The Tarascan Empire within the Mesoamerican world system
The world-system concept as applied to Mesoamerica (Blanton et al. 1981; Blanton and Feinman 1984; Peregrine 1996; Smith and Berdan 2003; Kepecs et al. 1994) refers to sociopolitical and economic entities that by definition encompass not just extensive territories, but also a series of interacting social systems that often constituted civilizations in their own right. From the Occidente at one extreme of Mesoamerica, to the Maya area at the other, there was congruity and a certain degree of continuity, though one can also observe important social and cultural contrasts. Interactions within the world system were so intense that they became symbiotic in nature. The most important -though by no means only- fabric that held ancient Mesoamerica together was the exchange (through trade, tribute or gift-giving), of basic, scarce resources. It is the character and intensity of these relationships that define a world system, and not the specifics of cultural organization (Williams and Weigand 2004) (Figures 57, 58, and 59).
The Tarascan state was part of the Mesoamerican world system and interacted with other Mesoamerican peoples primarily through trade. Because of Mesoamerica's great ecological and geographical diversity, exchange among several regions was indispensable from earliest times, since no region had all the resources needed for survival. Most striking were the differences between the humid lowlands and coasts and the arid highlands (Blanton et al. 1981; Sanders and Price 1968). The extraction of taxes imposed by military means, as well as trade, had functioned since early times as mechanisms for the exchange of people, information and goods across regions in conditions of dynamic and ill-defined borders between different social systems (Blanton et al. 1981:60).
Regional markets also played an important role in Mesoamerican economy. One could find in these markets all kinds of trade goods, from the mundane to the exotic. Some regional markets became famous for selling certain products in particular (Hassig 1985:110). Indeed, long-distance exchange was one of the most important economic activities of all Mesoamerican states. This activity was closely linked to imperialism, as sumptuary goods played an important sociopolitical role in Prehispanic societies. The exchange of luxury goods between elites during the Postclassic exercised an integrative effect by fostering interregional communication and social stratification (Smith 1990:153-163) (Figures 60, 61, and 62).
The Mesoamerican "world economy" was based primarily on the exchange of goods that were considered precious, and the flow of these products was charged with political and economic implications. However, this flow cannot be explained entirely in terms of the desires of elite groups to consume such exotic goods. Luxury items often played an important role in the accumulation of power by the elites, through the controlled redistribution of status symbols (Blanton and Feinman 1984:676).
Among the Tarascans, long-distance trade was an institutional mechanism through which goods flowed toward the imperial capital. Long-distance traders were sponsored by the state and their function was to obtain rare goods that could only be found in the remote corners of the empire, or even beyond its borders (Pollard 1993:119). Among these sumptuary goods were cacao, animal skins, seashells, fine bird feathers, turquoise, peyote, rock crystal, serpentine, amber, pyrite, jadeite, gold, silver, copal, green and red obsidian and slaves (Pollard 2003, 1993:119) (Figures 63, 64, and 65).
Long-distance traders traveled regularly to the limits of Tarascan territory; including Zacatula on the Pacific coast and Taximaroa on the Aztec border (Pollard 2000:171). Trade routes during the Postclassic were quite extensive and crossed the whole of Mesoamerica. For example, the pochteca (Aztec long-distance merchants), traveled regularly from the basin of México to Guatemala in the south and as far as the current U.S.-México border in the north (Hassig 1985:116).
According to Smith and Berdan (2003), exchange circuits were large systems within which the movement of trade goods and ideas was particularly frequent and intense. This trade was aided by the existence of "international trade centers": cities or towns involved in long-distance exchange, entrepots or gateway communities that linked various exchange circuits with other parts of the world system (Smith and Berdan 2003:24).
