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Mexicolore contributor David M Carballo

Households and Daily Life in Mesoamerica

We are sincerely grateful to Dr. David M. Carballo, Associate Professor, Department of Archaeology, Boston University, Massachusetts (USA) for this intriguing article, specially written for us, on how archaeological studies today are providing more and more evidence for the variety of household types - and social organisation - in ancient Mesoamerica.

Pic 1: Model of an apartment compound at Teotihuacan; Museo de América, Madrid
Pic 1: Model of an apartment compound at Teotihuacan; Museo de América, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

Like us, all ancient Mesoamericans had some place to call home. Given the strong cultural contacts between different parts of Mesoamerica, there is a great deal that people shared in how they conceived of and constructed domestic space. Yet households also varied based on regional traditions, environmental conditions, societal organization, and changes in these through time. For instance, rural Mesoamericans often resided in clusters of houses made mostly from perishable materials such as wood or adobe that decay more quickly and therefore can be harder for archaeologists to find. These were typically organized around a patio and were spaced some distance from their neighbors, with fields or gardens between them. In contrast, city dwellers often resided in rectangular compounds or even multi-family apartment blocks that were made of more durable materials, such as stone or concrete. In some cities - like Teotihuacan (pic 1), Tenochtitlan, and Mayapan - residences were tightly packed together. Rulers of Aztec and Maya cites often resided in large palaces, sometimes having one in the capital city and other royal retreats in the countryside. Studies of households therefore capture much of the important social and cultural variability in ancient Mesoamerican societies.

Pic 2: Model of traditional Maya houses, whose resilient form and construction techniques have endured for 2,000 years; Museo de América, Madrid
Pic 2: Model of traditional Maya houses, whose resilient form and construction techniques have endured for 2,000 years; Museo de América, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

Archaeologists distinguish the terms house (a physical structure) and household (a social group). It is much easier for us to define houses through excavations, since we uncover the remains of their walls, floors, storage pits, hearths, or associated artifacts. It is more difficult for us to define the social group that called such buildings, or groups of them, home. Fortunately we have a wealth of historical information to draw on from the early colonial period, beginning in the sixteenth century, as well as from descendent communities in Mesoamerica (pic 2).

Pic 3: Types of houses documented by Sahagún’s informants from the Aztec city of Tlatelolco, in the 16th century Florentine Codex. Construction materials range from simple pole-and-thatch structures to multi-room palaces made of stone masonry
Pic 3: Types of houses documented by Sahagún’s informants from the Aztec city of Tlatelolco, in the 16th century Florentine Codex. Construction materials range from simple pole-and-thatch structures to multi-room palaces made of stone masonry (Click on image to enlarge)

As is the case with many aspects of Mesoamerica, our best historical sources come from the Aztec core of central Mexico, since this became the center of the viceroyalty of New Spain and was documented extensively by Spaniards, Nahuatl speaking Aztecs, and mixed Spanish-Native mestizos. Among the many elements of Aztec life documented by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún are types of houses, ranging from simple perishable structures to royal palaces (pic 3). One simple type of house made of pole-and-thatch covered in clay (or wattle-and-daub) was called a xacalli in the Aztec language Nahuatl (pronounced sha-cal-li and meaning “earthen house”). This word became jacal in Spanish and is likely the origin of the English word shack. We also have Nahuatl terms for the patio-groups that archaeologists excavate, marking them as important social units. These include cemithualtia (“those who share a patio”) and in quiahuatl, in ithualli (“the exit, the patio”). The linguistic correspondence between shared domestic architecture and social groups provides a basis for connecting archaeological houses to the social groups who once occupied them.

