources such as the Relación de Michoacán, a sixteenth-century book on the Tarascan Empire (Alcalá 1988), in order to understand the different types of dwellings used by the Tarascans. These consisted of the following: (a) palaces: relatively large houses with several rooms and a portico; (b) one-room houses divided into several subtypes according to the roofing material; (c) ranchos, small, circular huts built of reeds or other plants, where men would spend the night while out hunting in the hills; (d) trojes, one-room, circular constructions used for storage; and, finally, (e) the houses of the high priests, which had only one large room and a door divided by painted and sculpted wooden posts (Castro Leal 1986:64-66).

2. Manufacturing zones. Three types of lithic workshops were discovered at Tzintzuntzan (Pollard 1993). Type 1 was dedicated to producing tools, primarily blades. In these places, artisans made basic generalized tools, produced and utilized in residential areas. Type 2 lithic workshops produced rough obsidian blades, flakes and artifacts of unknown use with notches or points, earspools, lip plugs, cylinders and discs (Figures 47 and 48). Finally, Type 3 lithic workshops contained large obsidian scrapers, though the absence of evidence of obsidian processing suggests that these tools were made elsewhere. Among the tasks performed at these sites we might have found skin preparation, wood-working and maguey scraping to prepare pulque (a native alcoholic beverage), among others (Pollard and Vogel 1994). Besides the manufacturing zones mentioned above, there must have been many more work areas associated with other crafts such as basketry, carpentry, hide processing, textile elaboration, and so on. These workshops, however, may not have left archaeological traces.

3. Public zones. The principal public zone in Tzintzuntzan was the main platform or central plaza. In the center of this platform we find six stone constructions, known as yácatas, which were dedicated to the religious cult. In addition to this enormous plaza, there are four sites designated as secondary public areas, which functioned as local religious centers (Pollard 1993) (Figures 49 and 50).

No area of the ancient city seems to have functioned solely in a political or administrative context. The buildings known as casas del rey (king's houses) served a political purpose, but they also functioned as residences for the king and the royal court, besides incorporating political and religious functions, as well as certain manufacturing activities. Other public areas mentioned in the Relación de Michoacán (Alcalá 1988) include the following: the casa de águilas (eagles' house, probably reserved for warriors), a jail, a zoo, storage facilities for grain, cotton blankets -used as a unit of exchange throughout Mesoamerica- and other tribute goods, ball court, baths, a market and burial grounds (Figures 51 and 52).

Among the Aztecs, royal "pleasure parks" were reserved for the elite. They included enclosed gardens and zoos with all kinds of plants and animals, as well as special facilities for ball games or gambling and for playing many different board games. Other special places included facilities for observing astronomical phenomena and for performing poetry, music and dance (Evans 2000). In these respects, both Aztecs and Tarascans were following a common Mesoamerican urban tradition.

The only sectors within Tzintzuntzan that appear to have been deliberately planned are the political and religious areas. Judging by the archaeological and ethnohistorical information (the Relación de Michoacán and maps from the colonial period), Tzintzuntzan shows planning for individual structures and for some activity areas, though not for the city as a whole (Pollard 1993:45-54). According to Marcus (1983), the simplest formal dichotomy in the study of pre-industrial cities is that between planned and unplanned cities. The former usually have rectangular components, straight streets that form grid patterns and repetitive units of some standardized dimensions. The best example of a planned city in Mesoamerica is Teotihuacán, with its straight avenues, geometric proportions and well-organized habitation compounds (Millon 1981).

Unplanned cities such as Tzintzuntzan frequently show a lack of formality and are characterized by a radial growth pattern, as opposed to the axial growth pattern characteristic of planned urban centers. Many Mesoamerican cities combined both of these features, as they had a planned "inner city", or center, where the secular and religious public structures are found, and an unplanned "outer city", or periphery, that reflects random growth in residential areas (Marcus 1983:196). Examples of this type of city are common in the Maya area, where sites like Copán are divided into two basic components: a densely-settled urban core (within a radius of ca. 1 km. from the center of the main group of buildings), which holds most of the elite residential compounds, and a rural or non-urban sector in which population density decreases progressively as one moves away from the center. There is definitely nothing to suggest the existence of a grid plan for the city of Copán, where all the sites and barrios show a random distribution (Fash 1991:155-156).