However, not all trade was state-sanctioned; among the Tarascans there was a high level of exchange between villages in the Lake Pátzcuaro area and their counterparts in the highlands, in particular the Tierra Caliente, the "hot lands" on the Tepalcatepec River basin. It is not clear exactly how this exchange took place, but ethnohistorical sources do not mention any kind of state intervention (Beltrán 1982:165). The Tarascan state's tributary network was the most important institution for obtaining all kinds of natural resources. Through this network, tribute flowed from every corner of the empire to the royal storerooms at Tzintzuntzan. This tribute network was centralized, hierarchically organized and a fundamentally political institution with several levels, from small villages to collection centers in medium-size towns and finally to the state capital (Pollard 1993:116; Beltrán 1982:161-162). Certain tribute goods -for instance, obsidian tools, fine pottery and metal artifacts (copper, bronze, silver, AND gold) - were eventually traded in the markets. With the possible exceptions of textiles and foods, which were widely distributed on ritual occasions, most tribute goods were consumed by the ruling elite (Beltrán 1982) (Figures 66, 67, and 68).
There were other channels besides tribute through which goods and services flowed through the Tarascan kingdom: long-distance trade, state agricultural lands, mines and gift exchange. But taxes -paid either in goods or services- were the most important ones for the economy, as they contributed to the support of the state apparatus. The tributary system was completely under the control of the ruling dynasty, which used an extensive bureaucracy to assure the timely payment of levies. The goods that appear most often on tribute lists from the sixteenth century are maize, cotton cloth and clothing, slaves, victims for sacrifice, domestic services, metal objects, weapons, tropical fruits, cacao, unprocessed cotton, gourds, animal skins, tropical feathers, gold, silver, copper, salt, beans, chili peppers, rabbits, turkeys, honey, pulque (an alcoholic drink made from fermented agave plants), feathers and pottery vessels (Pollard 2003).
The ultimate objective of military campaigns was to secure tribute from conquered peoples. The tribute system was organized in the form of a pyramid, with Tzintzuntzan at the apex and several cabeceras (towns or localities established for tax collection purposes), located below the capital. Local caciques or chieftains had the obligation of collecting taxes from their subject towns and villages and then sending them periodically to the capital, under the direct supervision of a tax official, called the ocambecha (Beltrán 1982:154-156).
The Tarascan state interacted actively with its neighbors, constantly importing raw materials and manufactured goods from beyond its borders. Metal artifacts (primarily copper and its alloys), were among the most complex goods from a technological standpoint, and among the most highly-valued by Mesoamerican cultures. Metal goods were produced in Michoacán under the control of the Tarascan elite, and their distribution throughout Mesoamerica is proof of Tarascan participation in the Mesoamerican world system (Pollard 1987).
By the same token, Aztec imperial strategies had economic, military and political consequences far beyond the confines of their territory. In the Occidente, for instance, these consequences were primarily military. The Tarascans had to fortify their border with the Aztec territories and be constantly alert for possible enemy incursions. However, this did not preclude the existence of exchange between these two polities: in fact, several valuable trade goods such as turquoise, copper and obsidian, among many others, moved across state borders. Apparently, trade and other types of interaction were allowed to operate despite widespread warfare. The Aztec-Tarascan border was permeable to trade and commercial exchange coexisted with ongoing wars and political strife (Smith 2003).
The border strategy between both polities consisted of establishing military fortresses (Hernández Rivero 1994; Armillas 1991), garrisons of warriors and colonial outposts in frontier regions (Silverstein 2001). The Aztecs were content to maintain the Tarascan border in equilibrium by establishing a series of client states, or strategic provinces, along the border (Berdan and Smith 2003).
Transportation technology in ancient Mesoamerica was quite rudimentary. Overland transport costs were rather high, since the lack of beasts of burden meant that everything had to be moved on the backs of human porters, known as tlamemes. It is not known exactly how much one of these porters could carry, but the extant ethnohistorical data suggest that in the sixteenth century a typical tlameme could carry perhaps two arrobas (approximately 23 kg.) a distance of five leagues (about 21-28 km.) before being relieved (Hassig 1985:28-32). In Michoacán, each tlameme carried between 20 and 30 copper ingots, weighing between 32 and 72 kg., for a distance of 21 to 43 km. (Pollard 1987:748-750). These figures, however, must be used with care, since there is much variation in the loads recorded in colonial documents, and the distances also were quite varied, depending on such factors as the type of terrain (mountains, canyons, jungle, forest, desert, etc.), climatic conditions and other factors that could limit the circulation of such carriers (Hassig 1985:33).