Pic 4: Terminal Formative period patio group from the site of Tetimpa, Puebla. The site was covered by the eruption of Popocatepetl, in background, during the first century AD
Pic 4: Terminal Formative period patio group from the site of Tetimpa, Puebla. The site was covered by the eruption of Popocatepetl, in background, during the first century AD (Click on image to enlarge)

We see the remains of houses similar to xacalli appear in the archaeological record as soon as Mesoamericans became settled village farmers, beginning in the Early Formative (or Preclassic) period, ca. 1500 – 900 BCE. Already at this early time some families lived in much fancier houses, providing evidence of the development of social inequality. This was the case at the Olmec town of San Lorenzo, Veracruz, where rulers lived in a large residence containing sculpted columns, elaborate drains, and floors covered in red hematite, giving the structure its name, the “Red Palace.” Families of common class in Olmec society and those living in more rural parts of Mesoamerica during the Formative period often resided in pole-and-thatch houses as part of patio groups. Sometimes the foundations of these structures were built of stone or raised on a platform, demonstrating more subtle distinctions in household status. In the case of the village of Tetimpa, Puebla, an eruption of the Popocatepetl (“Smoking Mountain”) volcano in the mid first century CE covered many patio groups with lapilli (tephra), preserving their foundations and parts of their superstructures for archaeological study (pic 4). Intensive analysis by Patricia Plunket and Gabriela Uruñuela shows that, as was true for most Mesoamericans, the inhabitants of Tetimpa buried household members under the floors of their house platforms. Their patio groups featured altars in the center of the patio for domestic rituals to the gods, ancestors, and spirit of the volcano.

Pic 5: Floor plan of the Tlamimilolpa apartment compound at Teotihuacan. Redrawn and modified from Linné (2003)
Pic 5: Floor plan of the Tlamimilolpa apartment compound at Teotihuacan. Redrawn and modified from Linné (2003) (Click on image to enlarge)

The eruption of Popocatepetl had the effect of driving migrants to the north and east away from affected areas. Many of those who went north settled at Teotihuacan, contributing to its rise as the largest Mesoamerican city during the Classic period (ca. 1-550 CE). Here, the Teotihuacanos developed a type of residential architecture that was unique in Mesoamerica. Known by archaeologists as the apartment compound, these residential units housed nearly all of the city’s population, estimated to have been over 100,000 residents. Apartment compounds retained patios with central altars as organizing features, but were inhabited by multiple families living in room blocks bounded by large exterior walls (pic 5). Teotihuacan may be one of the few cases, or the only, in the premodern world where nearly all the residents of a large city lived in apartments. There is evidence of abundant craft activities in every apartment compound that has been studied archaeologically, likely providing a clue to their function: by grouping dozens of people together in communal compounds, Teotihuacanos divided labor tasks among extended families, creating a strong domestic economy that could be effectively taxed by the Teotihuacan state. It seems that in most cases Teotihuacan’s apartment compounds were patrilocal, and women would move in with their husband’s family after marriage. But in a neighborhood of merchants with ties to the Gulf of Mexico this pattern seems to have been reversed, and local women from Teotihuacan maintained the household while men moved goods between the central highlands and Gulf lowlands.

Pic 6: “Scribe’s House” from group 9N8 of the Maya city of Copán, Honduras, featuring elaborate sculpture on façade and hieroglyphic bench in interior
Pic 6: “Scribe’s House” from group 9N8 of the Maya city of Copán, Honduras, featuring elaborate sculpture on façade and hieroglyphic bench in interior (Click on image to enlarge)

The Classic period Maya (250-900 CE) did not live in apartments but had a diversity of domestic arrangements. In some cities with powerful kings, such as Copan, Honduras, the palace was a central feature of the ceremonial center and nobles below the king lived in elaborate compounds around the site center. Their houses were decorated with sculpture and hieroglyphs (pic 6), while smaller houses in the same residential group housed servants or other individuals of common status linked to the noble lord.

Pic 7: Terms for architectural components of a Yucatec Maya house matching parts of the body
Pic 7: Terms for architectural components of a Yucatec Maya house matching parts of the body (Click on image to enlarge)

We are also fortunate to have a Maya village that, like Tetimpa, was preserved by a volcanic eruption. The site of Cerén, El Salvador, has well-preserved patio groups separated by agricultural fields, some of which even had the lower stalks of the crops growing on them preserved. Years of analysis by Payson Sheets and colleagues demonstrate that even rural Maya could live in decorated houses. It also shows that families wisely stored their sharp obsidian blades in the thatch of their roofs, where they would be safely away from children or bare feet. Ethnographic work among Maya communities illustrates how houses, like other structures, are conceived of by Mesoamericans as animate buildings, with physical attributes like a body and requiring to be ritually “fed” through offerings. Picture 7 illustrates some architectural terms for a Yucatec Maya house and its relation to parts of the body, including a “head,” “back,” and “butt.”

