For five centuries, North Americans have been fascinated and intrigued by stories of the magnificent Aztec Empire. This extensive Mesoamerican Empire was in its ascendancy during the late Fifteenth and early Sixteenth Centuries. The Aztec Empire of 1519 was the most powerful Mesoamerican kingdom of all time. This multi-ethnic, multi-lingual realm stretched for more than 80,000 square miles through many parts of what are now central and southern Mexico. This enormous empire reached from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf coast and from central Mexico to the present-day Republic of Guatemala. Fifteen million people, living in thirty-eight provinces and residing in 489 communities, paid tribute to the Emperor Moctezuma II.
However, by the time that Hernán Cortés and his band of Spanish mercenaries arrived on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz in 1519, omens of impending doom had begun to haunt Emperor Moctezuma II and his advisors in their capital city, Tenochtitlán. With an incredible coalition of indigenous forces, Cortés and his lieutenants were able to bring about the fall of one of the greatest indigenous American empires in only two years.
The Empire that the Aztecs amassed makes them unique among Amerindian peoples. But, in at least one respect, they are far from unique. The Aztecs and other Náhuatl-speaking indigenous peoples of Mexico all belong to the Uto-Aztecan Linguistic Group. Spoken in many regions of the western US and Mexico, the Uto-Aztecan tongues include a wide range of languages, stretching from Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming all the way down to El Salvador in Central America. And the Aztecs represent only a small – but significant – part of this linguistic group.
While the Aztecs of the Sixteenth Century lived in the south central part of the present-day Mexican Republic, a wide scattering of peoples who presently live in the United States could probably be described as “distant cousins” to the Aztecs. If you belong to the Shoshone, Ute, Paiute, or Gabrielino Indians, you may very well share common roots with the famous Aztecs of central Mexico.
How is it that we can conclude that these relationships exist? Studies in historical linguistics have analyzed the Uto-Aztecan tongues – and the Náhuatl language in particular – have determined that Náhuatl was actually not native to central Mexico. Instead, it was carried south from lands that are believed to have been in the northwestern region of the present-day Mexican Republic and – before that – the United States. Most of us have already heard the story of Aztlán and the Aztec journey from that mythical homeland to central Mexico.
Legend states that the Aztec and other Náhuatl-speaking tribal groups originally came to the Valley of Mexico from a region in the northwest, popularly known as Atzlan-Chicomoztoc. The name Aztec, in fact, is said to have been derived from this ancestral homeland, Aztlan (The Place of Herons). According to legend, the land of Atzlan was said to have been a marshy island situated in the middle of a lake.
For nearly five centuries, popular imagination has speculated about the location of the legendary Aztlan. Some people refer to Aztlan as a concept, not an actual place that ever existed. However, many historians believe that Aztlan did indeed exist. The historian Paul Kirchhoff suggested that Aztlan lay along a tributary of the Lerma River, to the west of the Valley of Mexico. Other experts have suggested the Aztlan might be the island of Janitzio in the center of Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, with its physical correspondence to the description of Aztlan. Many anthropologists have speculated that the ancestral home of the Aztecs lay in California, New Mexico or in the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa.
The idea that Sinaloa, Sonora, California, and New Mexico might be the site of Aztlan is a very plausible explanation when historical linguistics are considered. “The north-to-south movement of the Aztlan groups is supported by research in historical linguistics, ” writes the anthropologist, Professor Michael Smith of the University of New York, in The Aztecs. “The Náhuatl language, classified in the Nahuan group of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages, is unrelated to most Mesoamerican native languages. As a matter of fact, Náhuatl was a relatively recent intrusion” into central Mexico.”
On the other hand, if one observes the locations of the indigenous people who spoke the Uto-Aztecan languages, all of their lands lay to the northwest of the Valley of Mexico. The northern Uto-Aztecans occupied a large section of the American Southwest. Among them were the Hopi and Zuni Indians of New Mexico and the Gabrielino Indians of the Los Angeles Basin. The Central Uto-Aztecans – occupying large parts of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Sonora in northwestern Mexico – included the Papago, Opata, Yaqui, Mayo, Concho, Huichol and Tepehuán. It is reasonable to assume that where there is a linguistic relationship there is most likely also a genetic relationship. Thus, it is very possible that the legendary Aztlan – or another ancestral home of the Aztecs – was located in the Southwestern United States.
It is important to note, however, that the Aztlan migrations were not one simple movement of a single group of people. Instead, as Professor Smith has noted, “when all of the native histories are compared, no fewer than seventeen ethnic groups are listed among the original tribes migrating from Aztlan and Chicomoztoc.” It is believed that the migrations southward probably took place over several generations. “Led by priests,” continues Professor Smith, “the migrants… stopped periodically to build houses and temples, to gather and cultivate food, and to carry out rituals.”
