Murals of the History of Tarascans, Mexico

The Tarascans, like the Mixtec and Zapotec, were non-Aztec, non-Maya Native Americans who lived in the area of west Mexico in what is now the state of Michoacáan. The Spanish conquistadors referred to the people as Tarascans, which was actually a derogatory term that the indigenous Purépecha used for the Spaniards.

In Nahuatl, a Mesoamerican language spoken by the Aztecs (their contemporary and antagonistic neighbors), Tarascan territory was called Michoaque (those-who-have-fish). One of the challenges to linguists is to understand the origin of the Tarascan language. It was unique, unrelated to Mayan, Zuni, or Quechua.

From the late Postclassic period until the conquest (1200–1524), these people inhabited an area of Mexico bounded on the south and west by Aztec-controlled lands and on the north by the Chichimecs, a group of roving Native Americans, inimical to whomever they encountered.

The term Chichimecs does not refer to a specific group but a general term applied to a raiding people who varied in time and space with regard to their ethnic homogeneity, incorporating others as they traveled. The Tarascans themselves had incorporated so many Chichimecs that only about 10 percent of the Tarascans were not ethnically mixed.

At the height of the Tarascan empire, in 1450, their kingdom encompassed a huge area. Its former capital, Pátzcuaro, a group of islands in a lake of the same name (established in 1325), was moved to a larger area, Tzintzúntzan, which means “place of the hummingbirds.”

Consistently with other Mesoamerican sites, there were pyramids with platforms and tombs. However, a distinctive structure unlike most pyramids was built on this site. The Tarascan pyramid called a yácata was round, rather than rectangular, and connected to a traditionally shaped pyramid by a passageway. Kings and royalty were buried inside.

When a king or ruler died, many of his servants and family were killed so that he would not be alone in his journey to the world of the dead. Their skeletons have been found near his grave goods.

The social structure was complex with a hierarchy ruling various administrative centers, and various groups of crafts people and artisans. There were masons for stonework, musical instrument makers, curanderos (doctors), knife makers, silversmiths, and potters.

They wore ear decorations called ear spools, some made of ultra thin sliced pieces of obsidian with inlaid sheet gold and turquoise. Although Europeans looted the metallic gold and silver riches of indigenous Mexicans, the natives valued turquoise more highly than either gold or silver.

Religious leaders identifi ed themselves by wearing a gourd container for tobacco that was carried as a backpack. Tobacco played an important part in religious and healing rituals as it did in most New World cultures.

Unlike in modern medicine, the doctor (rather than the patient) took the medicine to enter the world of the supernatural and consult with spirits to find a cure for the ill person.

Tobacco prepared in strong quantities caused a trancelike state, which was necessary in order to reach the world of the spirits. Hallucinations and foaming at the mouth demonstrated that the shaman (doctor) had reached such a state.

When the ruling Aztec lord, Axayacatl, invaded Tarascan territory in 1478, the Tarascan soldiers outnumbered his 24,000 troops. The Aztecs were gravely injured and were forced to retreat.

Although the Aztecs tried many times to conquer the Tarascans, it was not until the arrival of Hernán Cortés and the conquistadors that both the Aztec and the Tarascan cultures were destroyed.

Perhaps history would have taken a different turn if the Tarascans had aided the Aztecs upon learning of the arrival of the Spanish in 1519. Instead, the Aztec messengers sent to warn the Tarascans from Tenochtitlán were killed.

The last king, Tangaxoan II, gave up when confronted with the power of the European invaders. After he surrendered, the surrounding areas followed without resistance, many already weakened by the ravages of microbes introduced by the Spanish.