Market exchange in the Mesoamerican world system was facilitated by the use of several kinds of currency, such as cacao beans, cotton blankets and "axe-money" made of copper or bronze, which served as units of exchange and as standard units for storing wealth. The existence of these forms of "money" in the Mesoamerican world system indicates a high level of commercialization of the economy during the Postclassic period, as well as a certain degree of standardization of exchange processes throughout Mesoamerica (Smith and Berdan 2003).
According to Pollard, "the Lake Pátzcuaro basin naturally lacks salt, obsidian, chert and lime, all products used by most households in the Protohistoric period" (Pollard 1993:113). In the sixteenth century, the core of the Tarascan state was not a completely viable economic unit, but thrived only thanks to the exchange of goods and services in regional and supra-regional patterns (Pollard 1993:113). Salt, for instance, was a strategic resource used in the diet and in food preservation. It also had many industrial applications, such as textile dyeing. As mentioned above, this vital resource had to be brought in from the far corners of the empire. In fact, there were three major salt producing areas that were either under direct Tarascan control or were connected to the state capital through the empire's far-flung trade routes: the Lake Cuitzeo basin (Williams 1999a, b), the Sayula basin (Valdez and Liot 1994; Weigand 1993), and the coast of Michoacán (Williams 2002, 2003, 2004).
A recent study of salt production in the Lake Cuitzeo basin revealed the existence of no less than 11 salt producing and/or tribute-paying communities (Williams 1999b, Figure 2), that in the sixteenth century paid the Spanish Crown varying amounts of salt every 20 or 30 days (Williams 1999b, Table 1). The Lake Cuitzeo basin, which in addition to salt also had deposits of high-quality obsidian (Healan 2004), was firmly under Tarascan political control. The situation at Lake Sayula (Jalisco) to the west may have been different, as the Tarascan state had to wage wars of conquest on several occasions before this area of Jalisco became part of its empire (Brand 1971:637). In San Juan de Atoyac, a site in the Lake Sayula basin, archaeologists found many burials with offerings of Tarascan-style: pottery, metal artifacts such as axes, chisels, bells and insignia of status like bronze tweezers, as well as obsidian earspools and lip plugs. The excavators concluded that the archaeological evidence found at this site confirms the substantial presence of elite Tarascans in the area. The excavations unearthed many objects pertaining to domestic contexts of Tarascan culture. Historical sources mention the salt deposits in the Sayula basin as the reason that brought the Tarascans to the region in the first place. The Tarascan state attempted to broaden its resource base by dominating areas that held strategic resources, such as salt, that were absent or scarce in the Tarascan heartland (Valdez and Liot 1994:302-305). Other strategic resources found in the Sayula area included copper, tin and several kinds of clays and rocks (Valdez et al. 1996:330; see also Weigand 1993), as well as many wild plants with medicinal or industrial applications: a total of 124 of which have been documented (Valdez et al. 1996:333).
Lastly, the northwest coast of Michoacán and adjoining areas of coastal Colima should be mentioned as an area that produced great amounts of salt, as well as many other basic and luxury goods, such as fish, seashells, etc. Based on production figures reported by informants for the pre-1950 period, the entire coast must have produced hundreds of tons of salt, which was exchanged or paid as tribute to the Tarascan state (Williams 2003).
As we have seen, the Tarascan state was part of the Mesoamerican world system and thus interacted with other regions of Mesoamerica primarily through long-distance trade. Although relations with the Aztecs were often hostile, this did not preclude the existence of robust trade networks between the two polities. This trade included several of the most important elite goods, which were either produced under Tarascan control, such as metal objects (Pollard 1987), or transported under the protection of the Tarascan king, like turquoise, which came from beyond the northern borders of Mesoamerica (Weigand 1995).
The Prehispanic Tarascan legacy thus presents a rich archaeological and ethnohistorical record that illustrates the critical role played by western Mexican peoples in the development of Mesoamerican civilization.
Previous Page | Table of Contents | Next Page
Return to top of page