Pic 8: Depiction in the Codex Mendoza (fol. 60, detail) of Aztec boys being taught by their fathers how to collect wood and fish, and of Aztec girls being taught by their mothers how to grind corn, make tortillas, and weave
Pic 8: Depiction in the Codex Mendoza (fol. 60, detail) of Aztec boys being taught by their fathers how to collect wood and fish, and of Aztec girls being taught by their mothers how to grind corn, make tortillas, and weave (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec society during the Late Postclassic and early Colonial periods (ca. 1450-1550 CE) provides excellent examples of what sorts of domestic activities children were engaged in. Girls and boys were taught by their mothers, fathers, and extended family members how to care for their physical houses and provide for the people who comprised their households. This included chores such as sweeping or collecting wood (pic 8) but also play involving miniature versions of domestic artifacts that archaeologists find during excavations. Aztec kinship was bilaterial and residence was bilocal, meaning that children reckoned their family on their mother’s and father’s side and a newly married couple could move in with the bride’s or groom’s family. There was a tendency for patrilocality (residing with the male’s family) but the flexibility for matrilocality (female’s family) for economic or other reasons. There was also a strong tendency for ultimogeniture, meaning that the youngest child would look after his or her parents in old age and would then inherit the house to start a new generation. These rules kept families and households going, forming the bases for Mesoamerican societies.

Bibliography
• Carballo, David M.
2012 Households in Ancient Mesoamerica: Domestic Social Organization, Status, Economies, and Rituals. In The Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology, edited by Deborah Nichols and Christopher Pool, pp. 684-696. Oxford University Press, New York
• Cyphers, Ann, and Anna Di Castro
2009 Early Olmec Architecture and Imagery. In The Art of Urbanism. How Mesoamerican Kingdoms Represented Themselves in Architecture and Imagery, edited by Leonardo López Luján and William Fash, pp 21-52. Dumbarton Oaks and Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.
• Manzanilla, Linda R.
2009 Corporate Life in Apartment and Barrio compounds at Teotihuacan, Central Mexico: Craft Specialization, Hierarchy, and Ethnicity. In Domestic Life in Prehispanic Capitals: A Study of Specialization, Hierarchy, and Ethnicity, edited by Linda R. Manzanilla, L., and Claude Chapdelaine, pp. 21-42. Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
• Plunket, Patricia, and Gabriela Uruñuela
1998 Preclassic Household Patterns Preserved under Volcanic Ash at Tetimpa, Puebla. Latin American Antiquity 9: 287-309
• Robichaux, David L.
1997 Residence Rules and Ultimogeniture in Tlaxcala and Mesoamerica. Ethnology 36: 149-171
• Sheets, Payson (editor)
2002 Before the Volcano Erupted: The Ancient Cerén Village in Central America. University of Texas Press, Austin
• Smith, Michael E.
2016 At Home with the Aztecs: An Archaeologist Uncovers Their Domestic Life. Routledge, New York
• Spence, Michael W., Christine D. White, Evelyn C. Rattray, and Fred J. Longstaffe
2005 Past Lives in Different Places: The Origins and Relationships of Teotihuacan’s Foreign Residents. In Settlement, Subsistence, and Social Complexity: Essays Honoring the Legacy of Jeffrey R. Parsons, edited by Richard E. Blanton, pp. 155-197. Cotsen Institue of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles.

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1 & 2: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 3, 5 & 7: images courtesy of David Carballo
• Pic 4: photo courtesy of Patricia Plunket and Gabriela Uruñuela
• Pic 6: photo by and courtesy of David Carballo
• Pic 8: Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 08th 2017

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