The migrating groups included many Náhuatl-speaking peoples who became associated with the Aztec Empire: the Acolhua, Tepaneca, Culhua, Xochimilca, Tlahuica, Matlatzinca, and the Tlaxcalans – all of whom settled in the Valley of Mexico or adjacent valleys that are now in the surrounding states of Morelos, Tlaxcala, and Puebla.
SIL International (formerly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics) states that there are sixty-two existing Uto-Aztecan languages spread throughout the U.S., Mexico, and Central America. For a chart of this linguistic group, please see SIL’s “Language Family Trees: Uto-Aztecan” at the following link: https://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=1714
The Northern Uto-Aztecans, inhabiting several American states, speak thirteen of the sixty-two languages. But the Southern Uto-Aztecans – almost all of whom make their homes south of the present-day U.S.-Mexican border – speak 49 languages.
The Northern Uto-Aztecans are best known as the “Great Basin peoples,” and the majority of them belong to the Numic subdivision of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages. The Numic Division is divided into several branches. The Western Numic consists primarily of the Northern Paiute, who inhabit Oregon, California, and Nevada.
The Southern Numic Division includes the Southern Paiute and Ute Indians. The Southern Paiute originally inhabited southern Utah, southern Nevada and northern Arizona. The Ute tribe once lived over much of Utah – which was named after them – and all of western Colorado. It is believed that they even stretched into Nebraska and New Mexico.
The Central Numic family is made up of the Panamint, Shoshone, and Comanche tribes. The Shoshone Indian people traditionally lived on lands in the east-central area of California to the east of the Sierra Nevada range, including Owens Valley and the lands south of it, which includes Death Valley. The Shoshone language is very closely related to the Paiute language, and some Shoshone tribes today live as far north as Idaho and Montana, representing the northernmost stretches of the Uto-Aztecans.
The Numic Family also includes a great many California tribes: the Serrano, Cupan, Luiseno, Cahuilla, Cupeno, Kiowa and Gabrielino, among others. It is noteworthy that one of these tribes – the Gabrielino Indians, who were given their name by the Spaniards because they occupied the lands near the San Gabriel Mission – are the primary indigenous group that occupied the Los Angeles Basin. Because they speak a Uto-Aztecan language, they can be considered relatives to the Aztecs.
The Southern Uto-Aztecans have a very large representation spread over a large area. An important branch of the Uto-Aztecans is the Sonoran Family of Languages, mainly spoken by indigenous peoples of Sonora, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Durango, and Arizona. This group is represented by several tribal groups that are well-known to most Americans. The Corachol Family is represented in the present day era by the Cora and Huichol Indians of Nayarit and Jalisco.
Another Sonora subdivision is the Tepiman Family (spoken by the Papago, Pima Bajo, and Tepehuán of Sonora, Chihuahua and Durango). And the most well-known Sonoran division is the Taracahitic Family (spoken by the Mayo, Yaqui and Tarahumara of northwestern Mexico). As you might expect, a family is a group of languages that are genetically and culturally related to one another.
When the Spaniards arrived in Sinaloa in 1523, a large number of Taracahitic peoples inhabited the coastal area of northwestern Mexico along the lower courses of the Sinaloa, Fuerte, Mayo, and Yaqui Rivers. The Yaqui Indians of Sonora are the best known tribe of this family. Numbering 16,000 people living in scattered locations throughout Sonora, the Yaquis continued to resist the Spanish Empire and the Mexican Republic well into the Twentieth Century. The Mayo Indians, closely related to the Yaquis, continued to resist central authority well into the Nineteenth Century and today number some 40,000 citizens, inhabiting the border regions of northern Sinaloa and southern Sonora.
The Aztecan or Náhuatl-speaking peoples of central and southern Mexico speak almost thirty languages and are the single largest linguistic group in Mexico. In the 2000 census, 1,448,936 individuals five years of age and older were classified as Náhuatl-speakers, representing 24% of the total indigenous-speaking population. Many dialects of Náhuatl are spoken throughout Mexico and all are believed to be derived from a common source, perhaps thousands of years into the past.
Through time, all cultures and languages evolve. Sooner or later, a homogenous cultural group, responding to environmental and social pressures, will experience a cultural divergence of its component parts. As some members of an ethnic group begin to move away from the core group, their cultural and linguistic identity will change and undergo a transformation into a new cultural group. The dialects spoken by similar peoples – once they have been isolated from one another for a period of time – undergo a cultural diffusion until, eventually, the resulting groups reach a point where they speak mutually unintelligible languages.
