Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Who built the temples and palace at Calixtlahuaca?

Many people will probably interpret this question in ethnic terms. Were the buildings built by the Otomis, the Nahuas, the Matlatzincas, or someone else? Unfortunately, we don’t have an answer to the question of the ethnic or linguistic affiliations of the people of Calixtlahuaca. This question, on the other hand, is meant to address the kinds of people and the kinds or labor organization behind the construction of large buildings at Calixtlahuaca and other Aztec-period cities. I discuss this issue briefly in my book, Aztec City-State Capitals (Smith 2008), but here I will elaborate on the issue of labor taxation.

I should first justify using the term “taxation” for Aztec society. In reading both the primary sources and the entire scholarly literature on the Aztecs, one rarely encounters the term “tax.” Aztec specialists (including myself) typically use the term “tribute” to refer to the obligations people had to their local king or to the Aztec Empire. But if one wants to compare the Aztecs to other early states, then it makes sense to use standard comparative terminology. Most of the obligations that are typically called “tribute” are in reality taxes – payments that were regular, specified, organized, and recorded.

Of the many types of taxes in Aztec society, the one most relevant to building large buildings was called coatequitl, an example of the category of corvée labor. One definition of corvée labor is: “compulsory, unpaid labor demanded by a lord or king and the system of such labor in general.” The best analysis of coatequitl in Aztec society is by Teresa Rojas (Rojas Rabiela 1979). To summarize a complex set of information, each commoner household owed a certain number of days of labor each year to their local king. People were organized into groups or squads of 20 workers called a centecpantli, each with an overseer.

These work squads were sometimes further organized into larger groups of 100 or 200 workers, again under an overseer. The Codex of San Andrés (Galarza 1963) shows a group of 400 laborers, divided into 20 squads of 20 workers each (see first figure). The flag (“pantli”) is a sign for 20. These 400 workers face the overseer, who stands in front of a public building.

In early colonial Mexico City, Spanish officials adapted the Aztec system of coatequitl and work squads to their own purposes, obtaining the labor to build churches, houses, and other buildings. In the second figure here, the Codex Osuna (Códice Osuna 1973) shows a group of workers who owed service to the Viceroy (pictured at the bottom). There are 20 unspecialized laborers (note the flag; the digging stick signals coatequitl labor), as well as a stonemason, a carpenter, and a plasterer. At the right is shown an emblem for 20 “indios de servicio,” personal servants for the Viceroy’s household.

We do not have any specific documents from Calixtlahuaca that talk of labor service or temple construction. But from a general knowledge of Aztec systems of labor and taxation, we can conclude that the large buildings were built by the commoner residents of the city, perhaps aided by residents of nearby towns subject to the king of Calixtlahuaca. People were expected and required to provide this labor service, which was a regular part of life for Aztec-period commoners. The situation is somewhere in between two popular views: (1) The old National-Geographic-Magazine view that ancient temples were built by gangs of slave laborers; and (2) the view that people willingly contributed their labor voluntarily to build temples to the gods (just as today people voluntarily give up their taxes to the IRS out of patriotic devotion to one’s country).

For more information on coatequitl labor in Aztec society, see: (Hicks 1978; Rojas Rabiela 1979; Rojas Rabiela 1986; Valle 2003). For some discussion of a theoretical context for this kind of labor taxation, see my publishing blog.


Códice Osuna (1973) Pintura del Gobernador, Alcaldes y Regidores de México: "Códice Osuna". 2 vols. Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia, Direccíon General de Archivos y Bibliotecas, Madrid.

Galarza, Joaquín (1963) Codex San Andrés (juridiction de Cuautitlan): Manuscrit Pictographique du Musée de l'Homme de Paris (II). Journal de la Société des Amréicanistes 52:61-90.

Hicks, Frederic (1978) Los calpixque de Nezahualcoyotl. Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl 13:129-152.

Rojas Rabiela, Teresa (1979) La organización del trabajo para las obras públicas: el coatequitl y las cuadrillas de trabajadores. In El trabajo y los trabajadores en la historia de México, edited by Elsa Cecilia Frost, Michel C. Meyer and Josefina Zoraido Vázquez, pp. 41-66. El Colegio de México, Mexico City.

Rojas Rabiela, Teresa (1986) El sistema de organización en cuadrillas. In Origen y formación del estado en Mesoamérica, edited by Andrés Medina, Alfredo López Austin and Mari Carmen Serra, pp. 135-150. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

Smith, Michael E.
(2008) Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Valle, Perla (2003) Por obra pública y coatequitl: mano de obra indígena en códices jurídicos del siglo XVI. In Proyecto etnohistoria: visión alternativa del tiempo pp. 17-21. Diario de Campo, Supplement. vol. 25.

1 comment:

Michael E. Smith said...

See the next post for more illustrations of labor taxes in the codices.