The Aztec empire was one of the most powerful Mesoamerican civilizations in the centuries leading up to the Spanish conquest in 1521. At its height, the empire covered much of what is now central and southern Mexico. However, there is some debate among historians about precisely how far the boundaries of Aztec imperial control extended.
The Aztec Empire
The Aztecs were originally a nomadic tribe from northern Mexico known as the Mexica. In the 13th and 14th centuries, they migrated south and settled on a swampy island in Lake Texcoco, where they founded the city of Tenochtitlan in 1325. This city became the capital of the Aztec empire and was connected to the mainland by causeways. Over the next two centuries, the Aztecs engaged in warfare with neighboring city-states and expanded their control outward from the Valley of Mexico.
By the early 16th century, the Aztec empire encompassed most of central and southern Mexico, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. It included the Valley of Mexico and cities such as Texcoco, Tlacopan, and Tlatelolco. Aztec power and influence also extended into areas such as the Mixteca region, Soconusco, and parts of Guatemala.
The Triple Alliance
The core of the Aztec empire was known as the Triple Alliance. This alliance united three Nahua altepetl (city-states): Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. These allied city-states cooperated in trade, politics, religion, and warfare. Tenochtitlan was the dominant power within this alliance and exerted control over the other two cities.
The Triple Alliance served as the political and economic center of the empire. From here, the Aztecs expanded their tributary system of taxation over additional city-states and ethnic groups. The Triple Alliance bound together the primary Nahua city-states, while tributary states on the periphery maintained some autonomy but were obligated to pay tribute to the Aztec rulers.
Where Was Guanajuato Located?
Guanajuato is located in central Mexico, within the modern-day state of Guanajuato. It is situated in a narrow valley in the Sierra de Guanajuato, a mountain range that runs through central Mexico.
The city of Guanajuato was founded in 1554 as Real de Minas de Guanajuato by the Spanish. It was established as a mining town to extract the rich silver deposits in the surrounding mountains. Guanajuato is located about 240 miles northwest of Mexico City.
Geography of the Region
Geographically, Guanajuato falls within the Mesa del Centro, a plateau region in the center of Mexico with an average elevation of 6,000-8,000 feet above sea level. This central plateau is bounded by the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range to the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental range to the east.
The area around Guanajuato consists of rugged mountains and narrow valleys. The Sierra de Guanajuato mountains contain mesas, steep valleys, arroyos, and hills rising over 9000 feet above sea level. The climate is semi-arid with average annual precipitation around 24 inches.
Native vegetation includes cacti, yucca, maguey, mesquite, sagebrush, and grasses. The valleys have fertile soils and can support agriculture with irrigation. Abundant minerals are found in the mountains, including gold, silver, mercury, copper, lead, and zinc.
Mesoamerican Peoples in Central Mexico
At the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s, central Mexico was dominated by various indigenous civilizations and city-states. This included the Aztec empire as well as other Nahua-speaking groups related to the Aztecs.
The region around Guanajuato was inhabited by diverse indigenous peoples before the Aztecs rose to prominence in the 14th and 15th centuries. This included nomadic hunter Chichimec tribes in the north and P’urhépecha (Tarascan State) settlements further west around Lake Pátzcuaro.
In addition, there were other settled agricultural and urban societies scattered around the Central Mexican Plateau dating back centuries earlier. These included the Toltecs who built the city of Tula and the Chupícuaro culture that erected circular pyramids.
Chichimeca and P’urhépecha Peoples
When the Aztecs arrived in central Mexico in the 1300s, they found the region populated by decentralized Chichimec tribes. The Chichimecas were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in the northern and western areas outside the major agricultural zones.
West of the Aztecs, the P’urhépecha (Tarascan State) had a thriving kingdom around Lake Pátzcuaro in Michoacán. They resisted Aztec expansion and maintained independence until the Spanish conquest. Guanajuato fell between the core of Aztec control to the east and P’urhépecha rule to the west.
Expansion of the Aztec Empire
After establishing their island capital at Tenochtitlan, the nascent Aztec empire began expanding outward by subjugating neighboring city-states around Lake Texcoco. Using political alliances and military conquest, they gradually extended their power and influence further into central Mexico and beyond.