For example, at some point in the distant past – probably a few thousand years ago – the ancestors of the Aztecs and the Yaquis were one and the same people, speaking a single language and practicing a single culture. However, in 1519, as Hernán Cortés sailed along the eastern seaboard with his small fleet, the Yaquis and Aztecs were two separate ethnic groups. They now spoke separate languages, practiced religions unknown to each other, and lived 1,300 kilometers away from each other. When two ethnic groups belong to the same linguistic grouping, we infer that they are in some way related.
So, the big question is “How and when did the Aztecs diverge from the Great Basin Indians and from the Yaquis and Mayos of Sonora?” Although studies have been done in attempt to determine the chronology of Uto-Aztecan cultural divergence, most of the experts do not agree on the numbers.
In the 1930s, the linguist Dr. Robert Mowry Zinng wrote that the Shoshone Indians of the present day Southwestern U.S.A. probably represent the closest thing we will ever find to the first Uto-Aztecans – the proto Uto-Aztecan culture – because they had not migrated as far as other Uto-Aztecan cultures, such as the Yaquis, Mayos, and Aztecs who are now far-removed from their probable ancestral homeland in the Great Basin of the United States.
Other authors have agreed with this analysis, stating that ultimately the roots of all Uto-Aztecan cultures will be found in the north. However, some theories have suggested that Southern California was the original home of the first Uto-Aztecans and that the Paiute and Shoshone diverged from the main group by migrating eastward into the Great Basin.
Some anthropologists suggest that Great Basin Prehistory may extend back more than 11,000 years before the present day. As the climate changed after this, the Great Basin witnessed the disappearance of many of its lakes. This caused many animal species to disappear, which led to reduced food resources. For this reason, the Great Basin inhabitants – the so-called proto Uto-Aztecans – evolved into a hunting and gathering semi-nomadic people who were able to deal with the diminishing resources of the region.
Half a century ago, both Sydney M. Lamb and Morris Swadesh hypothesized that about fifty centuries ago (circa 3000 B.C.), the Proto-Uto-Aztecan culture was becoming “dialectically differentiated, perhaps somewhere around the Arizona-Sonora border.” Utilizing the linguistic term “minimum centuries ago” as a tool for measuring divergence, Lamb stated that the Numic and Aztec languages probably diverged 47 minimum centuries ago (circa 2700 B.C.).
Once the Northern and Southern Uto-Aztecan Groups diverged, the ancestors of the present-day Aztecs, Yaquis and Mayos apparently made their way into the territory of the present-day Mexican Republic. Dr. Lamb hypothesized that the Cahita (Mayo and Yaqui) ancestral language diverged from the Aztec ancestral language 27 minimum centuries ago (circa 700 B.C.). However, the late Wick R. Miller concluded that glottochronological estimates placed the divergence of the Aztecan linguistic group from the Sonoran at before 4500 B.C. (much earlier than Lamb’s theory).
Another interesting divergence estimated by Swadesh and Lamb includes the differentiation of the Ute (in Utah) from the Luiseno (of California) -38 minimum centuries ago. The Hopi differentiation from the Papago is given as 32 minimum centuries ago. It is important to recognize, however, that many linguists do not agree on the validity and accuracy of glottochronology and lexicostatistics in determining linguistic diffusion.
In the final analysis, however, nearly all experts agree that the Uto-Aztecan trunk is a widespread language grouping, boasting a tremendous diversity of language families spread over a large area. Studying and understanding who speak these languages and where they live provides us with clues in determining the path of the Uto-Aztecan people through the Southwest U.S. and Mexico.
Copyright © 2003, by John P. Schmal.
- Kenneth Hale, “Internal Diversity in Uto-Aztecan: I.” International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. 24 (1958), pp. 101-107.
- Kenneth Hale, “Internal Diversity in Uto-Aztecan: II.” International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. 25 (1959), pp. 114-121.
- A. L. Koreber, “Uto-Aztecan Languages of Mexico.” Ibero-Americana: 8 (University of California, Berkeley, 1934).
- Sydney M. Lamb, “Linguistic Prehistory in the Great Basin.” International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. 24 (1958), No. 2, pp. 95-100 .
- Wick R. Miller, “Uto-Aztecan languages,” in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 10, Southwest. Edited by A. Ortiz, pp. 13-24. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press (1983).
- Michael E. Smith, The Aztecs. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1996.
- Susan Spitler, “Homelands: Aztlan and Aztlán,” Online: https://www.tulane.edu/~anthro/other/humos/sample.htm. November 20, 2001.
- Earl H. Swanson, Jr., “Utaztekan Prehistory” – Occasional Papers of the Idaho State University Museum, Number 22 (Pocatello, Idaho, 1968).
- Robert Mowry Zingg, “A Reconstruction of Uto-Aztekan History,” – University of Denver Contributions to Ethnography: II (New York City: G.E. Stechert and Company, 1939).