General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
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Aztec carrying frame, Codex Mendoza

The carrying frame

If ever there was an empire built almost literally on the shoulders of hard working men and women, it was the Aztec/Mexica empire. With no pack animals or wheeled vehicles, everything had to be carried - often for long distances - on people’s backs (unless by canoe). There was no more basic artefact in an Aztec household than the plain and simple carrying frame. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Aztec merchants on their travels, Florentine Codex Book IV
Pic 1: Aztec merchants on their travels, Florentine Codex Book IV (Click on image to enlarge)

Called cacaxtli in Náhuatl, the load carrying frame was used equally by ordinary men working as porters, by young warriors and by well-off merchants journeying round the empire. ‘Made of two stout upright poles, about a body’s width apart, with horizontal crosspieces lashed on at intervals, the weight of the burden was taken by a plaited “tump line” which passed across the porter’s forehead, and the frame could be propped up while the carrier rested...’ Most loads were of 50-60lbs, and daily journeys of some 15 miles.

Pic 2: Artist’s illustration of an Aztec ‘tameme’ (porter): his staff could be used to prop up the load during road stops
Pic 2: Artist’s illustration of an Aztec ‘tameme’ (porter): his staff could be used to prop up the load during road stops (Click on image to enlarge)

The carrying frame was also an item of tribute paid to the Aztecs. In the main image (top) the Spanish commentator has ‘glossed’ (written beside the drawing) dozientos cacaxtles or ‘200 carrying frames’, paid each year by the people of Tepeacac province to Tenochtitlan. Such back frames were used for carrying cargo throughout ancient Mesoamerica. Paying tribute was - literally! - a heavy burden for the subject peoples of the region.

Pic 3: Aztec youth ‘who goes to war loaded with provisions and arms’, Codex Mendoza folio 63r
Pic 3: Aztec youth ‘who goes to war loaded with provisions and arms’, Codex Mendoza folio 63r (Click on image to enlarge)

Talking of burdens, the Aztecs themselves compared the burden taken on by a new ruler as ‘the large carrying frame, intolerable, insupportable, heavy...’ His advisers would warn him: ‘You have taken upon you and loaded on your back a bale of people, a cargo of people.’
It was also used as a metaphor in teaching children about the responsibilities they would soon be shouldering - they would become tired and ‘feel the weight of the carrying rack...’

Pic 4: Reproduction mecapal(li), Museo del Templo Mayor
Pic 4: Reproduction mecapal(li), Museo del Templo Mayor (Click on image to enlarge)

Our friend Gael Ollivier has pointed out that there was a simpler - and possibly older - load-carrying device in use in ancient Mesoamerica called the mecapal(li) (see Pic 4), which lacked the sturdy frame of the cacaxtli and consisted essentially of lengths of rope attached to a tightly plaited headband made of cactus fibre. The link below leads to an article on the mecapal in Arqueología Mexicana magazine, in Spanish.

Info from:-
The Essential Codex Mendoza by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt (University of California Press, London, 1997
A Scattering of Jades translated by Thelma D. Sullivan, edited by Timothy J. Knab, University of Arizona Press, 1994
Everyday Life of the Aztecs by Warwick Bray, Dorset Press, 1987
Image sources:-
• Main picture (folio 42r) and young Aztec warrior (folio 63r) from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), scanned from our copy of the 1938 James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London
• Merchants: scanned from our copy of the Florentine Codex (Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994) (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)
• Artist’s illustration drawn exclusively for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos
• Reproduction mecapal: photo courtesy of Gael Ollivier

emoticon An Aztec riddle: Q. ‘What is that with large ribs on the outside that stands along the road?’ A. ‘The carrying frame’.

Feature in Arqueología Mexicana magazine on the ‘mecapal’
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