Between 1428 and 1521, the Aztec empire incorporated most of the advanced city-states, kingdoms, and ethnic groups throughout Mesoamerica into their tributary system. However, there were still unconquered enclaves on the empire’s periphery.
The Tributary System
The Aztecs employed both warfare and diplomacy to bring city-states and regions under their control. Rather than directly rule these new territories, they were made tributaries with local rulers left in power. Tributaries were compelled to pay taxes in goods or labor to the Aztec emperor.
This allowed the Aztec empire to benefit from trade and resources from distant areas without the burden of governing them directly. However, the Aztec armies stood ready to punish any rebellious tributaries.
Borders of the Empire
At its peak extent from the Gulf Coast to Oaxaca, scholars estimate the Aztec empire had dominion over 10 to 15 million people across 80,000 to 125,000 square miles. The precise boundaries fluctuated over time as outlying areas resisted submission or rebelled.
Aztec imperial control was strongest in the densely populated and agriculturally productive Valley of Mexico and adjacent highland basins where major city-states were concentrated. Peripheral zones like the northern deserts and humid tropical lowlands were likely beyond direct Aztec administration.
Was Guanajuato within the Aztec Empire?
The Aztecs did exert influence and receive tribute from some areas within the general vicinity of Guanajuato, but there are disputes over whether this region fell directly under their control.
Guanajuato was near the frontier zone between the core of the Aztec empire based in the Valley of Mexico and the still autonomous Tarascan civilization to the west. This geographic location makes Guanajuato’s status within the Aztec tributary system less clear.
Limited Historical Records
Conquistadors destroyed many indigenous written records, making it difficult to reconstruct precise Aztec territorial boundaries and relationships with specific locales like Guanajuato. There are gaps in knowledge about this outer region of the empire.
Early Spanish colonial records focused on areas of mineral wealth, providing scant commentary on remote highland towns like Guanajuato before large-scale mining began in the mid-1500s. This contributes to the uncertainty around Aztec vs. local control of Guanajuato before the conquest.
Debate Among Historians
There are different perspectives among scholars about how far west the Aztecs extended direct political and economic sway before the arrival of the Spanish.
Some historians argue the Aztecs had not solidly incorporated Guanajuato and nearby areas into their tributary network. In contrast, others contend there is evidence of at least indirect Aztec suzerainty and influence over trade and mining in parts of the broader region during the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
Until more conclusive evidence emerges, the question of Guanajuato’s status in the Aztec imperial system remains speculative within academic debate. Nonetheless, the region was certainly within the Aztec cultural sphere of interaction and influence.
Guanajuato after the Spanish Conquest
Although contested whether Guanajuato fell under Aztec dominion, the area did come under firmer control by 1530 when Nuño de Guzmán and other Spanish conquistadors overran the region.
With its rich silver lodes, Guanajuato became one of the key mining areas that drove the colonial economy of New Spain. Indigenous peoples were forced to labor in the Guanajuato mines and haciendas under harsh conditions.
Guanajuato city was officially founded as a mining town in the 1550s. It remained a backwater until major silver veins were discovered in the late 1700s, sparking a population boom. Eventually Guanajuato became one of the main engines of Mexico’s independence movement in the early 1800s.
Today Guanajuato is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture. The area’s legacy of silver enrichment left a lasting impact, but its existence before the conquest remains veiled in mystery.
In conclusion, the precise boundaries of the Aztec empire and its relationships with outlying zones remain subject to academic debate and re-interpretation. The conquest destroyed many records and knowledge of indigenous societies.
The Evidence is insufficient to state definitively whether Guanajuato fell under direct Aztec control or was within a looser sphere of imperial influence. Its location between the core of the Aztec domain and the Tarascan state allows for multiple interpretations.
While recognizing the ambiguities in existing sources, the consensus suggests the Aztecs did not have an active political and economic presence in the Guanajuato area itself. However, the region likely had indirect contacts and ties with the Aztec imperial system before the arrival of the Spanish.