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(Teo)chichimeca man and woman, from the Florentine Codex

Who exactly were the Chichimec people?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Katia Hougaard: Who exactly were the “Chichimec” people mentioned in Aztec records? (Answered/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Chichimeca family, Florentine Codex, Book 10
Chichimeca family, Florentine Codex, Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

It is widely thought that the Aztecs used the name chichimeca as a catch-all term to refer to any nomadic tribe from the north, and that the Mexica lumped them all together as the equivalent of our western term ‘barbarian’. This is not the case. In a lengthy chapter (no. 29) in Book 10 of the Florentine Codex, about the only thing labelled ‘barbarous’ is the language(s) of non-Nahua peoples. In fact, there are several references to the Chichimeca as being civilised descendants and relatives of the great Tolteca, the culture most revered by the Aztecs. Three groupings of Chichimeca are described - the Otomí, the Tamime and the Teochichimeca. Whilst it is true the Otomí are referred to as ‘stupid’, they were still seen as possessors of ‘a civilised way of life’ and the chapter is full of praise for the skills, humanity, fidelity, devoutness, medical knowledge, good health, rulership and hard work of the Chichimeca.

‘Map of Chichimec Nations, c. 1550’, from Wikipedia
‘Map of Chichimec Nations, c. 1550’, from Wikipedia (Click on image to enlarge)

Susan Toby Evans sets this appraisal of the Chichimeca in a wider context in her book Ancient Mexico & Central America (2004, p.358) -

The ethnic affiliations [of groups of sedentary agriculturalists moving into lightly settled areas after the decline of Teotihuacan] may be mixed, derived from Otomí-speaking and Nahua-speaking peoples, an amorphous (and difficult to define) polyglot group known as ‘Chichimecs’... This term often carried the connotation of hunter-forager, yet was used to describe many groups who were sedentary farmers. In fact, the huge arid area north of Mesoamerica proper is still called the ‘Gran Chichimeca’ and was thought by the Aztecs to be a ‘place of dry rocks... of death from thirst... of starvation... It is to the north’
The term Chichimec is important because during the Postclassic period, these groups forged strong confederations in the Basin of Mexico, merging with the more refined Toltecs, the cultural descendants of the Early Postclassic capital, Tula...
For all their aura of semi-civilised crudeness, the Chichimecs brought a reputation for hardiness and aggression that nicely complemented the Toltecs with whom they became linked in as one of the important cultures moving over the Epiclassic landscape.

Picture sources:-
• Images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994.

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Mexicolore replies: According to the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Mesoamerican Cultures (article by Charlotte M. Gradie), ‘The Nahua applied [the term Chichimeca] to all the peoples of northern Mexico (as opposed to the sedentary agriculturalists of Mesoamerica) who shared certain common cultural traits: nomadism, use of the bow and arrow as the principal weapon and hunting instrument; primitive dwellings such as straw huts or caves; no agriculture or pottery; and worship of sky deities representing the sun, moon, and stars. The Chichimecs had no temples, or idols, but they practiced animal and human sacrifice in which the victim was hung from a scaffold and shot with arrows.’
Mexicolore replies: Compilers of Nahuatl dictionaries express uncertainty as to the etymology of the word Chichimec. Some suggest chichi means ‘dog’ or ‘bitter’, others that it is derived from the verb to suckle. Clearer is the meaning of méca(tl) - vine. Make of this what you may... In common usage, Chichimec refers, in Frances Karttunen’s words to ‘a person from one of the indigenous groups of northern Mexico considered barbarians by Nahuatl speakers’.