There is ample evidence for the existence of barrios in Tzintzuntzan during the Protohistoric period. These units probably played a role in regulating marriage, as well as being the locales for ceremonial and religious activities. Tzintzuntzan had 15 barrios in 1593, each one with its own chapel. In 1945, local informants could remember 13 and pinpoint the location of 11 of them. However, it has not been possible to locate the barrios at the Prehispanic settlement because there has been some confusion during the last centuries about their original names and locations (Pollard 1993:59) (Figure 53).

Tzintzuntzan had at least 15 endogamic territorial units with ceremonial functions, while artisans and other specialists were located in separate barrios. According to the Relación de Michoacán, there was a secondary level of territorial clustering within the Prehispanic city, a subdivision of the barrio that consisted of 25 households and was used for tax collection purposes, collective participation in public works and the realization of censuses (Pollard 1993:59-60).

Many Mesoamerican cities were divided into quarters or barrios. Tenochtitlán, for instance, was divided in four sectors, which were subdivided in tlaxillacallis, or barrios, which had the same names as the units known as calpullis. The latter term refers to corporate social groups, whose members shared the same occupation and belonged to a common ritual circle. In the Aztec capital each barrio was subdivided into house groups for administrative purposes (Calnek 1976:296-297). There is no evidence for calpullis or similar groups at Tzintzuntzan.

Several centuries earlier, Tenochtitlán-style barrios had apparently existed in Teotihuacán as well, where they may have formed corporate entities that functioned as an important administrative unit of state control and the organization of local activities (Millon 1981:210). Around the same period as Teotihuacán (early Classic, before ca. A.D. 750), the city of Monte Albán, in Oaxaca, had 15 territorial subdivisions, including the central plaza and its neighboring areas. In most of these areas there is evidence of craft production, including manufacturing sites where the following goods were produced: grinding stones (manos and metates), ceramic objects and stone axes, as well as artifacts made of shell, obsidian, quartz and flint. Market areas have also been identified at Monte Albán, as well as ritual spaces and other areas where large groups of people would have congregated (Blanton et al. 1981:95).

Political and religious functions were important for Tzintzuntzan's growth, but economic activity was embedded in other systems or was peripheral to the basic power structure. Religious and political centers were centrally located, well demarcated and of relatively large size with a high degree of planning in their structures, elements and areas. Commercial and manufacturing areas, on the other hand, were peripheral and spatially disperse, apparently with no planning. In summary, Tzintzuntzan's initial growth seems to have been generated by political rather than economic factors, which is in marked contrast to other Mesoamerican urban centers such as Teotihuacán or Tenochtitlán (Pollard 1993:62).

It has been said that the Tarascan state did not wholly take part in the Mesoamerican urban tradition (Pollard 1980:677), since Tzintzuntzan was its only truly urban center. This state was characterized by a complex and overlapping network of specialized "central places", a situation that should be taken into account in attempts to compare Tarascan sites with other expressions of the Mesoamerican urban tradition (Figures 54, 55, and 56).

At one level, each city is unique and shows characteristics that must be explained according to particular variables, in keeping with their own environmental and cultural setting. At another level, however, we must compare and generalize, and we can do this in a productive way as long as we bear in mind the fundamental processes that affect urban development in different sociocultural contexts (Sanders and Webster 1988:544-545). Finally, sociologist Louis Wright's words should help us understand the enormous degree of variability within the urban tradition present in different Mesoamerican regions, including ancient Michoacán: "…each city, like any other object of nature, is, in a sense, unique…" (Wright 1983:195, cited by Sanders and Webster 1988).

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